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The Supersport Saga: Rise, fall and rebirth of the supersports

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Most serious riders generally accept that the supersport class was born in 1985 when Kawasaki released the GPZ600R. Before the GPZ, middleweight four-strokes were fairly crap commuters. These included the GPz550 and if you wanted a race-rep, you bought a two-stroke Suzuki RG500 or Yamaha RD500. The GPZ600R arrived and changed all that.

The GPZ600R had a water-cooled 16-valve DOHC inline four motor. It was the first time that a middleweight had such a design. The GPZ’s 75bhp decimated its rival four-strokes and saw it hit a whopping 217kmph. Add to this a box-section steel frame, anti-dive forks and matching 16in wheels and the GPZ’s combination of handling and reliability was a taste of things to come. Two years later Honda released the ‘jelly mould’ CBR600F. This effectively killed off the unreliable and dirty big capacity two-strokes and giving birth to the reign of the supersport bike.

To understand why the supersport class exploded in popularity so quickly through the late 1980s and early 1990s you have to consider the bike market. Big capacity sportsbikes did exist in the form of the Yamaha FZR1000 EXUP, Suzuki GSX-R1100, Kawasaki ZZ-R1100 and Honda CBR1000F. However, their focus was on outright speed over handling and as a result they were big old buses. But as the newly formed WSB series, which began in 1988, grew in popularity, riders’ focus shifted to sportsbikes. On track the exotic Ducatis or the homologation-specials from Japan were the stuff of dreams. Therefore  younger riders could not afford even their road-going mass-produced models due to the high insurance costs. The supersport class offered bikes with sporty full fairings and genuine track pedigree. They were also cheaper to insure and buy thanks to their smaller capacity motors. They also had an element of practicality that the full-on sports 750s lacked. Europe, and especially the UK, went nuts for this new breed of supersport bike. But things were about to get very serious.

The rise of the track-focused supersport bike

By the mid-1990s, most supersport bikes were pretty road-orientated with the Yamaha FZR600, CBR600F and ZZ-R600 the bikes to have over the fairly poor Suzuki GSX600F. While the FZR was arguably the sportiest of the trio, in 1995 Kawasaki unleashed a thunderbolt that came to define the supersport class – the Ninja ZX-6R. With an aluminium twin-spar frame where its rivals still used steel, the ZX-6R’s focus was on track success. The popularity of the mini race rep grey import 400s was also a factor in its development. The supersport class was starting to make the headlines in club racing. The 1997 Suzuki GSX-R600 SRAD, effectively a sleeved-down GSX-R750 (vaguely) based on Kevin Schwantz’s 500GP bike quickly followed it.

With manufacturers now spotting the importance of the supersport class, sales soared upwards. The WSB organisers formed a World Supersport Championship in 1997 (ironically won by a Ducati 748). By now, the CBR600F gained an aluminium frame in 1999 and Yamaha unleashed the YZF-R6 in the same year. The supersport skirmish had developed into a full-on war! The boom years of the supersport class had begun.

Looking back at the late 1990s and early 2000s you may think the game-changing FireBlade, GSX-R1000 or YZF-R1 dominated sales. But here is something that may surprise you. Back then the big seller was the CBR600F. The GSX-R600 followed it, the YZF-R1 was third and the YZF-R6 fourth, ahead of the FireBlade in fifth. In fact, Honda sold almost twice as many CBR600s as they did Blades! But there was a reason for this. Honda did in 2001 something very un-Honda like. They tested the water for a new direction for their CBR…

In 2001 Honda launched two CBR600F models – the stocker and the homologation-special F-Sport. Traditionally the most road-oriented supersport bike (the CBR always came with a centre stand), Honda saw the importance of track success in terms of sales to its rivals. But they were unsure if their traditionally slightly conservative buyer would follow suit. The F-Sport was a toe in the water, sportier than the stocker but not too extreme. Honda had designed it to get them the elusive WSS success they were missing out on. The F-Sport sold well and won the 2002 WSS title, delivering a thumbs up on both counts. This persuaded Honda to jump with both feet into the supersport sea of sharks…

Price vs performance

In many ways 2003 can be seen not only as the year that the supersport class spread its wings. But it was also the beginning of its downfall. This was the year Honda released the all-new CBR600RR and Kawasaki re-invented the ZX-6R. Both these bikes broke the traditional price-limited mould for the supersport bikes. The RR was totally track-focused at the expense of road manners (Honda kept the F on the range for several more years as a safety net) and Kawasaki armed the ZX-6R with items such as radial brakes, inverted forks and a slipper clutch as standard – technology that was missing on most litre bikes of the day. But there was a price to pay. Initially the RR cost Rs 6.2 lakh (in the UK, excluding Indian taxes and duties) which was a premium of Rs 55,000 over the F, where the ZX-6R was only Rs 20,000 more than the out-going model. But this didn’t last long. As the class war started and development costs spiralled, so did the price tags. There was a myth among bikers that manufacturers spent more to develop litre bikes than supersport machines. This may have been true in the early years of steel-framed supersport bikes and heavy litre bikes. But by the mid-2000s the only thing that separated litre bikes from their supersport siblings was the cubic capacity.

