Taming the Dragon
“That’s it. I’m done for the day,” I said undoing the strap on my helmet. Photographer Hugh McLean gave me a puzzled look. “What are you talking about? You’ve only been out there for one session.” He was right, but after only twenty minutes in the saddle of Kawasaki’s new Ninja ZX-10R, I was completely exhausted. As I took a sip of water and began to regain my senses, I reflected on the importance of conditioning, and the fitness required for anyone actually crazy enough to race these one-litre monsters.
The first session of a test ride is typically reserved as a familiarization period during which a rider becomes accustomed to an unfamiliar motorcycle’s ergonomics, gets a feel for track conditions, and allows new tires to scrub in. It’s part of a methodical process that is repeated whenever I’m evaluating a high-power motorcycle. The ZX-10R was different. On Kawasaki’s flagship superbike, you’re only doing one of two things: either refilling the tank with gas, or riding it like a lunatic addled by an overdose of adrenaline.
Considering that this was the first complete redesign of the ZX-10R since it first debuted in 2004, there was a lot of hype surrounding the bike, most of centering on claims that the bike would break the 200 hp barrier. That’s an obscene amount of power for any street-legal motorcycle, but when the dust had settled the official numbers for the new 998 cc engine fell short of the magical goal post, and peak output had been derated to only 188 hp (138.3 kW) with the aid of its Ram Air system.
The engine that now propels Kawasaki’s deadliest-ever Ninja features a revised layout of the lightened crankshaft and transmission shafts, along with improved cylinder bore machining, to reduce mechanical power losses. By relocating the cylinders relative to the crankshaft, Kawasaki has also reduced lateral piston forces, which allows for the use of lighter pistons. The top end was also modified by incorporating larger intake valves and reshaped ports, and high lift cams were fitted to extend valve overlap. Providing the all important air/fuel mixture is a set of throttle bodies with larger 47 mm valves and oval velocity stacks; secondary fuel injectors, which contribute to top-end power output, have also been utilized.
Part of the engine’s design mandate was to provide riders with a more linear power delivery and smoother torque curve to improve the bike’s handling, especially while it’s being throttle steered through a turn. To accomplish this, engineers moved the peak torque higher in the rpm range and altered the mid-range torque so there’s just enough grunt to effectively drive the bike out of a turn.
In practice the engine was as powerful as I feared it would be. The bike’s compact dimensions had lulled me into believing I was astride a 600 cc machine; all it took was the first angry snap of its throttle to wake me from that reverie. On the tight track I was using, everything happened in such rapid succession that my brain was working harder than the bike. And even on the short main straight, where one can normally catch his or her breath, twisting the Ninja’s throttle made this rider feel like a bullet travelling down the barrel of a rifle.
One thing quickly became obvious; the ZX-10R was simply too much bike for its OEM Bridgestone BT016R tires. With the rear wheel stepping out while exiting turns and the front wheel sliding in fast sweepers, it was the tires and not my lack of skill for once that was hamstringing the bike’s performance. Buyers should adjust their budgets accordingly; this bike has the potential to eat tires for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The ZX-10R gives riders a choice of three power modes, and thus an opportunity to put a muzzle on the beast. FULL power mode is an unadulterated, back-stage pass to the terrifying ferocity of the Ninja’s engine. You get all of the ponies, all of the time. After you’ve soiled your riding pants, you’ll probably want to switch the bike to the variable MIDDLE mode, which allows the engine to fluctuate between FULL and LOW power levels depending on how the throttle is being used. LOW mode reduces power output to around 60 percent, ideal for riders who are more comfortable being challenged by tax returns than motorcycles.
I quickly realized that the LOW mode wasn’t an option. There’s an argument for using it when it’s raining, but on a dry race track it’s just simply frustrating to use. With the power set to MIDDLE I found myself second guessing what the bike would do – just as it was second guessing what I was up to. It could be of use during street riding where you’re more likely to encounter unexpected situations, but having my fill of fiddling with the modes I found FULL to the best option.
Shifting through the motorcycle’s race-type cassette transmission was effortless and free of any issues. The adjustable slipper clutch, which I probably made use of too often, effectively helped to compensate for the loss of traction in bumpy braking zones, as well as during the occasional overzealous down shift.
The electronics package that interacts with the Ninja’s fuel delivery system is essential equipment on this machine. Without it, especially in the cool conditions of my test, it would have been impossible to get any of the overabundant power to the ground. Effectively compensating for the limitations of the tires was the Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control (S-KTRC) system. The predictive race-grade traction control was developed using data from Kawasaki’s MotoGP program. I was all too aware that it was the S-KTRC system that was allowing me to lap as hard as I was without treating our photographer to a spectacular highside.
An important note regarding S-KTRC is that it works by controlling wheel spin, not by completely preventing it. Regulating rear wheel spin keeps the tire at the edge of its traction limit and allows average riders to push the bike harder than they could by using the old school method of controlling wheel spin through the throttle.
