As Goes GSX-R, So Goes The Nation
Barber Motorsports Park
February 28, 2011
Motorcycles occupy a strange spot in the American household budget. Whereas in many places in the world a motorcycle is considered a household transportational necessity, in the US they have increasingly become a lifestyle product to be procured after the necessities such as a car and a flat screen TV. Back before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) the motorcycle industry was buoyed, like many things in the US, by cheap and easy loans. Whether the money was borrowed outright to buy the motorcycle or financed with a home equity loan, it was simple and straightforward to walk into a dealership and ride out with a new monthly payment and a shiny status symbol.
The strong sales encouraged the motorcycle manufactures to pursue one-upmanship both in terms of the specifications of the new models, and in rapid development cycles with lavish press launches. At one time it was common for a two year "minor" update to each sport model and a four year "major" update. On the press launch side there were five day trips to Phillip Island, helicopter rides from the hotel to the GP track in Spain, business class airfare, and even separate press events for similar models, such as the GSX-R 600 and 750. On the racing front it was, at least theoretically possible to buy a new race bike each year and pay for the bulk of the purchase prices and cost of running by winning contingency money.
Those days are gone.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, in 2005 over 1.1 million units were sold in the US, including off road and ATV. In 2010 the sales figures were down over 60% to a measly 439,678, roughly the same size of sales in 1997. Interestingly enough, the GFC did not officially start until 2008 but sales of motorcycles in 2007 were already plummeting. Perhaps motorcycle sales will become one of the leading indicators for economic forecasting.
Nothing says "the motorcycle bubble burst" like:
- Brand new Harley Davidson mega stores in foreclosure
- Honda closing their much celebrated Gold Wing factory in Marysville Ohio in 2009, after operating continuously since 1979
- Cycle News ceasing print operations
- Roadracer X ceasing operations
- More relevant to this article, Suzuki actually canceled ALL imports of street bikes for 2010. Suzuki even canceled their 2010 dealer event.
Although the canceling of imports resulted in an 80% drop in new Suzuki sales from 2006 to 2010, they are now well positioned for the recovery, such as it is. Suzuki's inventory, at this point, is all brand new 2011 product. Yamaha did not cancel production in 2010 but is now purported to be sitting on a lot of unsold, and aging, inventory.
That extra year for development allowed Suzuki to make some pretty dramatic changes to the weight, component specifications and price of the GSX-R 600 and 750. These were improvements on all aspects except the price of the 600, which has risen dramatically, and the price difference to the 750, which has narrowed considerably.
The biggest change to both bikes is the weight. Each was placed on a considerable diet, with the 750 shedding 17 pounds off its curb weight and the 600 dropping 20 pounds. That is almost a 5% weight reduction. Racers will only benefit from about half of that through lighter wheels, frame, and such, because most of the rest of the weight reduction is in the stock bodywork and exhaust.
The other big changes to the 600 include upgraded forks, Brembo monoblock front brake calipers (although they kept the Nissin master cylinder), a 15mm shorter wheelbase , updated styling, and slightly different transmission ratios and cam profiles to boost mid-range power. The 750 received all the same upgrades with the exception of the transmission ratios but, with 25% more power and torque, the old ratios were just fine.
I was given the opportunity to test both bike at Barber on February 28th. The weather was mixed with a patchy damp track in the morning, warm sun for the middle of the day, and then a torrential downpour that closed the track later in the afternoon. I spent the first couple of sessions on the 600.
The ingénue after dropping twenty pounds.
Although I have a long and sordid past racing GSX-R 600s I've spent the last couple seasons, including three endurance races at Barber, on liter bikes. Switching back to the 600 at Barber was a welcome reminder of how fun middleweights can be, and why it is that Suzuki has long dominated the category.
All the middleweight sport bikes are good but the GSX-R is the "just right" balance and feels like a race bike, even in stock trim. The ergonomics are natural for the track, the clutch and brake levers can be rotated down to reduce the forearm fatigue exacerbated by bent wrist riding, and the seat and tank allow for natural clearance in all the body positions assumed on a track. Suzuki did round off their historically grippy foot pegs but they were still textured enough to give ample foot control.
The Bridgestone tires (33 psi front, 30 rear) were typical of the brand's recent offerings in that they came up to temperature quickly and gripped well on damp, dry, warm or cool pavement. They didn't have the sheer power of purpose-built race tires but delivered solid planted performance on the 600.
