THE SECRET LIFE OF A JAPANESE TEST RIDER Testing bikes, day in, flat out. Sound like the best job in the world? Meet the men who do, in the place they do it By Simon Hargreaves Photography by Chippy Wood
Alarm goes off. 4.30am. Stumble blearily from bed to bog, grab riding kit, jump in the lift, drop 42 floors to the foyer. Join photographer Chippy, already outside the hotel having a crafty fag and blowing smoke into the dark, chilly morning air. A few minutes later Shunsuke, our driver, arrives to take us to our clandestine destination on the outskirts of Hamamatsu, Japan – I sit in the back and watch the low, flat houses flash past, scrubby allotments neatly marked out by telegraph poles. After half an hour we turn onto an unassuming dirt track; a red S sign is the only hint we’re on the right path. A few hundred yards later we stop at a gate where a gnarly security guard gives us paperwork to sign. Then it’s on past a couple of vehicles, round a corner, between buildings... it’s still pitch black; no sign of dawn. Suddenly we’re on a wide road. Almost immediately Shunsuke pulls over to park by a small hut with ‘Suzuki Pit House’ on the side. He unlocks the doors, we go in and he flicks on the lights. Stuttering neon breaks the dark to reveal two brand new GSX-R1000 K7s parked side by side, keys in ignitions. Welcome to Ryuyo, Suzuki’s bike test facility in Japan. It’s where every GSX-R, Hayabusa, SV, Bandit, TL, GSX... every Suzuki road bike and scooter built ever, was developed and tested. It’s a four-mile track with a 200mph, 1.5-mile straight, a first-gear hairpin, two 120mph corners, a set of 80mph S-bends and a hair-raising, flat-in-top, 180mph left-hander. None of the turns have run-off. Twenty feet separates the track edge from the tyre walls and the trees. On a scale of exciting places, Ryuyo is at the top. Kylie in sexy lingerie? Angelina Jolie in the sack? Sorry girls, I’d climb over you to be right here, right now. But to Atsushi Murata and Yuichi Nakashima this is ordinary. This is, literally, all in a day’s work. They’re Suzuki’s test riders and it’s their job to test ride every road bike over 125cc that Suzuki builds, from test mules to prototypes to final sign-offs. Day in, day out, rain or shine, they ride them all. Murata and Nakashima are familiar figures on Suzuki’s big launches – when we meet they’re fresh from the GSX-R1000 K7 launch at Philip Island in Australia, where they’ve been guiding wobbly bike hacks round the track (including me). But Ryuyo is their focus. It’s been here a long time, designed in the early Sixties by Mitsuo Ito, Japan’s only-ever TT winner (in 1963 on a nine-speed 50cc racer). It was used for the launch of the original GSX-R750 in 1984; if it’s terrifying on a GSXR1000 – with blind 180mph corners – imagine it at 150mph on a spindly-framed 750 with bicycle tyres, crude suspension and rudimentary steering geometry. Luckily for these boys, that was before their time. Murata, 37 years old and just over five and half feet tall, has served 16 years; the taller 39-year-old Nakashima has 17 years. Before we head out on the track I ask some questions. As is the way in Japan, translating words is one barrier; translating meaning is harder. The stereotype of a short question in English becoming a ten-minute discussion in Japanese before coming back as a one-word ‘no’ or ‘yes’ is absolutely true. Here goes: how do you become a Suzuki test rider?
