The 2021 Kawasaki ZX-10R will be right at home on the deck of an aircraft carrier. I can see it clearly. The bike hunched down in the launch position prior to catapult launch, revs bouncing off the limiter, rider bent low and glancing to the right awaiting the signal to release the clutch. Smoke wafting across the windy deck as the blast deflector rises into position. I know, I know, this makes no sense. But stick with me on this one.
As a child, I remember being mesmerised by the opening scene of the original Top Gun movie. The carefully choreographed movements of men and machine, the tik tik tik of the drumbeat, the chiming of the bell, whining jet engines, fiery afterburners and then, ‘de de de denten’, the catapult slingshots the F-14 Tomcat into the sky. Quite possibly the best 4 minutes of action cinema ever! But what has this got to do with the 2021 Kawasaki ZX-10R? Well, the new ZX-10R may well have something very significant in common with planes like the F-14 Tomcat. A lifting-body aerodynamic package.
I think it’s fair to say that aerodynamic downforce in road-going motorcycles is still in its relative infancy. At the time of writing, you can count on one hand the number of motorcycles that incorporate this feature. Ducati Panigale V4’s, Honda Fireblade and Aprilia RSV4 Factory (with more incoming like the BMW M 1000 RR) come to mind. Of course, Kawasaki pioneered the path with its H2R. But Kawasaki does not only build motorcycles. Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) possesses aviation and gas turbine manufacturing capability. As a result, Kawasaki is proud to espouse the link and technology transfer from these areas to its motorcycling division. In the case of the H2R, this occurred with the supercharger design (gas turbine engine division) and aerodynamic wing design (aerospace division).
This brings us to the 2021 Kawasaki ZX-10R and the F-14 Tomcat.
If we examine all of the aero downforce solutions in use at the moment, they all employ an overt reverse lift wing as its primary tool for generating downforce. In the case of the Ducati Superleggera V4, this takes the shape of a demonic radiation enhanced killer catfish (I’m expecting Godzilla to appear at any moment to restore balance). This is true for both MotoGP, and WSBK with their homologated road bikes. Some employ a ‘pod’ design as required by MotoGP regulations (also think Honda Fireblade and Aprilia RSV4), while others use stand-alone wings (Ducati Panigale V4). I liken these designs to a conventional passenger jet (think Boeing 777). The wings are attached to the conical fuselage where the fuselage and wings perform separate and unique functions. The tube carries the meat packets; the wings keep them in the air.
LET ME HEAR YOUR BODY TALK
Now let’s step back to the late 1960s. No not the mini-skirt; rather, fighter plane design. At the time, all serial fighter aircraft more or less shared passenger jet designs. Wings stuck to a fuselage (think F-4 Phantom or MIG-21). Then along came the F-14 Tomcat, and everything changed. The F-14 was one of the first military aircraft to incorporate a ‘lifting-body’ design. A Lifting-body design apportions lifting duties to the fuselage structure. The fuselage is designed so that the fuselage itself produces lift. Crucially, it does this in conjunction with, and in addition to, the lift provided by the wings. BANG – paradigm shift! This opened up all kinds of new possibilities in wing and aerodynamic design (not to mention packaging).
In the case of the F-14, the total lifting area is roughly 40 per cent greater than the defined wing area. This is directly attributed to its ‘pancake’ fuselage design. The concept was so game-changing that all ensuing fighters have been designed around this fundamental concept. I would love to talk fighter design for pages more, but alas, this is not the place for it.
So, the ZX-10R then. It came as a surprise to me that Kawasaki released a significant update of its alpha sporting machine sans aerodynamic wings. Surely they would not risk being left behind by its rivals on the aero front and jeopardise its domination of WSBK? Well, while other manufacturers have been building MIG-21’s, Kawasaki may well have taken a leaf out of fighter design development and built their own F-14 Tomcat.
Has Kawasaki tapped into its aviation division’s know-how to help design the new Ninja’s front fairing, and in the process leapfrogged the opposition with their ‘cumbersome’ wing designs? The new fairing seems to combine an internal wing system with a lifting-body design to generate negative lift, i.e., downforce. This has resulted in an integrated solution which Kawasaki claims produces 17% more downforce than the previous Ninja. In other words, the ‘whole’ fairing works to create downforce.
A FACE ONLY A MOTHER COULD LOVE
It is now timely to think back to the start of the 2017 MotoGP season. Everybody was getting their knickers in a knot over rumours of a revolutionary new aero package on the Ducati GP17. Sure enough, this materialised during pre-season testing. See anything of interest here?
Ducati was the first to attempt this type of integrated body lift design. It was such a radical look that many didn’t know what to make of it. It was like shock and awe without the missiles. In the end; however, this design never made it to the version raced during the season for reasons attributed to the challenges in meeting race regulations (among other things). Or perhaps Ducati couldn’t make it work due to lacking the ability to call on its aviation division (because it doesn’t have one)? At any rate, no manufacturer has attempted anything like it. Until now, that is.
YEAH, SO WHAT?
So what are the benefits? Why pursue this design over simply sticking on wings. After all, wings are much more noticeable meaning the link to an exciting new technology is more tangible to the consumer. Well, Kawasaki cannot benefit from marketing a link to its road bikes from MotoGP because, Kawasaki does not compete in MotoGP. Kawasaki needs a different ‘angle’. And that angle is its link to aviation through Kawasaki KHI. It did this with the H2R and it is playing that card again. Besides, the radical look is just as effective as wings at shouting, ‘hey, new technology is employed here!’ The design does enough to make the observer wonder if some trickery is at play.
In addition, and more importantly to the racing team, Kawasaki is attempting to crack the holy grail in wing design. Increasing lift (or in this case downforce) without sacrificing the benefits due to excessive drag. After all, there is little point in reducing wheelies and putting more power to the ground in the interests of top speed through better acceleration, only to lose that top speed due to the increased drag the aero package induces. I suspect this is where Ducati found itself with their GP17 prototype.
To complicate things further, there are anecdotal reports that downforce complicates cornering by slowing changes of direction at certain speeds, thus making race bikes more fatiguing to ride. Kawasaki may well have found the means to mitigate these forces with its new design.
A NEW ERA, ALREADY?
It must be noted that Kawasaki does not mention any such aero design element in any of its press communications on the new Ninja. While they do mention ‘integrated wings’, there is no mention of body-lift technology linked to its aerospace division. There could be two reasons for this. Either I’m way off the mark, and it is not actually there or, much like the secrecy surrounding sensitive new military technology, Kawasaki does not want to give away any secrets to its competitors.
Has Kawasaki taken the first steps in a new direction for motorcycle aero package design with the 2021 ZX-10R; an integrated aero ‘system’, ala the F-14 Tomcat? I suspect they may have, and if it works more efficiently than the ‘wing on fuselage’ design, expect Kawasaki to start writing cheques that it can cash. Bravo Kawasaki! ‘De de de denten’…
Interested in sportbikes? You might like to read about the 2020 Honda Fireblade here or here.
Like Kawasaki? You might like to read about the new 2021 KLR650 here.
Or read the latest posts here.