IF you lived in a small, remote village and had no transport or television, you probably wouldn’t have any idea what lay beyond the end of the field – until you actually crossed the fence that marked the boundary of your familiar surroundings and discovered there was a whole new, amazing world out there.
It’s the same with sports bikes. Before 1991, no-one had any idea that anything like the FireBlade was possible – until Honda’s seminal machine actually arrived and blew our preconceptions apart. Then that became familiar, too, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the R1 came along to leave us wide-eyed in astonishment once again.
A few months ago, Suzuki extended the boundary yet again. The result is that, within fairly easy reach, there’s something better, more exciting and even more suited to our riding desires than anything we’ve experienced before. Whatever sports bike you ride, try a GSX-R1000 and you’ll overdose on adrenalin. It’ll be faster than anything before it and will handle and stop better than the last bike you rode. Fact.
But for some, the best machine Suzuki could come up with after years of development still isn’t enough. These people aren’t satisfied with owning the best sports bike we’ve ever had, and maybe just changing the tyres when the old ones wear out. They have to go even further beyond the limits.
That overwhelming desire to have something even better manifests itself in a number of ways. Some try to win races by doing the best they can within a set of rules. Others go all-out to build the ultimate GSX-R1000 road bike – well, ultimate until the next one comes along and that fence is moved once more.
What we have here is a case of pushing the GSX-R1000 beyond even what the Japanese factory had in mind. Suzuki had to build a bike for everyone, whether they’re a circus midget or a basketball player with a penchant for grinding kneesliders. So even a bike this focused is a compromise to a degree.
But compromise isn’t a word in the Clarion Suzuki GSX-R factory team’s dictionary. It doesn’t have to worry about making the bike suitable for everyone in every situation. Race bikes – even ones based on the road bike – are used by just one rider, and used only on the track. So, for example, Clarion doesn’t need to make the suspension nice and soft so it works in its middle ground on the road and track or with a pillion. It can fit the firmest it wants. All it has to do is concentrate on getting a bike set up for its rider John Crockford, then get out and win races.
And with the GSX-R1000 racing in the Superstock class it’s pretty certain that’s what it will do. Set-up problems in the first round of the series may have meant it came fifth, but another GSX-R1000 still won – in fact, Superstock is rapidly becoming the GSX-R1000 cup.
The bike in the other blue and white corner is the tuned GSX-R1000 built by former British superbike racer Dean Ashton, of Ashton Performance Centre, for a mystery customer – though obviously a very rich one. Why any road rider feels the need to tune a GSX-R1000 beats me, but I’m certainly not complaining? If there’s more horsepower to be had, grab it, I reckon. And besides, everyone wants to know what’s at the end of the garden…
So, what we have is two of the best GSX-R1000s yet built and a few hours at Silverstone to find out just what they can do. For the sake of comparison, we’ve also brought along the benchmark road bike, standard down to the last nut and bolt and the road grime on its gleaming white wheels.
And talking about the stock bike, let’s say you did have a GSX-R1000, you’d sorted the insurance company’s ludicrous bill (I want to ride it not fly it) and you had some money left burning a hole in your high interest savings account. Every part on the Dean Ashton road bike or the Crescent Suzuki Clarion race bike can be bought and fitted. Now there’s something to think about…
Though I’ve ridden a GSX-R1000 a fair bit recently, it’s too easy to forget just how amazing this bike really is. But on a strangely sunny morning which is just about warm enough to ride 40 miles in leathers without a jacket, it didn’t take long for it all to come flooding back.
Even on a go-slow morning warm-up routine before a big track day on the two aforementioned GSX-Rs, the 1000 is enlightening. You don’t even have to try and be a hooligan on this bike. Just wind it up to 8000rpm and if you’ve got enough room, a little bit further, and let it do its thing.
Parked up at Silverstone, the bike is just as jaw-dropping. Until this day I’d never seen the track except in a mini-bus and a few photo sessions riding up and down the main straight, so I had no idea where it went. But after just five laps the GSX-R made me feel comfortable and able to explore its limits a little further.
Meanwhile, the Clarion Suzuki squad were set up and beginning to test some settings. I walked up pit lane and was suddenly confused. In the garage were rows and rows of blue, white and black GSX-Rs, all with black wheels and the same Clarion Suzuki GSX-R factory squad paintschemes. If, from a distance, you can spot the difference between the two Junior Superstock bikes (600s with modified suspension, exhaust systems and race bodywork), two Supersport 600s (the full-on race-spec 600), two Superstock GSX-R1000s (modified suspension, blueprinted motor, race exhaust system, race bodywork and different tyres) and the two 750 superbikes, you need a bobble hat or you dream of Magnus Magnusson and his big black leather chair.
OK, so you can tell the difference after a while, but the amazing thing is that half the garage consists of essentially road bikes underneath the race bodywork, but you’d struggle to notice because they look just as cool as the mega-yen factory 750s. The Superstock rules are quite restrictive, yet it’s the little things that give Clarion’s bike the edge only beautifully-prepared race machines can have.
