You can’t always get what you want

Published: 28 January 2001

THERE are few things in biking more exclusive than an MV Agusta – apart from a limited-edition MV Agusta.

Ever since the firm’s rise from the ashes in 1996 with the launch of the F4S and F4 Gold or " Oro " Series bikes, its emphasis has been on making exclusive machines at a premium price. To emphasise its up-market credentials, MV " gave " its high-spec F4 Oro to superstars worldwide in a glitzy (and expensive) PR exercise. Luminaries like F1 driver Eddie Irvine, former GP ace Barry Sheene and even the king of Spain Juan Carlos were a few of the recipients.

The factory claimed the bikes were not for sale, but rumour has it that a few lucky punters managed to get their hands on one by waving the right amount of dosh in the direction of the Italian factory. Figures upwards of £50,000 have been touted around.

But if you missed out on that opportunity and find you have thousands of pounds burning a hole in your pocket, fear not. Three new limited-edition MVs will soon be unleashed on an undeserving world – and this time you’ll be able to buy them. Well, if you

re-mortgage your house and sell your mother-in-law. Still, in the immortal words of Captain Sensible, you’ve got to have a dream if you want to have a dream come true.

The bikes in question are the F4 Brutale Oro, the F4 SPR and the F4 Senna. When they were unveiled under the hot, blinding lights of the Munich Show last year, the general consensus, even among hardened bike hacks, was that they were among the most stunning bikes on the planet. But until now, no-one had a clue what they actually rode like.

Was it possible that works of art which looked this good could actually perform as well?

The original F4 Strada (the standard version of the Oro which was available to the public for a relatively realistic price of £12,000) didn’t exactly set new standards when it was launched. In fact, it struggled to match Suzuki’s GSX-R750, which shared the same 750cc engine capacity.

But what it did offer was a good all-round package of solid handling and good, if not gob-smacking, performance and it gained a favourable reaction for that reason.

But MVs are not about achieving Hayabusa-type speeds or beating R1 acceleration, just as Harley-Davidsons aren’t about gravity-defying lean angles. That stuff has long been the domain of the Japanese manufacturers and if their European or American competitors are to create their own niches, they need to offer something different.

What MV Agusta is more interested in is style, usable performance and that old tag, exclusivity. You’ll never turn up at a WSB meeting and see rows of the red and silver bikes parked up like you would with Honda CBR600s. And for many people, that’s a good deal more important than outright power and performance.

Of the three new bikes, the greatest departure for MV is the naked Brutale Oro. You don’t have to be a genius to see that the fantastically named (especially if you say it in a mock Italian accent and pronounce the " e " at the end) Brutale is aiming for a large chunk of the market occupied by Ducati’s Monster and its Johnny-come-lately rival, Cagiva’s Raptor.

The Monster is Ducati’s biggest seller and accounts for something like 60 per cent of the Italian factory’s production. That’s why, even though there are countless different versions of it, it hasn’t really changed that much image-wise since its launch in 1993, except for the adoption of the 916 engine in the new S4 model (see page 18).

Cagiva’s Raptor and V-Raptor did much to enhance the image of naked bikes, with more radical, futuristic styling than the now almost agricultural Monster, but the Brutale has taken the whole concept to a new level. It looks incredibly aggressive even at a standstill, and it definitely gives the impression it would be more comfortable balanced on its back wheel than on both. If the bike’s looks are anything to go by, it has been well named.

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that the Brutale was designed by the legendary Miguel Galuzzi – the brain behind both Ducati’s Monster and Cagiva’s Raptor. The man is obviously not challenged in the imagination department.

But is the Brutale as terrifying to ride as its name suggests, or simply a question of style over substance? To find out, MV Agusta allowed us to ride a prototype of the bike, alongside our colleagues from Italian magazine Super Wheels, as well as a prototype of the F4 Senna and F4SPR, before mass production gets under way.

The Brutale will eventually be available as a cheaper, lower-spec production bike costing around £10,000, but for now MV is playing the exclusivity card yet again by producing only 300 Oro – Italian for gold – Series bikes at a price in the region of £21,000. One can only wonder when the firm will run out of celebrities to treat, but no doubt there will be plenty of willing recipients out there.

But for now, the rich and famous can get stuffed. I’m neither rich nor famous, but I’ve got the bike first and they’ll just have to wait. Stand aside Sheene, she’s all mine.

I’ve ridden the standard F4 so I’ve some idea of what to expect from the 750cc, in-line,

four-cylinder, water-cooled motor. Well, not even MV can afford to spend millions developing an engine to be used in just one bike, so all these new bikes get differing versions of the same powerplant. It’s called building a modular engine and smaller firms like Triumph have used the same cash-saving technique to great effect in the past, making bikes like the 955i, Sprint ST and Sprint RS with the same basic engine.

In Brutale form, the MV lump makes around 127bhp at the crank and 118bhp at the rear wheel, which is plenty enough to get the front wheel going lighter than Kate Moss on a diet and make for giggles aplenty.

