2008 SUZUKI FACTORY SUZUKI WSB “XRF-500”
In 2008, Dark Dog energy drinks replaced Corona beer as the title sponsor for Suzuki’s factory effort in world superbikes, and this was the bike that Yukio Kagayama raced that year. It has a full factory chassis, a full factory engine and full factory Showa suspension, and thus is the same as the XR-09, in so much as it’s the best that Suzuki could produce within the rule book. However, it’s nowhere near as trick as the Frankie bike, and ultimately no more trick than the Guy Martin bike. The “Dark Dog” bike underlines the point that full factory superbikes today are just pumped up road bikes, whereas yesterday’s superbikes were different animals all together.
V4s was huge. Unlike Yamaha and Honda, Suzuki never leased or sold any of their RGV bikes or engines to anyone, so there was only ever a handful made each season. RGV500s are rare as hens’ teeth to start with, and we’ve got all but a couple of the remaining ones in the world.
“The upshot is that to manufacture a set of crank cases for an RGV500 would cost around £25,000, unlike an RG500 that had a simpler design, a range of different bikes that they fit, and is much more common, so they become much cheaper; still in the region of £10,000. So, to try and extend the service life as much as we can, we run the RGVs a bit richer than they might have been in the day, and we reduce the rev limit a touch. There is a point in time when we just can’t run the RGVs anymore – it’s a few years off yet, but the older RG500s will definitely outlive the RGVs and probably even most of the modern 4-stroke MotoGP bikes.
“The RGVs are brilliant to work on because they are pure race bikes. Nothing is compromised on them, and at the end of the day the factory WSB bikes, especially from that era, are also very special creations, but nothing beats a purpose-built prototype race bike, not least because they are so easy to work on. They had to be, because they were
such high maintenance. The RGV500 weighs 130Kg and makes 180bhp which is just mind blowing, and riding it is an experience, but it is also true that unless you are a very, very talented rider, you don’t even get close to what it’s all about”.
Nathan then reveals that his favourite bike to ride is the “Frankie”, which is just as well because it’s the bike I’ve come to see.
The “Frankie” bike is officially called an “XR-09” and will forever be associated with Pierre Francesco Chili in much the same way the RGV was for Kevin Schwantz. Frankie finished the 1999 World Superbike Championship in 6th position on this very XR-09 SRAD, with four podiums and two race wins on a grid that included a pair of factory Ducatis ridden by Fogarty and Corser, a pair of factory Honda RC45s ridden by Edwards and Slight, a pair of factory Yamaha R7s and a pair of factory Kawasaki ZX7-RRs. To say it was a competitive grid would be a massive understatement.
It was also a time when GP racing was dull, and World Superbikes was the “be all and end all” for manufacturers. They were throwing the kitchen sink at their bikes and riders while the circuits were pulling in crowds of 100,000 people. World Superbikes mattered, and a look at the details and spec of the XR-09 SRAD reveal just how much it mattered to the manufacturers. Superbikes from that era were subject to a different set of rules that, in short, meant the factories could – and did – go mad. The result is that the vast majority of parts found on the XR-09 and others on the grid were usually one off items of unobtanium.
The titanium conrods are £1,000 each; the crankshaft is a one-off, a super light item that’s virtually priceless; it’s got little slipper pistons that you just can’t buy. It’s got titanium valves, a close ratio gearbox with four ratios for every gear, and a factory dry clutch that costs £8,500. There’s a full Pectel fuel injection system and really trick throttle bodies inside the airbox. The fork legs were £8,500, the factory Showa shock was £7,000 at the time from Suzuki, and the engine with its offset magnesium sump and magnesium covers would have set you back more than £40,000 to build. It was one of the last proper no-expenses-spared factory world superbikes, and it made 169bhp and weighed bang on the 160Kg weight limit, which is insane for a 750.
For some perspective, these days you can build a full-blown superbike for around £80,000, but to build the “Frankie” you would have needed that for the chassis alone.
Modern road bikes are so good these days that a current superbike is much closer to the road bike which they’re based on than the XR-09 is to a SRAD. The days of magnesium this and titanium that and full-blown factory developed superbikes are gone, partly because the bikes are so good to start with and also because the rules are designed to keep costs down.
As well as being the very last SRAD Suzuki raced, the Frankie XR-09 is easily the very best one ever made. It was the end result of a development programme that began in 1996 when they entered the then all-new SRAD into the Suzuka 8Hr race of that year.
Unsurprisingly that very Suzuka bike is also part of the Team Classic Suzuki collection.
