Tuesday, 20 December 2011

2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Can the GSX-R750 hold off the 675R and 848 EVO at the track?

Last week we brought you the street portion of our Oddball Sportbike shootout featuring three machines that are outliers within the confines of the fairly rigid sportbike category but are competitively priced.
For street riders this discrepancy in engine displacement between the Ducati 848 EVO, Suzuki GSX-R750 and Triumph Daytona 675R means nothing. But at the racetrack, where you’re typically defined by one of two choices — 600cc or 1000cc — these three machines aim to carve a niche of their own. Welcome, then, to the track portion of Motorcycle.com’s Oddball Sportbike shootout.

On the street, the Suzuki GSX-R750 narrowly edged out the Ducati and Triumph for top honors. Despite being the least exotic machine of the bunch, its comfortable ergonomics, confident chassis and user-friendly (and plenty powerful) powerplant proved a favorite amongst our testers, and we judged its performance-per-dollar ratio to be the best in this group. Given the GSX-R’s racetrack heritage, we had our doubts about its street manners. But at the end of the day, it did exactly what a streetbike is supposed to do: put a smile on each of our faces every time we threw a leg over it.
2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
The 1.7 miles of Auto Club Speedway’s infield road course would play host to our Oddball Sportbike shootout this year. Who’s your money on?

To their credit, the Ducati and Triumph both proved to be fantastic machines in their own right. All of our testers were enamored by the Ducati’s absolutely planted front end, while the Triumph nearly won us over with its astute chassis and charismatic engine.
But the racetrack will prove to be a different environment. To be honest, all three of these machines were bred for the track, with street provisions just mere afterthoughts.

Leveling the playing field as best we could, we fitted all three bikes with Bridgestone’s latest D.O.T. racing rubber, the Battlax Racing R10 (see sidebar for more information). Also, because there’s a significant discrepancy between the power output of our little trio, track selection was taken into careful consideration. A long, open track would skew the results in favor of the more powerful Ducati and Suzuki as they would be able to pull away from the Triumph, whereas a tighter, technical track should (in theory) negate that advantage and give the Trumpet a fighting chance.
We chose to ride with our friends at Fastrack Riders for their first event of the year at the infield road course at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. This 1.7-mile track configuration makes do without the long, banked oval section of the former AMA track and is quite tight and technical, a perfect venue to pit these three machines against each other in a battle royale for national pride.
So which will it be? The throaty V-Twin of the sinister-looking Ducati, the screaming four-banger of the reliable Suzuki, or the raspy inline-Triple of the lean, mean Triumph that takes top honors? Read on to find out.

2011 Ducati 848 EVO

After watching Jason DiSalvo take several wins in AMA Daytona Sportbike competition this season aboard a Ducati 848 EVO, we had high expectations for the stock version of that machine as we taxed it around Auto Club Speedway. If you’ve read Editor Duke’s first ride piece of the 848 EVOfrom its introduction at the Imola racetrack in Italy, then you’re aware that the new bike isn’t much of a departure from the old except in one crucial area — the engine. Throttle bodies grow from 56mm to 60mm in equivalent diameter, while intake ports also receive some tweaks. Perhaps the most significant upgrade comes in the form of revised intake and exhaust camshafts with higher lift. Combined with reconfigured combustion chambers netting a 13.2:1 compression ratio, Ducati claims crankshaft horsepower of 140 at 10,500 rpm. We guessed rear-wheel ponies just north of 120.
So, we were a little underwhelmed when our test bike pumped out just 118.6 horsepower at 10,400 rpm on the Dynojet dyno at Mickey Cohen Motorsports. That’s just two more than our standard 848 made back in 2008. More telling is where that power is made — much higher in the revs. Looking at our dyno chart you can see the EVO doesn’t come alive until 7000 rpm, where it leaps ahead of the Suzuki and Triumph all the way to its 11,500 redline. Also telling is that between those two marks the Ducati makes as much as 20 more horsepower and 10 ft.-lb. more torque than the next closest bike, the GSX-R750.
2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
The EVO exhibits uncharacteristic power traits for a V-Twin. With the bulk of its power coming high in the rev range, we found ourselves riding the Ducati like an inline-Four.