The bike steered quickly and naturally with the stock tires and geometry. I slowed down the rebound a bit on the front but even before that change the 600 would change direction through Barber's arduous undulations in a nimble and predicable manner. On or off the front brake the 600 could hold a line from the brake marker in, or follow a different arc part way through. Switching to race tires, with their lower tire pressures, will, no doubt, muddy the steering, but with about 10mm of exposed thread on the rear shock mount, post recession track riders will probably be able to get away with a cheap ride height spacer in the rear to maintain the excellent steering.
Simplicity of form, the GSX-R arcing gracefully through a turn.
Barber is a tight track with aggressive altitude changes and short straights requiring nothing over fourth gear, with the stock tall gearing. The track has a tendency to leave smaller bikes wheezing for torque as they claw their way up the hills in second or third gear. With the new cams, FI and tighter transmission ratios the 600 could pull hard up the hills. This was more apparent when the track was still damp and I was reluctant to really charge the entrances of the turns. Even with lack luster mid-corner speed I never had to do the dreaded "mid exit downshift" to keep the 600 in the hunt.
Barber is a track that rewards flow and, as such, there is really only one spot where the brakes are applied with any measure of commitment: "The Spider Turn."But compared to Daytona, VIR, Summit Point, or any of the other "6th to 2nd gear" turn ones, you still aren't using the brakes that hard. Given that limitation, I am not sure I can really tell if the Brembo front calipers are much of an improvement over the previous Tokicos. Brakes on the littlest GSX-R have experienced problems over the last few years with fading, inconsistency and a general mushiness. Most of those faults were traced to the Nissin master cylinder, which remains, but I have never been one to argue against the inclusion of Italian components, so the Brembo calipers are a welcome addition. In the limited amount that I was using them they provided excellent power and feedback but, as noted above, Barber is not really a heavy braking track.
Barber is notorious for illuminating two handling limitations on motorbikes. The first is the dreaded "turn two chatter" and the second is a slow undulation in the macadam on certain lines caused by the race cars pulling up the pavement. The GSX-R did not experience any of the former (which could just be that the tires, although good, simply didn't have enough grip to induce chatter) and, although the pavement undulations could be felt through the chassis, they did not cause alarm and were not intrusive enough to require altering one's plan of attack.
The last crucial test of a bike's suitability for racetrack duty, sadly, was not performed that day: nobody crashed one. Taking all that aluminum out of the wheels and frame has a price, and my suspicion is that racers will need to avoid hitting sharp curbs or throwing the bike down the track or risk prohibitively expensive repairs. Also, the fact that Yoshimura is prominently selling aftermarket valve keepers and collets suggests that Suzuki still does not have a long term solution for the dreaded "tip of the valve breaking off" syndrome.
The 750 is the near perfect blend of poise and power.
The 750 is the modern sportbike world's most overlooked jewel. From 1985 to the late 1990s 750s used to be the premier class for super bike racing and street riding. Eventually the GSXR so dominated this class that one by one the other manufacturers just gave up making 750s. Once the OEMs abandoned the displacement, the racing sanctioning bodies had to follow suit. This process led to some interesting dynamics, like the when the AMA 750 Supersport class was a field comprised solely of Suzukis, or when the sanctioning bodies had to figure out why it was appropriate to return to 1,000s when the class had originally been downsized to 750 because the tracks were not safe at the speeds generated by the liter bikes.
Anyway, for about a decade (ZX-7s stopped in 2003), for anyone looking to buy a 750cc sport bike the choice has been pretty much restricted to the GSX-R. Strangely, the fact that Suzuki had the market segment all to themselves resulted in a decline in prestige and sales of 750s.
Now the 750 doesn't even get its own press launch but gets tacked onto the event for the 600.
Despite all that, the 750 is by far my favorite GSX-R for all riding outside of class based racing. Why? The handling is slightly slower than the 600 but it is still excellent. The extra 25% more power is 25% MORE POWER, but the 750 feels manageable. Sure, it has enough power to get the 180 rear tire squirming and sliding but it is in the realm of mere mortals to control. The 1,000 is either spinning the rear tire or unweighting the front wheel giving it a very vague feeling all the way around a track. The 750, simply put, handles like a 600 but pulls like a 1,000 with an aggressive traction control profile.
Once I started riding the 750 I never touched the 600 at Barber again, and, if anything, Barber is a 600 track.
The 600 double apexing Barber's Spider Turn.
Most notably, the 750's ample torque simply kills the 600 in the giggle factor. Whereas on the 600 the throttle could easily be pinned at the apex of many of the turns, the 750 had to be fed in with some discretion but as long as one kept the rear wheel driving instead of spinning, the results were rewarding. While it’s true that the 750 didn't like changing directions as nimbly as the 600, it is no heavyweight, and a line could still be tightened when need be. The 750's handling would have probably felt just about perfect had I not spent 90 minutes on the 600 immediately preceding my impression.
