You need to make a new flagship sportsbike and you need it to beat all its rivals. Where do you begin? This is how Kawasaki created its new ZX-10R
The 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R has met with widespread critical acclaim from test-riding journalists everywhere. Launched to the world’s media in November 2010, at Losail in Qatar and at Road Atlanta in the USA, the 2011-spec ZX-10R was a completely new bike, as different from the 2008 and 2006 models as from the original 2004 bike.
As ever with a major new model, there were a number of teams working on different areas of the bike, all under the auspices of the project leader, Atsushi Ueshima. Yoshi Masuda was in charge of the chassis development, Ohno-san was the fuelinjection leader, and there were Japanese technicians from Bosch working on the ABS brakes, as well as Bridgestone technicians developing the standardfi tment tyre, the BT-016. We mention only the heads of the various departments; you can imagine how many people are involved in such a project.
While it’s all fine and dandy to have engineers crunching numbers, using sophisticated Finite Element Analysis programmes allied to computer simulations, three-dimensional modeling and so on, there have to be riders actually sitting on the bike, reporting real feedback to the engineers. Theory is nice and computers help take out some guesswork, but real miles ridden by real riders are essential.
There was a small group of Japanese test-riders doing arse-numbing miles on road and track, doing lots of donkey work – checking wear rates on various parts and broad ‘directions’ on the early versions of the new bike. But, to give a European angle, ex-racers Tobias Schading and Pere Riba were involved (as well as an American tester). Talking to Spaniard, Riba, you get the impression that, if you cut him in half, he’d have ‘Kawasaki’ printed all the way through him like a stick of rock. He probably has green blood. Riba raced Kawasakis in British and World Supersport and has been a Kawasaki test and development rider even before he stopped racing in 2007.
The feedback from Schading and Riba is manifest in how the 2011 ZX-10R rides and feels. Yes, there’s the project leader, the chassis team, the engine team, the ergonomics and style department and the suspension crew, but the men whose backsides were in the seat, whose hands were on the throttle, the riders soaking up crucial feedback, were Riba and Schading. We’ve always been curious about the genesis of important, expensive bikes, so we spoke to Kawasaki’s test-riding duo to fi nd out more. Where did it all begin? German-based Schading has to think for a second, since he’s working on other, newer bikes now.
“Oh… [thinks]… I think middle of 2009. I saw some sketches for the 2011 bike early in 2009 and then I received the info about the bike, the target KHI had set itself, in mid-2009. I did the fi rst test on the bike in October 2009 at Autopolis, Kawasaki’s track in Japan.”
And even that, right there, is a revealing insight into the birth of a supersports bike. Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) set itself targets for the bike – as in, how it had to perform and where it had to sit in relation to the other bikes in its class.
“Always, we compare: compare with old one and compare with the best bike, which at the moment is the BMW S100RR,” states Riba, without any hesitation, “Our aim is to beat BMW in superstock and, to do that, you have to make a good bike. And this is a good bike!
Both Riba and Schading – who were interviewed separately, days apart – were clear about the KHI target for the ZX-10R project. Riba couldn’t have been any more explicit about it: he (and Kawasaki) insist that the bike was designed and built to dominate on track and be a decent road bike – in that order. As a former worldlevel racer and a man still very close to Kawasaki’s racing efforts, Riba was the ideal man to help create a track-focused bike, while Schading was the figure looking out for us “normal” road riders. And herein lies the paradox of developing a supersport bike: different riders want to nudge or drag the project in different directions, while the team leader has to try and fi nd a compromise between departments and riders. Racer-oriented testers want specifi c things that don’t always suit a road-bike. So how diffi cult is it for a rider like Riba to hold back his racing instincts when working on what has to be – fundamentally – a roadbike?
“A lot of the R&D engineers in the ZX-10R group thought a lot about the supersport ZX-6R beforehand, as a race-bike. But at the same time but we cannot ever forget that these bikes are built for, and must sell to, people who ride them on the road, not just the track. You have to fi nd a compromise, certainly with this bike. After we’ve done that, then we start another project, which is all about racing the 10R.”
