Comparison Test: 2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R, Aprilia RSV4 RR, and Yamaha YZF-R1 | Sport Rider

Comparison Test: 2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R, Aprilia RSV4 RR, and Yamaha YZF-R1

Three Ways to Win

If MotoAmerica’s production-bike-based Superstock 1000 class has proven anything this year, it’s that the current crop of literbikes are closer than ever in terms of performance. In 2016, there have been four different race winners, in just as many race weekends, on different brands of motorcycles—something we haven’t seen in years. The three bikes that have won races thus far—the Aprilia RSV4, Yamaha YZF-R1, and Kawasaki ZX-10R—coincidentally are the three models of bikes tested here.

Kawasaki's new Ninja ZX-10R meets Aprilia's RSV4 RR and Yamaha's omnipotent YZF-R1.

Kawasaki's new Ninja ZX-10R meets Aprilia's RSV4 RR and Yamaha's omnipotent YZF-R1.

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We’re all, of course, familiar with Yamaha’s R1. Introduced last year with its revamped powerplant, MotoGP-inspired electronics package, and all-new chassis, both the standard and upscale M versions won our two literbike shootouts (“Best Yet,” Aug./Sept. ’15, “Electronic Warfare,” Dec./Jan. ’16).

Aprilia’s RSV4 was similarly updated last year as an early-release 2016 model (“Heroes Made Here,” Aug./Sept. ’15). It has features like Aprilia’s aPRC (Aprilia Performance Ride Control) electronic package that helps manage the claimed 201 hp at the crankshaft of its updated engine.

Aprilia RSV4 RR

Although not quite as capable as the Öhlins components on the RF model, the RSV4 RR’s Sachs fork works admirably well. Race ABS works seamlessly, even under harsh racetrack usage.

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Meanwhile, Kawasaki’s 2016 ZX-10R is Team Green’s answer to those bikes. Updated extensively for this year, its biggest claim to fame is the development it has gained from Kawasaki’s successful WSBK efforts. The new bike includes features like Showa’s Balance Free Fork and revised engine internals among other updates, which we sampled at Sepang in our first ride piece earlier this year (“R Is For Racer,” April/May).

More information about each bike:

In the spirit of MotoAmerica’s cutthroat competition, we gathered all three of this year’s race-winning motorcycles and threw them into our annual literbike comparison test. After wringing their necks at the racetrack, tearing through the canyons, and subjecting them to the daily commute to and from our office, it still wasn’t easy to choose a winner.

Aprilia RSV4 RR Dash

While we love that Aprilia is one of the last few holdouts with an analog tach, the LCD info panel looks rather dated now. Some of our testers complained about the sharp edges on the top of the fuel tank on the racetrack.

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Test notes of Aprilia RSV4 RR
Test Notes
+ Super-strong, torquey engine
+ Excellent electronics package
- Could lose a few pounds
- High effort in transitions
X How far is your nearest dealer?

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Track
Willow Springs International Raceway’s original 2.5-mile road course was chosen as the testing grounds for this comparison. With an array of scary-fast corners, including the 140-plus-mph turn eight, “The Fastest Road in the West” (as the Southern California circuit is dubbed) is the perfect place to let these 1,000cc machines really cut loose in order to showcase their monstrous horsepower. But before any rubber touched tarmac, we mounted Dunlop Sportmax GP-A Pro DOT race tires (see sidebar, page 30) to all three motorcycles to ensure the grip quotient was equalized.

The Kawasaki was the first to grab our attention and for good reason; the balance and feel of the 2016 chassis proved to be shockingly impressive as the pace picked up. The Showa Balance Free Fork and shock provided an excellent sense of stability and feel through both front and rear tires around the racetrack. It’s worth emphasizing how confidence-inspiring the Showa fork really is: More than once we thought we were coming in too hot when braking deep into Willow’s notorious turn one, but the Kawasaki remained planted and, unlike us, didn’t seem flustered in the least.

