Just like the night before a big high-school exam, shut-eye was hard to come by in the hours leading up to our Class of '07 test at Thunderhill Raceway. Fitful sleep was punctuated by anxious looks at storm-blotted weather maps, ending at 6 a.m. to steady rain pouring down in the hotel parking lot. Things looked even worse a few hours later when we got our first sighting laps of the still-soaked racetrack from the back seat of a rental car piloted by Eric "Go-Go" Gulbransen, the Bay Area fast guy we invited to show us around the unfamiliar circuit.
"You guys got an 'Oh, shit' handle in the back seat?" someone shouted from up front, "because you're going to want it...right...about...now!" The Pontiac G6 sedan flung itself off the outside of Turn 5A at 60 mph, coming to a stop just feet shy of an access road culvert. Apologies, Avis, and please don't revoke our corporate rate.
Luckily, a thin sliver of sunshine in the east opened into a clear blue sky, and some quick work with a dryer by track staff, along with a few more rental car laps (the Taurus and Avenger were no match for the G6) had us looking at a dry line by noon. A good thing, too, because we had the five hottest all-new sportbikes of 2007 on hand: Honda's latest CBR600RR and Kawasaki's Ninja ZX-6R holding up the middleweight mantle, the Suzuki GSX-R1000 and Yamaha YZF-R1 representing the latest in literbike technology, and Ducati's exotic and impressive 1098 to show us how a big-bore twin puts the power down. The results of this track test, coupled with our street-ride findings (see page 70), would determine which bike is the class of the Class of '07.
We've often asserted, especially now that their power output has become so robust, that a smaller, lighter, easier-to-turn 600cc sportbike is the ultimate choice for track work. But now that literbike dimensions have shrunken to 600-size, weights have moved within a few pounds. Add to that electronic aids such as Yamaha's Y-CCT fly-by-wire throttle and Suzuki's S-DMS drive mode selector that make 150-plus horsepower easier to manage, and it's getting harder to claim any clear advantage for middleweights or literbikes. Then there's the wild-card Ducati 1098, with the legendary midrange grunt (aided by the displacement-category-be-damned extra 99cc) and skinny, track-ready chassis to throw a V-twin-shaped wrench into the works. Which to choose, then, track-day junkies, which to choose?
When in Rome, they say, do as the Romans do. And when at the racetrack, do as the racers do-which brings us directly to the Roman-nosed Ducati that guest tester Go-Go put to good use by turning the fastest lap time of the day, a convincing 1:58. More remarkable is the fact that he really only got one session on the Duc, because just minutes after he handed it over, yours truly tossed the Italian stallion off the crest of Thunderhill's tricky Cyclone corner, prematurely ending the devil-duck's day. Ducati has always lent an unapologetic track bias to its top-line superbikes, so it's no surprise the 1098 excelled at Thunderhill. As the current American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) Open Twins Champion on a Ducati 999R, Go-Go was able to quickly come up to speed on the 1098, and his tester's log was filled with superlatives: "Thunderous power, huge torque, great traction, very strong brakes. Wants to be ridden hard and fast, with great rewards."