The Edge - '09 R1, GSX-R1000, ZX-10R, Fireblade

A radical new R1 and a spanking new GSX-R taking on the mighty Fireblade and much maligned ZX-10R, the scrap for 1000cc supremacy is closer than ever...

In sportsbike-mad Britain, I think it’s fair to say that the annual 1000cc group test is the one we obsess about the most.

As much as working out which of the latest 1000cc bikes rules is a brilliant job, it’s also a bloody difficult one thanks to the efforts put in by our friends from the land of the rising sun.

Yamaha’s new R1 has perhaps been the most lauded bike of 2009. With technology taken from MotoGP with a revolutionary new crank and firing order, the weekly press has gone crazy for it. The other new kid on the block for 2009 is Suzuki’s GSXR1000K9. All new from the ground up, the Suzuki retains similar lines to its predecessor, but promises to deliver far more performance. Then of course, we have the two bikes that are coming to the end of their two-year cycle. Kawasaki’s ZX-10R and last year’s litre class winner, Honda’s CBR1000RR.

At Visordown, we want to make sure we give each bike a fair crack of the whip. For us, this means levelling the playing field by fitting all four bikes with similar tyres. In the case of this year’s test, we went for Dunlop’s excellent GP Racer tyres, opting for a medium compound front and a hard, endurance compound rear, which we knew would last the test and work in all conditions. Sure, we could have gone for an ultra-soft race tyre, but then that would be hardly indicative of the rubber you guys will ride on, day in and day out.

To keep things fair, we chose several venues. First, we went to Donington Park on a cold and overcast Tuesday with former GP racer, Niall Mackenzie. Then we headed to RJS Superbike at Mallory Park to have the bikes performance tested on the dyno, before spending the rest of the day collecting data at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, putting each bike through ten test runs to make sure we got accurate performance data. For many that would have been enough. Not for us it wasn’t.

A day was spent riding from James Whitham’s house in Huddersfield to North Wales, dodging Brunstrom’s Bobbies and generally enjoying the fantastic roads around Snowdonia National Park. This was followed by a day at the awesome Anglesey circuit, which was deemed absolutely necessary. This was then neatly rounded off with a monotonous motorway ride south, with lengthy city stints in London to give us a good idea of how these bikes stack up against each other on the roads that you’ll ride. More to the point, we wanted a definitive answer as to which one we would want in our garage.

Five days and 1,200 miles later, we reckon we’ve found a few answers…

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ZX-10R - pt 1


In a sterilised, danger-averse world, could the ZX-10R be the hooligan’s last bastion of two-wheeled expressionism?

“Life is like a box of chocolates”, whittered Tom Hanks’ whimsical character, Forrest Gump, in summer 1994. And he may as well have been talking about Kawasaki’s litre class contender over the last few years. “You never know what you’re gonna get” isn’t too far off the truth when it comes to Kawasaki’s most wayward son.

With the ZX-10R, you were always aware – sometimes painfully – that you were riding a 1000cc bike. All the while everyone else was trying to make 165bhp feel like 120, Kawasaki insisted on making sure the rider knew just how potent the ZX-10R was, making the Ninja a real weapon of choice for the hardcore road fraternity and a challenging “work in progress” for the race teams brave enough to take it on.

Save for a few detail changes, the ZX-10R remains unchanged for 2009, sharing the same cross-eyed stare and spec sheet as the 2008 model. So why does it feel so very different to the last one I rode?

I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Kawasaki has made a few subtle changes to the chassis and the engine management for 2009, as our test bike is without question the most civilised ZX-10R I’ve ever ridden. I say civilised, but you know deep down that, once the motor gets wound up, there’s still a yob element lurking below those green panels.

Imagine John Terry lashed up on Stella as the tacho needle sweeps past the nine grand mark not long after he’s had his pint spilled by William Gallas, and you’ll soon get the idea of the ZX-10R’s psychotic tendencies – when it wants to be a thumb-bashing, head-shaking lunatic, it really can mix it with best of them.

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ZX-10R - pt 2

Happily, it can also be a bit of a pussycat. At Donington, the ZX-10R turns out to be the real surprise package. Some of this is down to the fact that by happy coincidence the gearing is almost spot-on for the Leicestershire circuit, but much of it is the feeling of connection between the twistgrip and the rear tyre.