Similar words can be said about that of the Aprilia’s chassis. Like the Kawasaki, the RSV4 was incredibly stable and yearned for a racetrack full of big, fast corners—like Willow Springs. But where the Aprilia lacked in comparison to the Kawasaki and Yamaha was side-to-side transitions. A combination of the RSV4 feeling heavy and a lack of feedback from the front end kept us from flicking the motorcycle between transitions as quickly as we could with the other bikes.

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R

The ZX-10R’s Showa Balance Free Fork is our new favorite among sportbikes, with outstanding performance in literally all areas. Brakes also work superbly, with Kawasaki finally fitting top-shelf Brembo components

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Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
Test Notes
+ Balanced chassis and handling
+ Superb suspension and brakes
- Lack of midrange
- Electronics not as sophisticated
X A well-balanced package that is fun to ride

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The R1 was by no means lacking in handling performance. We found the Yamaha to be right smack in the middle of the ZX-10R and RSV4 in terms of front-end feel, and the R1 felt the easiest to make transitions. The KYB front and rear suspension allowed for positive feeling through the contact patches of tires, though we could find the limit of front traction earlier than on the Kawasaki.

It was easy for us to believe that the R1’s powerplant was head and shoulders above this year’s competition. The engine allowed the R1 to jump off the corner faster than the Aprilia and especially the Kawasaki. The Yamaha gains the advantage from its ability to create power at low revs. That better low-end grunt allowed us to slingshot off the corners and ultimately carry more top-end speed at many portions of the track.

In comparison to the R1, the Kawasaki and Aprilia both struggled to keep even as they had unwanted “dead” spots in the rev range, the Aprilia’s below 10,500 rpm and the Kawasaki’s below 9,000 rpm. Aside from not delivering the acceleration we had hoped for, this further resulted in a difficulty of gear choice. Below 10,000 rpm on either bike left us wanting to downshift another gear in the transmission, which wasn’t always possible. This inconvenience frustrated testers in a few areas of the racetrack, but a simple aftermarket gearing change may correct the issue.

Ninja ZX-10R dash

We usually dislike bar-graph tachs, but the ZX-10R’s LED setup with different colors at various points is actually growing on us. The Kawasaki’s ergos were the comfiest of the three, but at no point does that impinge on its performance.

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The R1 continued to shine on corner exit due to its MotoGP-inspired electronics package. The edge comes from the electronics’ ability to limit wheelspin, slides, and wheelies while still allowing the motorcycle to drive forward off of the corner in a near-flawless manner. We’re not saying that the ZX-10R’s electronic package or the aPRC system on the RSV4 are subpar, but they can’t match the remarkable consistency and precision of the Yamaha.

Although the Kawasaki lacks in outright speed, scrubbing it off isn’t a problem for the new ZX-10R. Most testers found the Ninja’s Brembo Monoblock four-piston calipers paired with 330mm discs to provide the best balance between braking power and feel. Everyone agreed the Yamaha and Aprilia might have had the same magnitude of braking power as the ZX-10R, but the feedback through the lever wasn’t quite as good.

Even though the Aprilia’s praised stability allowed the RSV4 to take the second fastest lap time (see page 40 for data analysis) of the day, it was agreed by our testers that on a tighter racetrack, where wide-open corners are limited and more switchbacks would be present, that the Aprilia would struggle to compete. Combine that with a number of other faults in fit and feel, and we decided the RSV4 would take the bronze medal for the racetrack portion of our comparison.

Between the Kawasaki and Yamaha, it’s the ZX-10R that came away with racetrack honors, in terms of lap time as well as subjective scores. Sure, the Ninja might give up some midrange to the R1 and doesn’t have the same sophisticated electronics package, but it makes up for it with an incredibly balanced-feeling chassis that was the most confidence-inspiring of the three bikes to ride. Would the results be the same on a tighter racetrack? Maybe, maybe not. But everyone agreed the Kawasaki was the most fun to ride, regardless of lap times.

Yamaha YZF-R1

The KYB suspension on the R1 provides excellent performance—as long as you’re riding at racetrack speeds. While the brakes work well and provide good power, feel is just a bit lacking compared to the others.

