Dear MOby,

How much “lap time” progress has actually been made over the past 25 years? All the moto outlets are very precise in reporting lap times during the yearly comparison tests, but in the same conditions on the same day, how much faster around a track is a new superbike (pick whatever one is currently considered fastest) compared to say, a 1993 CBR900RR with both ridden by an average rider and then both ridden by a very skilled one?

There have been an awful lot of comparison tests done over the years. I wonder if there’s enough of them done with relevant bikes on similar days with comparable riders. Maybe put the vast MO research department on the job? Lacking that, it sure would be interesting to see a track day with several sportbikes that represented definitive progress points. To wit:

  • 1993 CBR900RR
  • 1st gen R1
  • Ducati 999
  • K5 GSX-R1000
  • 1st year BMW S1000RR

There’s got to be owners in the SoCal area with stock(ish) old bikes who would like to see how their bikes stack up against the newest ones enough to spend a day thrashing them.

Walter Barlow


Great question, Walter. As a guy who set up and/ or participated in a slew of magazine track comparisons over the years, I have to say there’s really no scientific way to gather and collate all that data. Even if we returned to the same track every year, which was often Willow Springs in the old days but not always, some years it would be cold and windy, some years not. Some years we’re using each bike’s stock tires, some years we’re using a control tire – and there’s never enough time in one day, or two, to adjust suspension and things to make every bike and rider happy if there’s more than one of each. Which is not to say that multi-bike track tests aren’t a good thing for comparing bikes to each other all on the same day, but comparing from year to year is risky business.

Ex-500 GP pilot and three-time AMA Superbike champ Doug Chandler helped us get a handle on the 2015 superbike crop at Laguna Seca. He liked the 183-horsepower BMW best.

Ex-500 GP pilot and three-time AMA Superbike champ Doug Chandler helped us get a handle on the 2015 superbike crop at Laguna Seca. He liked the 183-horsepower BMW best.

For a down and dirty Ask MO Anything, I think the easiest and quickest way is to have a look at World Superbike racing stats, readily available online here, for one place. World Superbikes, of course, aren’t off-the-shelf motorcycles, but they’ve alway been based on them, especially in more recent years. Weather changes from year to year influence race results, too, but WSB has returned to at least a couple of circuits that haven’t changed at all over the years, making things a bit more scientific. As for the riders, as a group they’re the most skilled in the world, nearly eliminating rider skill as a variable – though blood alcohol levels have come down over the years as rider fitness has gone up.

Let’s start in 1990 with Donington Park (in WSB’s first two years, ’88 and ’89, the track was shorter and lap times were in the 1:13s). In ’90, Fred Merkel won Race 1 on his Honda RC30, with a best lap of 1:39.41 seconds, and Giancarlo Falappa (!) won Race 2 with a best lap of 1:38.86, on a Ducati 851. By 1992, Raymond Roche and his 888 Ducati won Race 1 at Donington with a 1:36.77. In ’93, some kid on a Kawasaki named Scott Russell turned a best of 1:35.24 in Race 1, on his way to winning both legs and the Superbike Championship.

In 1996, Troy Corser won Race 1 with a best lap of 1:33.47 on a Ducati 916 – just about 6 seconds faster than Merkel’s lap six years earlier. After that, lap times at Donington seemed to mostly stabilize until it fell off the WSB calendar after 2001. When it reappeared in 2007, after 1000cc Four-cylinders and 1200cc Twins were the new limits, James Toseland on a CBR1000RR and Noriyuki Haga on a Yamaha R1 split wins: 1:31.77 and 1:31.63.

After 2004, you can eliminate tires as a variable since we’re all on Pirellis now. By 2009, our boy Ben Spies won both legs on his R1, with best laps of 1:30.58 and 1:30.63. In 2012, Marco Melandri drops the hammer on his BMW S1000RR, winning Race 1 with a best lap of 1:28.999. Max Biaggi turned an even quicker 1:28.995 in Race 2 on his Aprilia RSV4, but got beat by Johnny Rea’s Honda anyway (1:29.213).