This feeling of connection inspires confidence, and while I know my lap times aren’t likely to win me any bragging rights, the feeling of complete control, as the rear tyre struggles to grip the cold tarmac, is worth a psychological second per lap. If you want a bike to win Superstock races on, then look elsewhere.

But if you want to know more about a bike that can etch an ear-to-ear grin across the most stoical faces, then please, read on…On the road is where the ZX-10R comes up trumps. Heading off the boredom of the A55 dual carriageway, towards Betws-y-coed, the ZX-10R isn’t the most

comfortable, nor is it the most well behaved, as we negotiate the bumpy switchbacks – but arguably it’s the most fun.

Get on the gas hard and as the turbine-like motor winds up to full torque, the bars wag and there’s a real feeling that something quite insane is about to happen.

It’ll wheelie out of third gear corners on a wave of torque all the while snarling through the airbox an induction roar so addictive, keeping the right side of the law is never going to be easy. In fact, apart from an unwillingness to hold a line at Anglesey (though it was without question, the best bike for laying down big black ones) and a slightly disappointing set of results at the test track, the ZX-10R isn’t a bad bike and was always the one we all nodded at with a nervous smile and a quick suck of the teeth after riding it.

The biggest problem for Kawasaki is that the other three make bikes too. And they’re better.

Second Opinion

Niall Mackenzie

Every new model ZX-10R I ride seems to feel different. While some have felt fast and exciting, others have felt uncontrollable and positively scary. However, our test bike felt surprisingly civilised and did everything I asked it to, while delivering a very satisfying riding experience. It’s as though Kawasaki has secretly tweaked the suspension or motor (or both) improving the whole package along the way. The engine felt more refined than before and I had no butt-clenching “headshake” moments. It is very close to matching the others in every way (totally blows the R1 away on looks) making it the biggest surprise of the day for me.

James Whitham

The ZX-10R is surprisingly civilised on road or track. Even with the steering damper dialled to it’s lightest setting, the bike only reminded me once that it’s seen as the bad boy of the bunch. On the road, hard on the power over fairly harsh bumps it only ever wagged it’s head slightly. On track I found it stable and comfortable.

The brakes are strong, with plenty of feel. The slipper clutch is as good as any on test and the bike turns in very accurately. Once in the bend though, the Kawasaki is the hardest of the four to keep on a tight line. The motor felt the most top end of the lot, was at its best kept above 8,000rpm and throttle to rear wheel connection was good.

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R1 - pt 1


It’s the bike that everybody’s talking about. But does an uneven firing order and a clever crank really make the R1 a winner?

As I write the Yamaha’s opening paragraph, I feel as though there should be some sort of fanfare emanating from my laptop, such has been the hype and hysteria surrounding this new bike. Indeed, Whitham very nearly punched me as I was halfway through saying “crossplane crankshaft” he’s that bored with hearing about it.

Regular readers may be aware that I didn’t exactly fall in love with the R1 when I tested it against Ducati’s awesome 1198S. I’ll be honest and admit that when I re-read it, I felt I’d perhaps been a bit harsh on the Yamaha and that stickier tyres and a few more hours in the saddle would make me change my mind. But if anything, I now feel totally vindicated.

In terms of sheer engineering, the Yamaha is very special and the engine is quite unique in the way it transmits the power to the rear wheel. But for me, a motorcycle is so much more than just an engine – the rest of it needs to be up to scratch, too. There was quite some debate about the R1 between Niall and I. Niall loves the R1 and we both know deep down that, with the right modifications to the suspension (indeed, the R1 was the only bike we spent any length of time fiddling with as it felt way too soft) and with the motor re-mapped and freed from the restraints of Euro 3 emissions and noise regulations, it could be a stunning package. But we’re testing the bikes as supplied by the manufacturers, exactly how you’ll buy them; not how we imagine they’ll be once we’ve spent another £2,000 on them.

At Donington the R1 starts to make a bit more sense and, despite the overly soft suspension, I’ve much more confidence in the front end since we ditched the nasty stock tyres. I’m getting used to – and even enjoying – the lack of engine braking.

