The New Motorcycle Horsepower Wars – How Much is Too Much?

The horsepower wars are upon us. This year the Ninja H2, Yamaha R1, 1299 Panigale and Aprilia RSV4RR will all be released and all will produce more than 200hp – the first time ever in mainstream production motorcycles. Ever since the “truce” among manufacturers to end the top speed wars in 2000, the maximum power output of bikes has remained fairly static.  But thanks to the economic recovery in the industry, increased power and ultimately speed are again a massive focus for motorcycle brands.  But is it a good or a bad thing? Does this obsession with numbers actually improve the end product? And is there yet again a risk of government intervention into the industry? Let’s take a look.

The Argument For

For the majority of the world, motorcycles are a basic mode of transportation but for many in the developed world, motorcycles are an expensive toy. That’s not a difficult argument to make when people are riding bikes to and from work that are capable of reaching 300 kph yet will never go past a third of that potential speed. It’s been this way for decades.

The top speed limit in most nations is in a range of between 100 and 130 kph.  The first motorcycle to achieve those sorts of speed was the Excelsior BigX which first began production in 1918.  So for over 100 years, motorcycles have existed with top speed capabilities that have no application outside of a track. But would we really accept the performance abilities of a nearly 100 year old motorcycle today? Of course not. We expect progress and part of that progress should be faster and more powerful machines.

1914 Excelsior Motorcycle

Motorcycles, like any product need technological innovation or they will become stagnant. There are many features of a bike that can be developed and obviously horsepower is one of them. Being able to squeeze more and more performance out of the same capacity engine while at the same time improving efficiency and emissions. Better power delivery, better rideability. These are all aspects that eventuate from pushing the boundaries of engine development.

There’s also the trickle down effect. Machines like the Yamaha R1 or 1299 Panigale aren’t big sellers for motorcycle companies because they’re premium products. They’re also technological test beds for what will eventually become available for other models. Features like cornering ABS which was first available only on superbikes has now found its way onto adventure and touring models. The same will happen with supercharging and other aspects of the latest and greatest superbikes. What might seem superfluous in a 200hp machine could well be a godsend on commuter bike in years to come.

More powerful and faster bikes benefits us all. It might not immediately flow to lesser models and you might not notice it, but eventually the improvements and innovations on high specification machines becomes something that all riders benefit from.

The Argument Against

The Yamaha R1 which was released in 2004 output 180 bhp (including ram air) and weighted 185 kg wet – a power to weight ratio of 0.97. The 2015 model pumps out 200 bhp and weighs 200 kg – a power to weight ratio of 1:1.  In the space of over 10 years, is that really progress, especially when it comes only from increased horsepower rather than a reduction in weight?

2015 Yamaha YZF R1M

It seems like we’re going backwards when motorcycles weigh more than what their predecessors did over a decade earlier.  Sure, motorcycles have more gadgetry on them than before, like ABS, which does increase weight but that’s only a small part of the reason. The real reason is that it’s cheaper and easier for motorcycle manufacturers to increase horsepower as opposed to decreasing weight. In other words, it’s the easy way out.

A perfect recent example is the new Honda CB650F that was released in 2014 and which effectively replaced the Honda CB600F (also known as the Hornet) in western markets. Upon its discontinuation, the CB600 made 102bhp and weighed 172 kg. The brand new Honda CB650F makes 86 hp and weighsa 208kg – a massive 36kg heavier but 16hp less. That’s the opposite of progress.

Another argument against is that the more powerful motorcycles become, the more of a political target they will be. The top speed wars ceased not because manufacturers thought it was a great idea, but because if they didn’t there would be political ramifications such as restricting the output and top speed of bikes. By deciding to not make motorcycles capable of more than 300 kph (or limited to that speed), manufacturers dodged potentially onerous restrictions.

But by now upping the performance abilities of bikes, manufacturers are likely to set themselves up as a target again. Already there have been negative comments from police and politicians surrounding the Ninja H2 – a bike being sold in such limited numbers it probably won’t even be seen on the road by most people. But politics doesn’t exist in reality, merely perception and if the perception is that these powerful machines are capable of crashing into a school bus full of children with their pet puppies and kittens, you can bet political capital will be made from banning them.

Honda CB650F

The Middle Ground

The most popular entry level bike in the world, the Ninja 300, can reach a top speed of around 180 kph.  A GSX-R 600 can hit about 250 kph and a Honda Fireblade will top out north of 280kph.  Have a guess at what speed you’ll likely die at if in an accident? The answer is any of them. So if even motorcycles that are targeted at entry level riders can attain speeds which can cause fatalities, does it really matter that there are bikes capable of going even faster?

The new batch of superbikes will be ridden by less than 1 per cent of motorcycle riders. Some people will die riding them, most won’t. More riders will be killed because of the actions of car drivers than because motorcycle companies are producing more and more powerful machines.

At the end of the day, 200 plus horsepower machines might not be practical, they may not be necessary but that’s part of what makes motorcycles so great. There’s always that attraction to speed and potentially even danger when it comes to riding bikes but that’s part of the fun. Bikes will never be the safest or most common sense choice of transport in most circumstances and superbikes are definitely at the extreme end of that scale, but to have that choice and that knowledge that the envelope is continually being pushed is hardly a bad thing.

But guys, please try to make bikes lighter in future?

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