SUZUKI TEST TRACK
5.30am at Suzuki’s special test track near Hamamatsu, Japan – a 4-mile circuit with a 200mph straight and absolutely no run-off, anywhere. This is the birthplace of the GSX-R
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‘Aaaaaahhh... it is very difficult to say,’ says Nakashima in careful, clipped Japlish. ‘Very difficult to say – but if you strongly believe you want to be a test rider, you can make the chance to be a test rider.’ Nice philosophy, but not exactly what I’m looking for. Did you have any racing experience before you took the job? ‘No,’ says Murata, looking surprised. ‘We were students before this. This was our first job straight from college.’ He says it matter-offactly, as if it’s bloody obvious; as if they picked the jobs from the Opportunities page of the Hamamatsu Times. What was the first bike they tested here? Murata-san smiles at the memory, which is generous considering the bike: ‘It was a GS500,’ he says. Hmm... a long time to sit on the one and a half mile straight. But better than Nakashima; his first responsibility was test-riding the VX800 – a charmless early Nineties V-twin roadster. Holding it flat out must’ve tested the rider’s endurance more than the bike’s. ‘It was winter, when the wind blows very hard and is very cold across the track,’ winces Nakashima. The straight runs parallel to the tree-lined Pacific coast a few hundred yards away. Crows and buzzards circle, prompting me to ask: ‘You ever hit one of those?’ ‘Sometimes we hit birds on the straight,’ says Murata. ‘Very bad for the neck! You call it... whiplash! Twice, but didn’t break nose,’ he says with pride. Anyone familiar with avian/Arai interfacing will appreciate the ferocity of an impact at 180mph... these guys are rock-hard. Who’s quickest here; got the lap record? I suspect a friendly rivalry between the pair. But I’m wrong – they stress they don’t compete with each other. It’s an unwritten rule, perhaps for safety’s sake, that they must not. And, as if to make sure, they don’t measure lap times. ‘Maybe Akiyoshi-san, MotoGP test rider, is fastest rider here. But for our testing we have no need to make a lap time,’ says Nakashima. But you must datalog the bikes? ‘Not always’, says Nakashima. ‘When we developed three-way
‘We have up to 50 tests to complete, depending on model in, say, one month.’ switch for the K7, we use GPS so we can check speeds in parts of the track. But we don’t always have it. For example, we ride rival models here, but we don’t make lap times because a good lap time is dependent on the rider himself. When we do comparison tests with rival models, we want to understand better the potential of just the bike, not the rider. So we want to work with facts; so we will know if the K7 has better acceleration, for example, because there are sensors in the track – and for top speed. But it’s not mental – when we test, we can immediately see which is better.’ How do you test low speed stuff, like on/off throttle response – Ryuyo is a high-speed track? ‘We have other places to test other things – we call this Highway track. There are bumps and solid tarmac where we test such things.’ But what about sharp, short circuit-style cornering? There’s nowhere for hard braking, hard turning, hard changes of direction... ‘We know this. We are asking for a small race track to be built!’ How does an average work day pan out? ‘The day starts with exercise to warm up,’ says Murata. ‘When we arrive at test track we have test programme ready for us – we have up to 50 tests to complete, depending on model, in a certain period; say, one month. But it is up to us to decide what tests we want to do that day, depending on weather.’ Do you test here in the wet? ‘Yes, of course. If we arrive and we want to test things in the dry and it is wet, we will test things like wet grip instead.’ Do you measure fuel consumption here? ‘No, the engineers measure it on the engine dyno.’ I tell Nakashima and Murata I’ve heard the test riders are too polite to criticise engineers’ work. This makes them laugh long and loud: ‘No, that is definitely not the case at all!’ And, with that, it’s time to stop talking and start riding.
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Nervous faces all round as Simon looks for ﬁrst gear
SUZUKI TEST TRACK
‘Yeah, next time you’re over I’ll show you round Cadwell Park...’ Bike’s Simon H and Suzuki’s Murata-san swap phone numbers
RYUYO IN 1984: AN OLD RACER REMEMBERS
Bike columnist and former TT winner Mat Oxley was at the Ryuyo launch of the GSXR750F in 1984. Here’s how he remembers Suzuki’s test track...
This is the 120mph exit of 200R (in distance). Nakashima (right) broke his leg here testing the GSR600
Suzuki didn’t know what they’d let themselves in for when they launched the original GSX-R at Ryuyo. But anybody could have told them that giving brandspanking 750s to a bunch of idiot journalists was a very, very stupid thing to do. Within half an hour two GSX-Rs had gone down through a fast right-hander and that gave the Suzuki staff the jitters – they were rushing around, imploring us to slow down and reminding us that this wasn’t a racetrack. S’funny, we said, looks like a racetrack to us. Ryuyo was mental fast and a dangerous place at the best of times. Endurance world champ Christian Leon died there a few years before our visit and 1970s legend Gary Nixon came close a few years earlier when he crashed with Suzuki test rider Ken Aroaka. ‘Nickers’ still remembers the aftercare: ‘I woke up in hospital to hear loud screams – Ken’s on the little bench next to me with one of the Jap docs pulling his broken leg, while the other guy’s got a foot-long drill going through his knee…’ Luckily I didn’t know about Japanese hospitals back then, because that ﬁrst GSX-R wobbled like a bastard down Ryuyo’s big straights. But the bike was so quick that we didn’t care too much – you just had to hang on tight.’
