Motorcycles, especially superbikes, have progressed a lot in the past 15 years. To try to quantify that evolution, we organized a face-off between a current state-of-the-art machine and a famous champion of yesteryear. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Somewhere along the line our plan went a little sideways, and boy did we learn a thing or two.
This idea spawned as an episode of CTXP, the idea being that with a 25-minute video we would have an opportunity to dig down a little bit and talk about the features we chase and the sacrifices we make when we choose a bike. For this experience we selected the 2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000 (aka the K5) because it is so often brought up in conversation as the king of showroom superbikes. It was developed at a time when even the big brands were still trying to figure out how to make a 1,000 cc sport bike that worked well. Suzuki stumbled upon the right ratio of bore and stroke in the engine and managed to combine it with a well balanced chassis. That meant a strong mid-range punch from the mill, proper power high in the revs and, most crucially, handling to match.
Within a few years, emissions regulations began to tighten in earnest and every high-performance machine became an engineering compromise. But not the 2005 Gixxer. In the interest of full disclosure, ours is a 2006, but we felt that was fair enough, considering the models were the same and this one had 55,000 miles on the clock when we bought it for $3,000 on OfferUp. Not just 55,000 miles, actually — 55,000 miles and a broken speedometer, meaning the odometer wasn’t adding mileage. In other words who knows how many miles it has truly logged?
My wrench-spinning colleague, Ari, put a fair amount of elbow grease into it by way of fresh swingarm and steering-head bearings, aftermarket rearsets and clip-ons, a fully rebuilt fork, a new shock, and a replacement brake system from rotors to master cylinder. Plus a new saddle. All in all, about $4,000 in parts, so it was probably a $7,000 Gixxer as we kicked off the test.
The opposite end of the spectrum, in our opinion, is the brand new Ducati Panigale V4 S. Yes, we chose it in part for the drama of the high price tag (around $28,000) but it also represents the cutting edge. It has the full suite of Ducati rider aids, which is extensive: traction control, slide control, engine-braking control, lean-angle ABS, dynamic damping in the fork and shock, adjustable throttle maps, and a bidirectional quickshifter. There’s even a nifty feature where the rear two cylinders of the V4 shut down at idle when the coolant temp is above 167 degrees F. It is the epitome of technology and advancement. At this point, I should say that if you haven’t watched the video yet, you should — it’s a fun way to spend half an hour, I think, and this article will still be here when you get back. Plus it will make more sense.
Finished? Excellent, I hope you liked it. That video took us a long time and cost more than we were supposed to spend, so if you didn’t like it maybe just lie to us so our bosses aren’t mad.
Needless to say, a lot of that episode of CTXP went just the way we expected. We actually signed each bike up on the same online dating service, to see which one garnered the most attention. The scene had to be deleted for time constraints, but suffice it to say nobody was surprised to learn that the Ducati was the winner. Or rather, that this particular Suzuki lost. The K5 GSX-R never won any awards for looks, but the one Ari chose is that special kind of ugly that only a homemade paint job can achieve. It might be hard to see in the photos but there are a couple of stickers that read simply “It’s lit” as well as a jolly roger or two. There is also a sticker that says “DGK” which one of our camera operators had to inform us stood for Dirty Ghetto Kids. It’s a real piece of work, where the Ducati is a real piece of art.
And, of course, when we researched how much engine heat is produced by each machine the Ducati proved that it’s as hot on the streets as it appears to be in the sheets. In general, over the few days we spent on the bikes we learned that they’re comparable as day-to-day machines. Even producing much less heat, the GSX-R is still fairly uncomfortable in the spectrum of motorcycling. And the throttle response isn’t great. But overall, the engine is terrific — lots of midrange and a classic sport bike sound. The Panigale is as adjustable as it is red, and the TFT dash is slick, which makes it more dynamic than ye olde Gixxere. Aside from tuning the throttle maps to suit your mood, though, all of the fancy things don’t make a huge difference practically. The big value add on the Ducati is the safety net of advanced ABS and TC systems, which are good to have for any street rider.
The bikes hit the track
Riding sport bikes on public roads is how most riders will use them, and everybody knows it, but people still want to know which one is fastest around a track. And we’re no different. By this point in our adventure, Ari would occasionally slip into Gixxer-Bro mode and start revving the Suzuki at a stop light just to taunt the expensive Italian stallion, or slur his speech and tell me the “1000” on the tail stood for one thousand horsepower. It became a playful subplot of our filming, how much this clapped-out GSX-R embodied the stereotypes of mid-2000s sport bike culture. But as we arrived at the track we were struck by a question: What if this is the first time this GSX-R1000 has been to a racetrack? It gave us a lump of mechanical sympathy in our throats to think about a 15-year life of wheelies and burnouts without ever really leaning over.
