Here it is – the new ZX-10R. The bike that lured MotoGP race-winner Chris Vermeulen into the worst team in the WSBK paddock; the bike that both Vermeulen and Kawasaki believe will put Kawasaki back at the front of the Superbike grid. All we have at this stage is a few photos of the race Superbike version and a teaser video, but expectation has been building that the new Ninja could be the first Japanese bike to take it to the amazing new BMW S1000RR. Numbers like 200 brake horsepower and a wet weight under 200kg have been floating around for the streetbike version. We know that there's going to be some form of traction control, which puts the Kwaka into a small but growing class of sports machines, and most interestingly, patents have been spotted that indicate that Kawasaki is thinking about running a proper long-bang style engine configuration, complete with an additional electric motor to keep the crank spinning in between pulses at lower speeds. Certainly, upon its release this will be Kawasaki's most significant motorcycle in many years.
Kawasaki's World Superbike success in the 1990s has certainly faded in the memory of most motorsports fans – but Team Green has a large and vocal following that still turns up to the races, unashamed to be seen rooting for a team that in recent years has routinely run at the back of the pack in both WSBK and MotoGP. Proven riders, the likes of John Hopkins, Chris Vermeulen, Shinya Nakano, Randy De Puniet and others have all failed to develop competitive bikes out of what they've been given – and Kawasaki's MotoGP program eventually looked so hopeless that the company pulled out altogether for 2009 as the Global Financial Crisis kicked in.
But it seems Kawasaki has convinced Chris Vermeulen that the 2011 bike will be a real contender. "I’ve seen some prototype 2011 bikes already," says the Australian rider, "and it’s completely different – and looks pretty special. Until I throw a leg over it I can’t really say, but I’ll definitely be testing that during this season. That whole project is what really drove me to Kawasaki."
With all the Japanese companies playing second fiddle to Max Biaggi's barnstorming Aprilia RSV4 in the 2010 WSBK championship, and with BMW's S1000RR ominously dominating all road and track tests of the production bikes, the competition is pretty clear for Kawasaki. So perhaps there's little surprise that the first official photos released of the 2011 ZX-10R racebike are strongly reminiscent of the race version unveilings of the RSV4 and S1000RR a couple of years ago – mainly in that the photos show plain black bodywork and no road gear – and give little hint at how the bikes will look in final road trim.
Photos are all well and good, but it's what's inside that counts. And with nothing officially revealed yet, it's all open to speculation. Patent diagrams have been dug up showing a laid-down horizontal engine configuration, but this seems unlikely. Other patents show that Kawasaki engineers have been working on a big-bang style engine that's truer to the form than Yamaha's 2009-onwards R1. With all four cylinders firing very close together, such an engine would theoretically provide better traction on corner exits.
But as most of the bike's use will be on the road, and big-bang style engines have so long in between firing pulses that the crankshaft could lose its turning momentum and stall at low revs or idling situations, the patents show a secondary electric motor that's used just to keep the crankshaft spinning at low revs.
If this technology makes it onto the 2011 ZX-10R, Kawasaki could make the claim of having the first hybrid motorcycle engine in production, as well as an engine configuration that would be fascinating to most riders and a sales drawcard. But then, the teaser video below certainly doesn't suggest that the new bike will make the grunty drone sound of a big-bang powerplant; it sounds like a regular screamer.
If it's not a radical change in engine configuration or management, then it'll be very interesting to see exactly what it is about the new ZX-10 that has Vermeulen so interested that he'd sign a multi-year deal at the peak of his career with a company that's been completely off the pace for many years. Stay tuned!