Track Testing Sportbikes - Chasing A Setup - Cat Tales

At last year's Honda CBR1000RR press intro, a company PR type got up in front of the room and told us he was tired of seeing sportbike comparisons decided by a tenth of a second at the racetrack. I didn't call him out then for the same reason I'm not mentioning his name now, but I did pull him aside afterward and ask a rhetorical question: "If track testing is so unimportant, why are we going to Buttonwillow Raceway tomorrow?" I heard he dropped that line from his spiel for the next wave of journalists.

Honda held the CBR intro at Buttonwillow for the same reason magazines test sportbikes at the track: It's a controlled environment, free of cars, cops, cows, etc. Add to that the fact that sportbikes have gotten so damn fast, you can't begin to ride them to their limits on the street. Street-riding impressions are important, obviously, because that's where the majority of sportbikes are ridden. But they're purely subjective, whereas lap times are objective and quantifiable.

To a point, that is, because as much as we'd like to believe our test riders can flog each and every bike in a comparison to its limit, there are other factors. In no particular order: weather, tires, gearing, track familiarity, experience with a specific brand/model/type of motorcycle, physical conditioning, how much he imbibed the night before and how late he stayed up doing so, etc.

More important than all of that, however, is setup.

If you're a regular reader, you read about the difficulties we had setting up the Ducati 1098S for Buttonwillow and the Yamaha YZF-R1 for Laguna Seca. You also didn't read about the efforts that went into setting up the Honda CBR600RR and Kawasaki ZX-6R for Barber and the Suzuki GSX-R1000 for Phillip Island. That's because those manufacturers' R&D; testers spent the days leading up to their intros dialing-in the bikes. The goal, of course, is rave reviews, and more often than not they get them.

A good example of this is the 2005 Masterbike competition I took part in at Valencia, Spain. Kawasaki sent a 30-something endurance racer to oversee setup, while Suzuki sent an up-and-coming teenage racer who was plenty fast, but lacked experience. It came as little surprise, then, when the ZX-10R won while the GSX-R1000 languished.

Setup also played a key role in the racetrack portion of this issue's "Class of '07" comparison. To put the bikes through their paces we en-listed Eric "Go-Go" Gulbransen, a veteran racer with lots of laps at Thunderhill Park. This was Go-Go's first time testing for a magazine, and it didn't take him long to pick up on the theme of this editorial.

"I learned that at a test like this, it's not simply a motorcycle that gets graded, but the manufacturer's effort," he reported. "Ducati was on the ball with Jeff Nash there. One look at the forks and you could tell no setting had gone unturned. But the real shining star was Honda. If they had those forks any lower in the triple-clamps, I could have used them as cup-holders! Obviously, those guys had done huge work prepping for good impressions and it paid off. I asked Doug Toland for more rear spring and he said it'd go into coil-lock if he turned it any more. What does that tell you?"

It tells me Honda did their homework. For the rest, turn to page 60.