TOP TEN Sportbikes of the Nineties

Everyone reminisces about the good ol’ days, once in a while. The 1990s were arguably the peak years for sportbikes, spurred by the Golden Age of Motorcycle GP and the World Superbike Championship.

With the WSB (now abbreviated as WSBK) series at the height of its popularity, manufacturers produced ever more sophisticated road bikes in order to be eligible for racing in this production-based series. Those technologies would eventually be carried on until this day.

Suzuki GSX-R750 – image credit

Here are the Top Ten Sportbikes in the 1990s, arranged by the year they made their debut.

10. Yamaha FZR750R OW01 (1989 – 1992)

Yamaha FZR750R OW01 – Image credit

Yamaha had come in second overall in the inaugural WSB year of 1988 with the FZ750 and it felt encouraged by the results. But in order to win, it had to beat the dominant Honda VFR750R RC30.

So, here came the FZR750R OW01 homologation special. The aluminium of the frame was of better quality; it had Ohlins rear shock with remote hydraulic adjuster, magnesium and titanium parts scattered around the bike and a race-ready engine. Speaking of the engine, it was an inline-Four with the Genesis head, which had 5 valves-per-cylinder. Oh, the pistons had only two rings each.

Although it was launched for the 1989 WSB season, the OW01 went well into the 1990s until it was succeeded by the YZF750R in 1993.

9. Kawasaki Ninja ZXR-750 (1989 – 2003)

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-7R – Image credit

Ducati lost the 1993 WSB title and this was the bike it lost to; its rider was Scott “The Screaming Chief” Russell. Doug Toland also won the FIM World Endurance title with this bike that same year.

There are two versions, one with dual seat called the ZXR-750 and the racing homologation model called the ZXR-750R. In the States, they are called the ZX-7 and ZX-7R, respectively.

Kawasaki never won another title since then until Tom Sykes took his long-awaited championship exactly 20 years later, in 2013.

8. Honda CBR600F2 (1991 – 1994), -F3 (1995 – 1998) and -F4 (1999 – 2000)

Honda CBR600F2 – Image credit

Evolved from the 600 Hurricane, the CBR600 series featured plenty of good power and rideability, comfort and practicality to boot.

The F2 won every magazine’s 600cc sportbike comparo against every rival thrown at it, as well as its successors. That performance was repeated on the tracks, where it won every single race in the AMA 600 Supersport Championship.

7. Ducati 888 (1991 – 1993)

Ducati 888 SP5

Raymond Roche may have won Ducati its first WSB crown in 1990 but it knew that the competition was closing in. Besides, the 851 that Roche rode had been in production since 1987.

Ducati enlarged the bore to 888cc to homologate the bike for WSB racing, thus creating the 888. The computerised fuel-injection and four-valve head of the 851 were retained. Although the road version made only 94 bhp and 80.5 Nm of torque, it held its own in the corners. The 1992 888SBK race version was said to generate 134 bhp.

American rider Doug Polen rode the bike to the 1991 and 1992 WSB titles, further cementing the legend of the roaring two-cylinder bikes from Italy.

6. Honda CBR900RR Fireblade (1992 – 2003)

Honda CBR900RR Fireblade

Not all sportbikes got famous because of WSB. In fact, the CBR900RR Fireblade was designed not as a WSB contender from the outset. Project leader Tadao Baba managed to convince the Honda management that if they created a bike that was good, light and cheap, people would buy it.

The CBR900RR was all about weight reduction. Anything superfluous was ejected and those necessary were lightened. As a result, at 205kg wet, it was only 2kg heavier than Honda’s own CBR600F2. The next lightest open-class bike, the Yamaha FZR1000, was a whopping 34kg heavier.

Being a 900cc bike, it was not eligible for WSB racing, but Tadao Baba’s vision was right and the Fireblade wiped the showroom floors with its competition.