Don't believe anyone that says the 750 doesn't handle impeccably.
Given that the speed at every brake marker is about ten miles an hour higher than on the 600, the better brakes become much more important, and were still up to the task. Also, due to the massive price hike in the 600, and the slightly less massive price hike on the 750, the 750 only costs $400 more than the 600. Nowhere else will you ever be able to get a 25% increase in power for $400.
But that does bring me to the one glaring downside to these bikes. The 2008 GSX-R 600 (unchanged in '08-'10) was originally $9,399. The new one lists for $11,599. That means the price of the bike has gone up by $2,200 in four years. Since the median salary in the USA has actually gone down over the same time period, while unemployment has gone up and loans have tightened considerably, I think new 600s will be priced out of the range of a lot of would-be purchasers. The 750, a comparative bargain, is only $11,999 but, put another way, it costs only 10% more to get into a Ducati 848 and, as lifestyle products go, it is tough to beat the Italians.
In 1985 an industry study came to the surprising conclusion that, although motorcycles were virtually all purchased by men, those same men needed the permission of women (wives, girlfriends, mothers) to just buy the bikes, much less find the time to ride them. Given the changes in the US economy over the past couple years I can well imagine that many a GSX-R purchase will get squashed when the son, now living at home, is told, "if you can afford to spend $12k on a motorcycle, you can afford to move out and get your own apartment.".
Less (weight) for More (money)
Suzuki's big push for the '11s was lighter weight, better midrange, and better handling, which, of course, is facilitated by the lighter weight.
In inverse order, Suzuki rotated the engine back on its axis 3 degrees. This allowed them to take 15mm out of the frame spar and, therefore, shorten the wheelbase without impacting rake/trail (remaining at 23.45, 97mm) or the length of the swingarm. The construction of the frame, swingarm and wheels were all revised which reduced their respective weights by 2.9lbs, 1.9lbs, and 14.3 ounces.
In addition to being rotated, the 600 received bigger internal venting holes, slightly higher compression (but 2.7oz lighter) pistons, cams with slightly shorter duration, higher flowing valves, and re-angled fuel injectors. All of these changes were designed to boost low end and mid range power while not impacting peak horsepower. The 600 also received new internal gear ratios to shorten the gearing in first through fourth gears and, therefore, provide stronger acceleration. The riding impression indicates that they accomplished this goal.
The 750 received new cams and fuel injectors but kept its original transmission ratios and crank venting.
The complex engine control software on modern bikes requires a vast amount of sensors and injectors. Most motorcycles don't use a BUS architecture so each one of those sensors needs to have an end run of wire back to the ECM. Traditionally located under the seat, Suzuki relocated the Engine Control Module in front of the airbox, shortening the wires to reduce the weight of the wiring harness by half a pound.
The stock bodywork and lights have been lightened. The bodywork is 7.5lbs lighter and the lights are 1.2lbs lighter. The thinner exhaust is 3.7 lbs lighter on the 600 and 2.6lbs lighter on the 750. Of course, most racers will not benefit from a reduction in weight of the stock bodywork and exhaust.
Both bikes still retain the S-DMS system which allows for street riders to castrate their expensive high tech sportbikes and effectively remove 20% of the power across the rev range with the press of a button. Suzuki's own research suggests that riders basically never ride these bikes on anything but the full power setting. The switch remains, as it can be used to change traction control maps with alternate racing ECMs.
The front suspension received a major specification change with the Showa Big Piston Fork and Brembo monoblock brake calipers. The BPF fork is 1.9 lbs lighter on the 600 and 2.2 lbs lighter than the previous 750 fork while the calipers are 13.9oz lighter. The '11s retain the electronically activated cross-mounted linear steering damper from the previous models. Electronic activation allows the bike to steer easily at low speeds but keeps wobble under control at high speeds. The front axle diameter shrunk from 25 to 22mm.
The rear end of the bike has a 1.1lb lighter linkage and a 2oz lighter shock. The 600 no longer has separate high and low speed compression settings but the 750 retains the separate adjusters. The rear caliper and mount shed 7.8oz and switched manufacturers from Tokico to Nissin. The rear axle diameter was reduced from 28mm to 25mm.
While retaining its previous top end, the 600 has boosted its low and mid range power and dropped almost 20 lbs, or 5% of its weight. The 750 shed almost 18 pounds. Those are striking weight reduction numbers in a time when bikes are already featherweight.
All Photos by Brian J. Nelson