This year Suzuki has done the triple with its 600, 750 and 1000. All three are the best bikes in their class. Best meaning the most-focussed, lightest and most powerful bikes in their respective fields. Taking that too an extreme are the Crescent Suzuki Factory Squad race bikes that we’ve managed to sling a leg over at the all-new Rockingham Speedway circuit near Corby. It’s rare any magazine gets to test a full-factory British Superbike mid-season and it’s even rarer anyone gets to test all four of the teams bikes racing in the British Superbike, the lightly modified GSX-R600 racing in the Junior Superstocks, the full-on race spec Supersport GSX-R600 and the lightly modified GSX-R1000 Superstock
This weekend they’ll be racing at Brands, but for now the ultimate track day beckons…
The Suzuki factory squad transporter backs into the garage in the paddock area of the new Rockingham Speedway early on a drizzly Saturday morning. As the ramp comes down, I almost expect to see flashing lights and clouds of dry ice billowing out like the flying saucer in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
But even though I reckon what’s inside this truck is much more exciting than any number of little green men, the only thing that accompanies its arrival is a dull metallic clunk as the ramp hits the Tarmac.
Immediately, mechanics mill around and within 15 minutes seven bikes, all in the blue, white and black paintschemes of the official British Suzuki squad, are on their stands and lined up in garage number eight.
The riders heading Suzuki’s various British championship campaigns arrive one by one and get their leathers on. There’s John Crawford, who rides the GSX-R750 British Superbike, John Crockford, the rider of the stripped-out GSX-R1000 in the Superstock series, Karl Harris, who runs the 120bhp-plus GSX-R600 in Supersport, and James Hutchins, on crutches after an accident when his bike stalled on the line and was rammed by another rider. Normally, he’d be riding his lightly modified GSX-R600 Junior Superstock bike, but today he’ll have to watch, as crutches and a plastered-up ankle don’t mix with race bikes and a new circuit.
The riders are gagging to get out on the track, but not as much as me. After all, they get to ride their machines most weekends in their bid to prove the three bikes that are top of their respective classes on the road can, in Suzuki Japan’s words, " own the race track " .
But today we’re not fighting for a championship. Once the racers have got a feel for the track they’re due to ride on in September, the keys, or rather the kill switches, will be handed over to me.
The track is having its kerbing put in place and the riders are waiting for the all-clear from the contractors before they set off, which gives the mechanics the chance to give the bikes a last check.
Finally they’re given the go-ahead and the bikes are off. The party’s led by Crawford, who pulls up pit lane and heads a three-bike stand-up wheelie.
The riders are supposed to be taking it easy as the track is still fresh and a bit dusty in places, but you can see they’re starting to take liberties already.
The three bikes screech down the banking before peeling off back on to the infield, the scream of their engines bouncing off the towering grandstands and echoing back to the pit lane.
After quarter-of-an-hour, Harris pulls in. In his blunt Yorkshire tones, he says: " There’s not much grip out there, but you can have a lot of fun sliding the back end right around! "
Not exactly what you need before you’re about to be let loose on four very expensive race bikes. As if to prove the point, Crawford pulls in, slows down on the pristine white concrete of pit lane and pulls a rolling burnout halfway up the pits. Judging by the expression on the face of the circuit man who’s looking after us and the team today, you’d have thought Crawford had done it in the bloke’s front room.
After another couple of sessions the riders pull in. Tyres are changed, the bikes are refuelled and I get to have a look over the machines before I climb on board. First up is Hutchins’ GSX-R600 Junior Superstock bike. Despite the No11 plastered all over the tail unit, it’s essentially a standard GSX-R600, apart from new bodywork, a standard series issue Micron end can, internal fork changes, Renthal chain and sprocket and Metzeler Rennsport tyres. During a race weekend the team is only allowed three rears and two fronts, so they have to be pretty sparing. And just so things don’t get too hot, there’s an Ohlins rear shock, too. Essentially, it’s a slightly lighter, slightly more powerful GSX-R600 road bike. Perfect for track days, then? Absolutely – but you’ll want lights if you intend to ride home afterwards.
The mechanics have finished now and it’s time to stop looking and start riding. I climb on board and am pleased to see it has a road shift gearbox and electric start. Unfortunately, the kerbing that still needs to be put in place means we only get to use a small loop on the infield of the circuit. It’s enough space to do what we came to do, though. After all, we’re not here to set fastest laps – that’s what the racers are employed for. We just want to know what each bike feels like.
Turning into the second pit lane on the other side of Rockingham’s paddock, I notice the bike has a slightly restrictive steering lock thanks to the new lock stops, but it’s nothing horrendous. It feels lively, like a GSX-R600 road bike, but much fresher.
