Slow way down, lean over and take a wide line to straighten out Turn 11, one of five first-gear hairpins that complicate the 3.4-mile Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Pick the bike up and twist the throttle to the stop on the 0.6-mile back straight, which is neither straight nor flat, but bends slightly to the right as it crests a small rise, keeping Turn 12 hidden from view. Upshift, upshift, upshift, faster, faster, faster, 100, 120, 140, 150, 160…161! OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod. Everything’s a blur, happening fast, scary-looking skid marks all over the braking zone. Pop up out of the bubble, get hit in the chest with the equivalent of Category 5 hurricane winds, squeeze the brake lever, pull harder, tense up, hold on tight. Everything comes back into focus, slow down hard and fast, downshift, downshift, downshift, knee out, set up for Turn 12, another first-gear left-hander. Oh yeah…breathe!
I lapped COTA as fast as my nerves and skills would allow, scuffing my knee pucks and creating balls of sticky rubber on the DOT race tires, but GP legends Kevin Schwantz and Kenny Roberts, Jr., as well as a few racer guys who work for other magazines, passed me as if I were sitting in the bleachers munching on a hot dog.
How did I end up here?
To say that the GSX-R1000 is important to Suzuki is an understatement on par with “Texans like beef.” The 1985 debut of the GSX-R750 marked the dawn of the modern sportbike, and in the three decades since the GSX-R line has evolved, expanded and won a boatload of championships. But the Great Recession of 2008 dealt the sportbike market, and Suzuki in particular, a serious blow. Development of the GSX-R languished while competitors from Europe and Japan catapulted into the lead with big horsepower and fancy electronics. Suzuki’s reputation was at stake. Top brass said, “Enough!” and marching orders were issued: regain the “King of Sportbikes” crown.
The 2017 GSX-R1000 is new from the ground up—everything from the engine and chassis to the electronics, bodywork and instrumentation have been reworked. About the only thing that carried forward was the Suzuki logo. And three versions are available—the standard GSX-R1000, the GSX-R1000 ABS and the GSX-R1000R, with higher-spec suspension and other goodies.
Launching the new GSX-R1000 was an important event, and Suzuki chose none other than the long April weekend when the MotoGP and MotoAmerica championships were double-booked at Circuit of the Americas, which looks fantastic with its bold stars-and-stripes paintjob lining parts of the track. The weekend saw Kenny Roberts, Jr., who won the 500cc GP world championship in 2000 on a Suzuki, inducted into the MotoGP Legends Hall of Fame. Factory Suzuki Ecstar rider Andrea Iannone placed a respectable 7th in the MotoGP race, while Yoshimura Suzuki factory rider Toni Elias won rounds one and two of the MotoAmerica Superbike season opener, notching the first wins for the new Suzuki GSX-R1000 on U.S. soil, and teammate Roger Hayden joined Elias on the podium. The GSX-R1000 hasn’t won a U.S. championship since its seven consecutive AMA Superbike titles from 2003 to 2009, but it has come roaring out of the gate for 2017 (Elias earned 1st and 2nd place finishes at the second round at Road Atlanta and currently leads the series).
After watching the races on Sunday at COTA—a world-class venue worth visiting to see, hear and feel top-level racing in-person—Suzuki reserved the circuit on Monday for the track portion of the GSX-R1000 press launch. When we arrived, a fleet of new Gixxers in 2017 colors (Suzuki’s signature Metallic Triton Blue, as well as Pearl Mira Red and two-tone Metallic Matte Black No. 2/Glass Sparkle Black) were resting on paddock stands in a garage that opened onto pit lane, their Bridgestone R10 DOT race tires nestled cozily in electric warmers (the OE tires are more street friendly RS10s).
Concisely summarizing what’s new on the GSX-R1000 isn’t easy, but here’s the gist. With a bigger bore and shorter stroke, the in-line four’s displacement has barely changed (now 999.8cc, up from 999.1), but a higher 13.2:1 compression ratio, higher 14,500-rpm redline, finger follower valve train, variable valve timing, throttle-by-wire and other improvements give the engine hellacious punch throughout the rev range—topping out at 199 horsepower at 13,000 rpm and 87 lb-ft at 10,800 rpm (claimed, at the crank).
