Most racing fans would kill for the chance to ride the current crop of World Superbikes back-to-back at one of the most exciting racetracks on planet Earth, right? Of course, and I would, too. Fortunately on this occasion all I had to do was book a plane ticket to Portimao, Portugal, pack up my leathers and head to the post-season test for journalists at Autodromo Internacional Algarve arranged by the World Superbike promoter. No jail time required.
After taking in the final races of the year including Superbike, Supersport and multiple other support races that don’t get televised in the U.S., I was amped up for my own laps around Portimao.
This 15-turn track has to be one of the trickiest circuits in the world to learn, so I was glad to have logged a lot of laps during a prior Michelin-tire press launch. But my lingering concerns centered around all the blind rises and hidden apexes packed into the layout. In my previous visit, this wasn’t as much of an issue because I’d had ample track time and was riding a variety of production streetbikes, not heading out with no practice laps on 200-plus horsepower factory superbikes.
I don’t turn to staff-wrist Mark Cernicky for guidance on too many subjects (yikes!), but there is one thing he knows plenty about: going fast. Plus, he’d attended the last World Superbike test hosted at Portimao, so I hit him up for some riding tips. His advice? Trust the electronics and rely on wheelie and traction control. He was right on the money.
As a matter of fact, the importance of electronics is the overriding theme of this test. No other single element is more significant in making these brutish World Superbikes rideable than the black-box brains behind the brawn. Mat Mladin’s 2009 Yoshimura Suzuki GSX-R1000 was the last superbike I threw a leg over, and as impressive as it was, it’s not even close to level of sophistication that was in store for me in Portugal. So, in the order that I rode the bikes, here are my impressions of the world’s greatest superbikes.
Jonathan Rea’s Castrol Honda CBR1000RR
There is no getting around the nerves. I had no warm-up laps to refresh my memory, just head out of pit lane on an unfamiliar, very expensive motorcycle and all the while wonder if I should heed Cernicky’s advice.
As it turned out, the Honda was the perfect bike to use to find my footing. The riding position, chassis balance and suspension settings all seemed strangely familiar. In fact, the Castrol Honda felt very much like a stock CBR1000RR in most ways, except it was way faster, had incredible brakes and was fully loaded with (unfamiliar-to-me) Cosworth electronics featuring traction control, wheelie control, engine-braking control and a speed-shifter. Even with the bike’s familiar balanced and refined feel, my outlap was pathetic as I poked my way around the track trying to get used to what the CBR-RR had to offer.
With only a few laps on the menu, though, I had to get with the program. So, approaching the giant hill with a near-200-foot drop between Turns 8 and 9 (think Laguna Seca’s corkscrew but without the esses), I sucked it up and held the throttle WFO as I crested the top. Just as Cernicky suggested, wheelie control kept the front tire floating about a foot off the tarmac as the engine worked to unleash its 220 horsepower. Oh my God, that is something to experience! It took incredible faith in the Honda’s electronics to overcome more than 20 years of my own anti-wheelie, throttle-chop muscle memory.
Rea said in the pits after my ride that the number-one thing he works on from track to track is stability under braking. He added that at a track like Portimao he spends a lot of time working on engine-braking settings so that the bike is composed and balanced while trail-braking. Since he’d topped Saturday’s Superpole, I guess Rea got it right.
Tom Sykes’ Kawasaki Racing Team ZX-10R
What a difference! Just minutes after getting off of Rea’s refined Honda, I was back out on a very different feeling ZX-10R. As I discovered after riding the rest of the bikes, going from the Honda to the Kawasakitook me from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of chassis setup. Where Rea’s Honda felt very level and even a bit high in the front, Sykes’ Kawi had the fork tubes pulled up through the triple-clamps, making the bike feel very steep and twitchy. Around the tight and twisty circuit, the 10R carved with precision, but it came at a price: Heading downhill into Turn 1’s braking zone, the Kawi was, without a doubt, the most unstable machine of the lot. The back end was wagging back and forth behind me despite the fact that I’m positive I was braking at least 50 meters earlier than Sykes himself would have. The payoff, if you have the trust, was that the Kawi could hold very tight lines and transitioned from side-to-side easily.