Last May at Donington, Tom Sykes won both legs on a Kawasaki ZX-10R, turning a 1:26.712 best lap in Race 1.

What we’re looking at, then, is about a 13-second faster lap in 17 years – about a 14.6% improvement, which is good but not as good as you might expect given that Sykes’ ZX-10R probably has twice the horsepower of Fred Merkel’s RC30 and much more grip, in addition to electronic aids Fred hadn’t dreamed of.

Phillip Island is another track that hasn’t changed a bit (except for resurfacing) since World Superbike began racing there in 1990. Peter Goddard and Rob Phillis split wins that year, Goddard’s best lap was 1:39.57 on his Yamaha OW-01, Phillis’ best a 1:39.33 on his ZXR750 Kawasaki. Last season, Jonathan Rea won both legs on his ZX-10R, with a best lap of 1:30.17. That’s about a 10% improvement in 17 seasons of racing.

Why the 5% gap between Donington and Phillip Island? Maybe because Phillip Island is a fast, flowing place that tests outright horsepower and grip: Phillis’ average speed in 1990 was 99.3 mph; Rea’s average speed in 2015 was 107.3 mph. At Donington, which requires more braking, acceleration, and direction changes, Merkel’s 1990 average RC30 speed was 89.75 mph; by 2014, Sykes’ average speed had climbed to 100.2 mph.

Your CBR900RR never got to compete, but John Kocinski won the ’97 title on an RC45 and Colin Edwards won in 2000 and ’02 on an RC51. When 1000cc Fours were allowed to compete in 2004, Troy Corser stepped forward on the new GSX-R1000 and won Suzuki its first (and last) WSB title. And Ducati 998s and 999s won tons of races under people like Carl Fogarty, Troys Corser and Bayliss, Neil Hodgson and James Toseland. Nobody stays on top forever, though, and the last five champs have been on Kawasakis and Aprilias. In other words, those 10 and 15% improvements since 1990 are more or less equal across the board; that rising performance tide has lifted all boats.

Subjectively speaking, as maybe an advanced intermediate rider, I can tell you the difference between riding a new ’94 GSX-R1100 around Laguna Seca 23 years ago, and a new Aprilia RSV4 Factory 22 years later, is roughly equivalent to the difference between using XyWrite to write a story and handing it over to the managing editor on a floppy disc versus typing it on a Google Doc to share real-time in the cloud.

Early ’90s GSX-R1100s weighed approximately 950 pounds, dry, but made up for it with beautiful graphics and solid rubber tires.

Early ’90s GSX-R1100s weighed approximately 950 pounds, dry, but made up for it with beautiful graphics and solid rubber tires.

Expert riders and professional racers benefit from electronic traction control for certain, but maybe not as much as we non-experts do. On the old GSX-R, I saw Jesus so many times I started using him for a braking marker (thank you Jeff Karr). On the Aprilia (and the BMW and the R1 and the ZX-10R), I barely ever set a wheel wrong, went way faster in spite of being way older, and barely even frightened myself. I don’t think much of that’s raw talent. I think it’s the bike, and I’d put the improvement at much more than 10 or 15% if you’re a non-professional – wait – non-expert rider like me.


Direct your motorcycle-related questions to AskMoAnything@motorcycle.com, though some say we’re better at non-motorcycle-related ones…

  • JMDonald

    A well thought out way to answer the question. Good job.

  • john phyyt

    Sorry to harp on but Tires are so much better that most people simply would not want to circulate on the cbr900rr on NOS tires. Forget the rest. 10% right there , and CONFIDENCE, quotient through the roof.

    • Larry Kahn
    • Jay F

      Why you gotta bring the old 900RR’s into this? Shit’s personal ya know.

