Kawasaki has stamped its foot; Team Green is sick of playing catch-up in World Superbikes, it will no longer be content to languish at the back of the field. But defeating the monstrous Aprilia RSV4 and the ominous BMW S1000RR is going to require a motorcycle leagues ahead of what Kawasaki has been rolling out in 2010. Behold, motorcycle fans, the new king of the castle. Ripping out a terrifying 210 horsepower and weighing just 198kg full of fuel and fluids, the 2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R leap-frogs to the front of the power and power-to-weight charts. But it's not just muscles that make this bike so special, it sports a completely redesigned chassis aimed at improving handling and racetrack lap times – and a traction control/ABS setup that ditches all notions that such systems are for safety. On the new Ninja, the intelligent electronics are all focused on making you faster than ever before on the road or track. Wouldn't it be an amazing turnaround if this machine could catapult Kawasaki back into World Superbike contention? Either way, this is one of the most exciting bikes we've seen in lime green for a lot of years, and it's a signal to the other Japanese manufacturers that near enough is no longer good enough.
There's no overstating the size of the rocket that BMW fired up the backsides of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers when it launched its class-dominating S1000RR superbike contender last year. While unsuccessful on the racetrack thus far, the Beemer entrusted its rider with nearly 20 more horsepower than any of the Japanese bikes, breaking the magical 200-horsepower barrier, and came with a set of race- and road-ready electronics that put it leagues ahead of the rest in pretty much every comparo test on the planet.
Now, finally, the Japanese are firing their first salvo back at the Germans – and if the BMW came out of nowhere, this latest monster comes from even less auspicious origins. Kawasaki is a fallen empire in motorcycle racing history; the renowned tractor, jet-ski and train makers were regular podium and race winners throughout the early days of world Superbike racing in the 1990s, but in recent times, results in top level racing have been nothing short of embarrassing.
Kawasaki fans have long memories and undeniable passion, but for the last 6 or 7 years, lime green bikes have regularly languished right at the back of the pack both in World Superbike and MotoGP.
So as a Kawasaki owner myself, it's with considerable excitement that I look at the first Kawasaki in more than a decade that looks like a real leap forward – the 2011 ZX-10R Ninja. The bike that lured MotoGP race-winner Chris Vermeulen to waste a season circulating at the back of the field in the prime of his career with the slowest team in World Superbikes. The bike that Kawasaki believes will turn its racing fortunes around. And it looks like an absolute ripper.
Unveiled yesterday afternoon at Intermot Cologne, the new big Ninja packs a jaw-dropping spec sheet and an electronics package that's got one simple goal: this Kwaka wants to be the fastest thing on the road. Let's take a look inside its lunchbox:
200 horsepower - and that's before Ram Air
The 998cc inline-4 engine has been lightened and strengthened all over the place - but that magical 200.1 metric horsepower (PS) is what's going to count at the sales desk. Add in Kawasaki's famous affinity for ram air - that is, using aerodynamic fairings to force extra air down the engine's throat at high speeds - and you're looking at somewhere around 210 horsepower from a bog-stock motorcycle, comprehensively trousering the BMW and the vastly more expensive top shelf MV Agustas.
210 horsepower is a magnificent and terrifying figure, and one that most car owners will struggle to put in any sort of perspective. Let's put it this way – since the Ninja ZX-10R now weighs only 198kg dripping wet (a humiliating 6kg lighter than the Beemer), it's now got a horsepower-to-kilograms ratio of greater than 1:1. If you take a Mini Cooper S, which is a fairly lightweight and zippy car, you'd need to give it roughly six and a half times more power to compete with the barnstorming Kwaka. As Mr. Burns would say: "ex…cellent."
As nice as it is to be able to boast face-melting power figures, it wasn't ever insufficient ponies that held previous ZX-10R contenders back on the racetrack. So what's likely got Vermeulen and his team excited is the new Ninja's revised chassis.
