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MotoGP Kawasaki: Just Beginning Its Real Development

It has been a tough debut for Kawasaki’s MotoGP effort. The very first MotoGP race for the team at Motegi, Japan, ended when the Kawasaki’s rear wheel stepped out suddenly while entering a corner on the 6th lap, sending rider Akira Yanagawa off in the ambulance. Injury to his hip required surgery, ending his season. With three races left in the 2002 MotoGP season, Kawasaki needed to continue on-track development to gain valuable knowledge about machine settings for a competitive setup at the start of the 2003 season.

Kawasaki was scrambling to find a rider with suitable experience to develop the bike. Harold Eckl had a phone number of someone he knew. Enter Andrew Pitt. Pitt won the 2001 World Supersport championship on the Kawasaki ZX-6R, a bike considered by many at the time to be a dated design, against newer and more competitive machinery. He didn’t win a race all season, but finished every race, and almost always in the top 10, if not on the podium positions. Development of a new motorcycle rewards consistent speed as much, or more than, record-setting speed. Andrew Pitt’s performance in the 2001 World Supersport showed he has good speed, and great consistency.

It was an offer he couldn’t refuse – ride the new MotoGP bike, give feedback, and no other pressure. He rode smart and consistent, staying on two wheels to give the team insight on the bike’s performance while coming to grips with a motorcycle he’d previously only heard about, let alone seen or even ridden, at a track he’d never been to before. At the final race of the MotoGP season at Valencia, Pitt scored the first MotoGP points for the Kawasaki team and himself. His 2002 performance pleased Kawasaki, so 2003 will see Pitt return to the MotoGP paddock as the second rider on the Kawasaki MotoGP team.

As momentous an occasion as the Valencia GP was, the team needed a more experienced rider for the ZX-RR. Kawasaki needed someone from the MotoGP ranks who could give more in-depth feedback to take the bike’s development in the right direction. Hiring Garry McCoy over from the 2002 Red Bull Yamaha WCM squad may be just what the team needs.

Kawasaki is understandably very excited about having McCoy on their bike. He brings a wealth of knowledge about how a MotoGP bike should feel and behave at race pace. He has experience mainly on two-strokes, on the 125cc/250cc and 500cc GP racers. His rear-wheel steering technique, which was developed and refined while racing speedway bikes prior to his roadrace career, might have to be kept in check on the mega powerful ZX-RR. A motorcycle developed around such a technique would only be useful if all riders rode it the same way. As this second test (for him) progressed, all settings for steering geometry and suspension were changed and tested, but McCoy and Pitt concentrated mostly on the swingarm geometry and pivot position.

Alex Hoffman is a test rider for the Kawasaki MotoGP team. During the 2002 season, he was a guest rider for West Honda Pons and Red Bull Yamaha WCM and had a season best finish of 10th in Germany at the Sachsenring on the West Honda Pons NSR500. He’s been testing the latest Dunlop tires and slipper clutches on a carbureted version of the ZX-RR.

Dunlop, Kawasaki’s tire sponsor for MotoGP, has vowed to have competitive rubber for the team by the start of the 2003 season. After being dumped by the MotoGP Suzuki team a few races into the 2002 season, I have no doubt about their motivation to do just that, if only to avoid repeating the embarrassment they suffered earlier this year.

Yanagawa has recovered from his Motegi race injury, and is now back in the saddle, giving feedback on changes to the ZX-RR. His main duty at the Sepang test was to find the optimum settings for the fuel injection. Kawasaki is using throttle bodies with flat slides in the bores, rather than the familiar and widely used “butterfly” valves. The flatslide design offers a clear path for the air entering the intake tract at wide open throttle.

The less powerful two-stroke engines were found to be spending very little time at wide open throttle for a given lap. It would seem that the more powerful four-stroke engine will spend even less time at wide open throttle. If this is the case, then Kawasaki’s choice of F.I. throttle design is a curious one that may have other advantages which haven’t yet been explored.

It appears that Yanagawa will continue in the role as a test rider during the 2003 season, but undoubtedly will be ready to fill in should either McCoy or Pitt become injured and unable to ride. These three riders, with varied backgrounds, styles and experience levels, should give the Kawasaki race department plenty of the information needed to transform their MotoGP entry into a machine that fights for the podium, not just points. The riders will be testing new parts and settings when the team goes back to the Sepang circuit January 15-17.

After a 20+ year absence from the GP grid, Kawasaki’s GP return adds more depth and color to the series. It is nice to see a little green out there.