On the electronics front, the Magneti Marelli system was set up to cut ignition on the 215-rear-wheel-horse engine for wheelie and traction control. All of the other machines I rode used a combination of throttle-butterfly management and ignition and fuel cuts to control engine output.
I never felt totally at home on the ZX-10R because its extreme chassis setup was very difficult to adapt to. Compared to the Honda I’d already ridden and the Yamaha and Aprilia that I would ride later in the day, the Kawi felt raw, unrefined and rambunctious. I can’t believe Sykes won a race in the rain on this machine! More power to you, man.
Eugene Laverty’s Yamaha World Superbike Team YZF-R1
Once again, my transition between motorcycles—off of the 10R and onto the Yamaha R1—was like night and day. It didn’t even take a full lap to realize that the R1 and I were going to get along well. Everything about the bike’s chassis provided me with confidence. It had front-end stability under braking, ample midcorner grip and very good overall handling. All this made the Yamaha my favorite bike of the day.
Adding to my trust in the chassis was the amazing crossplane-crank engine, which provided torquey Twin-like power delivery while cranking out a claimed 230-plus hp. To put the icing on the cake, the Yamaha by far the best electronics package. The Magneti Marelli MHT system features more than 30 sensors and all of its functions were set up so perfectly that most interventions were absolutely seamless. I could hear the traction control working from the exhaust note, but the bike just drove off corners. The wheelie control allowed the front end to float up a bit more than what I experienced on the other bikes, but it never went too far.
But it was under braking that the Yamaha impressed me the most. The R1, like only a few other machines I rode this day, not only featured a quick-shifter for upshifts, but also for downshifts. Simply press the shift lever without touching the clutch and the throttle is magically blipped; the gears engaged so smoothly that the chassis was never upset, not even when combined with trail-braking while leaned over. Toss in the sweet engine-braking control and I had such huge confidence on the brakes it made me bolder in holding open the throttle longer on the straights.
Laverty told me after my ride that, like Rea, he spends most of his setup time working on chassis stability. It paid off for the team at Portimao, as teammate Marco Melandri and Laverty carded first- and second-place finishes, respectively, in the final race of the year. Having experienced this amazing and potent racebike, it’s all the more disappointing that Yamaha is pulling its factory team out of World Superbike in 2012. Next season, Laverty will ride for Aprilia, while Melandri has joined BMW.
Max Biaggi’s Aprilia Alitalia Racing Team RSV4
Only two other bikes I’ve ever ridden were as intimidating as Biaggi’s Aprilia: The first was Dani Pedrosa’s 2006 Honda RC211V 990cc MotoGP machine and the second was Miguel DuHamel’s 2005 pre-traction-control HRC Honda CBR1000RR superbike.
In fact, the RSV4 was such a fire-breather that when I hit Portimao’s front straight for the first time, I was totally shocked by the top-end horsepower. Usually, riding down the straight is a good time to relax and breathe, but on Biaggi’s Aprilia I had to focus just to keep the bike pointed in the right direction. I spent the entire 6/10th of a mile between Turn 15 and Turn 1 chasing the steering because the bike would wheelie, then get “controlled” back down, then wheelie again, over and over! All the while, I seriously had to force myself to hold the throttle wide open as the acceleration in fourth and fifth gears (170-ish-mph) was so fierce. While the RSV4’s top-end power was amazing, both the Yamaha and Ducati produced more midrange grunt.
Adding to the thrill was a front brake lever set up with a lot of free travel. For my taste, it took way too long for the pads to bite, particularly on something so wicked fast. I want the brakes to work now! Unfortunately, journalists weren’t allowed to make changes to any of the bikes, so I just had to live with it. Not my cup of tea at all!
