Phillip Island, Kevin Schwantz, and the '06 GSX-R600

Howling into Doohan corner at close to 170 mph, no one can hear you scream. No one can hear the grocery list of X-rated expletives bouncing around inside my helmet either, as I roll off the throttle and hurtle into one of the most exiting, adrenaline-inducing moments I have ever experienced on a motorcycle. Stroking the brake lever, slipping down two gears and tipping into the insanely fast turn, the smooth tarmac rushes up to meet my rapidly disintegrating knee puck. Thankfully, somewhere in the madness, something sends a signal to my right hand to twist the throttle, as Turn 2 becomes the next piece of Australian real estate to come under attack.

Picking the bike up and getting back on the brakes I realize I’m not breathing, so I snatch a quick gulp of air before slipping down another gear and laying into the seemingly endless Southern Loop. At full lean, rolling on the throttle and forcing my eyes left as the beautiful Bass Straight comes into view, there is no time to admire the scenery. Arcing perfectly through the long, smooth corner and exploding out of the exit I quickly shift to third, then fourth before the next big leap of faith: Turn 3.

Shredding more plastic at over 130 mph, Honda corner is coming up too fast to allow the fear to even register, as the eight Tokico pistons in the front brakes get set on maximum lock-down. With the rear wheel wagging gently in the ocean breeze and one set of eye balls officially set on wide [email protected]#in open, a streak of blue slips by in my peripheral vision before diving into the tight right-hander.

This time I am sure the photographer can hear my lips flapping as I use another bunch of language my mother wouldn’t approve of, wondering how in the world anyone could be going that fast into a corner. Tipping in at my own snail pace, the question is quickly answered as I see the word “Schwantz” in bright yellow letters on the back of the fast disappearing leathers. Riding the new GSX-R750 at the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit, with Kevin Schwantz along to keep us honest, I can’t decide which is more impressive: The new Suzuki or the ex-World Champion’s mind-boggling abilities on a race track.

In an interesting twist to the usual press launch format, Suzuki chose to unveil two new motorcycles at the same time. With the new Suzuki GSX-R600 and GSX-R750 being very similar, I guess they felt it would be redundant to do two separate launches, especially with the test venue on the other side of the world. Riding the 600 first, we were allotted only three sessions on the world-famous Australian racetrack, with a further three the following day on the 750.

Firstly though, it was necessary to attend a tech brief as some comments about how alike the two bikes were going to be was being bandied about: Two days later, leaving black marks out of Turn 10 from the 750’s rear Bridgestone BT014, I had some very different thoughts about the two new bikes.

In the ever-increasing battle to trim weight, add horsepower, and re-invent styling, without losing sight of the brand’s identity, it is a wild thought that just two years ago we were freezing the family jewels out on the Santa Monica Raceway in Misano, Italy, testing the previous GSX-R600. A fantastic machine which gave very little to complain about during the test or our multi-bike shootout, here we are getting set to retire it as the newest rendition hits the track.

The tag line for the launch was “Top Performer” and I heard more than one stifled chuckle as the Japanese engineers attempted to pronounce these new Suzuki buzz words. With the 2006 GSX-R600 getting a new chassis, engine and exhaust system, as well as being completely restyled, this is obviously not a makeover either, this is a completely new model.

The new engine’s height is 20mm lower and length 54mm shorter, although internally it retains its 67mm bore and 42.5mm stroke: The same as this year’s R6 and CBR600RR for a displacement of 599.4cc. The engine is also titled forward, which moves the center of the swingarm pivot shaft towards the front of the motorcycle by 67mm, as well as being 16mm narrower, helped in part by a 5mm reduction in the distance from the crankshaft to the input shaft.

In total, the engine produces a claimed five extra ponies for a total of 123 crankshaft horsepower at 13,500 rpm. (Since MCUSA’s last Gixxer 600 produced 101 hp at the rear wheel, a bit on the low side from others we’ve seen, we predict the new bike to crank out something close to 109 horsies – Ed.). Spinning 500 rpm higher for a redline of 16,000 rpm, newly designed connecting rods hold forged aluminum-alloy pistons with 0.5 mm shorter piston skirts and an anti-friction surface finish.

Further reducing friction inside the cylinder walls, the rings are treated to a chrome-nitride coating to make them smoother and harder. The same titanium valves are still used, but the valve bucket diameter is now larger to work with the increased lift of the camshafts. These are made from new high-strength cast-iron alloy and are hollow for reduced weight.

A trapezoidal radiator is used to increase the GSX-R’s cooling capacity, which also reduces frontal area. Developed on Suzuki’s factory race bikes, the radiator’s curve allows it to be 70mm wider at the top while being narrower at the bottom and taller overall. Not surprisingly, it comes with an improved one-piece molded fan.

Behind the radiator, the header pipes now run 54mm closer to the cylinders, and end up running into the new, shorter under-engine muffler that lives lower and closer to the bike’s center of gravity. This is apparently to aid mass centralization, and it makes sense to not have a large muffler dangling out in the breeze. To facilitate this tighter fitting exhaust system, the oil pan shape has been changed, as has the shock linkage system.

On the intake side of the equation, the 2006 GSX-R600 boasts Suzuki’s Dual Throttle Valve system (SDTV). Inside each throttle body, two butterfly valves are used, the primary being opened by the rider with the throttle, and the secondary according to an Engine Control Unit(ECU) that takes readings from the engine’s rpm, gear position and what the primary valve is doing. This is said to improve low-end throttle response and torque, as well as increasing combustion efficiency. Considering the high rev ceiling, it is actually remarkable how tractable and usable this engine is at low rpm, fully validating the system.

