19 January 2000: Honda VTR1000 SP1 RC51 - the first test

Published: 15 March 2016

'Honda’s built a winner (on the road at least)'. So we declared after testing Honda's new chips-down v-twin superbike for the first time. It may not have been HRC's proudest moment – for once following where Ducati led – but it looked set to be the closest alignment yet of fast road and race riders' desires.

'Reasons to choose a 996 or maybe even an R1 are running short. Foggy, however may yet have other ideas…' History may have showed little mercy for these hostages to fortune, but the 'bargain'* £9750 SP1 (as we weren't sure we would come to call it), was destined to command a cult following and win the WSB title at its first shot. We were right to be this excited, weren't we?

[*Bargain compared to the £18k RC45, not so much when you considered Honda America were charging ITS customers just £6200 for the bike they would call RC51.]

omewhere in the world there is a Honda VTR1000 SP-1 carrying a vehicle identification number which is just a line of zeros ending with the number one.

It’s the first official production version of the long-awaited twin-cylinder superbike to come out of Honda’s factory in Japan and is probably even now taking pride of place in the firm’s museum. But quite honestly I don’t care. Because right now I’m standing in the car park of a hotel in Georgia, USA, alongside another VTR SP-1. Its identification number is a similar line of zeros. The only difference is that this one ends with a number two. It’s taken three months of phone calls, faxes and e-mails to arrange this ride, not to mention a 4000-mile flight from cold wet Britain to the bright sunshine and 70° temperature of Georgia. And yet all I can think about as the moment of truth arrives and MCN becomes the first motorcycle publication in the world to ride the road-going version of the twin is the number stamped on the frame.

Sure, one or two journalists have had the opportunity to try a prototype race version of the machine that will replace the V4 RC45 as Honda’s WSB contender. But the bike in front of me is the real thing as far as you and I are concerned. This is the bike that will go on sale in UK showrooms in a couple of months for less than £10,000 (the only difference is ours won’t be called an RVT/RC51, or come out in the same colours, but more of that later). Tagged as the SP version of the VTR1000 V-twin launched in 1997,with which it has little in common, this is Honda’s first response to twin-cylinder superbikes like Ducati’s 996, Aprilia’s RSV Mille and Suzuki’s TL1000R, machines that have scored massively with road riders for their combination of character, usable power and great handling. Oh, and it’s the bike which will spearhead Honda’s bid to topple the all-conquering 996 in WSB from this season.

Needless to say my expectations are immense as I walk over to the machine, but when I first thumb the starter button there’s a surprising feeling of disappointment. It doesn’t boom into life in the style of an Italian V-twin. The 999cc Honda motor comes alive with a muted, muffled tone. But blip the throttle, let the revs rise and you’re in business. The twin upswept exhausts deliver a deep, rumbling sympathy of noise that would have made Bach proud. And the motor responds smoothly. It sounds like a twin, but there is no lumpiness or vibration like there is with a 996. People who buy this bike will take as much pleasure in sitting and revving the engine as they will riding it. There’s a firm clunk as you stab the gear lever down into first. Ease the clutch out, wind on the revs and the SP-1 pulls away cleanly as I head out on to the fast, open roads of the American deep south.

At this point my heart is pounding, my mind racing. With 134 bhp on tap it would be rude not to see what it can do, and as I accelerate up through the   six-speed box the Honda delivers an effortless surge of power. The motor feels solid with real grunt. There’s no need to rev it hard to find plenty of useable power. Ride the SP-1 like this and it hardly feels any more potent than the standard VTR. But exercise the right wrist and wind the revs on and the SP-1 pulls even harder right to the 10,000rpm redline. Surprisingly there is a definite powerband from 6500 onwards, unlike most V-twins where the power surge is constant and flat. The wide open, traffic-free roads allow me to make the most of the engine. You can go for miles without seeing a house, driveway or even a turning of the main road, and the miles and miles of dry, grippy, straight Tarmac is more inviting than a free bar. First impressions are that the Sp-1, with an estimated 118bhp at the rear wheel, is at least as quick as a 996 in a straight line, if not faster. But I reckon for straightforward acceleration it’s topped by the RSV. It was a surprise to find the power to be mostly up high in the rev range. But then that shouldn’t be too unexpected because the bike has been built to race and to make it on the track you have to have power in the high revs.