On track, the Ducati’s odd-for-a-Twin power delivery made itself known just as it did on the street. Acceleration out of slow-speed corners was rather lackluster, as we mistakenly expected the typical V-Twin torque to pull a gap from the Suzuki and Triumph. The flat spot in the Ducati’s powerband around the 5000-rpm mark needs to be ridden around, and we found ourselves having to get the EVO high in the revs before we could really feel the power. “The flat spot at 5-6K rpm can really hurt the EVOs performance on a track configuration with precious few long straights and numerous tight-radius turns,” says Pete in his notes, adding, “Of course, a seemingly simple solution is to carry more speed through a turn, with the tachometer needle spinning well above the flat spot.”
2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
The Ducati’s sinister matte-black paint job is $1000 less than the red or white offerings, but it’s difficult to photograph without looking like a black blob.

To add insult to injury, tall final-drive gearing only exacerbated slow-speed acceleration on this technical racetrack. All three testers noted that they found themselves between gears through many of the turns. We’d recommend a rear sprocket with a few more teeth, as that would tighten up the gaps between gears in the transmission and yield a different reaction regarding gearing.

Engine and gearing quirks aside, we were pleasantly surprised at how well the Ducati’s chassis handled the track. On the street we noted that, while completely stable and planted on its side, initiating a turn required some effort compared to the other two bikes here. This is mostly due to the 848 EVO having the longest wheelbase of the trio at 56.3 inches (compared to 54.7 inches and 54.9 inches for the Suzuki and Triumph, respectively).
The Ducati’s heavy steering was much less noticeable within the confines of the racetrack, and were it ridden on its own, we’d have no problem rating the steering with words like “quick” and “nimble.” But when stacked against the likes of the Suzuki and Triumph, it definitely required the most effort transitioning through the quick switchbacks at Auto Club Speedway.

That said, its manners while leaned over nearly horizontal — like its 1098/1198 sibling — continue to impress us. “It’s as though it would continue its large, sweeping arc around a corner even if I wasn’t still aboard,” quipped Kevin about the EVO’s ability to precisely hold its line. The Ducati’s sure-footed chassis certainly would’ve been a bigger asset at a higher-speed racetrack with more flowing corners, but its relative lack of agility in this group held it back slightly on Auto Club’s tight layout.
On the suspension front, the 848 EVO uses a fairly standard fully-adjustable 43mm Showa inverted fork mated to an equally adjustable Showa shock, the same as the previous 848. Ohlins suspenders might have been a nice upgrade, but the Showa components performed quite well at the track. Neither end required much adjustment from us the whole day and absorbed the bumps with adequate feedback.

One area of this test where neither bike had much of an advantage over the other is in the braking department. With Brembo supplying monobloc calipers to all three machines, their excellent performance is just what you’d expect. And because we’ve waxed poetic about Brembo monoblocs and their powerful stopping power in the past, we’ll sum up by saying they’re good. Real good. In the court of personal preference, however, Duke picked the Ducati’s Brembos as “the best for the track,” as their strong initial bite and the 848’s stability under braking make it a confident stopper.
In the street test, Pete noted how the racer-like ergos of the Ducati made it less than comfortable during the freeway drone. But that butt-up, head-down rider triangle that’s murder on the street feels completely natural on the track, lending itself to extreme body positioning should one feel the need. The slippery footpegs we noticed on the street weren’t much of an issue on the track, though that issue was replaced by an LCD instrument panel which was darn-near impossible to view at a glance.
All told, the Ducati 848 EVO is a strong performer. Revving it like a four-cylinder took some getting used to, but once we adapted, taking advantage of its high-rpm power and confidence-inspiring stability made it a hoot to ride. Surprisingly, despite having the second-most peak horsepower, all three testers posted their slowest time on the EVO.
Unfortunately for Duke, Fastrack removed the transponders from our bikes before the last session of the day, when he was finally starting to gel with the 848. “It’s too bad we didn’t have a transponder for this session, because I definitely went much quicker than I did earlier,” he noted.
2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
As it stands, the Ducati falls short of matching the lap times of the other two around a tight track. Note the undertail mufflers, which are 2 inches longer than on European-spec 848s.

