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."
Indeed, the first thing you notice about the 1098 is it's ferociously fast. The 1099cc V-Twin stomps out an impressive 137.9 bhp and, more importantly, 77.5 lb.-ft. of torque. Compared to the more manic inline-fours, it comes on much more smoothly-so much more smoothly, in fact, that we frequently found ourselves entering corners faster than we realized. Fortunately, the radial-mount Brembo Monobloc calipers-perhaps the strongest brakes ever fitted to a production bike-were plenty capable of slowing us down. As Go-Go noted, "If most brakes have an initial power of 1 and progress to 100, these Brembos start at 20 and progress to 120. They can make trail-braking a somewhat violent exercise if you're not careful." Something I found out the hard way a short while later.
The 1098 chassis is noticeably more aggressive than the 999 that preceded it. The back of the bike is high and the nose is low. Though it feels like you're all over the front end into corners, the front tire tracks well under trail-braking, doesn't push (provided you firm up the fork, which is too soft on the stock settings) and provides a balanced stance mid-corner. Though he already turned the fastest lap on the 1098, Go-Go thought he could go faster still with a stiffer front end.
Our guest tester only put one other bike under the 2-minute threshold-the Yamaha YZF-R1, which he rode to a single 1:59 lap-"and it was a real sketchy lap," he reported. The R1 is all about power. With 155 bhp and 73 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, and the YCC-I "chip-controlled intake" spreading that motivation across the rev range, the R1 produces what Go-Go calls "colossal power" from the bottom to the top. As immediate and broad as this power is, however, it is also somewhat difficult to access. Despite the YCC-T "fly-by-wire" throttle system that is said to provide flawless throttle response, all of our riders noted an occasional and unpredictable lag on throttle pick-up, especially at low- to mid-rpm, which made rapid corner exits a dodgy proposition.
From the saddle the R1 feels big, especially in such compact company. The bars are relatively high and far apart, the seat and tank are both broad, and there was plenty of room for our two full-sized testers (both 6-foot-2) to move around, which wasn't the case on the other bikes. The stock suspension is also too soft for serious track work, with the fork diving under deceleration (amplified by the significant engine braking) and the chassis wallowing under heavy braking. A bit of attention to setup soon had the bike working very well. "When you're honkin' you definitely know you're on a big bike, but it works well," said Go-Go. "Once you get around the higher initial effort to turn in and the slight unpredictability of picking up the throttle to get out of the corners, you've got a capable-if not exactly cooperative-track tool at your disposal."
At the opposite end of the usability scale is the Honda CBR600RR. And here's where things got interesting: Go-Go turned his third-quickest laps (low 2:01s) on the 105.5-bhp CBR, faster even than the GSX-R1000 and surprisingly close to the R1, despite the fact that both literbikes make at least 50 more ponies. And it wasn't just Go-Go who loved the little Honda. Fast or slow, big or small, our testers praised the CBR's near-perfect chassis, great brakes and ample, easy-access power. It made everyone feel like a hero.
The Honda's riding position is comfortable if a bit compact, with a short bar-to-seat distance that puts you right up over the front of the bike and imparts a sense of mastery over the machine. On track, that sensation is only further enhanced.
Soggy conditions gave us plenty of time to prepare the morning of our test. Pirelli Diablo
The radial-mount four-piston Tokico calipers are plenty powerful and very easy to modulate-and this, coupled with the best front-end feedback of the bunch, allows for drama-free trail-braking and unparalleled confidence heading into corners. Superb front-rear balance in fast transitions (especially the full-lean left/full-lean right at the top of the Cyclone). Excellent rear wheel traction that allowed us to wind into the throttle early and take full advantage of the CBR's surprisingly stout 44 lb.-ft. torque peak helped shave fractal seconds from each lap. In some of Thunderhill's long, off-camber corners, Go-Go reckoned he was able to carry more speed on the CBR than on any of the other bikes, a testament to its utter composure and trustworthiness when leaned over.
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?