A LAP OF SUZUKI’S TEST TRACK in the company of Murata-san,
Chicane (behind the test riders) is exclusively used by the GSV-R MotoGP bike
Nakashima-san, Hargreaves-san and a Suzuki GSX-R1000 K7 THE TEST RIDERS Name: Yuichi Nakashima Age: 39 Suzuki test rider: 17 years Favourite Suzuki: GSX1300R Hayabusa First bike tested: VX800
Name: Atsushi Murata Age: 37 Suzuki test rider: 16 years Favourite Suzuki: GSX1300R Hayabusa First bike tested: GS500
This is ﬂat, in top, on the limiter, pegs down, on a Busa...
tyre is spinning up. Again, the lack of run-off is a surprise – there is none. ‘Are there accidents here?’ I ask, careful not to stir memories. ‘We are very experienced around here,’ smiles Murata-san. ‘And we are very careful in our job,’ he adds. On the inside of the turn is a chicane and a host of dotted black lines leading into it suggest someone has been braking very hard here. Do they sometimes put the chicane in? ‘Not for road bikes,’ says Mr Murata. ‘We don’t use it. It is only used by the MotoGP bike.’ Of course – as well as the test track, the Ryuyo site also houses Suzuki’s R&D facility. In a group of buildings over in one corner of the circuit live the top secret laboratories, dynos and test facilities that not only develop Suzuki’s road machines, but also their MotoGP and World Superbike efforts.
>TURN ONE First corner from the pit garage – a left-hander – is the hairiest on the track. In fact it’s the scariest corner of any track, anywhere in the world. Bray Hill on the TT circuit might flatten suspension against the stop in top gear, but at least you can see where you’re going and ground clearance isn’t normally an issue. Turn One at Ryuyo has all the danger of a road circuit – there’s nothing but wood and concrete waiting to embrace the unwary. And the speed: it’s flat, in top, even on a Hayabusa – but the entry is pure short circuit. Basically, you peel in over a slight rise, unable to see the apex until you’ve started to steer the bike. For anyone who’s ridden round Donington Park, imagine climbing up the short hill and peeling blindly into Coppice – at more than 180mph. ‘This is very fast – fastest corner,’ understates Murata, with a smile. ‘This is top speed, 186mph on the K7. It is also top speed on the Hayabusa – it is on the ground at top speed. On the inside of the corner it is on the rev limiter.’ To reinforce this, he ducks his head, holds his hands up to imaginary bars, leans his body over and makes ‘babababababa...’ noises. Pegs down on the limiter in top? Balls of steel.
This is a left/right/left complex of slight turns – the series is taken at around 90-110mph in third gear, one down from the previous corner (which means braking into the first part isn’t heavy, more of a flowing entry). The middle right is sharper than the first and last lefts, making the absence of run-off even harder to contemplate. Murata: ‘These corners test the way the bikes turn and steer. The best bike through here is the GSX-R600 – it is also the fastest. This is why we developed the three-way power switch on the GSX-R1000, because there are some places and some times when a 600cc or softer power than a 1000cc is better; faster.’ Later, I speak to the engineer who had the idea for the switch, Mr Toda. He said he was thinking about overlaying the speed traces of the GSX-R600 and GSX-R1000 and saw how the 600 was quicker through the S bends. ‘I wondered if we could make the 1000 perform like a 600 in some places, and then I thought about a switch to make it so. At first it makes little sense to make a 1000cc like a 600cc, until you see that sometimes it can be better.’
‘He ducks his head, holds his hands up to imaginary bars, leans his body over and makes ‘babababababa...’ noises’
>TURN TWO This is also a fast turn – hard in fourth gear at around 125mph. ‘This is a good test for stability in the middle of the corner,’ says Nakashima. ‘In this corner we find the GSX-R1000 K7 has better stability than the K6. It also tests characteristics of the tyres at high speed cornering – at the end of the corner the tyres are losing grip.’ What Mr Nakashima means is that as he exits the turn the rear
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The middle of the S-Bends: note extreme proximity of tyre walls
SUZUKI TEST TRACK
Second gear, 60mph hairpin
Third gear, 80100mph left/right/left complex
1 MOTOCROSS TEST TRACK
Fourth gear, 120mph (chicane optional)
2 CRASH TEST SITE 3 GENERAL TEST AREA 4 HILL TEST AREA
5 CITY TRAFFIC TEST AREA TURN ONE
6 HANDLING COURSE
Top gear, 180mph, pegs on the deck, blind entry
Complex of buildings: dynos, cold chambers, test rigs and engine development labs. This is where Suzuki engineers dream up, design and test new ideas. It’s also the development base for Suzuki’s MotoGP team, and work is also carried out on Suzuki’s WSB racers.