Good thing the Aprilia’s APRC electronics package was a step above most of the other systems (and about as effective as that of the Yamaha). Wheelie control was quite good aside from the straightaway “cycling” issue I mentioned, while TC and engine-braking control were excellent to the point of being almost imperceptible. But, of all the bike’s characteristics, I found the most confidence in the chassis because it offered quick turn-in and very good midcorner stability. Even with this, the Aprilia was the most nerve-wracking—almost menacing—ride I had at the test. It’s as though the bike was saying, “Let your guard down and I will hurt you…”
Leon Haslam’s BMW Motorrad Motorsport S1000RR
BMW’s S1000RR streetbike is the brutish bully of sportbikedom, so I was curious to see if the #91 factory superbike played a similar role on the track. Imagine my surprise when I found that Haslam’s BMW felt very tame and rideable, much like the Castrol Honda had earlier in the day. But having just jumped off of Biaggi’s beastly Aprilia may have had something to do with this impression.
Still, numbers don’t lie and, on paper, the Beemer’s 180-mph trap speed was only average among its peers at Portimao. And it’s hard to ignore the fact that, after three years in World Superbike, BMW continues to struggle. No wins and only a handful of podiums, even with two-time series champ Troy Corser in the saddle. The freshly retired Australian was quick to point out that BMW’s in-house-developed electronics weren’t on-par with those used by the competition, but he suspects the team will switch to an aftermarket system for 2012. After my experience with the other machines, I’d have to agree that the wheelie control and TC were good (and a big help for me getting around the track), but not on the same level as Yamaha or Aprilia’s electronics.
Handling was razor sharp and the chassis offered quick directional changes, while also being very stable once settled midcorner. But, for me personally, Haslam’s chassis setup wasn’t confidence-inspiring; it conveyed a momentary vagueness from the front end on turn-in. Considering that Haslam just finished sixth in the final point standings, it’s obviously just me.
Ultimately, I found it ironic that the BMW Superbike didn’t feel like it had the raw performance of the Aprilia, Yamaha and Ducati that I rode the same day, while the streetbike is the class leader.
After a year in which the team clearly made progress, BMW has high hopes with its revamped 2012 RR-based superbike (which it started testing the day after I left) and new teammate to Haslam, 2011 series runner-up Marco Melandri.
Carlos Checa’s championship-winning Althea Racing Ducati 1198R
Fortunately, the pre-selected bike rotation put me on Checa’s championship-winning Ducati for the final session of the day. It was impressive! After winning 15 of 26 possible races in 2011, it’s safe to say that Checa’s Althea Racing Ducati 1198R has a damn-near perfect combination of horsepower, handling, stability, traction and braking to take the grand prize at season’s end. Ironically, it also has less electronic intervention than most of the other machines.
Ducati has been a pioneer in electronics on both production and racing bikes, so I was a bit surprised when the mechanic told me just prior to my ride that there was no wheelie control on the 1198, as that is Checa’s preference. Good to know, considering that I had just ridden five other superbikes with systems that allowed the throttle to be held wide open over Portimao’s 187-foot, 12-percent-grade drop between Turns 8 and 9. Taking that into consideration, I had to concentrate on getting up over the front while accelerating. Short-shifting actually made the bike wheelie more because the engine was spinning near peak torque. Checa also uses a minimal amount of TC, but I never tempted fate.
Power from the V-Twin seemed endless. Exiting corners, that massive amount of midrange torque was always delivered smoothly, and the power never seemed to let up as I grabbed gears down the longest straightaway.
The Althea 1198’s chassis compliments the engine nicely. It turned like no Ducati I’ve ever ridden. Side-to-side transitions required little effort, while grip and midcorner stability were amazing. The overall balance of the chassis, combined with excellent suspension and amazing brakes, helped me understand how this bike could perform so well at a wide variety of race tracks.
How good is Checa’s Superbike? Well, the fact that Ducati plans to race the 1198 another season in World Superbike—while it develops the 1199 in the ’12 FIM Superstock series—speaks volumes about its confidence in and familiarity with the older machine. It also allows other teams already invested in the 1198 to continue with that bike for another season.
For now, Checa’s 1198R is definitely the best Ducati, and arguably the best Superbike on Earth.