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Street
Although all three literbikes have tall first gears inherent in their close-ratio transmissions, the R1’s is by far the tallest and requires a good amount of clutch slip to get off the line smartly. On the opposite end, the Kawasaki’s first gear is comparatively short, and despite a lack of midrange with the new engine, the ZX-10R pulls off the line with little effort. Meanwhile, the Aprilia straddles the middle ground between the two.

And not that anyone would consider any long-distance rides on these three, but it’s worth mentioning that those riding the Aprilia and Yamaha will be needing to keep a close eye on the instrument panel for the low fuel light. Both are very thirsty sportbikes, and it would be advisable to make sure there are no more than 120 miles between gas stops. That said, the ZX-10R isn’t a whole lot better on fuel range either when the throttle gets a workout, with the reserve fuel light coming on around the 135-mile mark.

Yamaha YZF-R1 dash

We’ve already waxed eloquent on the R1’s well-lit TFT dash display that provides a wealth of information in an easily readable context. Aerodynamics on the bike are excellent, with little buffeting felt when you tuck under the windscreen on the straights.

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As far as finding an acceptable compromise between compliance over gnarled city pavement and chassis control in twisty canyon roads, the Kawasaki’s Showa Balance Free Fork and shock provided the best middle ground. The Yamaha’s KYB suspension always feels a little on the harsh side unless you’re riding at racetrack aggression levels (which you really shouldn’t be on the street), and the Aprilia once again strikes the middle ground between the two, with a bit less compliance than the ZX-10R but not as stiff as the R1. Ergonomically, the street nod went to the Kawasaki as well, with its nicely angled bars and seat/peg relationship not nearly as taxing on the body as the Yamaha’s aggressive race-oriented riding position or the Aprilia’s comparatively awkward-feeling flat/wide bar angle and seat/peg relationship (interestingly, some complaints were voiced about the RSV4’s ergos at the track, with the wide fuel tank and even footpeg positioning receiving some gripes).

Once into the canyons, it became clear that the new ZX-10R’s engine would be playing second fiddle to the Yamaha and Aprilia. The Kawasaki’s lack of midrange is glaringly evident in the more restrictive environment of public roads, with less steam on tap coming off corners than the R1 or RSV4 RR. And while the dyno chart shows the Aprilia having a distinct advantage over the Yamaha nearly everywhere, that’s not the case out on the street; the RSV4 makes much of its power as it nears full throttle, which you’re rarely at on a literbike on twisty public roads. Meanwhile, the Yamaha is squirting away with a revvy midrange that rockets the bike off corners and down the straights with very little effort.

Yamaha YZF-R1
Test Notes
+ Exceptional engine, chassis
+ Class-leading electronics
- Hard-core race ergos
- Brakes could be better
X Still a potent literbike weapon

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With regard to overall handling, there were a lot of pros and cons to each bike. For example, the RSV4 RR feels the most stable in nearly all situations, from accelerating over bumpy pavement to carving a corner at max lean angle. But it pays for that stability by requiring the most muscle to make direction changes, especially in switchbacks that require lifting the bike up from max lean on one side to the other. The Kawasaki is more agile than the Aprilia and, just as on the racetrack, has a confidence-inspiring feel when leaned over, aided by the better compliance of its Showa Balance Free suspension. But the ZX-10R is nowhere near as flickable as the Yamaha, which literally feels like a 600 in all aspects. On the flip side of the R1’s agility though is a harsh-feeling suspension that can get a little choppy over rough pavement.

Outside of the all-out braking (and better tarmac) environment of the racetrack, the braking on all three bikes on the public pavement was exemplary. When it came down to splitting hairs, the R1’s binders required the most effort for their stopping power, with the Kawasaki and Aprilia fairly even in their effort and power. Still, the ZX-10R’s feel and feedback—even at less aggressive use than at the racetrack—was just a smidge better (perhaps it should be noted that our ZX-10R was a non-ABS unit, while both the R1 and RSV4 RR come standard with ABS).

Conclusion
Like most of our supersport comparisons these days, this one was a tough contest to call. Each bike has its advantages and disadvantages, and taking all performance facets into consideration was a difficult task. For example, there’s no denying the Aprilia’s superb overall performance; given free rein to really stretch its legs, the RSV4 RR can definitely generate some speed. But in this company, its slightly sluggish handling and heavier weight aren’t cut any slack. And the Yamaha continues to dazzle with its excellent handling, wonderful engine, and still-class-leading electronics. But the R1’s single-minded focus on racetrack performance can be a grind on the street.