But any cold technical figures suddenly become completely irrelevant as I fire the bike up and suddenly come over all poetic at the sound of the twin, stacked, high-level pipes. If I wasn’t so eager to actually ride the bike, I’d probably be happy to just sit here and rev it while I made up words to accompany the music.

Getting a grip on myself, I hook first, slip the clutch out and suddenly forget my flowery side and come over all macho. The riding position is quite sit-up-and-beg, exposing your chest as if you were trying to show it off to a female gorilla (in my case, she probably wouldn’t be impressed). It’s comfy enough for riding around town, but the same old naked bike problem appears out of town when you top the ton – yes, that old bugbear, wind blast.

There’s not even a small flyscreen, though the clock casings do deflect some of the fast-moving air away. But then the Brutale wasn’t made for long distance, high-speed touring. It’s more suited to posing around Monaco pretending you’re an F1 driver on a day off, shouting " ciao, bella " to Mediterranean lovelies as you cruise past.

MV Agusta could easily have stripped the bodywork off the F4 Oro, on which this bike is based, and tarted it up a little. But that’s not the firm’s style, so the naked bike was given a complete redesign. Galuzzi and Ducati 916 designer (he’s no slouch then) Massimo Tamburini bestowed on the Brutale a more rounded tank and a new tail unit to provide a larger pillion seat, as well as stacked exhausts instead of underseat items. New air intakes appear on the front of the bike, too, and the radiator, side panels and pipework have also been restyled to tidy the bike up.

But cosmetic details couldn’t be farther from my mind as I put the Brutale through its paces. The F4 engine has been retuned for more torque and guess what – that makes it ever so slightly prone to lifting the front wheel on occasion. But the bike isn’t as savage as its name suggests. Treat the throttle with a little respect and it’s a pussycat around town and a fairly civilised blast in the countryside.

The suspension is basically the same as the F4 Oro, which offers a firm but street-friendly package, unlike the harder, more focused set-up on the SPR, which we’ll get to later. Forks and shock are all fully adjustable should you want to get more committed on your favourite bends or take a lardy mate – or, indeed, girlfriend – on the back.

The fuel-injected 750cc motor provides loads of laughs on the Brutale, picking up from next to nothing and gunning you through the back streets where the bike reigns as king of the hard asses, the symphony from its cool stacked pipes ricocheting off bill-postered and graffiti’d walls. How long before the Brutale appears in a Hollywood movie?

Like any naked bike, the relatively upright riding position means it can’t be thrown around corners in the same way as a full-on sports bike, which forces your weight down and over the bike, but you’ll still get plenty of grins per mile on the Brutale as you hoik its muscle-laden body from side to side. Being in charge of a machine which looks so mean makes you feel like old Gladiator Russell Crowe himself.

Still laughing and having left a trail of craning necks through the Italian back streets, I return to base, hand the bike back to the MV mechanics and stroll over to gaze admiringly at the other prototypes lined up in the warm Mediterranean sunshine.

Subtle, beautiful and understated, the Senna looks delicious, with sensuous curves matched to gorgeous silver bodywork. It’s made even more eye-catching by the blood-red paint on the wheel spokes and parts of the frame. The late, great Ayrton Senna would undoubtedly have been proud of this tribute bearing his name.

Before you get confused (as I initially was), yes, there has been a bike called a Senna before and yes, it was a Ducati 916. The reason for a second bike bearing the same name is that the current president of Cagiva is Claudio Castiglioni, who just happened to be big boss at Ducati when the Senna 916 was launched. Castiglioni was a great friend and admirer of Senna and the bikes are his own personal tribute to the F1 legend.

To make matters more confusing just in case that was too simple, the F4 Senna is based on the F4SPR, but it’s another limited-edition model. Only 300 will be built, each of which will cost you around £17,000.

But the only real difference between the two is the paintjob, so when it came to choosing a bike to ride, I plumped for the SPR, which should retail for around £15,000.

It may share the same heart, but the F4 SPR couldn’t look more different to the Brutale. Gone is the naked aggression and hard-ass lines, to be replaced by sensuous, feminine curves and silky-smooth surfaces.

The bike shares the same lines as the standard F4, but the whole package is more sporty and aimed at (presumably very rich) riders who want more performance than the relatively tame F4 – though you’d be a brave man to break your

ultra-rare investment out of the glass cover most of the bikes will inevitably be under and risk its pristine bodywork on a track day.

MV claims to have improved every part of the engine it was possible to improve upon. If that were true, it would mean the engine had reached the end of its development – which is unlikely – but anyway, among those upgrades are a remapped ignition system, redesigned intake ports and a new combustion chamber. The new " MAHLE " pistons have been remoulded to allow the engine to rev up to 13,900rpm and believe me, when you get an MV Agusta revving up into those sorts of figures, the sound is enough to make you feel like coming over all Italian and having a good blub.

The crankshaft has also been lightened, the primary drive has been shortened, and the bike comes equipped with a reinforced clutch and a new close-ratio gearbox.