      • john phyyt

        . Question. states “(pick whatever one is currently considered fastest) compared to say, a 1993 CBR900RR )”.

        No Dis . I love olds Japs . Had an Erion 929

        • Jay F

          I had a 954RR and still kick myself in the ass for selling it. The next owner dropped a screw down in it while changing plugs. So he decided to take the entire engine apart. I believe it’s still in 1,000,000 pieces in his garage. I doubt Humpty Dumpty will ever be put back together again.

          Such is life I guess.

      • ToryII

        Paid $3500.00 for a 97 cbr 900 rr in mint condition (10,000 miles). Slower than my r1, but will never sell it. Honda has a magic wand that makes very special products.

  • DickRuble

    I think what the reader was hinting for was a head to head comparison between a top retail bike from the early 90’s and a contemporary one. That’s something a motorcycle magazine should be able to cobble together..

    • Born to Ride

      First gen vs current gen R1 would be great, but the K5 gixxer thou vs VVT gixxer thou would be better. I’d also like to see the 2008 CBR1k vs the brand new one. The ducatis have the ever increasing displacement advantage to contend with, so that makes it a lot less fair.

      • DickRuble

        Yeah.. but there’s a reason I mentioned the R1…

        • DickRuble

          And here’s why a head to head isn’t going to happen;

          a) assuming a fair comparison, if the old bike came very close or, God forbid, topped the new bike, the egg would stick to the face of the manufacturer harder than on any pan you may buy at Macy’s.

          b) if the new bike won hands down, we would always wonder if that was indeed a fair ans square comparison

          As a side note, not too long ago I did an extensive comparison of two products (high end, off the shelf tennis rackets) manufactured by the same company twenty years apart, same line, with identical specs. The old product was way better.

          • john burns

            Another, alternative take why it isn’t going to happen: To do that comparison, all you need to do is find guys with 20-yr old nearly stock bikes in excellent condition who are eager to have us flog them around a racetrack with no guarantee that they might become scrap by the end of the day. That’s doable, really. Then you need to rent a racetrack for a day, at least $2k, then you need to pay for a couple or three guys to spend all day at said racetrack, along with a photographer and videographer. Then it’ll take another 2 or 3 days to gather it all up into a story…
            OR, plan B, Johnny sits at his kitchen table in a bathrobe and knocks it out in most of a day while posting a couple of news items at the same time and spending $0.
            Which is preferable in a climate where everybody wants their motorcycle info for $0?

          • Born to Ride

            You can’t just take both your R1 and the new one when you get a loaner to a track day, get some pictures and lap times, then do a write up? I’d imagine MO could afford to send you and your baby to a track day no?

          • DickRuble

            He just needs an IV dose of “CANDO” instead of his Pinot Noir…

          • john burns

            my old R1 is far from stock and MO needs me here in my robe to post 3 news items a day.

          • Born to Ride

            You’re right, that’s what MO needs. Not one of it’s best writers putting out interesting and out-of-the-box articles. Forgive me.

          • Ken

            It’s totally lame. The 1983 VF750 was a fast street bike. The 2-stroke triples were fast bikes. Are we talking about the track or the street. On the street whoever wants to go faster can. Not so much on the track. Why would anybody compare street bikes to track bikes?

          • Prakasit

            My hope against hope for the pendulum swinging the other way. That, at least some of us will see the value in worthy info and pay for it. Isn’t “you get what you pay for” some kind of universal law or something? You know, akin to the conservation of energy and mass.
            If Washington Post can pester me to pay for a digital subscription (be it at intro rate), may be there is hope.

          • Kevin Duke

            Good points, except the track rental is closer to $5k. Dick, how much will you chip in? 🙂

          • DickRuble

            How much for half a day at Mullholland Drive?

          • Born to Ride

            Do you guys really spend 5 grand every time you have a track testing portion to a shootout? I was under the impression that you just attended a regular track day like the rest of us and brought your camera equipment.