2011 Triumph Daytona 675R
If this were a beauty pageant, we’d wrap things up here and call the Triumph Daytona 675R the winner. But alas, this comparison is more than skin deep, and if the Trumpet were to have any chance at winning this shootout it would have to perform as well as it looks.
We’re happy to report that, in many ways, it does. A theme we harped on about the Triumph on the street was its amazing agility. That surely isn’t lost on the track. Direction changes on the 675R are lightning fast and require little effort. At a tight and technical course like the infield section at Auto Club, this proved to be a huge advantage.
“Neither the Suzook nor the Duc could carve up the track’s tight sections like the nimble and small-feeling Triumph,” said Duke. Credit to that goes to the most aggressive chassis geometry, backed up by an Ohlins NIX30 fork and TTX36 shock – the most dramatic (and obvious) improvements to the R model over its standard variant. The 43mm fork is actually 5mm taller than the Kayaba units on the standard 675, which slows the R model’s steering ever-so-slightly, but in this company it has the quickest steering of the three.

2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
Carving corners and ripping up racetracks are just two of the 675R’s specialties.

As delivered, the suspension’s heavy-rate springs provided a ride much too stiff for our liking. But the bike was transformed into a compliant track weapon with a few adjustments. The amount of adjustability and the corresponding difference it makes is a product of Ohlins’ commitment to advancing suspension technology.

With agility and nimble feet being its greatest strength, where the 675R falls short in this trio is in the power department. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the machine with the least displacement delivered the least amount of power — 111.2 horsepower at 12,800 rpm. Torque, too, is smallest with 48.4 ft.-lbs. at 10,000 rpm, though its curve is pleasingly linear throughout the rev range. Interestingly, up until approximately 4800 rpm, the Triumph actually produces more torque than the GSX-R750. It lags behind after that, but not by much. This, combined with its racetrack-appropriate tall first gear, resulted in explosive drives out of slow-speed corners.
On track this linear powerband more than held its own against its two larger rivals. While tailing GSX-R750-mounted Duke, the Triumph stayed within a whiff of the Suzi’s exhaust fumes around most of Auto Club’s corners. Only on the front straight was the Gixxer able to stretch its legs and barely pull away. This disadvantage in power for the Triumph had an interesting byproduct, as our testers still managed to have the most fun aboard the 675R. “There is something intrinsically satisfying about holding a throttle wide open, and you can do it more often on this bike,” notes Kevin as to why he enjoyed the Triumph.

While the Brembo monobloc brake calipers, combined with its steel-braided lines and Brembo radial master cylinder, make quick work of scrubbing off speed, one puzzling anomaly I noticed during my first ride story of the 675R was a high-frequency vibration pulsing through the lever during especially hard braking, and it’s a condition we were able to recreate during our track testing. “It slightly spoils what is otherwise a fantastic brake system,” Duke says. Still, this didn’t upset the chassis during turn-in.
Other notables about the Triumph: in contrast to the Ducati and Suzuki, when aboard the 675R, one sits “on” it rather than “in” it. The 5mm taller fork tubes push the clip-on bars up slightly, but the pegs still rest rather high and rearward. This results in a seating position that’s not quite as track-oriented as the Ducati, but one still clearly focused on spinning laps. Pete felt “perched over” on the Triumph, with much weight on his wrists. This bothered him most under the strain of heavy braking. 
Further, the standard quick-shifter we enjoyed on the street proved to be a big asset on the track. When fractions of a second mean the difference between winning or losing, perfect full-throttle upshifts with just a flick of the toe are a godsend.
The Trumpet, despite being the uprated R model, is still sans a slipper clutch, though it is available as an accessory in the Triumph racing catalog. That said, none of our testers complained that it was missing. Triumph employs a clever trick wherein, upon deceleration, the fuel-injection system opens a throttle plate slightly to reduce engine braking, which helps calm the rear end similar to a slipper clutch.
We also had no complaints about the large tachometer which was easy to read at a glance. Progressive shift lights, too, are easily spotted in the peripheral while riding. However, the white-on-black LCD info panel was as difficult to read on the track as it was on the street.