It’s still a tricky situation, and there are compromises as well as, you sense, compromises within compromises. Much has been made of the new shock placement, pivot-point and linkage on the new ZX-10R, seen previously on the out-and-out roadbike, the Kawasaki Z1000.
“When we designed the new ZX-10R linkage, I tested it and my opinion, for the racetrack, I would choose another type of linkage that gives better…positioning or more help in some points – a little bit. In the end, KHI changed the link a little more but decided this one was more comfortable for riding on the road. We know that, for racing, we can change the rear shock linkage and, for the race team superbike, we’ve already changed the link,” smiles Riba
Schading, although an ex-supersport racer, has a similar take. “Pere is really honest, and sometimes the Japanese will ask him about something, about the style or look of the bike, and he’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t care. What do you want me to tell you? I’m faster with this bike as it is, so, you know, I don’t really care.’ [laughs] For me, even although I raced in the past, I’m more oriented towards the ‘normal’ customer. So the engineers will ask me about vibration, or how is it or, if you feel vibration, where is it, and at what speed? Is it cruising speed on a French motorway or on UK roads? I’m really not focused on my lap times; my focus is on the road because maybe 90 per cent of the customers for this bike will never go to a racetrack.”
It’s something of a cliché to say that the Japanese do things a little differently from Europeans and Americans. The Japanese way of working, with its deference to authority and social relations, can make it diffi cult for workers to say things that could upset their superiors. As you can imagine, working in a large team, each with own agendas, can complicate matters. Is that something Schading is constantly aware of?
“For sure, their [Japanese] culture and behaviour is really different from ours, but if I have a feeling that some area of the bike is going in completely the wrong direction, then I will say, ‘OK, I think this is wasting money and wasting time’ and they say, like, ‘Hmm, OK, we will think about this.’ And really, they know and agree that we are going in the wrong direction but they would never say it openly. But, we have different teams for different bike projects and it was mostly the same guys who were working on the 10R, and with some riders and engineers, things are a lot more open and they talk more openly about what they feel are problems. It depends how long you know the engineers. Overall, though, I’d say the younger people are a lot more open about criticism.”
Given that Kawasaki has struggled with its fl agship supersport bike since the ZX-10R fi rst saw the light of day in 2004, there was a lot riding on this bike. A lot. The dissolution of its MotoGP Ninja project freed up staff and fi nancial ‘resource’ to work on the bike, and everything but the kitchen sink (or Japanese equivalent) was thrown into the mix. The European testers’ feedback, so important in ‘tuning’ the bike for the European market, was more important than ever.
“For this model, there was one main point, from the start: the KHI guys and the main testers said that we want to be one group. It’s not Kawasaki USA or Japan or Kawasaki Motors Europe – it’s one group. So we are all one team and we want to have the best results by sharing information and being really open. This project was really special,” insists Schading.
Riba agreed that, more than has been the case with any other bike he had worked on in recent years, the 2011 ZX-10R project was highly collaborative. “In Japan, there is someone in charge of the engine development and another person in charge of the chassis, that’s their job, although they understand about each other’s jobs. But it always happens that there are two lines, two teams – engine and chassis – but for this bike, very importantly, they worked like one, you know. And it’s very important because the chassis will react differently, depending on how the power is delivered. You need to create a chassis for the power, and the way the power is delivered by the engine – so the engine guys need to work with the chassis team too. They really worked, from the start, to build this bike together. I’ve been working with Kawasaki for a number of years now, and the technology of KHI is really, really, really high – of course, not just in bikes. And with this bike, they really tried to incorporate some of the technological know-how that KHI has.”
When the bike fi nally makes it off the production line, complete with its tweaked valve train (see news story), we’ll know whether Riba, Schading and the rest of the engineers and test-riders succeeded in reaching their target – building the best bike in the supersport class. For the moment, the jury is out, though there’s a KHI designer in Kobe already sketching the next one...