What is a car review doing in a magazine dedicated to motorcycle roadracing?
Aside from the motor, mirrors, instruments, and a few other parts, the Formula Hayabusa car has nothing in common with its precursor, Suzuki's GSX1300R Hayabusa. I don't know much about cars, or car performance. While it's true that I've got hundred of thousands of miles under my belt in automobiles of one kind or another, I don't think that driving a race transporter pulling a 20 foot trailer all over the country or shuttling co-workers to work in the morning carpool qualifies me as a critical 4-wheel performance tester.
Suzuki didn't seem to mind. In fact, they had hired a couple of instructors from the Bertil Roos Formula Racing School to ensure that we didn't get into too much trouble while learning the subtleties of finessing a 175-horsepower raging monster bent on spinning out at every opportunity around a makeshift racecourse on Hutchinson Island, just across the river from Savannah. After spending all of the prior day on an open class sportbike comparison at Daytona, Sam Fleming, my endurance race partner Scott Fisher and I were looking forward to another day of manipulating a different kind of amphetamine-crazed horsepower machine around a racetrack.
The classroom orientation in the morning was brief. Since all of the test-drivers had at least some motorcycle racing experience, the briefing centered around idiosyncrasies of the car, and the differences between driving a car around a racetrack and riding a motorcycle around a racetrack.
For instance, late-apexing. A proper late-apex in the Formula car would have you off the track on a motorcycle. And, braking. Initially, the instructors warned us not to trail-brake into the corners. They recommended we get all braking and shifting done in a straight line, and then turn in on the throttle. And rather than gently squeezing the brakes initially to transfer weight and then clamping down on them as with a motorcycle, on the car you go directly to your predetermined braking force and apply that steady pressure until you release the brake. From a motorcycle perspective, it was all completely counter-intuitive.
Following the briefing and a few introductory laps around the track to learn the course layout in one of Suzuki's production cars, we were introduced into the cars.
To get into the car, you had to first remove the steering wheel; then step onto the seat, slide your legs down into the nose, and sit. I got in, and found that my feet were nowhere near the pedals. I asked for a phone book, but there was none handy. Instead, they laid a giant piece of foam over the entire seat, which was both comfortable and effective. My feet now touched the pedals, which were placed very close together. I assumed this was designed in part to aid in the fabled heel-toe brake/gas synchronicity, which I am convinced is impossible after practicing it once in my parents' Toyota Camry. Also, in the narrow nose of the car, space was at a premium. I didn't feel cramped in there, but I know the other (read: taller) drivers did.
With my helmet on, I couldn't quite see where all of the however-many points of the safety harness were. A couple of engineers spent a few minutes strapping me in, and then tightened down the straps to the point where I could hardly take a deep breath. They then re-attached the steering wheel, which for some unfathomable reason didn't have a locating detent so you could install it without proper alignment with the wheels. I checked the turning radius. Lock-to-lock was about 270 degrees.
We started the cars. I revved mine a little, ostensibly to check the throttle response, but really just to hear what the motor sounded like. "Vicious", "mean", and "wicked" came to mind. According to the literature the car had inherited the motorcycle's muffler, but I began to doubt that. Not in stock trim, anyway.
I checked the rearview mirrors and Raoul Julia as the Italian driver in Gumball Rally whispered in my ear, "What is behind me is not important." The instructor pulled away and Scott, Sam and I followed him to the skidpad for a how-do-you-do.
My first impression of driving the car was that it would be impossible to control at speed, since it was barely controllable on the skidpad. The oversteer was pronounced, and the throttle was extremely sensitive. But the defining characteristic of the car was the motor. I couldn't really tell where the powerband began and ended, since it seemed like the car wanted to spin up and twist around as soon as you breathed on the throttle no matter where you were in the rpm range.
Without any of the dive I have always associated with braking force, I couldn't tell how hard I was braking, either. The front wheels would be locking up while I waited for some discernable feedback. Also, the car utilizes the Hayabusa's 6-speed sequential gearbox, but the shift lever is on the left side and the pattern seemed backwards for some reason. We agreed that for our preferred GP shift it should have been one back and 5 forward, but it was just the opposite.
During the few laps around the skidpad I fervently hoped the few spectators standing around would go away. Couldn't they see that all these cars wanted to do was spin out of control and crush them? Feeling only slightly more familiar with the car, we were led out onto the track.
I followed the instructor, trying to mimic his lines. I was having trouble adjusting to the method by which the car demanded to be driven. Whereas on a motorcycle you describe gentle arcs around the turns and the focus is more on smooth, flowing lines; it seemed the car wanted to be suddenly and violently nudged into changing directions, and this about a full car length or more beyond where your motorcycle spidey-sense told you it was time to turn in.
It was hard at first to fight the temptation to go into the corners off the throttle, but the detached feeling of the back end and the front end push made me reconsider the advice the instructors gave at the orientation to turn in with positive throttle. The trick was to approach the corner, brake, do whatever shifting you were going to do, and then give the car one steering input as you transferred from off-throttle to positive throttle and then accelerated through the corner.
