Richard Hammond

Richard Hammond on superbikes

Hammond’s Haya education

I gave up riding sports bikes for a very sound reason: they're too bloody fast. After 25 years of getting away with it on two-wheeled rockets more suited to the track than to street life, I figured it was time to grow up. I would, I decided, abandon the relentless, headlong pursuit of speed in favour of something more sedate. I sold my sports bike and bought a Harley. It's big, it's black, it's modelled on the one ridden by the leader of the Hells Angels and it's bad. No, it's worse than bad; it's terrible.

Don't get me wrong, I love the look of it, the evil black silhouette, the bulk of it and the chromed, fin-tail pipes with their un-silenced, Harley ‘potato-potato-potato', burbling away in traffic. But it's just not all that good at moving about the place. It is, in fact, hopeless. And so, out of curiosity, I tried a sports bike again. I could have gone for a ride on a mid-range thing, something with a bit of poke, but not too much. Or I could have organised a test ride of the new Suzuki Hayabusa.

Like a boy child born in a Blues song to a gin-soaked mother on a stormy night, it seemed only right that the Hayabusa's entrance into my life should be heralded by pain and a touch of chaos. It's a hellraiser, the big ‘Busa, bringing a swaggering reputation for straight-line performance and the status of being the first production bike capable, with only mild tweaking, of cracking 200mph - although later versions have had that ability strangled out of them by the inevitable Euro legislation. Nevertheless, it's still a mighty powerful thing. A bike with 195bhp demands your attention. And the fact that this power and status is wrapped up in a form too ugly even for a gin-soaked mother to love only kind of adds to its bad-boy appeal.

And so, back to the song and the ‘Busa was indeed born on a bad day. OK, so the devil didn't actually walk that day; lightning didn't hit the old oak by the creek and didn't appear on the hillside - but we were in the midst of some pretty chaotic building work when it arrived. Furthermore, as the man from Suzuki rolled the bike off his van, under the admiring gazes of the builders engaged in attempting to fix my broken house, I was elsewhere, falling off a horse.

"A bike with 195bhp demands your attention. And the fact that this power is wrapped up in a form too ugly even for a mother to love only kind of adds to its bad-boy appeal”

I've since checked the timings and can be pretty sure that the moment at which the Suzuki's front wheel first kissed the tarmac outside my house was the exact same one in which my arse slammed down on an unforgiving field. The resulting injury to my pelvis put me on crutches for a month, and off bikes for a little bit longer. Arriving home from the hospital, I hobbled over to the bike, took in the gleaming flanks, the mighty exhausts like battleship guns and the ugly, beaked nose of the thing and asked for it to be removed until I was well enough to ride it. And finally, this week, I was. 

This is where it gets a bit tricky. If you ride bikes you'll be familiar with the significance of the letters G, S, X and R. If not, they'll be meaningless. If I breathe the letters GSX-R to a biker, there is no need to elaborate by talking of the bike's cult status in the past, its reputation for blasting fearless hooligans through the pearly gates, the uproar from devoted, heavily-tattooed fans at the move from oil- to water-cooling in the early Nineties, the million applications in custom bikes and cars for its legendary engines... But I've just said it all anyway, so you're up to speed, even if you're not a biker.

The Hayabusa is the biggest-ever version of the GSX-R in terms of capacity, but not the fastest round a track. That accolade must hang round the neck of the more race-focussed GSX-R1000 - a bike that, whilst down on capacity, has the edge over the ‘Busa in terms of handling, braking and cornering. Whereas the ‘Busa is the boss at just being the most powerful. And therein lies the key to its very existence. It's bloody powerful, looks extraordinary and can pull your head off if you ask it to, but it's as far from a race-focussed, lightweight sports machine as it is from an eiderdown.

Above all else, beyond the stratospheric figures, the variable engine-mapping and the groundbreaking aerodynamics, it has one thing that sets it apart from the rest and gives it more appeal; it's got a sense of humour. Rumbling through town on a 195bhp bike ugly enough to make dogs retch, feels good. But hooning across country on A-roads, massaging the throttle to release daubs of that limitless power so the bike squats and corners, felt very, very good indeed. I may have been wrong about the whole fast bike thing. To anyone I have berated and harangued on this very subject over the past year, I apologise. They rock.

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Richard Hammond, Column

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