Suzuki entered two teams in Lucky Strike colours for the Suzuka 8Hr race in 1996 and put their then GP riders, Scott Russell and Terry Rymer, on one of the bikes – and this is that bike. It’s the first race version that Suzuki made from the SRAD and its DNA is still present on the XR-09 Frankie bike, but with some differences due to it being an endurance spec bike, and some due to it being the first version and therefore relatively undeveloped.
It has a standard subframe with a little seat riser on it and the chassis was basically a braced chassis from a road bike, where the chassis on the Frankie bike is bespoke handmade. The engine didn’t have anywhere near the power of the XR-09, probably around 135bhp when Suzuki ran titanium valves which they did in the 8Hr bike; they used steel valves for the 24-hour race bikes.
For endurance racing it’s got twin filler caps, and the width of the front fork centres is a massive 230mm compared to the XR-09 forks, which are 207mm. The result is the front brake discs can be mounted fully outboard of the wheel, which makes it much easier to just throw the wheel in at a pit stop.
On the subject of pitstops, the quick-release rear wheel set-up with the rear sprocket being captive is really trick. Even though its fairly common nowadays in endurance racing, at the time it was cutting edge. It’s only a shame that it’s out of sight, unlike one of the most noticeable concessions for endurance racing on the side which is the quick lifter, a tube that runs across the frame which the pit stop crew put a pneumatic lift to lift the front wheel quickly. The front calipers are mounted using three bolts on each for better strength; remember this bike pre-dates radial mounted callipers that appear on the XR-09. Also, the pads would have had their edges chamfered to help with getting the discs back in easily.
There’s a big alloy header coolant tank mounted inboard behind the dash to keep out the way in the event of a crash.The gear change could be swopped between road and race shift by pulling an “R-clip” out and moving the shift rod to a different position.
Just like the early SRADS, the Suzuka bike uses carbs, specifically TMR flatslides, which were the “go to” carbs for Suzuki race bikes of the era. Suspension is factory Showa; the forks are the same diameter as a 2020 GSX-R1000’s at 43mm diameter, compared to 47mm on the XR-09. The coating on the fork tube is unknown but looks really trick.
The mudguard is mounted to pivots that move just enough to allow the forks to be angled outwards to help speed up front wheel installation without needing to remove the mudguard. It’s those details that are fascinating, and that can affect the result.
You can see a lot of the road bike in the Suzuka bike, but the XR-09 is nothing like the road bike. The engine design and components used in the XR-09 are very different, plus it can be moved in the chassis to help with stability, which was a real problem on the early bike and an even bigger problem with the later bike, with all its extra horsepower. The swingarm was too stiff and incredibly short and, by the time they got to the XR-09, it was 25mm longer, but even then, they would run the rear wheel in the most rearward position.
Other things like the quick shifter on the Suzuka bike is actually the sidestand kill switch repositioned to kill the ignition when the shifter moved. It was very crude, but it worked. In contrast, because of its advanced fuel injection, the XR-09 has a much more sophisticated quickshifter and (for then) a trick auto-blipper. One other interesting detail about the Suzuka bike is that if you own a Suzuki DR125, the rear caliper on your bike is the exact same part number as the one they used on the race bike.
Despite being from opposite ends of the development timeline, and also being built to perform different tasks, the essence of the two bikes is the same. Spending a few hours soaking up their details and imagining them back in their heyday, it’s impossible for those of us of a certain age to not feel a pang of sadness that the days of full-blown factory, uber trick superbikes that no amount of money could buy are gone, probably forever.
However, don’t be sad for too long. The performance gap between a modern world superbike and a modern MotoGP bike is the same as it was during the era of the XR-09, which is a reflection of just how good modern race bikes are without all the unobtanium parts and development that transformed a SRAD to the XR-09.
To illustrate the point, the difference between the WSB and MotoGP pole position times at the 2000 Philip Island WSB and MotoGP rounds when it was a free-for-all in
WSB was 0.8sec (McWilliams/Aprilia and Corser/Aprilia in case you’re wondering), and the 2020 WSB and MotoGP pole position times also at Philip Island (Sykes/ BMW and Vinales/Yamaha) with WSB machines that are significantly less exotic was… 0.8sec.
Suzuki have a habit of being average for long periods of time, but then almost out of nowhere coming along with genuine milestone bikes. The SRAD was one such bike. In 1999 they built one that made 170bhp and weighed just 160Kg, and since it’s been a while since Suzuki blew our minds like they did with the SRAD, dare we dream what a current GSX-R1000 might look like with even just some of the spirit 1999 applied to it…