We witnessed the end of a WSB era in 2014, and the ultimate evolution of the big-bucks factory WSB bike. They may look like normal superbikes from the outside, but the factory bikes locking horns at the front of this year’s races, way ahead of the cheaper, superstock-engined ‘Evo’ machines, are more like WSB-shaped MotoGP racers.
Run by the world’s best technicians and engineers and piloted by the fastest riders, these superbike jewels drip with excess-all-areas chassis, engine and rider aid technology. And the most advanced of all the factory bikes come from the two factories who battled to this season’s bitter end: new world champions Aprilia, and former title-holders Kawasaki.
But stricter new regulations for 2015 will force factories to use more standard engines, cheaper electronics and suspension. It will also see the end of the Evo sub-class, so all the bikes on the grid next year will be the same spec. It should save costs, not to mention slowing the bikes down enough not to be knocking on the door of MotoGP lap times.
Superbike Evo was supposed to be the new WSB dawn, but the factories weren’t keen on such restrictive rules, which would penalise lower powered superbikes with no ride-by-wire, like the Honda and Suzuki.
Tom Sykes’ crew chief Marcel Duinker explains: “As a championship you must always keep the factories interested to participate, so luckily in 2015 we have more freedom than the 2014 Evo rules.”
2015 chassis and electronics regs have ended up closer to current WSB than Evo, but engines, which are a half-way house between superstock and ‘open’, similar to BSB, will have a lot less power, so bikes like the Kawasaki and Aprilia might be waving goodbye to 20-30bhp. So let’s take this opportunity to revel in the best of the WSB breed.
We’ve been granted two flying laps on Tom Sykes’ factory Kawasaki ZX-10R, set-up exactly as it finished the last round at Qatar. And to see why Evo bikes were in their own race all year, we also get to ride David Salom’s Evo ZX-10R.
Sod’s Law it’s raining, but the Kawasaki Racing Team still lets us out, with strict instructions not to crash – the real riders will start their winter testing on them when I’m done. I rode Tom’s bike last year at a baking hot Jerez, but as factory superbikes evolve from meeting to meeting, let alone year to year, it’s now a different animal.
Duinker says: “Even when we won the title we knew we had several limitations – you always want to go faster. We worked a lot on the chassis over the winter with set-up and new parts. The biggest job was to improve handling performance and make the bike easier to ride over race distance.”
A scrum of factory technicians surround the ZX-10R in the pits before unhooking its electronic life-support cables and toasty tyre blankets. A remote starter motor is plugged into the side of the engine and the Kawasaki barks into life. It’s pushed out into the wet Aragon pitlane, I jump aboard and settle down into its spacious, wide-barred cockpit.
To avoid smashing the race-pattern factory gearbox into first I wait for a push before snicking the gear home. Clutch out and we’re off. Fitted with a quickshifter and auto-blipper it’s the last time I’ll need to use the clutch until I come back in again.
It’s pissing it down, but in some ways the tricky conditions show-off just how special Tom’s bike is, better than the dry. It’s impressive in ways only a factory WSB or MotoGP rider will ever know. Naturally Sykes’s ZX-10R is breathtakingly quick when I manage a few seconds-worth of full-throttle through the gears along the Spanish track’s two straights and although the team won’t say, it must make around 230bhp. But it’s what the Kawasaki does when you pick up the throttle that’s staggering.
Unlike the road or Evo-spec ZX-10R, Tom’s bike, like all the factory WBS machines, runs a ride-by-wire system. It gives the bike full traction, anti-wheelie, engine braking and launch control systems and an auto-blipper, but there’s another clever trick up its sleeve. On the first tap of the throttle the power is severely clipped. You’re not getting all four cylinders to manage, just one, two, and then three, as the ZX-10R coughs, crackles and splashes through each corner.
Once you’re upright, out of the corner and hard on the throttle the electronic control is released - it clears its throat, four cylinders chime in and you’re launched to the next corner. This ‘anti-hit’ system, as the team calls it, allows Kawasaki to tune the hell out of the motor at the top end, and then fill in the gaps at the bottom with electronics to make it rideable.