This is harder than it sounds. The throttle was so sensitive, and the power so ubiquitous, that if you tried to accelerate too hard or too soon the rear tires would spin up and the back end would start to come around. The instructors had covered this scenario in our orientation. They recommended against trying to steer into the spin to correct it as you would in a normal car. Their reasoning was that the back end would snap around so quickly you wouldn't have much time to react, and the probability of overcorrecting with the car's inherent oversteer was too great. Instead, they suggested turning the wheel the opposite direction to exaggerate the spin and try to just spin out on the track, while applying the brakes and pushing the clutch in to keep the motor running without spinning it backwards.
Now that, to me, sounds like admitting defeat. I don't think any one of us was ready to concede that we couldn't react quickly enough to prevent a complete spinout. But I understood what they were talking about a little bit better after a few laps when we started picking up the pace. Forgetting the lessons of the Gumball Rally, I checked my rearview mirrors and was surprised to see that Sam and Scott had dropped back some. Intent upon staying with the instructor and widening the gap behind me, I got a little eager with the throttle in a slight-downhill right hander. I felt the rear start to come around and the front started to push, and I steered as normal into the spin. In an instant the front tires grabbed the pavement and the car swung around the other direction.
I looked up the track and saw Sam and Scott bearing down on me as I finished the spin and the car started rolling backwards off the track at a perpendicular angle. Because I was already heading off the track in the direction I wanted to be going, to the inside of the track and off of their line, I didn't brake or disengage the clutch. Something on the car emitted a horrible whining screech, and I came to a stop. Then I pushed the clutch in. The engine had died.
I shifted into neutral and depressed the starter button. Nothing happened. I turned the ignition off and then on, thinking maybe there was some kind of reset, but still no starter. I then checked the reverse starter for operation, mostly to see if I had electricity anywhere. The car has two starter motors: one, the normal Hayabusa starter for starting the engine; the second, a starter mounted backwards directly to the flywheel which acted as a reverse gear. It made a noise like a chain jumping a sprocket but it worked. I was puzzled.
I sat in the car until a car full of Suzuki people arrived and push-started my car, and I caught up to the rest of my group.
I had over-corrected with the steering wheel, and that had caused me to spinout. As I found out later, the cars are set up with no toe, which denies them a natural centering point and makes them extra twitchy, even in a straight line. They also have a locked rear end, which is great for getting the power down when you are accelerating out of a turn, but it makes it harder to save the back end when it starts to come around.
The way I understand it, without a locking differential you can have one tire spinning while the other one has traction. The wheel with traction acts as an anchor or rudder to stabilize the back end. But if one wheel is spinning, you are losing acceleration. A locking differential configuration is harder to initialize a spin with, but once it starts it has no inherent stabilizing force and thus has a tendency to really let loose sideways.
I still wasn't convinced I couldn't out-maneuver the car. We got back up to speed and I started trying to pay better attention to what the car was telling me.
It was speaking volumes about a lack of traction. The cars were all sporting slicks, but according to the representative there from Yokohama, the track temperature was so cold the tires were only operating at just over half of their optimum temperature. And in some parts of the track gravel was coming up out of the pavement, which added to the excitement. Surprisingly, the traction was best in the fastest parts of the course. Later, while talking to the engineers about the car set-up, I learned that the ground effects on the car were tuned to work at speeds over 90 mph so the faster you went, the more traction you had.
Most of the turns on the track were slower than that, but turn 1 required 6th gear to do it any justice, and that was where the car felt the most stable. In fact, it felt good through there, and along with the last turn and the front straight, was the only area on the course where you could really enjoy the seemingly limitless power. It didn't seem to be able to corner as hard as a 125 Rotax go-kart, but the fact that it had suspension also made the ride much less punishing.
I started to get a better feel for the limits of the car, and found that I could actually prevent a spin out once the car started to get loose by modulating the throttle and being very judicious with my steering inputs to avoid overcorrecting. The car demanded minute adjustments executed at precisely the right time, and if your timing was on, you were well rewarded.
Our session ended, and we pulled in. As the second group of drivers headed for the track, I approached the engineers to discuss the starter motor problem. They told me that mine was the third one to fail. All of the failures occurred during or after a spin out, and they didn't know why. Then I realized what the horrible screeching whine I heard while the car was going backwards was. Apparently if you don't disengage the clutch while rolling backwards, the motor ends up spinning backwards and engages the one-way starter clutch, which spins the starter backwards with such force that it blows apart the internals. Cars usually have a solenoid gear to engage the starters. Motorcycles rarely crash spinning backwards so the engines can have centrifugal clutches on the starter motor. And, of course, motorcycle engines do not commonly find themselves in open wheeled cars.
As one of the engineers said, "You motorcycle people go faster than the car guys." Apparently the car guys had also been crashing the cars, but at much slower speeds.
