Give us a go, Mr Walker
I’VE ridden plenty of Suzuki GSX-R750s in my time. But the number two on the front of this one marks it out as being Very Special Indeed. And I’ve never been so scared in my entire life.
You see, the bike I’m about to ride belongs to a certain Chris Walker, and he’d quite like to be able to use it to wrap up the British superbike title at Donington Park on Sunday, if that’s all the same with me.
One slip from yours truly will not only land me with a £100,000 bill and lead to me handing my salary over to his National Tyres Suzuki team for, roughly, ever, but I’ll go down in history as the man who killed Walker’s BSB title hopes. And that’s not something I want on my conscience.
The thing is, he hasn’t got a spare. This is not a facsimile of the bike he will be riding at Donington. It’s THE bike. With the end of the series approaching, the team has simply run out of spares. So it’s unique. One of a kind. Irreplaceable. Am I making myself clear?
So I don’t need reminding that I’ve got to be very careful out there. But the team chiefs tell me anyway in case I’m harbouring any thoughts of stuffing it into the gravel at the first chance I get – just for a laugh.
You might wonder why Walker’s team is letting us ride it so close to the title decider. We’re wondering, too. But our persistent badgering has obviously paid off, and we’re not about to argue.
God has obviously decreed there’s not enough pressure on me already, because as I stand on Donington’s pit wall and look down the long front straight, I notice it’s damp. Great.
The track is almost silent. The only sound comes from the wind, which whistles eerily across the circuit, making the flags flap and thrash. The place which has witnessed so many titanic track battles in the past is now almost ghostly.
But that silence is about to be shattered. Below race control in the pit garage, the immaculate bike sits on its race stands. Its lightweight race wheels are half covered by tyre-warmers, bringing the freshly spooned-on rubber up to temperature.
It bristles with the latest race track finery and wears the latest Showa suspension, a full-factory Brembo brake system and untold goodies inside, like titanium valves and connecting rods, hand-built factory Suzuki camshafts and close-ratio gearbox, all wrapped up in lightweight magnesium engine casings. That’s what you get for £100,000.
Without the extra weight of the £2.70 per litre race-control fuel, the factory superbike weighs 162kg (356lb) and makes 165bhp.
I watch the mechanics prepping the bike. Most of us turn into oily oiks as soon as we clasp a spanner in our sausage-sized digits, but these guys are the mechanical equivalent of brain surgeons, carrying out every movement with extreme precision.
Sitting on its sidestand alongside the superbike is a standard GSX-R750 with a £7499 price tag and weight of 166kg (365lb).
The standard machine is one of the best-engineered, best-handling road bikes there is. It wears no fancy race graphics, no sponsor’s logos. Its fairing doesn’t even carry a race number. In fact, the only numbers on this bike today are the ones on its registration plate.
While the mechanics are swarming over the multi-thousand-pound race bike, the standard GSX-R just sits there, waiting for its ignition key to be flicked to " on " .
The two bikes don’t look that different, though. Both are recognisably GSX-Rs, with the same basic shape and scoops and vents in the same places.
But how do they compare on the track? You’d probably be right to assume that you wouldn’t pick up many points in a BSB round on a standard road bike. But is the gap as vast as the price difference would have us believe? We were about to find out. Walker’s 190mph machine was going to go head-to-head against the stock 170mph, 120bhp showroom model.
The race bike is bumped into life and the four cylinders fire instantly, settling down to a fast idle of just over 4000rpm. The harsh rasp from the Yoshimura Duplex titanium exhaust system echoes around the garage. Walker’s chassis engineer plugs in his laptop to check the engine parameters and ignition mapping settings.
The team has been watching the track all morning. It has almost dried completely, with only the occasional damp patch, so they have opted to fit a set of Dunlop D207 GPs. Just in case, the team had also brought along a set of medium compound slicks and full wets. For the momentous meeting taking place this weekend, they will probably get through eight sets of rubber during practice, qualifying and the two races.