The power delivery is much cleaner than standard, helped by the exhaust can and air filter, and it pulls cleanly and easily. It’s quick, but not too scary and is actually a perfect bike to learn a new circuit on.
The forks and the rear shock give a much firmer ride than the road bike and the set-up means it turns quicker. Once it’s heeled over, the stickier-than-standard Metzelers help it stay on line.
Even as stock, the brakes on the GSX-R600 are pretty good, but braided lines and new SBS dual-carbon pep up what’s already there. After five laps, most of which I’ve used to try and learn the track, I come in for a rest and to make some notes. I reckon one of these in this spec on a track day would absolutely rock. It’s quick enough to have some fun on, but it won’t give you a heart attack. And you could really master the bike after a few track days or even a handful of club races.
Though Hutchins can’t ride it at the moment, he’s pleased to see the bike is still in one piece and it’s Crockford’s turn to get nervous as I swop over to his GSX-R1000.
The Superstock bike also has full race bodywork and a single seat. The fork internals, rear shock and adjustable steering damper are all by Ohlins and, like the other bikes, the wheels are powder-coated in black. Tyres are Dunlop D208s. There are also factory Suzuki footrests and a carbon-fibre Yoshimura exhaust system – yours for around £1500 – plus an undertray to keep everything neat at the back. Most of the parts, including the stickers, can be ordered from Crescent Racing.
It may only be a road bike, but the missing bungee hooks and clip-on bars gives it a proper racer feel. Not that it’s really far off the superbike in terms of lap times. Niall Mackenzie, who tests for the team, reckons that at some circuits the 1000cc modified road bike is just 1.5 to two seconds off the £100,000 GSX-R750 Superbike. Not bad for something that costs less than £15,000.
The team gives me a few pointers and I get my second chance to have a go. I was lucky enough to ride it at Silverstone a month ago, so at least I know what I’m letting myself in for.
Straight away it feels slightly bigger than the Junior Superstock 600, but in fact it only weighs 5kg (11lb) more. However, as soon as I fire it up I can feel the 50bhp advantage it has over the 600’s 105bhp.
It responds quickly – so quickly it makes my own GSX-R1000 seem almost sedate. It’s not, of course, it’s just that this breathes better due to its specially-developed Tri-Oval exhaust system, Yoshimura air filter and fuel management system.
As soon as I’m out of the pits, the bike feels fearsome. I take it easy for the first couple of laps, conscious of the slippery surface and the extra power over the 600. I’m especially careful on the last corner, a first-gear hairpin where you have to feed the throttle in lightly as it will lift the front wheel if you’re not gentle with it.
The calipers are standard, but you can ride the bike much harder thanks to the SBS dual-carbon pads and braided hoses, together with the steep-profile Dunlop tyres, Ohlins fork internals and jacked-up rear end courtesy of the new shock. The feel at the lever fools you into thinking the brakes are of a much higher calibre and lets you slam the bike into corners while still feeling totally confident. And if the pads start to wear mid-race, just turn the adapted superbike span-adjuster on the left-hand bar to take up the slack.
The shock could have done with being a bit stiffer under power for my 15 stones, but it’s right for Crockford, and who am I to complain?
The bike’s power takes a bit of getting used to on a circuit this short and intense. Though the GSX-R is beautifully set up, it’s difficult to rev it beyond 12,000rpm in third gear before you’re on the brakes and working hard again. Though it’s easy to use, you never get the chance to sit back and appreciate it.
My five laps are up, so I pull in and give the bike back to the team. After mucho mickey-taking from the real riders, I take a breather and grab a drink.
The threatening clouds point to a change in the weather. Crawford reminds me the 750 will be the most fun in the dry and the least fun in the wet, so I ask if I can jump the queue and take out the full-factory daddy of the bunch. No problem, once it’s warmed-up.
Surely this is only a 750, so it can’t be that much better than the Superstock GSX-R1000… can it? Oh yes it can. Here’s how it was put together.
Take one engine direct from Suzuki’s racing division – yours for £42,000 only if you’re approved by the factory to run in a championship they feel is important enough to provide an engine for. Put that together with a GSX-R750 frame modified by the racing division and a superbike-spec swingarm, carbon-fibre bodywork and factory Showa 47mm forks held in factory magnesium triple clamps. After that comes a Showa shock in a magnesium body, magnesium wheels and AP Racing radial-mounted brakes.
I could go on. Basically, you’ve got a WSB-spec bike and a bill coming in at somewhere around £100,000. And because this is racing and things go wrong, you need two bikes and at least one spare engine. Just to make sure it all works the way it should, a few factory-trained mechanics who can strip and rebuild the entire bike in just a few hours are helpful, too.
Crawford runs me through his own bike and shows me what all the switches do. On the left-hand bar there’s a thumb gearshifter that you just push for the upshifts. The downshifts are done the more traditional way. The Motec dash displays oil temperature, water temperature and revs, and there’s a shift-light so you know when to change gear. There’s no starter, just a traditional jump start and a thumb-operated rear brake. Plenty to be going on with, then. Not to mention the fact that the bike’s on slicks and all the other bikes I’ve ridden today are on race compound treaded tyres.
I snick the lever into first and get a push into pit lane, bounce down on the seat and dump the clutch. The bike pops into life and stays at its tickover of around 3000rpm. I engage the clutch and coast over to the other side of the paddock, blipping the throttle a couple of times. The GSX-R1000 Superstock bike might feel lively, but it’s nothing like this. This feels taut, small and ready to scare.
Out of the pits I short-shift it into second gear and head around the first right-hander. I’m very tentative, but two laps later I’m starting to feel slightly more comfortable and my riding improves with my confidence – though I can’t get round the annoying thumb lever and gearshift gubbins on the left bar.
I’m more committed the next time I lean it into the first bend and the bike turns so bloody quickly I’m nearly on the freshly-laid kerbing. The scary thing is that though it feels quite a long way over, I know there’s much more to come. Out of the corner, conscious that I’m trying to put down more than 165bhp, I give it some berries and watch as the digital tacho leaves a line showing me the revs hit after every gearchange. Then I notice it’s also telling me what gear I’m in: One, two, three. And I thought only BMW riders needed that!
It revs so quickly you’re barely in gear before the wailing pipe and flashing red light tell you to hook another one. The surge of acceleration is fierce. It’s so much more driveable than Chris Walker’s Clarion Suzuki I rode last year, yet much more civilised.
The next five laps are just a blur of brakes I know could flick me off in an instant and cornering ability that’s leagues ahead of what any road bike can achieve. On a fast left-hander where the track is properly grippy, you can lay it in in third gear and lose your bottle before the bike gets anywhere near breaking into a sweat, then wind it on hard out of the corner with the bars just starting to move from side to side.
The next hairpin is the same. You can almost pick a speck of dirt on the track and run your front wheel over it, turning in as late as you like. Yet the team says the handling can be set up so it’s much more radical. Strangely, you can get on the power harder on the superbike than on the 1000, with the front wheel just an inch or two off the Tarmac through first, second and third gears.
It’s a satisfying experience and makes me realise again what heroes the BSB racers are to ride bikes like this to the limit for 20 laps. And as for the thumb gearshift, after a lap or two I forget it’s there and don’t bother using it. I could stay out all day, but I can see Crawford is happy to get his bike back intact, seeing as he’s testing it in two days.
With my adrenalin still pumping, I’m looking forward to sampling Harris’s Supersport 600. It started life as a GSX-R600 road bike, but with the help of factory mechanics, a lot of cash and the input of Yoshimura, it has been transformed into a machine designed to get around a track as fast as possible.
The 120bhp engine takes full advantage of every rule in the book. The brakes have been uprated, the bodywork is all new and there’s an Ohlins shock at the rear, with Yoshimura fork internals at the front.
No quickshift is allowed in Supersport, but I spy a red button on the left-hand handlebar and ask Harris what it is. " Oh yeah, you’ve got to try that. It’s a kill switch, but you can use it a bit like a quickshifter by keeping pressure on the lever and flicking the button. It cuts the ignition for a second and lets the box drop into gear. "
I’ll try and remember to use it, but I reckon the track is a bit too tricky and there’s too much else to get used to without worrying about such cool things.
I’m more concerned about where to put my limbs when I first get on. The factory Suzuki footrests are high and the handlebars low, creating a riding position which obviously works for Harris, but it feels odd to me. I can’t help thinking I’m going to roll off the inside of the bike in a corner.
But I soon forget about that and just start riding the bike. Harris’s machine likes to be revved, much like the standard bike, but is much stronger all the way through the rev range. Not sure when to shift up and not wanting to risk the wrath of a few dozen mechanics wielding their best Snap-On tools, I change at around 14,000rpm. You have to feed the power in gently as the track’s slippery and the one time I try to give it some reasonable throttle on the way out of a corner it picks up the revs a bit faster than me or the engine can cope with.
The gearbox is super-slick and only needs a slight nudge to get it on to the next cog. The ratios are close together so you get a rush of power every time you engage a bit more gas.
But go for the brakes and they don’t react like you expect them to. Harris likes them without much feel, which is fine if you’re racing and waiting until the last possible minute to scrub off speed, but not so good when you’re wobbling around getting a feel for the bike.
Riding just one race bike is a humbling experience, so it’s no wonder I’m feeling slightly dazed as I ride home on my own GSX-R1000 after sampling four of them. But then I realise I’m having just as much of a laugh now as I was on the track. Because let’s face it, the road-going GSX-Rs aren’t exactly shoddy, either.