          • Born to Ride

            Do you guys really spend 5 grand every time you have a track testing portion to a shootout? I was under the impression that you just attended a regular track day like the rest of us and brought your camera equipment.

          • john burns

            you can do it that way but you can’t get good repeatable lap times that way, when you’re dodging other people.

          • Ken

            yeah right screw that… I been reading about motorcycles since I was like 10 or so way back in the late 70’s. When you’ve got something new to say about motorcycles maybe then I’ll pay for it. How much would you like to pay me to thrash my 1986 Ninja 600R? How about my ram air ZX-6? Screw you, let me thrash your bike for a day.

          • Walter

            Thanks for the original thoughtful response.

            But I think you’re overstating the obstacles a bit with this elaborate reasoning as to why such a comparison cant be done.

            Just include an oldie or two in your next inevitable open class shootout. You probably have a big enough audience that there are a couple of folks who would go along with the terms MO lawyers would insist on having.

            See? That’s not so difficult, is it?

            regards,
            Walter (who’s posting from home in his sweatsuit and who knocked this out in a couple minutes).

          • Prakasit

            Prince Graphite?

          • DickRuble

            Yonex rackets — It’s below .. didn’t finish it because the site got hacked and I didn’t have time to fix it until the holidays..

            http://zenrackets.com/

          • Prakasit

            Interesting read, thanks

          • Born to Ride

            They actually did this recently, Gabe offered up his SV 650 to be compared against the new one and FZ07. Some journalists are just bigger team players than others I guess. Haha

          • DickRuble

            Where’s the link?

          • Born to Ride
          • DickRuble

            Thanks! I forgot that the old SV was in there.. That’s all we’re asking for, really, though the conclusion probably applies to a majority of similar cases, speaking of retail bikes: not much faster but a lot easier to ride.

          • DickRuble

            Thanks! I forgot that the old SV was in there.. That’s all we’re asking for, really, though the conclusion probably applies to a majority of similar cases, speaking of retail bikes: not much faster but a lot easier to ride.

          • john burns

            Touchy feely street impressions are one thing; this questioner asked for lap times.

          • DickRuble

            Well, then as someone pointed out you can take a day off from your robe and attend track day. Won’t even be asking for pictures..

        • Born to Ride

          Yeah JB, self sacrifice a bit will ya?

    • Michael Howard

      I think what the reader was hinting at… “

      So much that he actually said it in his last paragraph. 😉

      There’s got to be owners in the SoCal area with stock(ish) old bikes who would like to see how their bikes stack up against the newest ones enough to spend a day thrashing them.

  • Engineer the question backwards: What has really changed in factory sportsbikes over the past twenty-some years?

    We’ve seen the (fairly recent) addition of effective electronic aids like traction control and ABS. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. Tires continue to get better both in terms of absolute grip and control at the limit.

    But by about the early 1990s sportbikes were pretty mature products. Geometry had been largely figured out, with only minor tweaks since then and not much in the way of progressive frame concepts taking hold like the twin-beam revolution. There’s only so much that can be done with porting and cam timing to feed more air and fuel into a cylinder, so absolute power increases have been incremental (the FZR1000 made about 145hp back in 1989; almost thirty years later the R1 makes a shade under 165).

    Yes, the light-is-better movement with first the CBR900RR and then the original R1 have had meaningful influence on the big bikes, but that’s a matter of decreasing significance as you get down to the traditionally svelte Supersports. We’ve had the 750s tragically fade into extinction. We’ve had a fad for non-Bolognese V-Twins come and go.

    But not that much has changed – certainly compared to the ferocious degree of evolution that happened through the ’80s.

    If that hypothetical matchup among generations would come to pass, I’m not so sure the new bikes would be that much quicker – especially if the rider-assist electronics were turned off.

    • Malcolm Turncoat

      The electronics don’t make bikes faster, they are just more controllable. If you’re regularly hitting the traction control on the street your probably just cheating death.