We didn’t know if it was true, but we couldn’t help but have a newfound appreciation for how excited the Gixxer would be if it could talk. Assuming the 214-horsepower Ducati would have every advantage on the track, Ari went the extra mile and fitted Pirelli superbike slicks to the Gixxer for our superpole session at Buttonwillow Raceway’s West Loop. In typical fashion for Southern California in July, it was hot at the track. Into triple digits, which meant the paramedics stayed in the van all day with AC on and I got a little nervous that the street-spec Pirelli Supercorsa SP rubber on the Panigale wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
After a quick warmup, we used a satellite lap timer to each do a five-lap time attack — the fastest single lap wins. I went first, and wrestled the couple hundred Italian ponies around for a time of 1:05 minutes. Ari went next, and as I watched him trail-brake deep into turn one my nerves frayed a little more. He looked more smooth and confident than I had felt. And when he came in, the times didn’t lie: The Gixxer’s fastest lap was 1:04. To say we were surprised is an understatement — a one-second delta is significant at the track, especially on a relatively short lap of around a minute. We were staggered, frankly, and had to change our whole schedule for the rest of the day in order to get to the bottom of it. Clearly there were a few things we had to align before this data meant anything.
Normally, Ari and I are within a few tenths when it comes to track riding. Under the circumstances we obviously needed to switch bikes to make sure there wasn’t a fluke afoot. Ari took the Panigale out and recorded a 1:05.9, slower than he went on the GSX-R — then I took the Gixxer for a spin and cut a best lap of 1:04.6, faster than my time on the Panigale. The next obvious issue was the disparity in tires, so we busted the slicks off and slid the identical Supercorsa SP rubber back onto the Suzuki’s rims. With our final session of the day Ari went back out on the GSX-R with street tires, and…? Dipped into the 1:03s.
I know, it doesn’t say great things about us as riders that the slicks didn’t make a difference, but more to the point we seemed to have determined that a 15-year-old GSX-R1000 is more capable around a track than a brand-new, flagship Ducati V4. Which can’t be right. Can it? Every other time Ari or I have ridden a Panigale V4 it seemed fast and enjoyable, as you would expect. This time it lacked feeling and precision entering corners; we just never felt good putting the bike all the way to the edge of the tire. And while corner exits on street tires always have to be delicate, we were getting slides and misbehavior even without being leaned over. It was time to put our journalist hats on and try to get to the bottom of this.
Crunching the numbers
First, we delivered the Panigale back to Ducati to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with it, or that the settings we used at the track were appropriate. We had played with a bunch of the suspension parameters and ride modes during the test, and felt confident we hadn’t screwed up royally. The technicians didn’t find any problems, and only had a couple of small adjustments to suggest for riding at the track.
Then we called an Öhlins suspension tech who works in the MotoAmerica paddock, contacted Pirelli to talk over tire compounds and pressures, and even got in touch with a MotoAmerica racer to see how his V4 is set up. The basic upshot to those conversations was that Ducati Superbikes often use swingarms that are not available to the public (fun fact), and that we had correctly monitored tire pressures at the track. One last tidbit came to the surface when we showed the Öhlins race manager a photo of the Panigale’s shock — an 85 N/mm spring, he said, seemed way too soft for track riding. Hmmm.
When Ducati helped us cross reference chassis setup data with other bikes in the lineup that we had experience riding, we were reminded that the Panigale V4 R uses a 105 N/mm shock spring. The real kicker is that the 2018 and 2019 versions of the Panigale V4 S used a 95 N/mm spring. None of us on the RevZilla staff attended the launch of the 2020 Panigale and that little piece of information had slipped by us. (Another curveball is that it rained the launch for the 2020 bike, meaning any U.S. journo who might’ve disliked the softer shock was probably happy to have more feel on a wet track.)
What did we learn?
We didn’t jell with the Panigale at the track, which may or may not have been the fault of a shock spring that didn’t suit the circumstances, but the fact that it was slower around the track does bring up the question of how good new bikes have become. In other words, if you’re only a good enough rider to extract the most out of a bike from 2005, what good does it do to have a bike made in 2020? Would all you accomplish be to worry about throwing a brand new bike on the ground?
The result of this test left us with more questions than answers, obviously, but all of this is to say if you want to go to the track and go fast you don’t need NASA-spec technology and an ultra-high price tag. We remain baffled that this old GSX-R hustled it’s ugly, splatter-painted self around a track the way it did, and to do it in the face of a Goliath like the Ducati Panigale was all the more surprising. And so our newest stablemate has been named David. Dave, for short.
So, are old bikes just better than new bikes? Are new Ducatis bad motorcycles? Of course not. The advanced technologies that live in new machines like the Panigale, and that trickle down into less exotic machines every day, make motorcycling safer and better. And for the love of Pete, this doesn’t mean we think a 15-year-old GSX-R is what every rider should buy. But, from an outright capability standpoint we did relearn an important lesson: Spec sheets don’t tell the whole story. Just because a bike has more of a specification that you think you want doesn’t mean it’ll be better at the thing you want to do.