A number of onboard sensors are used by S-KTRC to paint a picture of the riding conditions. Front and rear wheel speed, engine rpm, throttle position, tire slippage, and acceleration readings are taken every 5 milliseconds and are processed by sophisticated software to anticipate when traction could become an issue. With four traction modes available to chose from (including having it switched off), the sensation a rider experiences when S-KTRC is busy saving his bacon varies. If you’ve just exceeded the limits physics has placed on your tires, there’s a barely discernible change in the engine’s feel. However, if you really mess things up, you’ll notice an obvious change in the engine’s power output.
Since the bike’s power modes and S-KTRC settings can be adjusted independent of each other, I spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out which of the myriad combinations ideally suited my riding conditions.
With my head tucked under the windscreen and my upper body weighting the front end, I was surprised the first time the bike wheelied so hard that it shoved my helmet into my nose. Didn’t traction control system prevent big wheelies? Unlike the gyro-based system used by BMW for its traction control, Kawasaki’s system is more reliant on software, and consequently S-KTRC is able to tell the difference between a power wheelie and unintentional wheelies. Power wheelies are thus allowed, providing they occur while acceleration is maintained, but sudden wheelies, such as those experienced from dropping the clutch, will trigger a system intervention.
Better riders than me will have the time on track to admire the ZX-10R’s new instrumentation, which is more of a digital light show than a traditional motorcycle display. The bar graph tachometer is powered by LEDs, which auto-adjust their brightness based on ambient lighting, all the way down to 8 percent of their intensity. The frantic rise and fall of the LEDs as they try to keep pace with engine speed is intensified when you reach your pre-determined shift point and they begin to violently flash for you to shift gears. The instrument’s LCD screen features a race mode, which when activated replaces the road speed display with a large gear indicator and allows the use of a lap timer.
At no point did I feel that the chassis was being overpowered by the nuclear reactor driving the rear wheel. The aluminum twin-spar frame traces an almost straight line from the headstock of the machine to the swingarm pivot which according to Kawasaki, provides a more linear behaviour and enhances control of the machine. Weighing an anorexic 198 kg (436.5 lb) dripping wet – an impressive 10 kg less than the outgoing model – the bike flicked over so easily through quick transitions that I had to be cautious not to overpower it and throw it onto its side.
An impressive suspension system furthered the ease at which the Ninja could be controlled. A Showa Big Piston Front fork (BPF) is said to provide race performance by smoothing the pitching motion of the bike during rapid braking and acceleration transitions. As its name implies, a BPF uses a main piston that is almost twice the size of one found in a normal fork, which means that its fork oil is acting on a surface area almost four times as big. This reduces damping pressure and allows the slide pipe to move more smoothly, which in theory results in better control when the motorcycle is under heavy breaking forces. Other BPF benefits are that it’s lighter than a cartridge-type fork, and it conveniently locates the compression and rebound damping adjustment screws at the top of each fork tube.
The BPF is impressive, but that doesn’t mean that the rear suspension is just going along for the ride. A horizontally oriented, linked shock was used to improve the Ninja’s road holding, provide a smoother response and contribute to mass centralization. Its location apparently isolates the shock from engine and exhaust heat that would otherwise affect its performance.
Blasting down straights with the front wheel flopping about in the air like a landed fish, I wondered about the Ninja’s steering damper. The bike is fitted with an adjustable twin-tube Öhlins unit, but none of my experiments with its settings yielded a noticeable resistance in steering resistance.
Matching the Ninja’s capacity at forward thrust, the bike’s powerful brakes generated an incredible amount of negative g-force. A radial-pump front brake master cylinder actuates a pair of Tokico radial-mounted four-piston brake calipers with enough initial bite that you’ll swear someone shoved a 2x4 into your front wheel. Despite their grabbing power, the brakes performed predictably and were easily modulated.
It was clear that the powerful brakes were further straining the bike’s already beleaguered tires. Fortunately for me this ZX-10R was augmented by the optional Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System (KIBS). KIBS, which is claimed to be the world’s smallest and lightest ABS, only adds 3 kg to the bike’s overall weight. As advertised, it was subtle in its execution; a slight pulsing sensation at the brake lever was the only thing that indicated it was precisely regulating the brake fluid and minimizing pressure drops in the system for near seamless anti-lock braking that is said to also reduce rear wheel lift.
At $17,299 ($16,499 without ABS), the ZX-10R is competitively priced with the competition. Kawasaki hyperbole states that their new Ninja will “allow a greater number of riders to experience the thrill of riding a superbike at the limit.” Fair enough. However, despite its improved user-friendliness, this still isn’t a motorcycle for mere mortals. A fitting and rewarding tool for track-day veterans, this is a machine for real men – 250 pound behemoths that wrestle alligators for sport, chop fire wood with their bare hands and laugh at 200 hp machines. For the rest of us, I warn you now, the ZX-10R’s inherent intensity is enough to leave you curled up in a corner sucking your thumb.