For ’06 Suzuki has also moved to twin injectors instead of the previous single unit for greater efficiency. Receiving fuel for the majority of the time from the primary injector, the secondary unit kicks in when the ECU senses heavy loads at high rpm; a situation that improves racetrack performance. Of course there have been upgrades to the ECU also, and along with all the other electronic wizardry it also controls Suzuki’s variable exhaust tuning system (SET) valve that lives right before the muffler. Monitoring throttle position and engine speed, a servo-controlled butterfly valve opens and closes to increase back pressure at low rpm, and decrease it as the revs rise.

So with the power unit new, fresh, and bristling with technology, including a slipper clutch, it is no surprise that the chassis has been revised also. Firstly, with the shorter engine in place, the frame height was able to be reduced 25mm, which allowed the seat to be 15mm lower. The frame has been made shorter by some 15mm, although a longer swingarm keeps the overall wheelbase the same. The rake has actually been relaxed 0.5 degree, which results in 4mm extra trail, and presumably this was done with stability in mind.

The new, beefier looking swingarm is attached by the new linkage mentioned earlier, and allows the Showa shock to move in a smoother arc during compression. This new shock has received a lot of attention, with a smaller damping piston, smaller rod diameter and a shorter stroke, which reduces its weight by 15% and height by 15mm. What has not changed is the GSX-R’s 130mm of wheel travel. Adding to the usual adjustment options, the rear shock also comes with separate high- and low-speed compression damping for further fine-tuning. As is normal at press launches, the bikes came set up for us, and other than a couple of heavier riders needing a little preload in the rear the settings were spot on for Phillip Island.

In the front a Showa 41mm fork is used, compared to the previous 43mm set up. To maintain rigidity with the loss of diameter the wall diameter is thicker and friction has been cut for more precise wheel movement. It still maintains 120mm of wheel travel and is adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping. This new fork holds a lighter front wheel this year. Appearing externally to be identical, the three spokes are actually thinner for an overall saving of 100 grams of unsprung weight. The tire remains the same at 120/70-17 and comes wrapped with a sticky Bridgestone BT014 tire, while the rear remains a 180/55-17.

For ’06, the brake diameter change game continues, with the rotors growing from 300mm to 310mm, which probably balances out the wheel’s weight loss. These are still grabbed by a pair of radial-mount, four-piston Tokico calipers, and the extra disc diameter is said to give better braking feel. Reaching speeds approaching 160 mph on the new Six, lets just say they felt just fine to me when it came time to squeeze the lever. This part of equation is adequately covered, as on last year’s bike, by a radial-piston master cylinder with a six-position adjustable brake lever.

With so much attention applied to so many areas of the new GSX-R, it is no surprise the bodywork has undergone a major styling exercise, and this year’s bike is a lot slicker looking in my un-stylish mind. According to Suzuki it is supposed to be more “emotional,” however that is supposed to happen, but I have to say it does look a lot fresher.

Taking some styling clues from the GSX-R1000 it sort of builds on the theme and takes it off in its own direction, differing from the 750 only in some color changes on the bodywork and the forks. Up front the nose of the bike is sharper and the air ducts are moved 16mm closer together for improved aerodynamics. The headlights are vertically stacked, and the taillights are new LED units with integrated turn signals in the tailpiece. Up front the turn signals are located in mirrors.

Hopping on the bike for my first ride, I immediately noticed how the bike felt roomy as I adjusted the brake lever and familiarized myself with the controls. The footpegs are actually adjustable, but I didn’t feel the need to make any changes. Offering a total of 14mm travel up or back, this is a nice option as we all most definitely come in different shapes and sizes. In the cockpit area, gauges are similar in shape to the older model, although the analogue tachometer faceplate is white this year and the digital speedometer readout is larger. It also has a shift light and gear position window, which I found to be a real help for grabbing a quick double-check to see what gear the bike was in exiting turns.

At the start of each track session a lead rider would take each group of journalists on a couple of sighting laps. This was useful for those of us who had never seen the track, and also because it was the only time we got to ride the bike at anything less than full throttle. Pulling strongly from low down the rev range, from my seat of the pants estimation would say it is a good bit stronger than the R6 before you hit quintuple digits on the tachometer. As the speeds picked up, this definitely helped those times when I should have been a gear lower, and by session number three Phillip Island was unraveling through the windshield as the perfect motorcycle playground.

Honking down the front straight my initial feeling was confirmed, as it was easy to get most of my body out of the wind without feeling cramped up. For a bike that is physically smaller this year, the ride position doesn’t appear to be compromised one bit. Power is strong all the way through the range, with no real hit as it climbs toward redline. Just a strong, solid power and an intoxicating shriek from the muffler, which is easier to hear being closer to your lug holes (ears, in UK-speak)

All the important little details you need for fast laps are in place. Superb brakes with great feel, slipper clutch for those botched downshifts at 140 mph, and lighting-quick steering with no loss of stability. Howling into Honda corner, the hardest braking spot on the track, was so controlled, as I was able to run in deeper and deeper without problem as the laps unfolded. Then, exiting toward Siberia showed the bikes ability to get back on the gas before tipping into the next left.

Two gear shifts later running through the extremely fast Turn 8, or the ‘Hayshed’ as it is called, the bike was starting to run out a little wide, but it was the only place on the track I encountered this. Any problems this gave were soon forgiven though as I rolled off, dropped a gear without braking and slammed the bike on its side for Lukey Heights. As one of the most exciting corners on any racetrack around the world, coming over the blind rise hard on the gas leaned over as far as you will ever be is a huge leap of faith, and kudos to the bike for instilling bucket loads of confidence for this maneuver.

Packing up at the end of the day, the best way round Phillip Island etched fairly firmly in the gray matter, all that remained to do was get some rest to come back the following day to see how the 750 behaved. What I didn’t know at the time was how much this would reveal about the 600.