1.5 miles, top gear, top speed
SUZUKI R&D FACILITY
Hard braking into ﬁrst gear 40mph hairpin
Short shift second into third gear, 120mph left
1 PACIFIC OCEAN 200R
Fourth gear, 120mph right
Ryuyo test facility, on the Paciﬁc coast 120miles from Tokyo and on the outskirts of Hamamatsu City
SUZUKI TEST TRACK
Some hairpin – the 70R is second gear, 60mph. Nice camber
>200R Massively fast – 120mph in fourth gear – right-hander off the back straight. The camber works with the rider to start with, giving a slight banked effect and letting you tip in – at 130-140mph – with confidence. Just as well because, as ever, there’s plenty to hit if it goes wrong. Which it can do. As the corner opens up on its exit the camber flattens and the tyre wall gets closer... Nakashima looks sheepish, grins, and finally owns up to crashing here. ‘I was developing the GSR600. Through here the rear tyre slides, then comes back... oooohhh... bang! I break my leg and in hospital for one month. Too much lean angle!’ 120mph, fourth gear, no run-off
>70R This is a long, fast hairpin – second gear at 60mph. Once more, the lack of run-off is alarming, but it doesn’t seem to bother the test riders. They must have done a lot of laps round here in 17 years. ‘I cannot remember...’ smiles Nakashima-san. This turn is important because it launches the bike onto the back straight – the track kinks slightly on the way out, narrowing the exit. It’s easy to run wide and run out of track. Or to highside.
>THE BACK STRAIGHT One and a half miles of straight, running parallel to the Pacific coast, sheltered for much of its length by high trees. This is the roughest part of the track – it’s covered in lots of different bumps, some small
‘I’m struck by a sudden understanding of why big Suzuki sportsbikes handle the way they do, with such impeccable high speed manners...’ and high frequency, some larger ripples. And the track itself undulates with a gentle rising and falling. Whether this is by design or accident is hard to say, but I’m struck by a sudden understanding of why big Suzuki sportsbikes handle the way they do, with such impeccable high speed manners. On my Fenland run home – on roads uncannily similar to this – Suzuki consistently produce the only bikes stable and smooth enough to be ridden at top speed, with extraordinary chassis and suspension composure. And the reason is because they’re developed here, on an identical surface. It’s also littered with gravel. Following Murata-san at 180mph plus, my helmet is peppered with stone chips in seconds. Murata: ‘The GSX-R1000 gets top speed – 186mph – in 500 metres from the hairpin. Very fast. A lot of time on the rev limiter. In the middle of the straight we get strong sidewinds, especially in winter. It’s very cold here.’
186mph on a GSX-R1000: anyone who thinks this isn’t the best job in the world wants their head examining
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>30R The hardest braking into the slowest corner. The first gear hairpin still isn’t exactly stop/start – it’s a relatively gentle turn into a banked corner, with a wide exit. Good for long, lazy knee-downs.
>170R Coming out of the hairpin, short-shift into second, then third and pull hard across the track for the very, very late entry to the last corner on the track, the left-hand 170R. This is one of the few places where the bike has to change direction under hard acceleration – and it’s a struggle to get the K7 from one side of the track to the other. I secretly wish I had a K6 here – I bet it’s better. But maybe not at the entry to 170R. Very aware the left side of the tyre hasn’t seen any action for the best part of a couple of miles, it takes a lot of confidence to stay out, stay out, stay out – then peel in hard, sweeping right across the full width of the track to make a late apex... mostly because the consequences of apexing too early and running wide on the exit – flat in third at 120mph – involves more tyre walls.
>PARTING SHOT My time at Ryuyo is limited to a few hours and a handful of laps – I get kicked off to make way for the test riders’ proper job of evaluating new bikes. Obviously I can’t see what they wheel out as I leave – but, juding by the engine note, I’d guess the black missile Nakashima is rattling round on is the 2008 GSX-R600. It’s revving so hard it sounds like a two-stroke... As we drive off down the dusty path back to the city, I’m struck by how the track’s character is so deeply entwined with the K7. It feels at home here – fast, safe, stable and confident, despite the bumps and proximity of tyre walls. And I have a new-found respect for the commitment of Murata and Nakashima – a quick trash is one thing; day-in, day-out, hour after hour must be punishing. I asked them if they had their own bikes – they looked at me like I was mad: ‘No, we ride all the time, moving all the time. At weekend we like to be still for a while. No bikes.’ Fair enough. They’ve earned a rest. ■
Published on Nov 20, 2009