Those lucky sods who get to own one will also have a choice of adapting their bike even more for the track with a kit which will come with it (you don’t get that with a mass-produced Japanese bike). It will allow you to choose between three different types of final ratio drive and will include proper racing cans like a pukka track bike.

To save weight, the SPR has loads of carbon-fibre parts, including the front mudguard, the intake pipes, airbox side panels, ignition system cover and the upper and lower chain guard. The classic racing-derived red and silver MV colours remain similar to the standard and Gold F4s with the exception of a few subtle graphics to tell the uneducated masses exactly what they’re looking at.

But you don’t need logos to tell you you’re on something special when you sling a leg over the MV. The SPR is so tiny and sculpted you feel your awkward and very unsculpted body is spoiling the overall effect and ruining all the good work MV’s designers have done in creating such a work of art. They probably cringe when they see a rider lobbing his lardy ass over their beautiful creation.

The bike feels slimmer than many 600cc machines and forces you into a racing position from the off. The pegs seem tiny and positioned quite high, while the reach to the bars forces you well over the front. But when a bike is built for pure sports riding, you can’t expect comfort and taller riders like myself are bound to get aches and pains after a long stint in the saddle. That’s the nature of the beast, though. If it had low-slung, comfortable pegs you’d be grinding them out everywhere.

For a race track, the SPR is shaped perfectly. The smooth lines of the tank allow you to tuck in and hug the bike, giving you a huge sense of being in control – even when you’re not – and making you feel at one with the machine.

The screen is small and low, but it does offer some wind blast protection if you bury your chin on the tank.

I was disappointed with one aspect of the bodywork on the SPR, though, and that’s the way your hands get trapped against the upper fairing when you turn the bars in tight spaces round town. For me, that was the biggest problem with the standard F4 and I thought MV would have rectified the problem with the SPR – but this is a prototype so there’s time yet to get it fixed.

While pillions may be queuing up to have a go on your MV, they probably wouldn’t thank you much after a few miles. The seat is narrow and hard and the pegs are higher than a hippie in a marijuana field, so it wouldn’t be long before your pillion would be thumping you on the back and volunteering to walk home, no matter how nice your bike looks. But who wants to upset such a dynamic package by taking a passenger along, anyway? That’s what buses are for.

The bike really isn’t at home round town. The hard seat and even firmer suspension mean you won’t want to go shopping on it too often, even if the pose value is immense.

But keeping an MV in town is like keeping a panther in a cage, anyway. Occasionally, you’ll get the chance to crack the throttle and hear the super-sexy underseat pipes roar, but to let them really run free, you’ve got to head out into the country. Or even better, on to a race track, where MV made its legendary name with riders like Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood and John Surtees. So we took it to famous Italian circuit Misano.

As soon as you unleash the SPR in the environment it was created for, it becomes a different beast. It has been designed more for top end power and the prototype SPR is actually slightly down on the standard F4 in the lower rev range between 3000rpm and 10,000rpm. But get the motor spinning above that and the new bike comes into its own, producing 127bhp at 13,900rpm. That’s 10bhp up on the standard bike with 600rpm more to play with. That should make it good for the claimed 178mph, which would match many 1000cc bikes like Yamaha’s R1.

At 188kg (413lb), the SPR isn’t the lightest 750 on the market, which means there’s quite a bit of weight to stop. As the tyres warm up and I start charging into corners, I’m grateful that the Nissin brakes are up to the job. There’s instant feel from the four-pot calipers and discs. While the original F4 had good brakes, the new model seems to have the edge.

The brakes combine with the Forcella suspension to produce a well-handling track day machine. Even hard on the brakes at the end of the main straight, there’s very little dive from the forks and the firm rear shock is perfectly suited to focused track action. Overall, the suspension feels much firmer than the stock F4, which is what you’d expect from a bike built mainly for track use.

If you want a bike for everyday riding, you’d be better off settling for the F4 which is much better at soaking up pot holes, drain covers and all the other obstacles thrown at us poor road riders. The less peaky engine also helps. But the firmer suspension on the SPR makes it possible to brake later into corners and accelerate harder out of them without the bike moving around. And if you can afford an SPR, chances are you can splash out on enough track days so you’ll never have to ride it on the roads anyway.

What the SPR also does is let you get away with flicking the bike even harder through chicanes as there’s less pitch on the suspension when it changes direction. Like the standard bike, it’s not ultra-fast, but it’s neutral, smooth and accurate, which makes it a joy to ride even if you’re not the most experienced rider.

And because the front brakes offer so much feel, you can just finger the lever slightly on the way into turns without worrying too much about the front end tucking under. Which is always a comfort.

Overall, the SPR offers a great package for track days, with the emphasis on handling and useable power instead of outright speed and mind-numbing acceleration. It’s certainly more track focused than the stock F4 – but you’d better check your insurance policy before you introduce an SPR to your favourite race circuit unless you can afford to repair the crash damage to £15,000 worth of motorcycle.

OK, the standard F4 is softer and more practical than the SPR. But then, just think of the pose value of having one of the most desirable MVs ever built. Worth a little discomfort?