Apart from the lightweight bodywork, the most obvious thing is the Yoshimura Tri-Oval stainless exhaust system sitting high up where the pillion footrests used to be. There’s a race seat unit with a suede seat and a bum pad to enable Crockford to get more over the front of the bike, an Ohlins rear shock with remote adjuster, carbon-fibre heel guards, a carbon chain guard, stainless steel paddock stand bobbins and an Ohlins steering damper.
The brake pads have also been upgraded, there’s clip-on handlebars and the forks are reworked internally, while the engine itself has been blueprinted. The standard road bike speedo and rev-counter remain, though the speed sensor has been disconnected.
The bungee hooks have been removed, there are crash wheels on the side of the bike, the under-seat area has been cleaned up, Dunlop’s latest D208 road/race tyres have been wedged on the black wheels and the ignition key is permanently attached with a wire cord – well, it’s not like you’re going to leave it anywhere is it?
Apart from the factory-kit rearsets taken from the GSX-R750, everything you see here could be done to a standard road bike, if you had the urge, time and money to make something really special. And Crescent Suzuki is willing to take your cheques, though trying to find out how much things cost when a team is testing eight different bikes is as easy as trying to combat foot and mouth.
The team wouldn’t let us have dyno figures either in case another outfit tried to copy its secret. But let’s just say that within the rules allowed in this class, a modded road bike can get within two seconds a lap of a proper £100,000-ish factory superbike just like the one ridden by John Crawford in British Superbikes and in World Superbikes by Stephane Chambon and Pier-Francesco Chili.
The standard bike is not exactly shoddy in the kit department, but the Ashton Performance Centre machine is even more special, regardless of what’s inside the engine. It’s still in standard road bodywork – though this is set to change with some carbon-fibre bodywork – but there are plenty of other tricks that make it special. Your eye is instantly taken by the magnesium alloy, bright yellow Marchesini wheels, which alone save 2kg (4.4lb).
There’s an Akrapovic titanium exhaust system with an oval can, six-pot front calipers and fully-floating discs, massive 46mm Ohlins forks replacing the standard titanium nitride coated Showas with Yamaha R7 top and bottom yokes.
The rear shock is also Ohlins, with massively jacked up ride height to make it steer quicker, and the tyres for this occasion are Dunlop slicks. It arrived on road tyres, but Dean Ashton insisted on slicks when he took it out on the track. You can’t take the racer out of a man who’s been at it this long.
It doesn’t stop there, either. There’s carbon-fibre heel guards, clip-on handlebars, a slightly different screen tinted on the sides and standard footrests, though these will change soon, too.
What’s not so obvious is what’s inside the motor. Compression is up, the head has been gas-flowed and skimmed, the engine has been blueprinted, the cams have been reprofiled, the valve seats are modified and the ECU has been remapped. Ashton says when the motor was blueprinted it was already in such good shape as standard that it barely needed touching.
But that’s not enough, it seems. There are also plans for new cams, bigger fuel injector bodies and a Motrec fuel injection system. Power is already up from a standard 143bhp at the rear wheel to 161bhp, according to Ashton’s dyno. And there’s still more to come! But in this form on top of the standard bike you’re looking at £1100 for the engine work alone plus £6940 for the other bolt-on bits.
Both are bikes you could stare at all day and most of the MCN readers who were assembled in the paddock for one of our track days did their fair share of eyeballing as soon as they were parked. But to really find out what they’re all about, you have to ride them.
Ashton takes the slick-shod GSX-R out for a few laps to check everything’s in order then hands it over to me for the rest of the 30-minute session to carry on learning the track, with another quicker session afterwards.
Remember what I said earlier about how you don’t know how good things really are until you’ve tried something better? That’s what we’ve got here. The standard GSX-R1000 does everything a race bike should, even if the Bridgestone BT010 tyres, though great on the road, are not quite up to what the GSX-R can throw at it on the track.
But Ashton’s bike takes things on again. The bars are low and wide and it sits you further forward, which is a very good idea indeed. Try to rev a standard bike out in first gear and you’ll struggle, but attempt to do it on a GSX-R1000 that’s been tuned and it will have you testing the double-thickness seat panel in your leathers.
There’s loads of power low-down and it feels a bit crisper and meatier than standard. But wind it up and you’ll find torque and power running all over the rev counter. Silverstone is a fast track which might make some bikes feel a bit gutless. Not the GSX-R1000. It has guts where you never thought there would be. For the best part of the lap you barely need to rev it out, but when you do, be prepared for a serious fight. Not because it does anything out of order, but just because it’s got so much.
Out of one of the many second-gear corners you can turn it in way harder than the standard bike and hold a much tighter line. The showroom machine isn’t exactly a slob, but fellow MCN road tester Kev Smith is following me around for a few laps on the stocker and he admits he couldn’t get near me mid-corner. And the funny thing is, if we were on the same bikes I know who I’d put my money on to cross the line first.