5. Honda RFVF750R RC45 (1994 – 2002)

Honda RVF750 RC45

The successor to the VFR750R RC30. While the RC45 looked similar to the RC30, none of the parts were interchangeable.

Again, because WSB rules forbid too much variation from production motorcycles, manufacturers need to produce motorcycles that are “ready to win”. First and foremost, Honda ditched the carburetors of the RC30 and fitted the PGM-FI (Programmable Fuel-Injection) system. Besides that, the V-4 motor was given a close firing order, the pistons were lightweight and coated in low friction material, the conrods were titanium, the cylinder liners were impregnated with ceramic and graphite, and many engine components were cast magnesium.

All these add up to a very expensive motorcycle and only 200 were produced for WSB homologation, but that did not stop it from being snapped up by race teams and a few wealthy private customers.

4. Ducati 916 (1994 – 1998)

Ducati 916 SP – image credit

Kawasaki took the WSB title in 1993 and Ducati had to respond. Another engine capacity enlargement gave birth to the 916cc engine. Legendary designer Massimo Tamburini and Sergio Robbiano penned a bike around that engine, which became the Ducati 916.

It stunned the entire world with its…er… stunning beauty and technical innovations. It had a single-sided swingarm, underseat exhausts, swelte profile and sharp twin headlights. It was so ground-breaking that it seemed no one remembered what else came out in 1994. Although most of its design was influenced by the Honda NR750, it was Ducati who got it right. Many have said that it was the 916 which influenced motorcycle designs in the last 20 years.

But the 916 was not only about style as it set a new paradigm in terms of performance too. It and its 996 variant went on to win six WSB titles in eight years. Four of those titles were won by Carl Forgarty, who had also became a legend through his exploits on the 916.

3. GSX-R750 SRAD (1996 – 1999)

Suzuki GSX-R750 – Image credit

Suzuki had also been campaigning in WSB since the start but had met with little success. So, in 1996, it launched the new GSX-R750 SRAD.

The long-running double-cradle frame was replaced with a twin-spar aluminium frame derived from Kevin Schwantz’s RGV500 race bike, saving 20kg from its predecessor. Also, harking back to the original GSX-R750 of 1985, it was given a diet, ending up with a motorcycle that weighed in at 194kg, wet. It was actually lighter than all 600cc machines of the time.

This bike will forever be known as the SRAD, as fans like to call it. It stands for Suzuki Ram-Air Direct. Intake air is inducted directly into the airbox at high speeds, producing more power. The peak out of 126 bhp matched the CBR900RR’s and its lighter weight meant that it could take on its bigger rival.

2. Yamaha YZF-R1 (1998 – present)

Yamaha YZF-R1

Remember the FZR1000 which was soundly trounced by the CBR900RR?

Yamaha fought back in 1998 with the shark-like YZF-R1. Taking the cue from Honda, Yamaha engineers pared off the weight and stuck in the new 1000cc engine, which produced 150 bhp. The EXUP exhaust valve was retained to boost power and torque throughout the engine’s range. The drivetrain also featured a revolutionary stacked gearbox arrangement which has been copied to this day.

From the R1’s debut, Yamaha was able reclaim their top spot and it was a force to be reckoned with. Ben Spies won his WSB in 2009 on a YZF-R1.

1. Suzuki GSX-1300R Hayabusa (1999 – present)

Suzuki GSX-1300R Hayabusa – Image credit

Okay, this is not a race replica, but the title of this article is not “Best Race Replicas”.

The Hayabusa or ‘Busa, as it is popularly called, is technically the fastest production street motorcycle ever. That was because when it hit 312 km/h in 1999, European regulatory bodies threatened a ban. Consequently, manufacturers committed to a handshake agreement to cap top speeds at 299 km/h.

Named after the peregrine falcon which could reach up to 320 km/h in a dive, the ‘Busa out-accelerated and outran everything, including supercars, when it was first launched. 20 years on, it is still something to get out of the way of.

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