      The introduction of radial tyres and 17″ wheels made a big difference to mid corner stability. Internal combustion engines and motorcycle chassis are fairly mature technology. So its mostly just the thrill of buying a new bike and having the latest status symbol that keeps road bikes going

      • In the great tradition of comment-board pedantry I’ll offer that in anything other than a perfectly Nevada-highway-straight line controllability determines speed, especially in a lapping/racing situation (unless you’re Mick Doohan, in which case much respect and I’ll never forget watching you on that brutal NSR500 at the Salzburgring in 1993) and that’s the whole point here. (Also why we’re not really talking about Hayabusas and so on.)

        But yeah, very much with you. Everything since about the late 1980s has been refinement.

        Also, add-on to my comparison of the two Yamahas: I get the feeling that the FZR1000 in stock form has a lot more tuning potential than the current R1. A good shop could hot-rod the FZR motor – probably get it close to the modern R1? – with some reliable parts and thoughtful head work and so on; getting meaningful gains out of the R1 motor has to be difficult at this point. The magazine-page power wars have just forced manufacturers to get ever closer to race-level tuning and real physical limits.

  • MyName

    This is the perfect jumping off point for a shootout between the 2017 Ducati Supersport and the first generation, carbureted Supersports. Unfortunately they stopped using carbs after ’96 so we can’t get a full 20 year spread.

    • So have all three represented: one of the 1991-98 bikes that was so popular and well-loved, one of the ’99-’07 Terblanche bikes, and the new one. Including that middle one might be a valuable way to mark progress along that 25-year line.

      • MyName

        I like it. Also, I was wrong earlier. 1997 was the “final edition”, and last with carbs, before the 2nd gen FI bikes. So I say test a 97 “final edition” vs 2007 1000DS vs 2017 S. One for each decade. It’s not a 97, but I would volunteer my 95, it’s been a bit hotrodded though.

    • Walter

      My feeling is that it wouldn’t be too much different than looking at an original 916 compared to a a 900 SuperSport of the same vintage.

  • ducatirdr

    Diminishing returns… That’s whats been going on since radial tires were fitted to bikes and the frames and suspensions were designed to handle their higher loading. It’s been 20 years better brakes, more BHP, and electronics to corral it all. While lap times don’t show huge improvements the bikes are getting easier to ride for mortals without WSBK budgets.

  • Old MOron

    Actually, JB’s last paragraph makes perfect sense to me.
    Shall we move on to testing Husky’s Arrows? 🙂

  • James Muhammad

    The author attributes the improvement to the bike and forgets about the software upgrade between his ears (biggest improvement) in 22 years.

    • john burns

      I like you, James. I AM still getting faster at 56!

  • Mahatma

    Think the Blade would be the perfect test subject since it’s been around so long.Maybe a ’92,an ’00 and an ’08?With same tyres ofcourse.Maybe a mod for the first gen with 17″ wheels…

  • Gruf Rude

    For those of us who confine our riding to the street, the difference is purely academic. At WFO we were going to jail just as fast 20 years ago as we are now . . .

  • Craig Hoffman

    I suspect we may see a resurgence in serious sportbikes that are smaller than liter capacity due to more efficient design in general, and the stratospheric cost of liter class bikes.

    What was once old may be new again, and 750s may just come back into style. The GSXR 750 remains one of my favorite motorcycles. With a little modernizing and such, the old girl may just have some life left after all.

  • Peter Collins

    Something like this was done by Bike magazine in the UK when the then new VFR1200 came out. They compared it with every Fireblade model on the same circuit, same day, same rider, to see how good a new sports tourer was against an iconic range of sports bikes. I recall that it trounced the bike I then owned (Mark 1 900 Fireblade) and I think it was close to par with the early 1000cc models, but lost out to the post 2007 ‘blade. Impressive, but not enough to make me trade light weight, good looks and simplicity.

