Saturday, September 4, 2010

'Busa fever

I couldn't believe my eyes. This was insane. This was amazing. This was unprecedented. On a pleasant August Sunday afternoon (last Sunday in fact), a Suzuki Hayabusa, the fastest road-legal motorcycle in the world as of today was slowly growling past my very own garage down the narrow lane in front of my very own house in central Calcutta. All in black, with those huge twin exhausts and the massive rear tyre, this wasn't the first 'Busa that I had seen. In fact I had seen many of them on the freeways of the USA and the occasional one in Bombay and Delhi. But describing the visual impact and contrast of seeing a motorcycle which can touch 320 kmph, inching along in my home lane, where hand-pulled rickshaws and cycle-rickshaws form the major chunk of regular traffic is beyond my current writing capabilities. My eyes followed the bike and its lucky rider till the 4 way intersection a little after my front gate, where it turned left and glided on to wherever it was headed. Luckily I had just returned from a 120 km riding adventure of my own and was still outside my house about to roll my Pulsar into my garage. On most other Sunday afternoons, I would be found fast asleep after breaking personal pledge no. 99968 of not falling asleep on a weekend aternoon. This was a clear case of divine intervention, for me to present on the road at that exact moment in time and to add another pleasant memory to my car/bike/engineering marvels obsessed life.
Even those who are not really as big as a car/bike/engineering fan-boys like me would find the legend of Hayabusa's creation totally irresistible. It's part of modern manufacturing folklore, something you might want to tell your grandkids as a bedtime story. OK, just kidding about that part, but it's still a very cool story. Towards the late 1990s, the four Japanese motorcycle biggies namely Yamaha, Kawasaki, Honda and Suzuki were engaged in a tussle to consistently outdo each other in the top speed figures of their production (i.e road-legal) motorcycles pushing the limits of motorcycle and aerodynamic design with every new model that they launched. As the year 1999 arrived, at the top of the high speed hill was the Honda CBR1100 Super Blackbird with the speedometer capable of touching nearly 300 kmph. The Blackbird motorcycle was in turn named after the SR-71 Blackbird, an US Air Force (USAF) fighter plane which had for decades held the title of the fastest plane in the world consistently cruising at speeds above Mach 3 and had to be eventually retired because no fighter plane really needs that kind of speed under existing combat conditions. The natural world also has a bird family called blackbirds, inspiration for the plane's name but they are not really remarkable in any way except that they are found all around the world in one form or the other. The only reason the plane might have been named the Blackbird was not its record-breaking speed but probably its stealthy dark looks. Whatever logic there might have been behind the naming, the folks at the USAF and subsequently Honda were quite lazy when it came to choosing a name for their top-end machine. A point which folks at Suzuki, Honda's rival must have noted.
The avian natural world has a very real speedster though. The peregrine falcon - with it sharp eyes, and even sharper talons is capable of reaching speeds of 200 mph (320 kmph) during a dive to catch their prey. The migratory ones fly 15500 miles (24800 km) a year from the Arctic circle to South America and back. The word 'peregrine' means wanderer and with all the bird's talents, calling it a superfast wanderer wouldn't be inappropriate. And amongst many other smaller birds that form the peregrine falcon's food, there is a certain bird called the blackbird which shares the same habitat as its predator. When the Hayabusa was launched by Suzuki in 1999, it beat the Honda Blackbird's top speed by a good 10-12 mph (16-19 kmph) reaching nearly 200 mph, thereby making it the new fastest motorcycle in the world, a challenge which Suzuki engineers had taken up very seriously and completed. Soon after that, Kawasaki tried to top that speed with the Ninja ZX-12R but failed and then for the sake of rider safety and government regulations around the world, the 4 Japanese motorcycle rivals reached an unwritten agreement that they would not try to outdo each other on the speed front any longer and concentrate on the comfort of the ride instead. Therefore, the Hayabusa has remained for a long time (frome 1999 till date) on the top of the velocity charts for a bike you can buy from a showroom and straightaway zip out onto a road. As for the name chosen by Suzuki, the Japanese kanji symbol for Hayabusa, in the language's beautiful pictographic way of depicting objects, gives a big clue (See image above) as to what it means. Look carefully and it's hard to miss the shape of a bird of prey descending on a hapless smaller bird, a graphic which can be found on the sides of all Hayabusas and is also a very popular motorbike sticker in India, without most people knowing its significance. The Japanese word for the peregrine falcon, if you haven't guessed it already, is hayabusa. Hence was born the legendary motorcycle's name - Hayabusa, the hunter of Blackbirds!
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