Kawasaki made some major improvements to the ZX-10R, and many of the issues we disliked about the previous generation were addressed with the 2016 model. While we weren’t too fond of the lack of midrange on the new edition, the gains on all other aspects of the Ninja make a huge difference in its overall performance—enough to come out on top of a very competitive class in our book.

Aprilia RSV4 RR Suggested Suspension Settings:
Front:
Spring preload—5 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping—9 clicks out; compression damping—6 clicks out; ride height—2 lines showing above triple clamp
Rear:
Spring preload—6mm thread showing above preload lock ring; rebound damping—14 clicks out from full stiff; compression damping—2 turns out

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Suggested Suspension Settings:
Front:
Spring preload—10 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping—3.25 turns out from full stiff; compression damping—3.5 turns out from full stiff
Rear:
Spring preload—3mm thread showing above lock ring; rebound damping—3.25 turns out from full stiff; compression damping—1 turn out from full stiff

Yamaha YZF-R1 Suggested Suspension Settings:
Front:
Spring preload—7 turns out from full stiff; rebound damping—6 clicks out; compression damping—15 clicks out
Rear:
Spring preload—6mm thread showing above lock ring; rebound damping—9 clicks out from full stiff; high-speed compression damping—3 turns out; low-speed compression damping—10 clicks out
Dyno chart for RSV4 RR, ZX-10R, YZF-R1

Although on the dyno the Aprilia looks like it has a midrange torque advantage, in the real world where you’re not always at full throttle it’s not really the case. In fact, where the RSV4 looks like it has midrange on the R1 on the graph, on pavement the Yamaha pulls bike lengths on the Aprilia anywhere below 8,000 rpm.

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Specs
Bike Aprilia RSV4 RR Kawasaki ZX-10R Yamaha YZF-R1
MSRP $16,499 $14,999 ($15,299 KRT Edition) $16,490 ($16,990 60th Anniversary Yellow)
Engine
Type Liquid-cooled, DOHC V-4, 4 valves/cyl. Liquid-cooled, transverse, DOHC inline-four, 4 valves/cyl. Liquid-cooled, transverse, DOHC inline-four, 4 valves/cyl.
Displacement 1000cc 998cc 998cc
Bore x Stoke 78.0 x 52.3mm 76.0 x 55.0mm 79.0 x 50.9mm
Compression Ratio 13.6:1 13.0:1 13.0:1
Induction Marelli single valve 48mm throttle bodies, dual injectors/cyl. DFI, 47mm throttle bodies w/ oval sub throttles, dual injectors/cyl. Mikuni EFI, 45mm throttle bodies w/ YCC-T and YCC-I, dual injectors/cyl.
Chassis
Front Suspension Sachs 43mm inverted fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7 in. travel Showa 43mm inverted fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.5 in. travel KYB 43mm inverted fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7 in. travel
Rear Suspension Sachs shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 5.1 in. travel Showa shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.5 in. travel KYB shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7 in. travel
Front Tire 120/70R-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP 120/70R-17 Bridgestone Battlax RS10FL 120/70R-17 Battlax RS10FG
Rear Tire 200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diable Supercorsa SP 190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone Battlax RS10RL 190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone Battlax RS10RG
Rake/Trail 25.0º/4.1 in. (105mm) 25.0º/4.2 in. (107mm) 24.0º/4.0 in. (102mm)
Wheelbase 56.5 in. (1435mm) 56.7 in. (1440mm) 55.3 in. (1405mm)
Seat Height 33.0 in. (840mm) 32.9 in. (836mm) 33.7 in. (855mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.9 gal. (18.5L) 4.5 gal. (17.0L) 4.5 gal. (17.0L)
Weight 468 lb. (212kg) wet; 439 lb. (199kg) dry (all fluids, no fuel) 449 lb. (204kg) wet; 422 lb. (191kg) dry (all fluids, no fuel) 441 lb. (200kg) wet; 414 lb. (188kg) dry (all fluids, no fuel)
Fuel Consumption 30-37 mpg, 31 mpg avg. 32-39 mpg, 35 mpg avg. 29-35 mpg, 30 mpg avg.
Performance
Quarter-Mile 10.23 sec. @ 147 mph 10.29 sec. @ 146 mph 10.36 sec. @ 147 mph
Roll-Ons 60-80 mph/2.99 sec.; 80-100 mph/2.80 sec. 60-80 mph/ 2.83 sec.; 80-100 mph/3.02 sec. 60-80 mph/2.92 sec.; 80-100 mph/3.30 sec.