Stuck in a cycle of having to update their sportsbikes every two years before a major overhaul every four, the Japanese were plowing huge sums of R&D into both classes. Aluminium frames, radial brakes, slipper clutches, highly tuned motors and digital dashes were common on both capacities of machines. This was to secure the sales they needed to top the track comparison tests and hit the high notes on the dyno. In terms of R&D and production costs, the capacity of the motor made virtually no difference and someone needed to foot the spiralling bill. And that someone was the customer…

When price wars started

In 2005 the CBR600RR’s price tag had risen to Rs 6.67 lakh (in the UK) while the latest generation of Fireblade cost just Rs 1.4 lakh more at Rs 8 lakh If you compare this to the Rs 8.5 lakh a Blade cost in 1996 compared to the Rs 6.4 lakh for a CBR600F, you can see how much the price gap had closed. And Honda weren’t alone. In 2005 a ZX-6R costs just Rs 1.5 lakh less than a ZX-10R. The GSX-R600 was also just Rs 1.8 lakh less than the GSX-R1000. But that was the price to pay if you wanted your supersport bike to contain the latest and greatest technology and therefore win on track.

But, worryingly for the supersport class, riders’ tastes were starting to change. In 2005, three of the top four best-selling sportsbikes were litre bikes where in previous years this trend was reversed. As the costs closed, the shine was starting to dull on the supersport bike. Riders were opting for the staggering performance offered by the new breed of litre bikes over a screaming track-happy supersport equivalent. But what would happen if a manufacturer really rocked the boat, developing a supersport more advanced than a litre bike? In 2006 we found out.

When Yamaha released the all-new YZF-R6 in 2006 it was the most technologically advanced bike on the market. It eclipsed all the litre bikes in terms of its specification. It had a slipper clutch, ride-by-wire throttle, high and low speed suspension damping, radial brakes, insane 18,000rpm  redline and titanium valves. Yamaha had thrown the kitchen sink at it, and then some. But there was a cost. At Rs 6.9 lakh (in the UK), the R6 was Rs 92,000 more than the outgoing model, only Rs 1.2 lakh less than the R1. It needed to continually have its neck wrung to uncover the top-endy power. While the R6 certainly ticked all the right boxes in terms of tech, it also faced an unlikely competitor in the Triumph Daytona 675. Launched in the same year, the 675’s triple motor demonstrated that supersport bikes didn’t necessarily need to be rev-happy, despite a track focus. In terms of sales the R6 won, but by the end of 2006 the bike market was contracting.

The beginning of the end

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, the whole motorcycle market plunged. The global downturn hit the sales of sportsbikes the hardest. It wasn’t until 2014 that sportsbikes saw positive growth again. But by this time naked bikes took over as the top sellers. During this period the Japanese manufacturers effectively put a halt on development. By the time the worldwide economy picked up and they started to look at where to spend their money again, supersport had fallen out of favour. Naked and adventure bikes were now the best-selling machines so with limited R&D funds for track-focused bikes, the decision was made to concentrate on the headline acts – the litre bikes. With Euro 4 coming into force in 2016, the end of the supersport class was on the horizon. Any bikes failing to meet these new emissions regulations could no longer be sold. But the manufacturers cannot get all the blame for the demise of the supersport class.

To fully understand the ultimate death of the supersport class, riders need to be honest with themselves. Riding sportsbikes is a leisure activity and as most riders are male, ego also plays its part. Being men, we like to be ride the fastest and most powerful bike. As the new breed of litre sportsbikes emerged, the stagnant supersport bikes didn’t stand a chance. With electronic assists taming their power, the new generation of 200bhp machines were accessible to all riders. With the advent attractive finance schemes, the difference of monthy payments between an R6 and an R1 became very small. And at the end of the day the answer to this simple question put the final nail in the supersport coffin. Or did it?

The revival?

In recent years there have been a few interesting developments when it comes to the supersport class. The CBR600RR, Daytona 675 and GSX-R600 may be no more, but in 2017 Yamaha released a ‘new’ R6. This came just when most predicted the class was dead. Okay, it’s little more than a Euro 4-pleasing engine tweak, updated chassis, new electronics and revised look. But it is a new R6 nonetheless. And for 2019, Kawasaki have followed suit with a new ZX-6R. With Triumph taking over from Honda as suppliers of the control motor for the Moto2 class, a new Daytona could be on the horizon. However, it is far more likely to be a 765cc, while MV are still producing the F3 800. So is the supersport class really dead? Surprisingly salvation may lie further afield than Europe…

All manufacturers have their eyes firmly set on the emerging Asian market. Riders here are generally only buying 300cc sportsbikes (which is why WSB now has a WorldSSP300 class), the appetite is certainly there for larger capacity machines and supersport is the next logical step. There are rumours of Honda developing a new CBR600RR, which is likely to follow Yamaha and Kawasaki’s pattern of a revision as opposed to a totally new model. Suzuki are still undecided if the GSX-R600 brand has legs. In terms of track success the supersport class is still a viable step-up before a litre bike and the used supersport market is currently booming. All the signs are that the current period is more a lull than a death rattle for the supersport class, though with storm clouds gathering on the financial horizon, it won’t take much for the tipping point to be reached and the class to finally die.

Words by Jon Urry

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