The 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans: Closing in on the end of an era 


Per my annual tradition, I stayed up and watched all 24 hours of the 86th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans June 16-17. The historic race was first run on public roads in and around Le Mans, France in 1923. Within the context of more recent Le Mans history, the on-track action on Saturday and Sunday was rather dull.  

Toyota, who was the only returning factory-backed LMP1 team, was never challenged for the lead of the race. The GTE Pro class gave viewers some great battles between popular brands like Ford, Ferrari, Porsche, and Corvette. However, Toyota’s long-sought victory by a margin of 12 laps over the nearest non-Toyota prototype highlighted the absence of the major factories and rivalries that has pulled me into the sport.  

The world feed commentators did their best to play up Toyota’s important role in endurance racing. Nothing the announcers said was untrue, and Toyota does deserve commendation for their role in preserving the rivalry that had sustained the event’s energy and popularity until now.  

Despite the lack of the charisma and charm that had come to characterize the event in recent years, I found myself enjoying it on a deeper level. I started watching Le Mans and sports car racing in general in the late 2000s. At that time Peugeot had just entered the sport to challenge perennial contenders Audi. Over the next several years I watched Audi and Peugeot battle at Le Mans and in the United States at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Petit Le Mans. When Peugeot bowed out Toyota and later Porsche kept the intense and intellectual rivalry alive.  

The impending shift in Europe away from petrol- or diesel-fueled cars, a major diesel emissions scandal at Audi parent company Volkswagen and the high cost of running a Le Mans prototype program have caused Audi and Porsche to leave Le Mans competition. For 2018 another manufacturer did not step up to take their place. This left Toyota as the sole LMP1 Hybrid entry. 

Even with the lack of competition at the front, the new prototype rules being rolled out for the 2020 to 2024 24 Hours of Le Mans means cars like Toyota’s TS050 are in their twilight years. To rectify the problems with high operating costs and attract more manufacturers back to Le Mans, the new formula calls for more production-based prototypes. 

So, while the racing fan in me was disappointed with the lack of competition for the overall win, the historian in me soaked up the experience of watching this type of car compete at Le Mans for the penultimate time. I applaud the move to a more cost-conscious and road car-oriented formula. That move, however, also means that 2018 and 2019 are the last years we will see cars at the current level of performance. Lap times has started to fall to pre-1990 levels, before the chicanes were added along the Mulsanne Straight.  

I realized this was a time to soak up what was left of the Le Mans I had known since I became a fan. So, I made the most of it and in the end found myself enjoying Toyota’s bid to become the first Japanese manufacturer to win at Le Mans since Mazda did so in 1991. It was simply too bad that Toyota has to claim the win without any real competition. 

In the end, I am not all that sad to see the LMP category go by the wayside. Le Mans has made itself about high return on investment for manufacturers. In the face of apprehension from manufacturers to commit large sums of money to running an LMP program, the technological “distance” between an LMP car and a production road car, and changing technology, Le Mans must adapt to survive and to continue serving its high-ROI mission. In order to remain relevant, Le Mans must evolve.  

One of the most underpromoted parts of 2018 event was the Dempsey-Proton team’s win in the GTE Am Class. Well-known actor and team owner Patrick Dempsey was prominently featured in the TV broadcast. However, that was preaching to the choir.  

In order to grow interest in sports car racing, especially in the United States, there needed to be better access to the visual feed outside of the Velocity Channel broadcast. Even if it is was just video clips on social media. I did not see anything coming across the major news outlets about Dempsey’s team’s strong performance at the event. Releasing a press release post-event is too late. 

The ACO needed to do more to draw fans of Dempsey in during the event easily and quickly. It doesn’t matter if those Dempsey fans are just tuning in to see Dempsey’s team. What matters is that they would want to tune in and would have a reason to learn about the sport and get into the sport. 

There were two changes for the 2018 24 Hours of Le Mans that I was not a big fan of. One was the removal of the yellow headlight covers for the GT cars. The covers had made it a lot easier as a television viewer to distinguish between prototype and GT cars. Hopefully the ACO brings them back next season. 

I was also not a fan of the new rule that allowed teams to change tires and refuel the car at the same time. Even if modern refueling technology has made the rule redundant, it was one of the things that made Le Mans different from other forms of auto racing. I’d rather see the ACO allow two tire changers and reinstate the refueling rule. Because of how long refueling takes, there did not seem to be the urgency with tire changing that there used to be.  