It’s not like traction control as the system doesn’t give you enough power to unhook the rear tyre in the first place. Is traction control a thing of the past already?It feels very safe having such a ‘soft’ throttle to play with in the corners, especially in the wet. You can immediately twist it further than you would ever dream of on a bike with no electronics.
With no clutch to worry about on the move, thanks to the gearshift electronics, your left hand free is free to get used to the thumb brake, which Tom uses to steady the bike in the corners and help control wheelies. Keep the rear brake on through the corners and the ZX-10R sits down and digs into the wet conditions.
Add to this extra layer of back brake control the docile power delivery, the sublime plushness of the factory Showa suspension, grip from the Pirelli wets and the confidence from traction control, and wet conditions suddenly turn to dry. You’re not tip-toeing through sodden corners like you are on the Evo bike, or would be on a superstock or road bike.
The factory Kawasaki gives you an incredible feeling of confidence and solidity, even with water streaming off your visor. But what really grabs you about riding a factory superbike isn’t so much the cleverness of the rider aids, the handling, stability under torturous braking, or the way it eats straights: it’s the racket it makes.
Electronics skew the way the Kawasaki sounds every inch of the way, so there’s that dark, off-beat gurgle when it’s not running on all cylinders. Each quickshifter-assisted gear change is accompanied by an explosion of unburned fuel. And it’s a riot of blood-spitting snaps, crackles and pops, off the throttle as the electronics deal with engine braking. This bike sounds like it eats razor blades for breakfast.
Back to the pits too soon, but in one piece. The ZX-10R is swamped again by technicians, wires plugged in and laptops opened. It’s readied for the real rider to do some laps before jumping on the 2015 bike. Like me, he’s probably keen to get one last taste of his WSB bike. It’s as good as it will ever get.
Evo – the future of WSB?
WSB Evo was sub-class to the main championship in 2014. With blueprinted superstock-style engines (a good 20-30bhp down on the factory bikes), price-capped suspension and electronics, they weren’t as fast as the front-runners. Here at Aragon earlier in the year, Evo rider David Salom was three seconds off Sykes in qualifying.
Regs were supposed to go all-Evo for 2015, but now they’ll be closer to current ‘open’ rules, but with tamer engines. So it turns out Evo isn’t the future and they’re obsolete after their first season, like CRT last year in MotoGP. But that’s not to say the Evo Kawasaki isn’t impressive. It’s exactly how you’d imagine the ultimate evolution of a ZX-10R road bike would be: crisp, pointy and f**king fast. It’s every bit as quick in a straight line as Tom’s bike, has predictable power and smooth traction control.
The steering is so responsive I nearly fell off the side of it tipping into the first corner after the pits. But what the Evo bike lacks is the factory machine’s clever cylinder-dropping power delivery system, delicious poise, stability in the corners and the squad of factory technicians to run and build it. There’s no ride-by-wire, so its rider aids aren’t as advanced, it doesn’t have an auto-blipper and the engine braking control isn’t as refined, making the bike run on slightly with the throttle shut in the wet.
These are all small things but they add up and you’re left with a bike that doesn’t accelerate out of the corners as hard as the factory bikes and needs more effort and concentration to ride fast. So there’s good news for Evo riders like David, when he lines up on the grid next year on a Kawasaki (in a different team tbc). Under the new rules his ZX-10R is going to have more power and better electronics, so he’ll have a chance of mixing it with the big boys.
New WSB rules should make for even closer racing and more riders on the grid, which is a mouth-watering prospect. The bikes might not be as fast in 2015, but as long as the racing is close, that doesn’t matter.
Factory machines like Sykes’ ZX-10R will always be one step ahead of private teams, but the good news is the technology they produce gradually ends up on our road bikes.We’ve already got quickshifters, auto-blippers, traction/wheelie/launch/engine braking control and riding modes, but it can’t be long before the next generation of superbikes gurgle out of corners on one, two and three cylinders, just like Tom’s.