Doha, Qatar is well worth a visit, despite being halfway around the world. The people are friendly, they like Americans, and the modern city is essentially crime-free. But, it is Losail International Circuit's grippy and smooth track surface that makes the trip to the first stop on the MotoGP calendar so very much worthwhile.
When Kawasaki invited RRMC to test its all-new Ninja ZX-10R at Losail, naturally I was happy to go. The circuit is very fast, with front straight speeds approaching 180 mph. Most turns are at least a 90-degree radius, but because the track is so wide, they are typically taken in excess of 80 mph, rewarding those who have the judgment and courage to carry momentum.
American showrooms are now taking delivery of ZX-10Rs shod with all-new Bridgestone tires as original equipment. However, for this test—and especially for this track—Kawasaki chose to fit Pirelli's highly acclaimed race-compound Diablo Supercorsa tires. Although high-grip, I did find that the front squirmed somewhat under extreme braking loads at the end of the straight. The Losail asphalt is very abrasive and, therefore, hard on tires; high grip comes expensively.
On the second day, and as speeds increased, Pirelli fitted World Supersport-spec Supercorsas in their softest SC1 compound at the rear, and, up front, a new compound developed specifically for Losail. I found the rear had even more grip than the first day's tires, and the front tire had dramatically improved feel and stability, enhancing my confidence.
My thoughts on my first foray onto Losail's speedy surface were governed by my concern as to which way the corners went and judging my entrance speeds correctly. While resting after those initial sessions, it occurred to me how seamlessly the ZX-10R works, and how truly user-friendly it is. I did not have to worry about riding it; I did not have to fight it; the monstrous 192 hp was controllable and smoothly delivered. Of course, the power comes in quickly; but it is not frenetic or scary. Still, the front wheel will loft in the first two gears without hesitation if desired. New electronics monitor engine and vehicle speed 50 times per second; if the system detects an increase in rear wheel speed while on a constant throttle, it reduces power output slightly by slowing the ignition timing. Although not traction control, it is a high-tech way to reduce wheelspin in changeable grip conditions.
Handling has been enhanced by big changes to the ZX-10R's frame. Large holes on either side have been tube welded for rigidity. It is an interesting idea, reputedly discovered by the AMA teams during the 2007 season. Both the slightly lighter crankshaft and the 2mm-lowered swingarm drop the center of gravity, aiding cornering. Turn-in is spectacular; the big Ninja feels more like a 600 and can change direction on a dime. The revised frame stiffness and the new low-down exhaust also demonstrate how hard Kawasaki has worked on weight distribution and the centralization of mass. Handling was so responsive, so predictable; I never had any concerns about making a corner even when my own poor judgment had my entrance speed too hot. The ZX-10R is so neutral and so precise that I could place the bike within inches of my marks and graze apexes with my knee at will.
Revised linkage is used with the Kayaba rear shock, which has adjustable high- and low-speed compression damping; the Kayaba forks have compression and rebound adjustment. As my speed increased on the first day, I noticed the rear of the bike was squatting a little too much under hard acceleration. Squirting on to the main straight in second gear, the rear balance bias caused the front wheel to come up and induce headshake. It was not disturbing enough to back off the throttle, but it was tough to control and fatiguing. In the apex of Turn 1, also in second, I discovered mild understeer as I came back on to the gas.Dialing in an additional quarter turn of high- and low-speed compression damping, plus a half turn of rebound into the shock, I found the front end settled down nicely and the issues were cured. Because the bike pitched less it was less physically demanding to ride, and the front-end push was gone too. Sweeping through turns the ZX-10R never got out of shape and gave excellent feedback. What I was left with was a shockingly fast, supremely smooth and yet easy to ride motorcycle.
On the front straight and optimistically trying to emulate the MotoGP superstars, I tried to brake at the beginning point of the candy-stripe curbing. It looks easy on TV, but with almost 180 on the clock and a tight-ish hairpin turn to follow, I simply could not get my head to follow my heart, even though the new Tokico brakes with 310mm wave rotors (up from 300mm last year) worked flawlessly. The new aluminum rotor carriers weigh less, saving critical unsprung weight. The calipers now use two pads instead of four for increased initial bite. Applying a healthy handful of braking slowed the 394-pound machine in time for me to make it into the tight Turn 1. The excellent slipper clutch gave me plenty of engine braking without causing any chatter or rear-wheel hop under severe downshifting.
Designer Keishi Fukumoto's angular styling treatments and high-tail stance give the ZX-10R an aggressive look with an aerodynamic package that works exceptionally well. In the high-speed windblast, I could easily tuck in behind the windshield; even Losail's notorious afternoon crosswind did not upset the bike.
The Ninja's ergonomics also play an integral part in Kawasaki's quest to give the rider better feel. With several improved contact points between the rider and bike, I felt completely comfortable as key touch points on the gas tank, frame sides and the seat rear combined to give me feedback on how the machine was behaving. Gripping the tank with my knees under hard braking into the two hairpin turns was less fatiguing, helped stabilize the machine, and gave me confidence in what was happening with the front Pirelli.
Kawasaki's efforts to create a controllable precision instrument with maximum power have clearly paid off. Its outstanding new Ninja ZX-10R is a compact package with superbike power—a spectacularly capable motorcycle that I felt at one with. As Pirelli so eloquently say: "Power is nothing without control." Kawasaki has achieved exactly that.