But then it does what it did to me at Brands Hatch again and promptly fires me out of the seat the moment I get a bit keen on corner exit. Admittedly, it was a little cold and damp, but it hadn’t happened on any of the other bikes, so I have to work out what I’m doing wrong. It’s not until we get to Anglesey that it all starts to become clear.

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R1 - pt 2

Following an R1-mounted Whitham round the Welsh circuit on the CBR, wondering how hard he’s pushing and why I can keep up with him after years of watching him disappear after three or four corners, the Yamaha duly wipes its sizeable arse on the tarmac and fires him out of the seat coming out of Peel, a blind right hander that goes off camber on the exit.

Looking at the dyno graph, there’s a sizeable lump in the power delivery right where you don’t want it – when you’ve got the big girl right on her ear, mid-corner. The easy nature of the motor encourages you to tap on the throttle earlier in the corner – you need to be wary of the extra 12 horses that trot along, just when you don’t want them.

On the road, the Yamaha feels far less edgy than it does on the track. Its sheer size helps it to deflect the wind away from the rider as well as giving a roomy riding position. Where the suspension felt too soft for me to build any real confidence on the track, on the road it works well at soaking up the bumps, while the lazy nature of the motor means there is seldom the need to change gear. This apparent ease of use is all very well, but I find the Yamaha a little clinical and, for me, nowhere near as confidence-inspiring or involving as either the Honda or the Suzuki.

Forget the self-proclaimed experts telling you how deceptive the power is. At Anglesey the R1 was the only bike I could keep up with. Put Whitham on anything else and he absolutely smoked me as he disappeared into the great blue yonder. I’d say that speaks volumes.

Second Opinion

Niall Mackenzie

There has been a mixed reaction when it comes to riding the new R1, as some are saying it doesn’t feel fast and has strange handling. Personally, I disagree as I love the sound and feel of the engine and find this the most user-friendly 1000cc bike. Having less engine braking than the others takes a bit of getting used to, but the motor also encourages early throttle opening, which gives the rider more feel earlier in the corner. I found the standard suspension settings much too

soft for the track as there was too much weight transfer when braking and accelerating. Technically I believe this bike is definitely the future, I’m just not sure it’s quite the finished article and struggle with its appearance.

James Whitham

On the open road the smooth and predictable way it delivers the power make it so easy to use the torque. On the track it allows you to tap on the gas and get the bike driving earlier in the turns.

The only real problem I found was the ultra-tall first gear and lumpy low down fuelling. This wasn’t a problem on track, but on the road, especially in traffic, at junctions or during any low speed manoeuvres, it was hard work. Try setting off in second gear on any other sportsbike and you’ll get the idea. I found myself feathering the clutch all the time in an effort to be smooth.

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GSX-R - pt 1


Don’t be fooled by the uncanny resemblance to GSX-Rs of days gone by, the K9 is completely new for 2009...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Suzuki looks to have played it safe with the styling of a bike that in fact is completely new from the ground up. While Niall wasn’t too keen on Suzuki’s lack of imagination, I found myself drawn to the big Gixxer like a piss-head to a Vindaloo. If you haven’t read the spec-sheet absolutely inside and out, it’s very easy to be cynical that it’s just a minor update, but the GSX-R1000K9 is so much more than that.

The engine is completely new, yet it still feels and sounds the way a GSX-R motor should. There’s that same sense of reciprocating looseness from the crankcases, that distinctive resonation from the induction, up and through the air box. It feels much revvier than the competition, with peak power coming earlier than the others but with peak torque arriving later in the rev range.

This makes it superb for track work and while the motor is unmistakably GSX-R, long gone is the fierce bottom end delivery, which turned even the best riders into nervous wrecks on corner exit. Indeed, getting the throttle wound on hard off the apex is a far less sphincter-clenching affair than before, thanks to the smooth power delivery from the more compact motor, which has allowed Suzuki to use a longer swinging arm. And, as we keep being told by the chassis boffins, more length on your swinger, means more rear end grip.