2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
The harder we ride the 675R, the bigger our smiles become. It’s that much fun to ride.

For the trackday enthusiast, the smiles-per-mile factor is very high on the 675R. To put it bluntly, this machine is just plain fun to ride. Its handling is not only quick, but it inspires confidence as well. And there’s no better melody in motorcycling than a three-cylinder wailing at the top of its lungs. All three riders recorded their second-best lap times on the spunky little Triumph, though it should be noted that a long, flowing track would likely skew this result against the 675R.

2011 Suzuki GSX-R750

In this battle against European exotica, it’s easy to think the relatively bland Suzuki GSX-R750 would get lost among the crowd. But if there was one motorcycle that never suffered from an identity crisis, the venerable Gixxer 750 is it. The father of the modern-day sportbike, Suzuki virtually created the word upon the 750’s release in 1985. That heritage, and the lessons learned from all those years in racing, have culminated in the finely honed machine you see here.
We harped about the instant familiarity the GSX-R600 provides during our 600 shootout, allowing all of our testers to get up to speed quickly. With a larger-displacement engine wedged inside the same chassis, some of us wondered whether that balance we adored on the 600 would transfer over to the 750 on the racetrack.

2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
So familiar is Pete with the GSX-R750 that this picture was taken on his very first lap of the day. Okay, not quite, but we all quickly got up to speed on the obedient Gixxer.

The answer is a resounding yes. “Because I feel so immediately comfortable on the GSX-R750, my confidence is boosted and I’m ready to start riding aggressively right out of the gate,” writes Pete. Kevin, too, was delighted at how little time it took to feel comfortable at the Suzuki’s controls, noting how it only took him a few laps to scrape the footpegs at their lowest setting. Once we moved them back to their highest setting — which didn’t require readjusting the shifter or brake lever — ground clearance was never an issue. In contrast to the Triumph, you sit “in” the Suzuki, which has the least aggressive rider triangle of the bunch (relatively speaking, of course).

While it’s true that our GSX-R750 made the most power at the wheel between our trio (120.5 horsepower), we were surprised that the number was so low. In years past we’ve seen the middleweight Gixxer pump out five to seven more horses. Regardless, it’s still the horsepower king of the bunch, and from the saddle the Suzuki’s advantage over the others was obvious, especially down Auto Club’s front straight. Duke noticed 140 mph on the clock at the end of said straight, five miles per hour more than the next-fastest Ducati. Power comes on in a linear fashion, with a noticeable pull past 10,000 rpm that indicates the 750 is indeed stretching its legs. Throttle response is mostly smooth, though we noticed a slight abruptness when reapplying throttle, especially at slower speeds.
Another reason we’re big fans of the GSX-R750 is because whenever we come off it, we wish 600s could be this good. Whereas 1000cc sportbikes have gotten to the point that electronics are nearly required to tame the power, for mere mortals like you and me, the 750 has the right amount of grunt to satisfy our urges for speed without scaring the crap out of us. This balance proved useful at the track, prompting Kevin to write, “The Gixxer 750 proved to be very competent at this tight circuit, and I’ll bet quicker under me than if I had a Gixxer Thou.”

As far as handling goes, the Suzuki falls somewhere in between the Ducati and Triumph. Quickness and agility doesn’t quite compare to the 675R, while stability at full lean is lacking ever so slightly to the 848. That said, the Gixxer exhibits the same neutrality from its chassis that we enjoyed on the 600. Direction changes require a simple tug at the controls before the chassis seamlessly falls into place. While this characteristic suits a more flowing course, it was mostly a non-issue navigating through the tight switchbacks at Auto Club’s infield course.
Bumps are absorbed by the less prestigious though more-than-capable Big Piston Fork from Showa. The unit features full adjustability and is mated to a Showa shock with separate high- and low-speed compression damping. Initial setup on the Suzuki leaned toward the soft side, and it wasn’t until the pace picked up that some of our testers noticed the bike protesting. “As delivered the Suzuki’s suspension was better suited for the street than track,” Pete says in his notes. “Its softer settings eventually revealed themselves with an occasional squirm and wallow during corner exits or over rough patches of pavement in the track.”