The track suddenly became quiet, and reports started filtering in of a spinout that had damaged one of the cars. Somebody else's timing was off. The car limped in to the pits with a bent left rear A-arm, and they stripped it down to fix it, exposing its design.
The frame and suspension linkages were all crafted out of mild steel specifically for the car, but most of the other parts were taken either from Suzuki production cars or motorcycles, and adapted for the Formula Hayabusa.
The engine management system, exhaust manifold, muffler, radiators (there were two but only one had a fan), mirrors, instruments, and of course the motor, are all from the Hayabusa. The four shock absorbers are from the Katana GSX750F. Suzuki's Grand Vitara SUV donated its fuel filter, fuel pressure regulator, and clutch master cylinder. The air filter comes from the Esteem sedan. The brake assemblies, hubs, steering rod ends, battery, and fuel pumps are from various mini vehicles sold in Japan. Suzuki Sport assembled the car relatively inexpensively from existing mass-production parts for a Japan-only spec class. It sells for approximately $25,000 U.S. but there are currently no plans to sell them here.
Setting up the car's suspension is similar to basic motorcycle set-up. The engineers explained they start with a minimum of 45 millimeters of ride height, achieved by adjusted the spring preload and/or the shock linkages. Pavement condition and track layout dictate any further such adjustments to the pre-load. Apparently the stock Katana springs were too stiff for the car so they were exchanged for lighter springs. There was some speculation as to whether the springs were still too stiff. I'm not sure how you'd know. Compression and rebound damping are tuned to driver feel and preference.
They give the car zero toe, and start with two degrees of camber. I didn't quite get why the cars start out with no toe but the two degrees of camber is so the wheels will not bend under from the cornering forces. Or that is how it was explained to me. As I said, I'm not a car person so I have a tenuous grasp at best of the nature of these characteristics.
I watched the engineers partially disassemble the damaged linkage and remove the bent steel piece. Using a piece of wood as an impact absorber and a huge dead-blow hammer, they laid the bent rod on the wood and proceeded to straighten it with a series of persuasive blows with the hammer. Considering how much side force I imagined it took to bend that piece in the first place, I was amazed at how little damage the car suffered. We were soon to get an even more graphic demonstration of the resilience of the chassis.
Since we were down to only three cars while the fourth was being repaired, I didn't get to drive in the next session. Instead, I took the opportunity to discuss some of the driving techniques with one of the Formula driving instructors.
The cars were geared for the much tighter Streets of Willow Springs course. They couldn't easily re-gear the cars, because that involved changing the gears in the differential. It was much more complicated than swapping sprockets and adjusting the chain. The engineers had constructed some chicanes out of orange cones on the front and back straights in an attempt to slow us down a little and to keep the cars off the 11,000-rpm rev-limiters.
Our instructor told Scott, Sam and I that most of his students came from a car driving background. Not a race car driving background, just cars. As such, his typical student spent a fair amount of time just getting accustomed to the speed and the resulting rapid decision making. He observed that none of us were having problems with that aspect and seemed to think we were ready for the advanced lessons.
He first started by telling us how to maneuver through the chicanes without backing off at all. He then confided to us that you can trail-brake into the corners while explaining the fastest way to get through turn one. He also mentioned that the Formula Hayabusa cars had a lot more motor than the Formula 2000 cars he was used to driving, which made them harder to control.
Unfortunately, I couldn't experiment with my new knowledge, as there were no longer enough cars to go around but judging by the sound of the motor bouncing off the rev limiter as Sam went by on the front straight, the suggestions must have been working. I was really looking forward to getting another turn in the car to apply the new techniques but ultimately, the day was cut short by a spectacular crash involving the perpetrator of the original crippling spinout.
The journalist said he was halfway through the first chicane on the back straight when the car just snapped around. It spun into the dirt, caught, and then flipped twice in the air before coming to rest on all four wheels. The instructor we were talking to said it sounded like he dropped a wheel off the track. After considering how close I had come to the edge of the track right there a couple of times when I hadn't quite nailed the first turn into the chicane, I could see how that would be relatively easy to do. Especially if you weren't backing off for the chicane.
They delivered the car back to the pits in a front-end loader. I think we were all expecting to see a complete wreck, but I was surprised by how good the car looked. Some of the bodywork had torn off, and the left front and right rear wheel linkage assemblies had sustained some damage as far as sheared bolts, but that was about it. It didn't look too bad; in fact, it looked fixable. I suggested to the hammer-wielding engineer that he would need a bigger hammer.
"Two hammers, and a MIG welder, and I'll have it fixed tonight," he said, smiling.
Sam then asked the offending driver, "You flipped the car twice. What was that like?"
"Gnarly," was the response.
"You are one of America's premier moto-journalists and the only adjective you can come up with is 'Gnarly'?" Sam said.
I still couldn't figure out what we motorcycle journalists were doing there. As we all stood around looking at that car, I wondered if the engineers and representatives from Suzuki were asking themselves the same question.