Big piston forks are all the rage for 2009, and while the cynical side of my nature wanted them to be yet another sales gimmick, I can tell you that they work fantastically well. At Donington Park in less than ideal conditions the GSX-R gave me the most confidence to press on, such was the feel delivered through the front tyre from the top-notch Showa front end.

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GSX-R - pt 2

The new forks are quite pleasing to the eye too, with the compression and rebound adjusters sitting at the top of the anodised fork cap. But with the preload adjuster moved to the bottom of the fork leg, I can’t really see the gain and as for the rear shock, who decided to put that plastic panel in the way of the adjusters? These are small criticisms though, and over the two track days no one felt the need to get the tools out to fiddle with the Suzuki anyway. For racing types, it’s a problem that they’ll quickly solve with a Makita and an 8mm drill bit.

Away from the track, the GSX-R was the bike I wanted to be on most of the time. The fairing works as well as the R1’s carferry-like frontal aspect to deflect the wind and the riding position, while sporty, is still comfortable enough for miles but firm enough for feel. Okay, so the pegs are quite high, but they’re also adjustable (up, down, fore and aft), which means not only can the GSX-R’s comfort be tailored to suit, once you get to the track you’re not going to be dragging your blobs on the deck, like the Blade and the R1.

As with the ZX-10R, there’s a hooligan element to any GSX-R and the K9 is no different. It’s not just a precision piece of engineering designed to win races, it’s a weekend plaything for right thinking, red-blooded males. It’ll wheelie off the clutch in third (in fourth off a crest) and once up it’ll stay up. For ages. And that’s always bloody good fun.

In fact, there’s not much the GSX-R won’t do well. It’s comfortable over a distance, it handles as well on the road as it does on the track and while not the technological stride forward the R1 may still prove to be, for my money, the GSX-R is the easier bike to live with, if not quite as interesting. Rossi and Burgess may well have worked wonders to get the R1 where it is, but for now I’ll be sending my grateful thanks to Messrs Spies and Kagayama.

Niall said that the GSX-R1000 could be the dark horse for 2009. I reckon he just might be right.

Second Opinion

Niall Mackenzie

My launch report said this bike could be the dark horse of the 1000s in 2009. I totally stand by this, but I would still struggle to buy one because it looks the same as the previous model and does nothing for me when it comes to standing out from the crowd. Having said that, this is a brilliant bike and will run head-to-head on road or track with any of the opposition. The big piston forks give amazing feel and bump absorption, while the short wheelbase and long swinging arm give great feel and traction at the rear. The engine is as strong as ever although I found the throttle a little snatchy at the lower speed corners.

James Whitham

I can’t remember ever being disappointed when I’ve ridden a GSX-R, and this new one is no exception. Even though almost every component of the 2009 Gixer is new, even with your eyes shut there’s no mistaking which bike you’re on. The loose, revvy feel to the motor and comfortable riding position are typical Suzuki traits. On track it was the hardest to flick from one side to the other, but once in a turn it held a line really well with very neutral steering. Once the bike was off maximum lean it was easy to square off the exit and open the throttle really hard. The rear just digs in and drives forward. The GSX-R is a really capable all rounder, which I couldn’t see anybody being disappointed with.

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CBR1000RR - pt 1


Proving that often the best engineering solutions are the most simple, the FireBlade rocks our world for the second year running

In isolation, some might consider the FireBlade to be a little dull. Put the bike in a four-way punch up though, and all of a sudden you realise the Fireblade is the quiet bloke in the corner.

The smartly dressed, bespectacled highly trained martial arts expert with the killer instinct that’s simply gagging for someone to spill his Chianti, just so he can put his skills to good use. The Blade has that same air of serenity and calm combined with a veritable mass of confidence and capability.

Like most Hondas there’s nothing to get used to with the CBR. There are no quirks to get your head around. The riding position fits everyone and if anything, it feels almost too conservative to be much like a race bike. The smallest details are a Honda speciality though, and while Yamaha has the perfect opportunity to create a media maelstrom with their clever crankshaft and get engineers excitedly talking about inertial torque, HRC has long been pouring it’s own fountain of MotoGP knowledge into the Fireblade.

