Crystal ball: Why 2016 will change motorcycling

Author: Ben Purvis Posted: 26 Apr 2016

Crystal ball: Why 2016 will change motorcycling

Over the next 12 months we’re going to see more changes to motorcycles and motorcycling than there have been in decades.

A combination of legislative changes and technological breakthroughs, each largely driven by the other, means that we’re on the brink of a revolution in terms of the design of motorcycles and the resulting combinations of performance, practicality and economy that they’ll be able to offer.

Looking back over the last 15 years or so it’s already hard to believe how far and fast technology has developed. The idea of stock, 1000cc superbikes with power figures nudging 200bhp would have sounded like a fantasy back at the turn of the millennium, when even the fastest GP machines – 500cc two strokes at the time – couldn’t lay claim to such numbers. Power isn’t the only yardstick, though, and developments in electronics have been even more impressive. Effective traction control for bikes was something viewed with scepticism by many just a decade ago, and ABS was until recently something reserved for fat touring bikes. Now we’ve got machines that offer both things, the best even managing to miraculously work deep into corners at extreme lean angles.

However, all of this development – fast though it has been – was spread over several years and incremental improvements. The next developments might be more starkly obvious.

Although manufacturers tend to keep their future model plans as closely guarded secrets, several have already dropped hints – intentionally or not – about machines that they’ll be revealing over the next year. And even where nothing has been hinted, where there’s an external influence – like a change in regulations for road bikes or production-based racing – it’s easy enough to extrapolate the effects on the sort of bikes we’ll be offered.

Knowing all that, here are some of the highlights we’re expecting over the coming year: 

More supercharged Kawasakis

Forced-induction, whether via supercharging or turbocharging, looks increasingly likely to become a staple technology in the years to come. We’ve already talked about why that is and how the two systems work (here: http://www.bennetts.co.uk/bikesocial/news-and-views/news/2012/2015/august/turbos-superchargers-and-the-future/) but Kawasaki is committed to the supercharging route.

After a roaring success with its toe-in-the-water

H2 superbike and H2R track-only machine, Kawasaki has already dropped several big hints about forthcoming models sharing the supercharging technology of those bikes.

Kawasaki Soul Charger - ready for 2017?

The firm has already said that it’s got 12 new models on the card for 2016/17 and shown both a new variation on its supercharged engine and two concept sketches for machines fitted with boosted motors, suggesting that one or more of those new bikes will be supercharged. The new engine design was shown in Tokyo in October, along with sketches of the SC-01 Spirit Charger, a half-faired, retro take on the H2 theme. The following month it revealed drawings of the smaller-capacity SC-02 Soul Charger, and spoke glowingly of the ‘scalable’ nature of the supercharger system, which, it should be noted, is developed completely in-house – further bolstering the notion that the firm has plans far exceeding the limited-production H2.

What’s notable about all Kawasaki’s talk of new supercharged bikes is that the emphasis hasn’t been on extracting even more performance. The 200bhp H2 and 310bhp H2R were a perfect introduction to the technology, sporting headline-grabbing power figures and gaining plenty of column inches in the process without needing to actually be sold in large numbers. However, Kawasaki, like the rest of us, knows that out-and-out power isn’t the be-all and end-all, and as a result the next supercharged machines – and at least one is sure to be launched before this year is out – are likely to be slower and more affordable, selling to a larger group of riders.

The ‘balanced supercharged engine’ it showed in Tokyo appeared similar to the H2’s in layout, but the firm wouldn’t be drawn on its capacity. Japanese sources claim it’s smaller, maybe around 600cc. The ‘balanced’ bit comes from the addition of a variable intake for the supercharger, altering the direction and volume of intake air to improve the efficiency of both the supercharger and the engine itself.

Notably, the launch of the H2 (in late 2014) was preceded one year earlier with an almost identical engine-only unveiling in Tokyo.

Bike Social's Marc Potter puts the Kawasaki Ninja H2 through its paces at Silverstone

At last, the return of the turbo bike

Back when the supercharged Kawasaki H2 engine was first revealed at the 2013 Tokyo show it made relatively few headlines. That was partly because it was tucked away in a corner and barely mentioned in the firm’s press releases, and largely because Suzuki’s turbocharged Recursion concept bike was getting all the attention at the same event.

At the following Tokyo show, last October (it only happens every other year), it was Suzuki’s turn to have an unassuming engine sitting quietly on the corner of its stand; a very production-ready-looking turbocharged parallel twin sharing the layout of the Rercursion’s 588cc unit but little of the earlier machine’s show-bike bling or one-off, handmade parts. Dubbed the XE7, it’s certain to appear in a production bike, probably a toned-down take on the Recursion theme, very soon.

Unlike Kawasaki’s tack, using the look-at-me H2 to break the forced-induction ice and usher in a line of more sensible machines, Suzuki is focusing on the sensible side of the technology, namely the turbocharger’s ability to boost performance – and particularly torque – while maximising fuel economy. The Recursion might have only been a concept but Suzuki only ever claimed 100bhp from its 588cc engine and instead emphasised the 74lbft of torque it made at a low 4500rpm – the sort of number you’d expect from a moderately tuned 1000cc engine, but peaking at half the revs.

The precise launch schedule of the turbocharged Suzuki isn’t known, but the XE7’s production-ready look, right down to what appears to be a part-number moulded into the mass-made-looking cast-iron exhaust manifold, suggests that it can’t be more than a year away. By the start of 2017 a turbocharged production bike could realistically be on your shopping list for the first time since the 80s. 

A Suzuki spokesman told us: “The Recursion made its debut at the Tokyo Show and was of course on display at Intermot and Motorcycle Live in 2014 and it quickly became apparent there was a demand to see a mass produced version of the Recursion’s turbo technology, and this led to further development of the engine. 

