Riding Kenny Roberts Jr.'s Championship-Winning Suzuki RGV500

Our man sees Phillip Island from the sharp edge of Junior's scalpel–and it scares him!

cycle world feb 2001 magazine layout
The new King’s horse: 2000 World Champion Kenny Roberts shows how it’s done on an RGV500. CW’s Ienatsch, meanwhile, awaits his ride, knowing the bike comes standard with a data-acquisition system to record every move–bad or good! Stay calm...Cycle World

Nick's laptop is on the fritz so we dug up this retro story for your enjoyment. He'll be back next week with a brand new installment!

Halfway through my 14 laps aboard Kenny Roberts Junior's world championship-winning Telefonica MoviStar Suzuki RGV500, Roberts himself gave me a little insight into 500cc Grand Prix racing by sliding past my left shoulder while exiting fourth-gear Turn 12. His right knee missed my handlebar by about 4 inches as his bike squirmed and shot away. Then he catapulted down the 185-mph front straight toward Phillip Island's money corner, Turn 1. I'd asked him earlier to hook up with me for a few laps, and here we were. He looked over his right shoulder and jerked his head as if to say, "Come on, slow boy!"

The approach to super-fast Turn 1 wouldn’t be so frightening if it weren’t for the fact that this Suzuki seems to accelerate as hard in fifth and sixth gears as it does in second. The big right-hander is invisible from the front straight, and popping over the brow of the hill at 185 (okay, I could only muster 175) is an exercise in faith, bowel control and heart strength.

While at the Australian GP here the previous weekend, I’d intently watched the world’s best motorcycle racers pour through this very corner, because on Friday Roberts told me this: “Turn 1 is the difference between a good lap and a great lap here. When I turned a 1:31 in testing, I had just passed Alex Criville and run down to 1, closed the throttle, backshifted twice and flicked it in there–no brakes. The front pushed, I caught it on my knee, picked up the throttle and knew it would be a 31.”

Roberts’ amazing feat really hit home as we screamed under the Qantas bridge and hurtled down the hill. My brain said “stay with him,” but my right hand ignored the message and went to the brake lever 50 yards before Roberts even came out of his tuck. Team technical advisor Warren Willing later chuckled as we reviewed one of the many data-acquisition charts generated from my laps. “That’s okay. It’s just self-preservation. Good idea.”

The Turn 1 experience accurately defines the first impression a mere mortal receives from Roberts’ 500: overwhelming. Sure, it looks a lot like the sportbike in your garage, but just sitting in the hot seat brings the utter purposefulness of a 500cc GP bike into focus. There is nothing extra on board, no added beautification or pieces not explicitly aimed at lower lap times. Like his dad, Junior runs his clip-ons at a steep downward angle, and the ridges are ground off the ends of his grips to reduce pressure points. The large tach sits next to a simple digital lap-time display and smaller digital water-temperature readout. And that’s it. Function rules the day. When you watch the mechanics wash the entire bike with soap and water, you realize that rust is simply not a problem because carbon fiber, aluminum and titanium don’t rust. It’s hard to imagine what the bike cost, but most estimates place it near $1 million. That’s just as overwhelming as the hardware itself, and I tried not to think about it as Roberts rolled out of the throttle and waited for me between Turns 1 and 2.

Phillip Island’s second corner bends left over a hill, and you can’t see the apex or exit as you enter in third gear. Roberts flicked in at about the same place I had during my first seven laps, but then ran much higher mid-corner before slicing down and across the track to the downhill exit. I followed his high mid-corner line…and my heart leapt into my throat as the previously invisible outside edge of the track rushed toward the front Michelin slick! There were two choices at that instant: Stand it up and run off the track or bend the bike down to a previously untried lean angle and hope for the best. I chose the latter and made it through. In the space of about 20 yards I freaked, froze, leaned and survived. I’m not sure, but I think I heard the Suzuki laughing.

Not surprisingly, the dry-track design parameters of the RGV500 never included somebody running 8.7 seconds off the pace at Phillip Island. I lapped in the 1:42s (compared to the race's quick lap of 1:33.3), so I simply wasn't loading the tires and suspension hard enough to receive strong, positive feedback. "Yeah," Roberts told me later, "but also you're not in tune with the amount of feedback. You have to raise your ability to sense what the bike is doing." With KRJR leading me through Turn 2, I took another step in the seemingly limitless progression of learning this bike, and had a front-row seat to watch the 2000 World Champion in action. He snapped the bike out of the corner in third gear, wheelied down the hill through two more gears and quickly disappeared. Apparently, he was bored with my pace and intent on finishing the scheduled suspension tests.

Roberts' comments spoke to my streetbike background. I only raced my Yamaha TZ250 twice this year and most of my racetrack time has been aboard streetbikes, so my brain and body have become accustomed to lots of feedback from street tires and relatively soft chassis. And, sorry to burst any bubbles out there, but even the best street-going sportbikes–your YZFs, CBRs or GSX-Rs–couldn't hope to prepare the senses for a GP racer. Hey, I've even lapped aboard Carl Fogarty's Ducati, and a Superbike simply isn't in the same league.