You don’t get the same sense of drama that you do with any of the other bikes. Even though the CBR1000 delivers more horsepower and more torque from pretty much anywhere in its rev range than the others, the competence of the chassis and the perfectly balanced riding position means it can be put to good use with an almost ruthless efficiency.

Some riders might say it’s a little lacking in soul, that it doesn’t have any character. What they’ve failed to spot is that because the Honda is so accomplished, it needs to be worked that little bit harder to get a reaction. Like that quiet bloke in the corner, it needs to be pushed.

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CBR1000RR - pt 2

Get the bike on the track and you’ll be staggered at what you can get away with. Tearing round Anglesey, for the first time in my life I was able to observe the greater-crested Whitham at close quarters in his natural habitat. While he was at work on the Yamaha, I was at play on the Honda, sitting comfortably and watching the R1 lose grip, while Whit skillfully dealt with it. Stick him or me on any other bike and he’d be past me and gone within four corners.

It matters not whether you’re a novice rider or an expert; the FireBlade will cosset you. It won’t punish your mistakes; it will help you to stop making them. Run a little deep into a turn and the bike won’t so much as frown, it’ll simply let you scrub off speed on the tilt and diligently wait for your next input to bring it back to a late apex. The Honda offers just as much excitement as any of the others – you just need to ride that little bit harder to find it.

To ride that hard on the road would be tantamount to premeditated suicide, but such is the competence of the Honda, the riding experience it offers at a more life-affirming pace still delivers plenty of thrills.

The suspension is by far the most balanced on test. Even panic braking rarely upsets the chassis. And though we couldn’t get our hands on the ABS equipped version in time for our test, the power, feel and control from the Tokico set-up left us wondering what kind of rider, looking at buying a bike like this, would need it anyway.

And that’s what you get with the Honda – a complete feeling of control from every component. Every twist of the throttle, squeeze of the brake lever, push of a handlebar and shove of a footpeg works with you and for you.

It’s as though it’s been programmed to speak a thousand languages, to understand what everybody wants from it regardless of how deftly or clumsily they ask for it.

There may be more sensational things happening elsewhere in the world of two-wheeled engineering, but if you want a machine that is quite simply the best 1000cc sportsbike ever built then the 2009 Fireblade is the only logical choice.

Second Opinion

Niall Mackenzie

I didn’t get over enthusiastic when this bike was first launched, but had my first sighting been of the stunning red white and blue HRC version my first impression might have been completely different. The riding position, for me, feels the least “race like” but apart from the hero blobs touching down everywhere, it works well giving positive rider control on track. The chassis and suspension deliver a rock solid feeling and the brakes are the most powerful in this class. It also has the most linear power delivery and seems the least prone to wheelie out of turns. I’d give the FireBlade top marks for being both beautiful and user friendly.

James Whitham

The Honda may not have a groundbreaking engine design or the awesome sound of the R1 but it’s still a bloody good motorbike.

Smooth, free-revving motor, great brakes and a poised, predictable chassis make this bike the most confidence inspiring of the four by some way. On the track, the CBR gives you the feeling that you could get things wrong and get away with it. Miss a turn-in point slightly or run wide and the FireBlade simply works with you and makes you feel safe.

On paper it may not be significantly better than the rest of the bikes in any particular area, but as a package the blade just works the best. I really enjoyed this bike.

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Conclusion pt 1


Every year there’s a new 1000cc bike to write about, such is the way of the two-year development cycle that the manufacturers have embraced over the past 10 years. For race teams, it’s a thorough pain in the arse – for us press pundits it’s an opportunity to fall in love all over again with the latest, hottest model to grace the streets.

This year, we have two new bikes in the somewhat bulbous shape of the R1 – a bike that, without a shadow of doubt, has brought a new lease of life to not only the 1000cc sportsbike class, but to the world of motorcycling as a whole. Meanwhile, Suzuki has perhaps played things a little safer with the GSX-R1000, but then quite often evolution is better than revolution, even if said revolution is smoother and has less inertial torque.

And of course, there are the bikes that are a bit old hat – bikes launched well over a year ago. Save for the tiniest of changes (the Fireblade has a new crank journal) the Honda and the Kawasaki remain unchanged for 2009. But let’s not write them off just yet, eh?