There are no such worries with the showroom bike. One set of tyres every couple of thousand miles, one press of the starter button and it’s up and running. The motor fires instantly, but idles at 3000rpm less and doesn’t have the heart-racing sound of the Yoshimura system.
I’m told to take out the standard bike to familiarise myself with the track again before sampling what the racer has to offer. And that’s fine by me. I weave it slowly down the pit lane, leaning it right and left to warm the new Pirelli Dragon Evos.
It’s easy on the mind and body. The seat is wide and padded, your feet slot automatically on to the slightly rear-set footpegs and your hands fall on to the clip-on bars. The low, wide screen allows you to tuck in behind the bubble and the sparse digital speedo and white-faced rev counter with its 14,000rpm red line tell you everything you want to know.
The suspension seems plush almost to the point of softness but it works on the track as well as on the road. The power can be piled on early as it revs fiercely and begins to scream through the standard silencer. A good bike, then? Yes, it’s a fantastic sports bike, but there’s better to come.
After a blast around the track I return to the pit lane and start to psych myself up for the experience ahead of me. Just standing beside the race bike is enough to get a sense of its raw power. I can feel the engine pulsing through the padding of my helmet and reverberating through the soles of my boots as I slide my leg over and slot into the seat.
Like most racers, Walker has the rear of the seat area built up with foam pads which hold his lower body in just the right position.
I’m lucky, as Walker and myself are of almost identical build and his footpeg and handlebar configuration fits me from the off. With my hands resting on the wide clip-on style bars, my fingers reach out to squeeze the GP-style clutch lever with its neat custom-made adjuster. Walker is hard on clutches at the start of races but one of the best riders in the world for getting the holeshot.
Above the clutch lever there’s a large black brake adjuster which lets Walker compensate for worn or fading front brakes during races. Apparently he adjusts them almost every lap as the pads begin to suffer.
Next to that, a large kill switch sits in easy reach of my left thumb and right in front of me is a fully digital MoTec dashboard which shows temperature, lap times, battery voltage, gear position and rev counter sweep. It even displays the name " Stalker " in the left-hand corner just in case you forget whose bike you’re riding.
With my right foot resting on the high, stubby footpeg and after a push from the pit crew, I snick the bike into first. Luckily for me, Walker prefers a normal road pattern gearshift instead of the upside-down race pattern adopted by many riders.
As I weave down the pit lane, I can almost feel the pit crew’s eyes etching the words " don’t you dare " into the back of my helmet.
With the track still damp, I venture down towards Donington’s Redgate corner, gingerly scrubbing in the fresh set of rubber.
As Craner Curves approaches I peel it in cautiously, squeezing the ridiculously powerful Brembo brakes into the Old Hairpin. Over the next two laps I gently dial in more speed and lean angle and then start to open it up as I come on to the Dunlop straight.
As the corner opens out I drift the bike to the right-hand side of the track towards the apex and continue feeding in the power. It drives from as low as 8000rpm, but goes manic as the revs get up near 14,000rpm.
As I wind it up on to the straight it’s still cranked over, trying to pick its front wheel off the ground as the quickshifter does its job and keeps the power boiling change after change. The gearbox is so sensitive you can easily hook the gearbox up two changes in one hit with the slightest movement. This is how Walker likes it, and who am I to complain?
I flick it through the Foggy’s Esses, Melbourne and Goddards and it’s so steeply angled it changes direction quicker than I can react. The gearbox is so responsive and the brakes so powerful you can almost begin to understand how he does it. I don’t think I’ll go there today. Ahem.
I wind the power on as the front straight opens up. It seems much shorter than usual as the bike charges up through the box. At the end of the pit lane my head is out of the bubble and my forearms are already becoming pumped as I brace myself on the brakes in to Redgate. Two fingers are more than enough to haul the superbike down to sane numbers for the approach to the corner. Squeeze the lever hard enough and you’ll either go over the top or lock the front wheel and land in a snotty, very expensive heap.