Ratings
Bike Aprilia RSV4 RR Kawasaki ZX-10R Yamaha YZF-R1
Fun to Ride 8.5 9.0 9.0
Quality 9.0 9.0 9.0
Instruments and Controls 8.5 8.5 9.0
Ergonomics 8.0 9.0 8.5
Chassis and Handling 8.5 9.0 9.0
Suspension 9.0 9.5 9.0
Brakes 9.0 9.5 8.5
Transmission 9.0 9.0 9.0
Engine Power 9.5 9.0 9.5
Engine Power Delivery 9.5 8.5 9.0
Ratings Total 88.5 90.0 89.5

Kent Kunitsugu
Age: 55
Height: 5'8"
I’ll admit I was bit surprised to find myself quickly right at home on the new Kawasaki. The chassis feel is communicative yet not too harsh for the street, and the suspension is the best non-Öhlins componentry (and actually, I prefer the Showa BFF fork) I’ve ever ridden on. Only the engine’s lack of midrange puts me off. The Aprilia RSV4 RR has basically the same excellent package as the RF model we tested last year, even if the Sachs suspension isn’t quite Öhlins-spec. But my biggest gripe with the RSV4 is its weight and how that mass affects the handling; the Aprilia takes more of an effort to make a direction change, and you can feel the weight when flinging the bike around. I still can’t help but be seduced by the Yamaha’s stunning capabilities. Its breadth of adjustability for both electronics and chassis means you need to spend some time getting them dialed in, but the reward when you do is worth it. The R1 is still my pick for best literbike.

Michael Gilbert
Age: 19
Height: 5'7"
Picking my favorite motorcycle of the three isn’t easy. It’s mainly due to the fact that my same childish grin comes out when I’m riding any of them. Lucky for me, I always have the darkest face shield possible to save me from embarrassment. But as we’ve seen with the MotoAmerica Superstock 1000 results, any of these bikes can win at the top level. And after days of testing on and off the racetrack, I can tell you this holds true with any kind of riding. So what’s my choice? Team Green’s ZX-10R. The newest-generation Ninja catches me with its rideability and fun factor. The Kawasaki lacks in power, but it really doesn’t need it. It makes up for it with its impressive chassis balance and strong but linear braking power that boosts confidence. Confidence makes it fun, and the Kawasaki was by far the most fun motorcycle to ride, making it my pick for this year’s literbike comparison test winner.

Willow Springs Track Map

Turn 1 Segment Time: Aprilia: 7.07 sec., Kawasaki: 6.93 sec., Yamaha: 7.04 sec.
Turn 2 Segment Time: Aprilia: 14.42 sec., Kawasaki: 14.28 sec., Yamaha: 14.41 sec.
Turn 3–5 Segment Time: Aprilia: 22.60 sec., Kawasaki: 22.33 sec., Yamaha: 22.82 sec.
Top Speed Back Straight: Aprilia: 153.0 mph, Kawasaki: 152.7 mph, Yamaha: 150.1 mph
Top Speed Front Straight: Aprilia: 159.9 mph, Kawasaki: 156.8 mph, Yamaha: 161.7 mph
Turn 8 Apex Speed: Aprilia: 115.8 mph, Kawasaki: 118.3 mph, Yamaha: 118.3 mph
Turn 8–9 Segment Time: Aprilia: 18.64 sec., Kawasaki: 18.41 sec., Yamaha: 18.34 sec.
Turn 9 Apex Speed: Aprilia: 88.6 mph, Kawasaki: 90.2 mph, Yamaha: 89.7 mph.