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Conclusion pt 2

These tests are all about opinion based on facts and findings. Not everyone will agree, but here at we’re confident that we couldn’t have done too much more in drawing our conclusions on these four.

Fourth place has to go the Kawasaki. For the simple reasons that it doesn’t go, stop and handle as well as the others. We are splitting hairs though, and the Kawasaki is a great bike to ride, which will make its owner very happy. If you’re a Kawasaki nut go ahead and go Kwakkers – just accept that it is the weakest of a brilliant bunch.

Controversially, we feel the Yamaha YZF-R1 rolls in third. While certain peers of ours will gasp in disgust, I can, with hand on heart, say this bike really does nothing for me. While I admire the engineering and understand why it can be of benefit, I just don’t think it’s quite finished yet.

Add to that a thirsty motor, expensive running costs (spark plugs are reputedly £300 a set and it practically ate its rear Dunlop) and looks that only a mother could love and it’s not too hard to see why the R1 isn’t at the top of our shopping list.

The runner-up spot goes to the GSXR1000K9. It just does everything so well with the minimum of fuss. Okay, it’s not cutting edge, but as a real world motorbike, which you can just jump on and enjoy, it’s one hell of a machine. If you’re looking for a blend of 1000cc versatility and fun, then go for the Suzuki and you won’t be disappointed. You never are with a GSX-R.

If on the other hand you simply want the best 1000cc bike that money can buy, then get yourself down to a Honda dealer. The Fireblade has no fancy mapping switches, no fiddly lap timers and a very conventional firing order. It quite simply doesn’t need any bells or whistles. It’s the fastest, most comfortable and best handling 1000cc machine on the market today.

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Control Tyres

Using a control tyre levels the playing field and means that we’re testing the bikes, with no variable in the level of tyre performance. Choosing the right tyre these days is incredibly complicated due to the amount of different tyres on the market. We simply asked Dunlop which tyre in their range would work well on the road, withstand being caned by two former GP riders over two track days and get us home again, even if it rained.

Their recommendation was that we tried the triple tread compound GP Racer tyres, a tyre aimed at fast road and track day riders.

The bikes were fitted with medium compound fronts and endurance compound rears. After 1200 miles of tortuous testing, the tyres were unsurprisingly heavily worn, but had still maintained their shape, weren’t squared off and, more importantly, still gave consistent levels of grip.

We were all suitably impressed even if the bikes’ footpegs weren’t. Log on to for details of your nearest dealer.


Price: £9,499
Engine: 998cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve inline four
Power (tested): 163.99bhp @ 12,000rpm
Torque (tested): 77.38lb.ft @ 8,750rpm
Front suspension: USD, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 310mm discs, radially mounted four-piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper
Wet weight: 208kg (claimed)
Seat height: 830mm
Fuel capacity: 17 litres
Top speed (tested): 179.1mph
Colours: Black, Green or White

Price: £10,103
Engine: 998cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve inline four
Power (tested): 159.64bhp @ 12,00rpm
Torque (tested): 79.01lb.ft @ 8,750rpm
Front suspension: USD, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 310mm discs, radially mounted six-piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper
Wet weight: 206kg (claimed)
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Top speed (tested): 178.8mph
Colours: Black, Blue or White

Price: £9,800
Engine: 999cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve inline four
Power (tested): 164.99bhp @ 11,500rpm
Torque (tested): 80.85lb.ft @ 9,750rpm
Front suspension: USD, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 310mm discs, radially-mounted four-piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper
Wet weight: 203kg (claimed)
Seat height: 810mm
Fuel capacity: 17.5 litres
Top speed (tested): 177.6mph
Colours: Double Blue/White or Black

Price: £9,821(£10,821 with C-ABS)
Engine: 999cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve inline four
Power (tested): 167.12bhp @ 12,000rpm
Torque (tested): 80.42lb.ft @ 8,750rpm
Front suspension: USD, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 320mm discs, radially-mounted four-piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper
Wet weight: 199kg (claimed)
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 17.7 litres
Top speed (tested): 181.5mph
Colours: HRC, Repsol, Black, Black/Silver (C-ABS only)