Surprise. Continuing our way down the lap-time log, the Suzuki GSX-R1000 was fourth-quickest, with Go-Go clocking a best lap of 2:03. From the saddle, the Gixxer feels most like the CBR, or a GSX-R600. With a slimmed-down fuel tank, a short bar-to-seat distance that gets you over the front end and low, narrow bars, the GSX-R feels more like a traditional 600 than a literbike, especially beside the big-boned R1. It feels like a middleweight, at least until you twist the throttle. With 158 bhp making it back to the rear wheel, the Suzuki was the most powerful of the five bikes here. "Pulls like an animal," Go-Go said, "especially in the upper revs." Great brakes too, he noted, "way more than the chassis is ready to deal with. Unfortunately, due to too-soft suspension that makes it difficult to take full advantage of the copious acceleration and stopping power.
"A frustrating bike to ride," Go-Go continued, "because you have this incredible motor-clearly the strongest of the bunch-with such great tires and brakes, but seemingly nothing in between to tie it all together." The GSX-R felt balanced front to rear, but even with the settings dialed up on both ends, the suspension remained too soft and unsupportive to ride hard. Too much movement in the rear under acceleration made us reluctant to get into the throttle early. Too much brake pressure on the way in would cause vague steering and, in a few instances, the front end to wash. "I never could be sure where traction was," Go-Go said, "so I never felt good pushing it to the limit." This isn't to say that limit wasn't further out there than a 2:03, but we ran out of daylight before we found the right setup. The GSX-R has a lot of pluses: massive motor, flawless throttle response and easy side-to-side transitions for a literbike, thanks to excellent mass centralization. But it would take a significant amount of attention-and maybe a bit of aftermarket assistance, especially for bigger or faster riders-to truly be exploitable on the racetrack.
Which brings us to the Kawasaki ZX-6R and the 2:05 best lap that drags out the old, familiar "last-but-not-least" damnation. It really pains us to put this all-new and totally redesigned Ninja at the end of the line, as this is one of the most track-ready chassis we've ever ridden. By any objective terms, it's at least as capable as the Ducati at getting through a corner quickly and communicating relevant information back to the rider.
The lead development rider for the new ZX-6R was Japanese 125cc Grand Prix racer Tomomi Manako, so it's no coincidence the little Ninja feels like a GP bike. The bars are low and close-set, with a decidedly downward angle that some testers literally had trouble coming to grips with, and the footpegs seemed slightly more forward than desired. The fuel tank is short and narrow, leaving plenty of room to move around (though somewhat difficult to grip with your knees), and our taller testers complained of being crowded by the seatback. But once we found our place in the cockpit, the Ninja stunned with precise, samurai-sharp turn-in and exceptional front-to-rear balance that made it very stable mid-corner and very responsive to any line corrections or adjustments. Go-Go praised the little Ninja's ability to maintain a level chassis, even rolling into and out of the throttle, as "Truly impressive. Roll off the gas and into the brakes and the front end shows no sign of collapsing. The bike has an uncanny ability to absorb bumps evenly by utilizing the whole chassis rather than the individual ends. It's a hugely confidence-inspiring setup, inviting you to charge into corners harder and harder with each lap."
As good as the chassis is, however, the ZX-6R is held back by an engine that requires substantially more effort than the other four classmates (notably the equal-displacement CBR600RR) to produce a competitive lap time. It isn't down on power. Peak bhp registered 101; definitely within spitting distance of the Honda. But all that power is concentrated in a fairly narrow band above 9000 and fades 2000 rpm before redline. We often found ourselves needing the gearbox before the throttle, which was challenging at a track like Thunderhill with so many long, sweeping turns where the bike asked for another gear mid-corner. There's a lot to love about the Ninja motor-it's exceptionally quick-revving and has virtually no engine braking (which undoubtedly contributes to the off-throttle stability), but it needed a bit more midrange power (plus maybe different gearing and/or a flipped GP shift pattern) to improve on the 2:05 lap time at the racetrack.
So, which member of the Class of '07 is valedictorian at the racetrack? Judging by GPA alone you'd have to crown the Ducati 1098, which turned the fastest lap. But understand that Eric Gulbransen is the star pupil, and 99 percent of us don't have a chance of coming close to his time on the 1098 (or the equally demanding Yamaha YZF-R1, for that matter). If you're chasing club-racing championships, there are definite benefits to choosing the Ducati or Yamaha as a starting point. We mediocre students turned our fastest laps either on the Honda CBR600RR or the Suzuki GSX-R1000, both of which are significantly more manageable and forgiving than the edgier R1 and 1098. The CBR and GSX-R both benefit from extremely balanced chassis, neutral handling, broad power, seamless throttle response and strong, easy-to-modulate brakes that make them extremely accessible even to average riders. Of these two, the Honda had a slight advantage on a technical track like Thunderhill, because it was altogether easier to manage than the occasionally overwhelming Suzuki. As for the Kawasaki ZX-6R, we were absolutely gaga for the new chassis, but the power just wasn't there to keep up with this curriculum. Maybe that extra 36cc on last year's motor wasn't such a bad idea after all?