“Both good fuel economy and superior engine output is achieved by placing an intercooler turbo compactly onto the highly efficient parallel twin engine. The basic engine layout will remain unchanged, however we have changed other elements when taking into consideration it being used for mass production units as well as for various types of the bikes. For example, although it was a SOHC engine with two valves per cylinder for the Recursion, the new engine has been developed with DOHC and four valves per cylinder.

“We are continuing development with a view to using turbo technology in production machines in the future.”

Suzuki Recursion - on the cards for 2017

Electric bikes hit the mainstream

Battery-powered bikes are among those things that seem to have been just around the corner for years now but somehow never come that much closer to being a serious option for most buyers. Sure, there are some that you can get your hands on, but some of the best aren’t currently available in the UK and we’re still waiting for any of the big Japanese manufacturers to make a proper venture into the electric arena.

Both of those hurdles are likely to be leapt in the next 12 months.

In terms of existing models, the two leading brands in America have long been

Zero Motorcycles and Brammo. Now, Brammo has been taken over by major manufacturer Polaris, which has folded it into the Victory brand – a marque that already has an established UK dealer network. The first electric Victory is the Empulse TT, a rebadged version of the old Brammo Empulse, and can’t be sold here because it lacks the now-mandatory ABS needed for new model type approval in Europe. That’s something we expect to be addressed very quickly, and in the slightly longer term you can expect a new electric Victory design based on Brammo’s know-how but with styling and image to suit the Victory name.

Zero, on the other hand, already has dealers in Europe and offers ABS on its bikes, although the machines haven’t been offered in the UK since 2013. That, too, could easily change at short notice.

Even so, these brands lack the gravitas a world leader like Honda or Yamaha, and until they get in on the action electric bikes are likely to remain curios rather than a real option for most. Yamaha looks likely to get in there first – in 2014 it made a commitment in its annual report to putting derivatives of is 2013 PES-1 and PED-1 concept bikes into production, and last year it revealed the updated and reworked PES-2 and PED-2; still officially concepts, but clearly another step towards production. In case you’re wondering, PES is a lightweight sports bike and PED is an off-road machine, both based around the same central components in terms of batteries and motors.

Originally, the Yamaha plan was to have an electric bike in production by 2016, and while that schedule appears to have slipped a little, it’s hard to bet against the firm coming up with the goods for 2017.

Officially, Yamaha told us: “Yamaha revealed two experimental, electric powered motorcycles last year at the Tokyo Motor Show highlighting the research that is taking place at the factory to develop new technologies and alternative power plants for the future. There are no details currently as to when or even if the PES2 or PED2 designs will ever be become production models but it’s likely that the experimental technologies that have been developed in this project will be available at some point.”

Honda, too, has plans for electric bikes by 2017. Its officially-published mid-term plan for the financial years 2015-2017 includes the goal to “market electric bikes that meet local needs in developed and emerging countries.” Initially, that’s likely to be limited to Japan (developed), where the bikes will be loaned to customers rather than sold, and China (emerging), where cheap electric scooters will be sold outright, but don’t rule out European sales at some stage in the not-too-distant future.

The return of the homologation special

This one is arguably already upon us in the form of the 

Yamaha R1M but over the next year we’re expecting to see more manufacturers take on the idea of building high-end bikes intended for WSB racing while still offering lower-spec machines for riders with slimmer wallets.

Yamaha's test rider pushes the R1M at Eastern Creek in Australia

At its most extreme, we might even be returning to the sort of thinking that led to legendary ‘homologation specials’ like the Yamaha OW-01 and R7 and the Honda RC30, RC45 and SP-1 and 2.

In recent years the idea of homologation specials receded, largely thanks to WSB regulations that required entries to be based on bikes made in large numbers. Until a couple of years ago, manufacturers needed to make at least 2000 examples of a bike to get permission to race it in WSB. That figure was halved to 1000 for the 2014 season, with 125 needed to be made before racing started, 250 by the end of the first year and 1000 by the end of the second.

For 2016 the homologation requirements are slashed in half again. The figures of 125 to be built initially and 250 by the end of the first year remain, but only 250 will be needed in year two, for a total of 500 bikes.

That’s roughly in line with old homologation rules that led to the creation of the RC30 in 1987, and could lead to a similar spate of special machines.

To prevent complete madness, and to make sure that machines like 

Honda’s RC213V-S don’t make it onto the grid, the current price cap of €40,000 for road-going versions of WSB bikes is going to remain in place.

The Rocket and the Catherine Wheel; Ron Haslam guides Bike Social's Marc Potter around Valencia

Yamaha’s R1M and 

Honda’s CBR1000RR-SP came about as a result of the 2014 rule changes, and the new tweaks mean it’s likely we’ll see more of the same. Suzuki is known to be developing a higher-spec ‘SP’ or ‘RR’ version of the new GSX-R1000 and Honda has been working behind the scenes on a new V4-powered superbike; it’s yet to get the official thumbs up, but perhaps significantly the firm has renewed its ‘RVF’ trademarks recently.

Ducati has also tended to favour race special versions of its superbikes in the past, and that’s unlikely to change in future – in fact, the tweaks to homologation rules add weight to wild recent rumours that the firm is planning to revisit the idea that brought us the Desmosedici RR MotoGP replica a few years ago. The firm sold some 1500 of those, more than enough to have been homologated under the new WSB rules, although if it was to make a new V4 it would have to come in at only two thirds of the original Desmo RR’s €60,000 list price.

Watch out on Bike Social for Part 2 of our crystal ball gazing, when we’ll look to the impact of massive regulation changes on the new models that will be launched by the start of 2017.

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