With my confidence growing on every lap, I am starting to get an insight into the world of Walker. The bike is set up needle-sharp, power is not wheezy like you’d expect from a highly-tuned race bike and the brakes do whatever you ask. Make the command and it delivers.
It’s not difficult to ride and could turn any half-decent rider into a track day god. Treat it with immense respect and it allows you to dip momentarily into the mind of BSB contenders, but try to push it further than your abilities and it will hurt you in a heartbeat.
With one eye on the rev counter display and the other on the engine temperature readout I carry on, not knowing how long I’m allowed to play in this world. Every corner is a new experience as I find myself trusting and beginning to explore the immense potential of the factory brakes. Every straight is another chance to turn up the gas as the bike squats down and rips its way towards the next corner entrance. With the Dunlop 207GPs keeping my meagre slides in control I feel like I’m learning more with every lap and really think I’m working the superbike.
Foolishly, as it turns out. I’ve actually had a hidden passenger for my handful of laps. It’s called telemetry, and it’s a godsend for teams looking to cut times by nanoseconds and confirm to technicians what the rider is saying to them. But it’s a bind for someone like me. Basically, it blows your pub talk away and shows how crap you really are.
When I pulled into the pit lane and the
printout was ripped off the printer, I studied the paperwork with its series of graphs as if my life depended on it. Great, I thought, as I scanned the peaks and troughs showing where I got on the power and how hard I braked.
And then I was handed another set. The first set was actually one of Walker’s from the last Donington Park round. My printout had recorded the same data, but details like length of throttle openings and speed were vastly different. In a word, I sucked.
Keen to cool my red face, I decided to take out the standard bike again just for a blast. Thankfully, it didn’t have telemetry. After the real thing it feels like a pussycat, and that’s saying something.
Exiting Redgate and charging down Craner Curves you can confidently wring the road bike’s neck, because the chassis twitches and bucks when you ride it too hard, warning you not to push it any further.
The power can be fed in early with no chance of the front wheel trying to lift while you’re still cranked. And the bike works hard to transform Donington into a slightly more sane, but highly enjoyable experience, that really makes you feel as if you’re riding the bike properly.
Get into the groove and the GSX-R750 is capable of giving most other sports bikes a bloody nose. Its chassis is forgiving even when you sail close to the wind, and confident use of brakes, lean angles and the smooth delivery can give you a sky-wide grin.
Lap after lap the stock GSX-R750 will reward its rider as long as the sun shines and there’s fuel in the tank.
So what would you rather own? Sure, if you had the immense riding talent of Walker and could get hold of a factory superbike plus £750,000 of sponsorship per season, you’d be a fool not to go for it.
But in the real world things are different. And if you have already spent your hard-earned on Suzuki’s GSX-R750 you won’t be disappointed, on the road or the track.
And you won’t be scared half to death every time you open the thing up or squeeze the brake lever.
NATIONAL TYRES SUZUKI GSX-R750
Engine: Liquid-cooled, 749cc (72mm x 46mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Pectel fully programmable ignition system. Factory Suzuki 45mm twin injector throttle bodies. Titanium crankshaft, WSB-spec radiator. 6 gears
Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar
Front suspension: Factory Showa 46mm inverted forks, multi-adjustable
Rear suspension: Factory Showa single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustable for pre-load, compression and rebound damping
Tyres: Dunlop 207 GP slicks; 120/70 x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear
Brakes: Brembo; 2 x 320mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper
STOCK SUZUKI GSX-R750
Engine: Liquid-cooled, 749cc (72mm x 46mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. 4 x 46mm Denso fuel injection bodies. 6 gears
Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar
Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping
Tyres: Pirelli Dragon Evos; 120/70 x ZR17 front, 190/50 x ZR17 rear
Brakes: Tokico; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper