Kawasaki have unveiled the 500-run special edition of their 2019 ZX-10R, the ZX-10RR at an event in Japan. The demanding Kawasaki Autopolis test track is 4.6km long, the perfect place to test their new World Superbike homologation special.
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For 2019, the bike features finger-follower valve actuation (replacing tappet-style valves) and titanium con-rods which save 102g per rod. This allows the engine to rev 600rpm higher, producing 4bhp more power and 2ftlb more torque than the outgoing 2018 RR.
The increase in power may not sound huge, but you can feel the difference. I was lucky enough to ride the 2018 model a week before this test, and immediately it felt like the 2019 ZX-10RR revved easier and quicker.
How does finger-follower valve operation work?
In a conventional valve train (let’s forget about pushrods for now) the cam spins above the valves, pressing down and opening them. The cam doesn’t press directly on the valve - instead it presses on a valve bucket that sits on top of the valve.
The bucket protects both the valve stem and cam lobe from wear, while also providing an easy way to shim the system for correct clearances. This system is popular because it’s simple to produce and relatively hard wearing, making for quite a cheap set up. Unfortunately, valve buckets also have their disadvantages.
To ensure they are hard wearing the buckets are made from steel, which makes them heavy. This weight is constantly in contact with the valve, slowing the speed that it can open and close.
They’re also inefficient, as they travel up and down in a circular bore adding extra friction. Additionally the flat surface also means that there are limits to how aggressive the cam profile can be. Actually they don’t sound very good at all do they? Luckily, Kawasaki have been hard at work.
Kawasaki’s answer is finger followers. Now, Kawasaki haven’t invented the finger follower (modern units can be traced back to a Bugatti patent from 1939) but it is a big step forward for their engine design.
Instead a valve bucket, finger followers sit above the valve stem but are attached to a separate offset shaft. Their shape means that much more aggressive cam profiles are possible, while the offset shaft supports the weight reducing inertial mass on the valve.
The friction of the bucket inside the cylinder is removed entirely. Additionally the change in the top end allows for a flatter combustion chamber as well as a cleaner run into the cylinder for the fuel mixture and exhaust gasses.
In the case of the new ZX-10 the use of finger followers accounts for a 20% mass reduction in the valve train, which combined with the new aggressive cam helps to give a 3bhp boost at the top end. As you may have guessed though, this extra tech does come at a price.
The extra work involved in producing the top end, including the extra expense of grinding the fancy new cams, means that the price of the standard model has crept up by £550 to £14,799 while the RR has shot up by an eye-watering £4950 to £21,199.
The reduction in internal engine inertia also allows the bike to steer faster, so much so the engineers had to revise the suspension and electronics. Through fast directions changes the new RR is really impressive, rolling effortlessly from one huge lean angle to another.
Yet, at the same time, the stability is class leading. During our fast laps around Autopolis nothing unsettled the WSBK for the road.
Fifth gear takes you up to 165-170mph
The straight is almost 1km long and allows the Ninja to stretch its legs. Revving out in fifth gear takes you up to 165-170mph. Braking stability was impressive, along with the non-intrusive cornering ABS.
The 2018 bike is currently leading the World Superbike Championship and the British series, it also proved successful on the roads this year so Kawasaki haven’t played around with the chassis and have used the same brakes, wheels, weight, and geometry as before.
Some might be disappointed by the same looks, dash and lack of bling on the new bike. The cylinder head is all-new with finger-follower valve operation instead of conventional buckets, and Pankle titanium con-rods which save 408g (102g per rod).
The new engine has more urgency, revs faster and there’s a slight increase in torque, which has always been a weak point of the ZX-10RR. On track the new Ninja revved more freely, but it’s not a massive step up in power. You really have to ride the bike hard to notice the 4bhp increase.
Throttle connection and delivery is lovey, really linier and smooth – this was highlighted during our wet laps on day two. It wasn’t intimidating in the wet, thanks to the smooth throttle response and fuelling.
The ignition cut has also been reduced for ‘race-like’ fast up-and-down gear changes
The unique six axis IMU remains, but the five-stage traction control has been revised to take into consideration the faster revving engine. The ignition cut has also been reduced for ‘race-like’ fast up-and-down gear changes without clutch. The gearbox and clutchless changes are impressive as is the revised traction control.
The ZX-10RR comes fully-loaded, five-way traction control, power modes, launch control, up-and-down quickshifter cornering ABS, engine brake assist and electronic Ohlins steering damper.
Despite the higher level of tune, and titanium conrods service intervals remain, the homologation special can be used as an everyday bike and serviced by any Kawasaki dealer. The old engine has proved bullet proof in racing.
The quality balance free Showa 43mm inverted forks remain, however Kawasaki have revised the suspension, to compensate for less engine inertia. Front rebound was reduced and the fully-adjustable horizontal rear Showa shock received new internals. The handling is the biggest step forward over the old bike.
It steers easier, and flicks from one side to the other with ease, even in fast 3rd gear corners, whilst remaining stable. The ease of fast direction changes is the new bikes highlight. The relative ease-of-use makes the 200bhp homologation special usable and unintimidating. Combined with excellent Pirelli SC2 grip, the suspension feedback is excellent, enabling you to carry corner speed and lean with confidence.
In the racing world, a faster revving engine can be the difference between pole and 15th
A 4bhp power gain, 600 extra rpm and titanium rods might not appear to be enough of a change, especially when the price is expected to hike up to over £21k from the £16,249 the 2018 version cost.
But, in the racing world, a faster revving engine can be the difference between pole and 15th. For the road, you will hardly notice the change, and I don’t believe they’ve made a big enough jump for the end road user; same clocks and looks.
However, on track it turns faster and has a little more power. I’m sure race teams worldwide will be breaking down the door before the limited edition 500 units are sold out.
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