The new frame arrangement brings the centre of gravity down lower by around 3cm, which is important for getting the bike from kneedown right to kneedown left as fast as possible. The front end geometry has also been steepened with a reduced rake for even faster steering. The new bike puts even more weight over the front wheel than before, which should give it additional stability under brakes and vastly improved feel at the front wheel. This will also reduce the ZX-10R's tendency to wheelie – but enthusiastic throttle jockeys needn't worry, it'll still wheelie until the cows come home if you want it to.
Traction control and ABS with a focus on speed, not safety
A lot of the top superbike contenders are now rolling out into the showroom equipped with some form of traction control and/or ABS. Typically, the other factories sell these features as safety additions to help save riders from their own ham-fisted use of the throttle and brake.
Not Kawasaki, however. Team Green is giving you these features so you can go faster and ride closer to the bike's limits, whether it's on the road or the track. Both systems have been modified to make sure they don't get in the way of the rider achieving maximum performance.
The big Ninja's new S-KTRC traction control system, for example, recognizes that the quickest acceleration actually occurs when you've got the perfect degree of rear-wheel slip. So it monitors front and rear wheel speeds every 5 milliseconds, then intervenes by controlling the ignition advance to keep the rear wheel slipping at just the perfect amount. Kawasaki claims that S-KTRC works and thinks faster than other traction control systems, which makes it operate smoother, thus cutting down on harsh interventions and excessive slip. This keeps the rider confident and helps to exploit every last bit of grip available.
The system takes a similar approach to wheelies, permitting a controlled degree of power wheelie out of a corner (again in the name of maximum acceleration), but intervening when the front wheel seems to be coming up too sharply. It's 3-mode adjustable to suit your riding conditions and size of cojones.
Likewise, the Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System (KIBS) takes advantage of super-fine sensor readings to provide what the company believes is the fastest-thinking ABS system in the motorcycle world. With speed comes the ability to make much finer adjustments to braking pressure, avoiding the suspension-hammering lock-release-lock-release action of the typical ABS system to provide much smoother stopping. That lack of locking and grabbing should also help keep the rear wheel down under hard braking, as there's less pitching around on the edge of traction than with other systems. But Kawasaki isn't selling this as a safety feature - nope, it's there to get you to maximum braking power and keep you there as securely as possible so that – you guessed it – you can go faster.
Traction control is standard, ABS will be optional.
Suspension and Braking
You name it, it's there. Big Piston Forks, radial brake calipers and master cylinders (although Kawasaki has stopped short of equipping the ZX-10R with monobloc calipers), fully adjustable Showa shock… although it's worth nothing that the shock has been tipped over on its side and mounted horizontally.
This is designed to help centralize mass, as well as to alter the suspension action rate in different parts of the stroke for improved roadholding. It also clears a bigger channel behind the engine for cooling airflow.
This is a completely new instrument panel, and it looks very cool. For starters, there's a multicoloured LED-backlit tacho bar that can be set to flash as a shift indicator. Then there's a dual-mode main readout, which can be set to road or race mode, with lap timer, gear position indicator, clock, speedo and all the usual suspects, plus a nod to environmentally friendly riding with the Economical Riding Indicator that rewards you for making fuel-efficient choices with the throttle and gear levers. It's a thoughtful touch, but running down the list of Kawasaki riders I know, I doubt it will make much of a difference to Kwaka fans' riding habits.
There's more than enough photos in the gallery for you to make up your own mind about the looks of this new big daddy Ninja. But it's a clear departure from the previous model, and from what the rest of the Japanese crowd are doing. Heavily forward-biased, hunched over and angular, the ZX-10R is coming off the blocks with a distinctive appearance that gives more than a little hint about its evil intentions. Stealth ride this is not, especially in that famous, evil lime green.
There's a huge difference between a roadbike and a superbike race machine, for sure, but this does indeed look like a revolutionary new Kawasaki. Vaulting 10 horsepower clear of the BMW S1000RR is no small statement, the electronics package is fascinating and the overall package looks great – but more importantly, it's the first time in a lot of years that Kawasaki doesn't look like it's playing catch-up.
Chris Vermeulen and a horde of rabid Kawasaki lovers will be pinning high hopes on this machine - and wouldn't it be an amazing story if this one two-wheeled berserker could turn Team Green's racing fortunes around? We can only hope.