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Willow Springs Data Analysis
Poor Michael’s first week on the job and we throw him to the wolves to ride literbikes on the ultra-fast Willow Springs Raceway, all under the watchful eye of our AiM Solo GPS lap timer that records speed, lateral and longitudinal acceleration, and a host of other useful data for analysis. The graphic here shows the track layout with each bike’s segment times for the important sections, as well as icons representing the relative distance between the bikes at several points. Looking at the sector times, speeds, and other data, here’s what we found out:

Lap Times
Aprilia: 1:26.635
Kawasaki: 1:26.421
Yamaha: 1:26.832

While the lap times are close with just four-tenths separating the Kawasaki (quickest) and Yamaha (slowest), and the Aprilia sandwiched almost exactly in the middle, conditions did change as Michael recorded his fast laps on each bike with the wind picking up quite a bit. This can make a big difference at Willow, as speeds are high and typically suffer on the front straight from the strong headwind. The Yamaha was ridden first, then the Aprilia, with the Kawasaki last, and this order is reflected in the top speeds on the front and back straights with increasing wind gusts as time went on.

Taking the wind into account, the Aprilia and Yamaha have the edge in top-end power and speed. The Aprilia has the fastest speed on the back straight and is just a couple of miles per hour shy of the Yamaha on the front straight. Combining these numbers with speeds attained in other parts of the track, the Kawasaki is noticeably down on steam compared to those two. “It lacked power in the low rpm,” Michael said of the ZX-10R, “but when it was revved up it wanted to run. I think if it had more low-end, it would be the ticket.”

Turning to segment times, the Aprilia starts the lap off strong with a good run down the front straight, but from there the ZX-10R takes over with the quickest segment times through to turn five. At the exit of turn five the ZX-10R has pulled a gap of nearly a full second on the Yamaha and almost three-quarters of a second on the Aprilia, eked out bit by bit at every corner entrance. “The Kawasaki’s front end was definitely the best,” Michael noted, “especially in the slower stuff. I could find myself coming in too hot to a corner, and it seemed to steer exactly where I wanted it to go.” Also through this slow section of the circuit, the ZX-10R logs slightly quicker roll rates as Michael flicks from side to side up the hill between turn three and turn four, back down to turn five, and over the crest of turn six. The RSV4 and R1 are fairly evenly matched in this regard, with slightly slower roll rates.

The Yamaha especially loses out to the Kawasaki in the slow turn three and turn five entries. “The R1 was pumping in the rear really bad on the brakes going in, making the rear end dance around,” Kento said. “We pulled rebound damping until it was almost too quick in the rear and it helped, but it never got rid of it.” While the Yamaha’s data shows excellent braking characteristics, the rear-end pumping made the bike reluctant to turn, especially in downhill turn five where in that turn alone it loses three-tenths of a second to the ZX-10R.

In the faster second half of the track, it’s the Yamaha posting several quick segment times and gaining back much of its one-second deficit through this section, with a surprising burst of speed between turns eight and nine (132.2 mph versus the RSV4’s 128.3 and the ZX-10R’s 125.4) and a matching quick segment time. The data shows that Michael was able ride the Aprilia very smoothly through here, with very consistent lean angles, but the apex speeds were slightly down compared to both the other bikes. “Definitely the Aprilia was stable,” Michael noted. “I think I got lucky and didn’t have much wind.” While overall the RSV4 keeps pace with the Kawasaki through this section, the Yamaha gains on the ZX-10R and actually pulls ahead of the Aprilia momentarily.

In summary, the Kawasaki’s excellent front end gives it the edge on corner entry, especially in the slower section of the track, but both the Yamaha and Aprilia are strong between the corners, clawing back ground on the Kawasaki any time the track opens up. Essentially, the Kawasaki gains time on the entrance of every turn when compared with the other bikes but loses a portion of that time on every exit. On a shorter track where the other bikes would not be able to stretch their legs, the Kawasaki might have even more of an advantage in lap times as it does here.

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