The RGV’s throttle response and its relationship to steering was a revelation. Case in point: Turn 12, the above-mentioned final corner, a fourth-gear left-hander that sweeps onto the long front straight. On a streetbike or a 250cc production racer, you would accelerate toward the corner and turn the bike in with a reduction in throttle to help the bike steer, but then get back to a very small throttle opening to maintain your momentum and balance the bike. This technique is based on the premise that a bike slows down considerably when you reduce throttle.

When we compared my throttle-position graph to Roberts’ through Turn 12, it was clear he closed the throttle completely to allow the Suzuki to steer down to the apex. He then picked up the gas and accelerated off the corner with a relatively smooth throttle application. My graph clearly showed that just when I should have been accelerating onto the straight, I was busy screwing the throttle on and off and running wide of the apex–all because I hadn’t closed the throttle enough in the first place, which would have allowed the bike to fall into the apex. I simply hadn’t counted on the sheer, mind-bending acceleration of a 500 at even partial throttle.

Just before my ride, Willing told me that the RGV makes 75 percent of its maximum torque at only 25 percent throttle. “You won’t be using full throttle at many points around the track,” the Aussie warned, “so don’t feel as if you’re not doing the job by using partial throttle in a lot of places.”

The validity of that advice was illustrated by more post-ride data. “By the time Kenny comes back on the throttle,” Willing said, pointing to the graph from Turn 12, “he’s at a point which will allow him to make a smooth progression out of the corner to full throttle. What the riders don’t want to do is interrupt that throttle progression (as I had). Every time you do that, you put a different force into the bike and anytime you interrupt that (rearward) weight transfer, you risk making the rear break away. You might be rolling out of the throttle to add lean angle, but the rpm is still going up and horsepower is still increasing.

“It’s a three-dimensional thing,” Willing continued. “You want to transfer weight (onto the rear tire), increase power and decrease lean angle, all as an interaction. When you interrupt that progression of straightening up the bike you risk spinning the rear wheel.”

A bike that keeps accelerating even when you’re rolling out of the throttle? Further proof that this is a whole different animal.

Into this mix we must add the Suzuki’s incredible front grip. My streetbike brain couldn’t imagine a front tire sticking this well, so my throttle hand twisted on just a bit to unload the front in an attempt to keep it from pushing. But that’s not how the RGV is designed to work­–you turn the throttle on when you want to get out of the corner, not through it. And so Roberts closes the throttle to allow the bike to point down to the apex, which is a technique that relies on exceptional front grip. This is the “balance” that Roberts and Willing have been talking about all season. Roberts’ throttle graph showed he was using both ends of the bike hard, modulating between front and rear weight loading using throttle. And, by the way, he’s doing all this while carrying 10 more mph than me through the apex of Turn 12.

My first experience with Brembo carbon brakes proved to be a love/hate relationship. Or perhaps a love/fear relationship. The fear came from the immense power–all only a light one-finger squeeze away. On one lap, I just about spit myself through the windscreen entering a corner. I’d goosed the Suzuki out of Turn Three and it jumped toward the Hairpin like a tennis ball off a tightly strung racket, shocking my right hand into panic. Roberts told me to use just one finger, but the fright of the fifth-gear acceleration was so overwhelming that I dabbed the lever too hard and the incredible acceleration was suddenly replaced by the equally frightening prospect of riding along on only the front wheel! Combine a 53-inch wheelbase, carbon brakes and a 290-pound motorcycle with a novice’s overzealous grab of the stop lever and you’ll find fear.

But the love came from the Brembo system's incredible feel. As I smoothed out on the lever, the brakes rewarded me with millimeter-by-millimeter information updates. I truly valued them while trail-braking into the two first-gear corners on the Island. It's a shame I scared myself so bad on that third lap into the Hairpin, because the braking power seemed absolutely limitless as I regained my courage during the next few laps. And I wasn't the only one impressed with the Brembos. Suzuki's last 500cc World Champion, Kevin Schwantz, who hopped on the RGV and lapped at 1:37.0, told me the brakes were the most outstanding change since he last rode. "I remember squeezing the lever really hard to stop that well," the Texan drawled, thinking back to his AP Lockheed setup of seven years ago. "Man, that thing is one finger and right there!"

After expending so much mental and physical energy simply lapping the track, I was left with one question: How do you race this thing? The upped aggression and adrenaline levels of competition would be lethal if they infected your right hand, because any quick moves with throttle or brake will either hurt you, your lap times or both. It wasn’t until I smoothed my weight transfer between corners that the bike quit wobbling!

Even from the clouded view offered by lapping 9 seconds off the pace, it’s clear to me that the top level of roadracing is still 500cc Grand Prix, whether you’re describing the scalpel-sharp motorcycles or the experts who wield them. If you think Kenny Roberts and his ilk are heroes… you’re absolutely right.