I brake late, feeling the six-pots bringing me down to reality, then bang it in on its side. If you take a slightly wide line you can hang it a bit further over where the standard bike starts feeling slightly uncomfortable.
And on the power, even though there’s a lot more of it, you can get it on faster and harder without feeling like you’re doing anything untoward. Part of this is down to the slicks. Once you’re used to their feel, they let you get away with playing protractor games between the indicators and the ground.
Hot, sweaty and gagging to see how respectable the tyres look (why do we always need to look at our rear tyres after a session?) we pull in. I’m inspired, but Kev’s a bit fraught trying to hang on in some of the slower hairpin corners, so the best has definitely been made even better. And just for the record, the slick was nicely orange peeled right the way to the edges and the mystery owner can have his bike back in one piece. Whoever you are, thanks for an experience.
The next session is for racers only so we take a break, grab a coffee and take the opportunity to stand on pit lane and get some rays from what I hope is the start of our summer heatwave. It’s nice to see Niall Mackenzie out there again in his role as development rider for the official Suzuki factory squad as he blasts past on what I think was a 600. Well it was blue, white and black and definitely a Suzuki anyway.
After the racer session we head out again and just before John Crockford dwindles into the background he gives me a look to remind me he’ll be needing it for a race in three days time (or last Monday when you read this).
It’s a race bike so that means there’s no sidestand, but because it’s based on a road bike there is an electric start. The Yoshimura system barks into life and the air intakes in the snout suck in. I thought Ashton’s bike and the standard bike were fairly responsive, but trying to spot the rev counter needle becomes a game of I-Spy. Again, the clip-on race handlebars are wider than standard and the grips are slimmer, giving more feel and control through the bars.
It’s obvious straight away that the ride height is way up on standard and the whole bike feels firm and purposeful. I look out onto the track on the exit road and glance at Kev Smith behind on the standard bike and Dean behind on his customer’s bike. But that’s the last chance I get to see behind me as there’s no mirrors. Just one thing before we carry on. On the next track day, take your mirrors off your bike and it instantly makes it seem faster. And besides, on a track you should be focusing on what’s in front.
On the first lap I can instantly feel the tyres have been well baked by the tyre warmers. It’s like the bikes have already done two laps, there’s so much confidence straight away. But after a lap Ashton shows me a wheelie into the first right-hander before the chicane and clears off.
There’s no way I intend to face Crockford’s wrath and even attempt to keep up with a former British Superbike racer who has also amassed road expertise at places like Scarborough, the North-West 200 and the TT, even if the bike itself is more than capable of staying there.
I don’t attempt to hang on, but get into a rhythm and feel what the GSX-R is doing. Considering it has only got reworked internals, the front end feels like a completely different set-up compared to the standard forks. Much more direct and stiffer, yet coping with Silverstone’s bumps just as easily on the straight or heeling it over. It turns in really fast so it makes light work of the chicane.
After the quick left-hander which follows you can really get the power down hard. The bike squats and you can really feel what the rear tyre is doing, the feedback is so direct.
Admittedly, on the way up the hill the bike does start to slightly wag its bars, but it’s nothing alarming and that’s the trade-off for making it turn so fast. Also, I dare say my 15-stone is using up a fair bit more travel in the rear shock than featherweight Crockford, who has set it up. But, say you did have one of these and it started waving its bars around, it’s nice to know there are lock-stops put in place by Crescent and an adjustable Ohlins steering damper.
On the power, the bike is obviously crisper. It feels almost as powerful as Dean Ashton’s machine and revs even quicker. Risk revving it to 12,000rpm and you’ll find yourself still pulling way over 150mph down the back straight before you brake for the right-hander in second gear. But most of the time you don’t need much more than 8-10,000rpm to get it rocking.
On the pipe the pull on your arms is phenomenal and you can feel the bum pad pushing in with every change, with the instant rush of power making the front wheel go light on the exit to even 100mph corners. Get on the gas as soon as you’re into the corner and the power comes on smoothly and easily from any revs, while still letting you know who’s boss if you get too happy with your right hand. But the power delivery is so smooth and fluid with no real kicks in the powerband just real kick in the backside grunt whatever degrees you choose to position your throttle hand.
It is a road bike, but it feels like the evolution of the GSX-R already and if you could get one in this spec for track days and fast road riding you’ll get close to knowing what it’s like to ride a real superbike. And from a modified road bike built under strict rules, that’s an amazing achievement.
Unfortunately, the team need the bike back for Crockford to fine-tune his set-up so I have to hand it back. I’ll just have to resign myself to taking the long way home on the standard bike then.
So, the ultimate road bike? Definitely. Like anything in life, throw a bit more cash at it and you can change the amazing to the surreal. But the Clarion bike is really designed only for the track, while the APC machine is too expensive for most road riders. So I’ll stick with the stocker, thanks very much. And I think it will be a while before anything better comes along.