Coming Soon! 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Next-Generation Ninja To Feature Variable Valves, Big Bang And Traction Control

By Ben Purvis, Photography by Gold & Goose

Kawasaki factory World Superbike racer Chris Vermeulen hasn't exactly been tight-lipped about the 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R, an all-new model he'll help develop this season and race the next. In interviews the Australian called the new machine "completely different and pretty special," saying it's the primary reason he signed a two-year deal with Team Green. Now that we've seen patent drawings revealing a variable-geometry valve train and an innovative, electronically assisted big-bang crankshaft, we have some idea why he's so revved up.

Kawasaki already employs variable valve timing on its Concours14 sport-tourer, relying on a hydraulic mechanism to rotate the cam sprocket when more advance is desired. The new ZX-10R is expected to use a variation of this system, and add variable valve lift as well. Unique, two-piece rocker arms will pivot on an eccentric roller that increases or decreases the gap between the rocker arm's two "fingers" to create a corresponding increase or decrease in lift. This system will allow use of a far more aggressive cam profile, the effects of which can be softened at slower speeds or lower rpm when such wide openings aren't desirable.

Valve trickery isn't the only game-changing innovation slated for the new Ninja. It's also anticipated to incorporate a big-bang firing order to improve traction and power delivery. Unlike the Yamaha YZF-R1's uneven-firing "long-bang" Crossplane engine, the Kawasaki will be a true big-bang configuration that fires its four pistons in pairs. A conventional big-bang four is generally considered impractical for a road application, suffering from debilitating vibration and prone to stalling at low revs. But Kawasaki appears to have devised a novel solution to these problems by employing an electric motor to maintain crankshaft momentum during the long interval when the pistons aren't firing. This keeps the engine running smoothly at low speeds without negatively affecting high-rpm performance like a heavy crank or flywheel would.

Several firing orders are outlined on Kawasaki's patent application, all more aggressive than Yamaha's Crossplane layout that pauses a maximum of 270 degrees between power strokes. The most extreme configuration fires cylinders 1 and 4 simultaneously, followed by cylinders 2 and 3 180 degrees later. One-and-a-half full revolutions (540 degrees) then pass until the next power stroke. Such a long gap is only possible with the electric motor assisting the crank at low revs to avoid stalling from negative torque. The electric motor will disengage as crankshaft inertia increases at higher rpm, then functioning as a generator to recharge the system for the next brigade of electric pulses. The end result will be a revolutionary engine that's as smooth and tractable as a conventional inline-four at low rpm yet offers unadulterated big-bang performance when revved out. As well as the radical engine design, Kawasaki is looking at even more advanced electronic systems for the next ZX-10R. Expect to see a further evolution of the Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) system that debuted on last year's Concours 14, one that will allow the level of sensitivity to be adjusted like on Ducati's and MV's superbikes. Don't be surprised if we also see some form of race-grade ABS, as Kawasaki has been confirmed as a major client for Bosch's latest sportbike-orientated ABS hardware.

All this e-trickery might sound outlandish, but with at least four patents already filed, covering several aspects including the electronic control systems, there's little doubt that this technology is coming very soon. The economic slowdown has already delayed the new Ninja by one year. That means Kawasaki has had an extra year to perfect this wide-eyed technology, and is ready to return to the top of the sportbike heap.

By Ben Purvis
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