  • Staunch_Republican

    This is nonsense. The faster motorcycles get is not real issue. Sure new bikes are faster. So what? Are they more ridable? Do they handle well in everyday use? How comfortable are they to ride more than 3 hours at a time? How much does it cost to upkeep? I couldn’t give a rats behind if the machine can exceed the sound barrier or how fast it takes to get there. Those who do are living on borrowed time.

    • BDan75

      Wow, bet you’re the life of the party. I care about speed (and the things you mention, too), and I don’t think I’m living on borrowed time.

      Other hand, we’re all living on borrowed time, so why not have some fun?

      • Staunch_Republican

        I spent 20 years in EMS picking up carcasses of people like you who loved speed. Frankly I enjoy motorcycling too much to be in a hurry to get to the grave.

        • ToryII

          Oh no. Quarter mile times, top speed (200mph), and manueverability at any speed are paramount ! LONG maintenance intervals (or maintenance-free) are important too.

  • mog

    In 1997 it was the S1 Lightning by Buell at 424 lbs and 81 hp, decent track bike.
    2017 has Erik Buell Racing 1190rx (318 lbs dry) with a lower price than a Ducati Panigale by $5k and track test lap time within .05 seconds of the Ducati. Youtube.. EBR vs Ducati

    For $13,000 you can buy the USA EBR at about 26 USA dealerships. That is real American progress, whether you use the speed or not.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a818ecdbd4a9b167430db2d743d418d1def24ef2b7e85dcc5c03441d7a79d8be.png

  • Chocodog

    “Early GSXRs weighed 900 lbs and had solid rubber tires? That’s the caption above!

  • sburns2421

    Magazines have done similar things before. Sport Rider used to take a bike a few years old with a modest budget and put it up against the new model of that bike (say ’02 R6 vs ’06 R6).
    Motorcyclist did it in ’92 or 93 where they compared three new bikes with similar models a decade or more older. For the street and pure riding enjoyment.
    ’92 900SS vs. ’76 900SS
    CBR600F2 vs GPZ550
    CBR900RR vs …something cannot remember
    In the end IIRC the comments were basically that having the latest and greatest was fun, but the old bikes were very enjoyable too. Rider skiil and experience played much more of a role. One tester commented that if he was on the GPZ as a skilled adult or himself at 16 on the 900RR, the old bike and rider would wipe the floor with the newbie on the fast bike.
    Or another I remember that has stuck with me was that getting faster and faster bikes means he has just increased the speed at which he would eventually crash if chasing the sensation of speed was the goal.
    Another commented that of all the machines on test, the old Ducati was the most desirable (may have been Mitch Boehm or Tim Carrithers), and ended with a quote I can almost remember today: “a decade from now, long after the 900RR is eclipsed by tomorrow’s technology, the old Duc will still be aging gracefully.”

  • Malcolm Turncoat

    what a weak article, race bikes lap times have got little to do with street bike performance

  • As usual, Mr. Burns tells the tale with his usual twist and humor…yes bikes are faster today.

  • ToryII

    Marquez won the championship on a honda while Rossi and Lorenzo are always right behind him on yamahas. Ianoni and Dovisioso are always crashing on the faster Ducati’s. Yea, TIRES, we split hairs on the makers. BMW seems to beat Kawasaki on the roads and streets. They’re all fast, I pick em on their maintenance requirements (Yamaha). What’s the fastest twin with the least maintenance required ?

  • Mad4TheCrest

    It’s always enjoyable to reflect on how fast new bikes are when compared to the beasts of yesteryear (like last year, even). But since most of these new bikes see street/canyon use rather than track, the differences in real-life speed are minor. This is true even with traction control, wheelie control, and all the other controls we can get these days. You can only go so fast on the street. Although it’s true that minor speed increase will come with a better safety cushion than before. On the track as JB describes, the improvements are more dramatic. Hey, given lighter bikes with more power and the electronics to make that combo safely useable, speeds are bound to increase!