The new rule for 2018 that forced the GTE Pro cars to come in after a set number of laps was just plain dumb. This is endurance racing. May the best strategy win. The ACO effectively removed the element of strategy and forced the race to be about each car’s pace. Along with the balance of performance changes made before the race, the GTE Pro class racing was close but felt artificial. Cars like the Ferrari 488 that could have potentially used strategy to make up for lack of outright pace were relegated, and the Porsche vs. Ford GT battle showed there is something very unbalanced about the current BOP rules. 

2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 Review


Introduction

My short time with my Ninja 500 began with near tragedy. I was rear-ended on my previous street motorcycle in April 2017. I was very fortunate to have walked away from such a severe impact, though I did break my collarbone in the crash. While I was waiting for my collarbone to heal (and was down to one, track only motorcycle) I had time to consider which motorcycle I wanted to buy next.

I knew in the long-term I wanted to go back to a dedicated sport-touring bike. My deceased 2003 Yamaha FJR1300 had given me a taste of the comforts of touring on a true touring bike. I had found that I greatly enjoyed its touring-oriented features like shaft drive, hard saddlebags, and wind protection.

However, my budget and healing collarbone made buying another heavy, dedicated touring bike not feasible before peak riding season was over. Determined to not miss any more riding time than I needed to, I started looking for smaller, budget-conscious motorcycles I could afford that would also work for long-distance riding.

I decided to view my misfortune as an opportunity to try something different. I had been riding 1200cc or larger motorcycles since 2009. I decided it was worth taking a step down in displacement for the first time in my riding career.

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The Ninja 500 was one of the bikes on my list from the start, along with a Suzuki GS500, Kawasaki Ninja 250, Suzuki SV650, or Kawasaki 650. After 10 years of riding four-cylinder motorcycles, I definitely wanted to give a twin a try. I wasn’t interested in finding something that had lots of creature comforts. All I was looking for was something that could be used for long-distance riding by adding soft luggage.

After a couple weeks, I found the all-black 2009 Kawasaki Ninja 500 that I would settle on. The old owner had bought it new off the showroom floor and said she hadn’t had time to ride it much. Other than a crack on the right side of the upper fairing from a tip-over, the bike was in cosmetically good shape.

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The bike’s motor was also relatively fresh with just under 10,000 miles on the odometer. Because the bike hadn’t been run much, it had some trouble idling smoothly but seemed to run okay when the throttle was applied. After getting the bike home, I pulled the carbs out and gave them a thorough cleaning. I also did a valve adjustment that was overdue and re-synched the carbs when I re-installed them. I also changed the oil, oil filter, air filter, brake pads, and coolant, and installed stainless steel brake lines on the front and rear. I also adjusted the choke and throttle cables and changed the brake fluid for both braking systems.

After doing the above preventative maintenance, I rode the Ninja for about 4,000 miles from July (when I was medically cleared to ride again) to the end of September. I traded the bike for another FJR in December 2017.

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Engine/transmission

The engine power and performance were my biggest concerns when I bought my Ninja 500. While I was buying the bike in part to try a smaller displacement motorcycle, the Ninja 500’s engine was a lot smaller than what I was used to. At 498cc, the Ninja 500 is the second-smallest displacement motorcycle I have owned, and the smallest since 2007. My first motorcycle was a 1982 Honda CB450T, and that bike’s mill did not churn out a lot of power. Since May 2009, I had not ridden a motorcycle smaller than 1157cc.

I have to say the engine power and performance were one of the bike’s strong points. The motor was certainly not an FJR mill where I could pass interstate traffic with a slight twist of the wrist. However, I found the power just fine for all types of riding. My Ninja 500 would show 6,000 rpm in sixth gear at 75 mph, which was less than 2,000 rpm more than my 2003 FJR would do in top gear. Engine vibration was minimal and throttle response was excellent. I did have to get used to shifting a lot more with the smaller motor, as the engine did not put out the kind of torque I was used to. The additional shifting actually made riding a more involved experience did not detract from the bike’s fun factor at all.

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Suspension/steering

The Ninja 500 comes with non-adjustable front forks and a single rear shock with pre-load adjustability. The front and rear suspension settings were a tad on the plush side. The bike absorbed bumps in the road smoothly with little headshake

The bike’s biggest drawback was its handling. I couldn’t determine whether the problem was the front suspension, bike geometry, or the ancient Bridgestone Exedra tires that came with the bike.