Duke backed Pete’s feelings about the suspension, calling the street settings we initially set on the bike “a little too loose.” Personally, I didn’t mind the softer settings and actually enjoyed the bike moving around a little underneath me. However, the suspension’s full adjustments can provide more buttoned-down responses to suit most riders with a few simple turns.
By now you know that all three machines are equipped with Brembo monobloc brake calipers. The Suzuki, however, is the only one of the three not equipped with steel-braided brake lines, opting for rubber hoses instead. You would think this would be a major disadvantage on the track, but in reality we were surprised at how well they held up the entire day without any signs of spongeyness at the lever. In fact, I personally preferred the set of Brembos on the Suzuki as it allowed me to use more of the lever travel during braking, which suits my style.
It should be noted that the GSX-R is the only bike here that comes with a slipper clutch and it worked flawlessly throughout the day. Not that we taxed the clutch very much since the gearbox is one refined piece of kit. Shifts are crisp and precise even without a quickshifter like the Triumph. The gauges are easily read at a glance, with a big tachometer dominating the instrument pod. Also amongst the readouts is a gear-position indicator which was much larger than the one on the Triumph, another feature we liked about the Gixxer.

The Suzuki is also the only bike here with different power maps. While it automatically defaults to A mode on startup, giving it full power, B mode reduces power significantly throughout the rev range, giving it 675R-ish type feel from the saddle. A nice feature for the ham-fisted, it’s possible to give it a big twist of throttle in B mode while leaned over and not worry about spinning up the rear. A racer might appreciate this reduced power mode should they ever race in the rain.
So how good is the Suzuki? Trackday enthusiasts will no doubt appreciate the wide powerband of the Gixxer. Its familiar (and adjustable) ergonomics will also appeal to a wide range of riders. Get it on the track and it’ll steer with ease, stop on a dime and, depending on the circuit, even keep up with the literbikes. As far as laptimes go, you might have guessed by now that all three of our testers achieved their best lap time aboard the GSX-R750.

2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
At the end of the day, all three testers set their fastest times aboard the Suzuki.

In the face of Triumph’s race-bred suspension and the Ducati’s uprated engine, it’s interesting that the Suzuki stands among this crowd unashamed at the fact that its distinctive feature is that there’s no singular piece that stands out. Taken as a whole, however, the Gixxer’s advantage becomes clear — all the pieces of the puzzle work together in such harmony that quick lap times are a natural byproduct.
ConclusionWhen deciding a winner based on track impressions, there’s a qualifier one needs to take into consideration: purpose. What do you intend to do with the bike?
This is one of those tests where our hearts and our laptimes aren’t exactly in agreement. Make no mistake, all three machines are well suited for track duties, but to us a trackday is all about having a good time. Whether you ride alone or with your friends, the machine you’re on should give you a smile each time you ride it. And in that regard, all three of our testers gravitate towards the Triumph 675R. Its quick steering, nimble handling, linear powerband and, most importantly, distinctive personality remind us each time we throw a leg over it just why we enjoy riding on the track.
2011 Middleweight Sportbike Shootout - Track
As competitive as this field of three was at the racetrack, Suzuki’s GSX-R750 distinguished itself as a cut above each time we rode it.

But when it comes to track testing, the numbers don’t lie. Considering how each one of the testers went quicker on the Suzuki GSX-R750 than any of the other machines, that’s a testament to the Gixxer’s performance and Suzuki’s experience building track-ready weapons. Also earning consideration for the Suzi’s top ranking is the huge amount of aftermarket support for GSX-Rs.
And it’s for these reasons that we name the 2011 Suzuki GSX-R750 the winner of our Oddball Sportbike track shootout. This backs up the top spot it earned during our street evaluations as well. Congratulations, Suzuki.

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