Keeping all that power accessible and under control are three throttle response modes, a cassette-style, 6-speed transmission, an assist-and-slipper clutch and a six-direction, three-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that sends data to the new 10-level traction control system. The standard GSX-R1000 foregoes ABS to keep the price down (MSRP is $14,599, making it the least expensive 199-horsepower sportbike on the market), but it’s available on the ABS and R models (the latter also has a quickshifter and launch control).
The GSX-R1000 also has new bones, with a lighter, redesigned aluminum frame that rotates the engine back a few degrees, sharper steering geometry, a longer swingarm and a lower claimed curb weight (441 pounds, down from 448). High-caliber components include Brembo Monoblock radial-mount, 4-piston front calipers gripping 320mm T-drive rotors, fully adjustable Showa suspension, an electronically controlled steering damper and new, lighter six-spoke cast wheels shod with sticky Bridgestone RS10 tires. Rounding out the redesign is new bodywork that’s more aerodynamic and new instrumentation that’s fully digital.
What did I learn after 41 laps and 140 miles aboard the new GSX-R? First of all, COTA is a real bear. Its abundant hairpin corners and elevation changes made it challenging to stitch together smooth, flowing laps. Second, riding a state-of-the-art, nearly-200-horsepower sportbike like the GSX-R1000 is an amazing experience. Within the safe confines of the track, I savored the heart-pounding thrill of maximum acceleration, the graceful balance of dragging my knee at 100 mph around Turns 17 and 18 (which are more like one big, constant-radius corner) and the sudden deceleration induced by powerful brakes squeezing big rotors attached to wheels with race-grippy tires. Third, riding the GSX-R at my personal limit for lap after lap is exhausting. And fourth, the GSX-R1000 is much better than I am.
That last bit isn’t just a self-effacing comment. The GSX-R has capabilities far beyond what I can tap into, but within my abilities the GSX-R made me feel confident and able to push my limits. It feels light and nimble, with steering that’s incredibly precise. Any mistakes in line selection were my own, but I was always able to make corrections without fear of upsetting the chassis thanks to the taut but forgiving suspension. Power delivery felt direct and linear, with a serious rush in the upper rev range. In the most aggressive ‘A’ mode, I found it difficult to be smooth with small throttle adjustments in the first-gear corners, so I switched over to the more moderate ‘B’ mode and found my groove. And those Brembo binders with those gumball tires—man, what a combo. Like throwing out an anchor…a very precise anchor with good feedback.
The next day, Suzuki replaced the shagged R10 race tires with standard-issue Bridgestone RS10s and softened up the suspension. We logged more than 100 miles on the street in and around Austin, which was really just an excuse to ride out to Salt Lick BBQ for lunch, an otherworldly experience in and of itself. Other than a few high-speed sections, the city-and-country route would have been more enjoyable on a cruiser. Due to the GSX-R’s low clip-ons, most of us spent a fair amount of the ride with our left elbow on the tank to take the weight off our wrists. As a street bike, the Gixxer can be docile and user-friendly, but comfortable it is not.
Has Suzuki taken back the “King of Sportbikes” crown? We’ll have to wait until the end of the MotoAmerica Superbike season to find out. For now, I can definitely say that Suzuki is back in the hunt, and the new GSX-R1000 is worthy of its historic pedigree. Although it’s hard to recommend as a street bike, if you’re in the market for a new sportbike for track days or club racing, the GSX-R1000 is a potent choice.
2017 Suzuki GSX-R1000 Specs
Base Price: $14,599
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse in-line four, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 76.0 x 55.1mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 55.9 in.
Rake/Trail: 23 degrees/3.7 in.
Seat Height: 32.5 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 441 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.2 gals.
MPG: 91 PON min. / NA
Greg’s Track Gear
Helmet: HJC RPHA 11 Pro
Suit: Joe Rocket Speedmaster 6.0
Boots: Joe Rocket Speedmaster 3.0
Gloves: Joe Rocket GPX
Greg’s Street Gear
Helmet: HJC RPHA 11 Pro
Suit: Joe Rocket Ballistic Revolution
Boots: Joe Rocket Ballistic 7.0
Gloves: Joe Rocket GPX