One of the things I was really looking forward to with a smaller bike was quicker turn-in and better flickability. Instead, I had little-to-no confidence on the front tire and found myself taking corners I was familiar with even slower than I did on my old 600-pound FJR1300. I wish I had had more time on the bike and had been able to change the tires out for Bridgestone BT45s or Pirelli Sport Demons. However, without more seat time and different shoes, I have to report the handling was sub-par and disappointing.

Another problem with the bike was is susceptibility to crosswinds. The bike would become noticeably unstable when passing tractor-trailers or when there was a strong crosswind. I could not tell whether this was due to the bike’s weight (relative to my previous motorcycles) or a geometry issue. Either way, I found myself having to fight to keep the bike in line in heavy wind conditons.

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Brakes

The brakes were another weak point of the bike’s overall performance. Despite weighting in at nearly the same dry weight as the Suzuki SV650, the Ninja 500 only has one front brake. Before I even rode the bike, I sensed that the single brake may not provide enough power in emergency stopping situations. I replaced the front and rear brake lines with stainless lines from Galfer.

While the stainless steel lines had the positive, consistent feel that I was used to from the Spiegler Brake Lines-equipped FJR1300, the overall stopping power was not enough for me. In emergency situations the front brake did not stop me as quickly as I was used to. Nor did the combination of front and rear brake provide the stopping power I was looking for.

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Comfort

The bike’s ergonomics were good for a medium-sized sport bike. The clip-on handlebars were mounted to risers that produced a slight forward lean from my 6’2 frame. I did not experience an abnormal discomfort in my wrists. My legs were a bit cramped with the bike’s sport-oriented pegs. I eventually adjusted to them though and found the pegs to be acceptable in the end. Wind protection was acceptable from the small windscreen, and I did not experience any ill effects from wind buffeting.

One aspect of the bike I could not adjust to was the seat. It was awful. I could only ride the bike for about an hour and a half for the first fuel stint, and then only 45-minutes to an hour after that. Had I kept the bike as a back-up touring bike that would have been the first upgrade I would have made.

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Long-distance riding

Comfort issues aside, the bike performed much better as a touring bike than I had thought it would. The 4.2-gallon fuel tank and the 55-60 MPG fuel economy allowed the bike to tour 180-200 miles before hitting reserve.

I was able to mount soft luggage to the bike with ease, and the extra weight of the loaded luggage did not noticeably change the bike’s handling.

The chain drive requires regular chain maintenance. The little space between the bottom of the swingarm and the chain made chain lubrication somewhat difficult. The bike comes with a centerstand as standard equipment, making chain lubrication much easier on a long trip.

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Ease of maintenance

Overall the bike was relatively easy to maintain. The single front disc makes accessing the front wheel’s valve stem easy. The centerstand makes is also a big help to performing maintenance.

The bike’s turn-and-locknut valve adjusters are not real difficult to get to. The only annoyance is having to remove two coolant tubes in order to remove the valve cover. Removing the tank is relatively easy, as is removing the front fairing. The rear bodywork is moderately simple to remove as well.

The oil drain plug, oil filter, coolant drain screw, radiator cap and coolant reservoir are relatively easy to access. The air filter is an older foam design that needs to be coated with air filter oil before being installed.

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Conclusion

Overall, the mid-sized Ninja is a great budget-conscious bike. I would have liked to have kept it as a back-up bike and outfitted it with a better seat and better tires. Unfortunately, my budget and available garage space did not afford me the luxury of having more than two bikes at a time. Even with its several weaknesses, I was very impressed overall by the Ninja 500.

It is an ideal bike for new riders, re-entry riders, urban riders, or a rider who is looking to give long-distance riding a try on a budget. The bike’s bulletproof engine, strong engine performance, ease of maintenance, and ergonomics make it an ideal bike for a young person who wants to take up the motorcycling lifestyle.

While the Ninja 500 is an older design that was phased out of production in the late 2000s, many Ninja 500s are available in the used bike marketplace. New riders or budget-conscious motorcycling enthusiasts looking for an affordable, high-value bike would be well-served by the 500’s ease of maintenance, low maintenance costs, and adaptability.

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