I don’t know how accurate the trick electronic rev counter is, but it indicates 10,500rpm before the rev limiter kicks in. the motor feels like it has even more to offer, but I suspect Honda is playing safe for the sake of long term reliability. I defy someone to be able to sit upright, open the throttle all the way in first gear and not wheelie. After first gear it tends to stay on the road a bit more, but if wheelies are your thing you’ll love this bike because its balance point is low so you can hoik the front for obscenely long periods and not worry about flipping the thing.

'The last bike I rode with so much rear wheel feedback was a factory-kitted Yamaha TZ250'

Unlike other twins the SP-1 does not suffer from vibration problems. The engine burbles away at whatever rpm setting you give it and never buzzes the rider in complaint. The first corner, of which there are frustratingly few on the roads of Georgia, throws up another surprise the SP-1 does not flick into a bend in the style of something like a GSX-R750. But then the Suzuki has a radical and very sharp 23.5° steering head angle compared to the more sedate 24.3° of the SP-1. Where the Honda does score over the 996 and many more sports-orientated superbikes is in the riding position. It’s more sit up and beg than the Ducati, giving the rider more leverage on the bars. This means that after 10 minutes in the saddle you don’t notice any problem with the steering, particularly as the Honda carries its weight so well in a turn. Once the SP-1 is tipped in it feels stable and right on track. Changing direction is easy because the bike is so well-balanced and has scientifically accurate steering.

The balance is important because the Honda is relatively heavy at 192kg (422.2lb). The 996 weighs in at 187kg (411lb). However, swopping the heavy standard cans on the SP-1 for lighter performance pipes would probably go a long way to redressing the balance. At first I thought it strange that Honda would let its new four-stroke racer see the light of day in relatively heavy trim. But Honda staff present during my ride reckon it’s due to the factory’s insistence on durability for every part on its bikes – the pipes on the SP-1 have passed the same rigorous tests as those on a GoldWing. It seems heavy means heavy-duty, but you can bet that as soon as the Sp-1 hits the road there’ll be a glut of lighter aftermarket parts available.

But like I said, the weight doesn’t upset the handling, and on high-speed, sweeping bends the Honda is rock solid. On a deserted stretch of highway I ran through one open S-bend with an indicated 160mph on the clock. I have no doubt the bike could have gone quicker, but I was more worried about keeping an eye out for State Troopers and other vehicles. At 160mph the bike still had a gear to go and all things considered it should top 170mph on a good day. While it may be slightly heavy the SP-1 certainly doesn’t feel big. In fact, it has a really tight feel to it, which makes you feel as if the rear wheel is right underneath you so you know exactly what its doing. The last bike I rode with this much rear wheel feedback was a factory kitted Yamaha TX250 racer.

Put simply, the Showa shock and front forks on the SP-1 are probably the best stock suspension parts you’ll find on a road bike. Track day enthusiasts won’t have to worry about upgrading them. They have a silky-smooth action and superb damping, even on their standard settings. Honda certainly has not skimped on the suspension. The fork adjusters are the same as you’d find on this year’s production NSR250 race bike. The SP-1 is the first mass-market Honda to use upside-down forks, and judging by the performance they could be used a lot more future. The RC45 also had them, but it was built in far fewer numbers and was far more expensive. As my ride was purely on the road the only thing I was not able to test was how much the suspension will resist fading when it’s under heavy pressure during a track day or race.

Looking at the specs the Honda seems to be a bit long, stretching out the wheelbase measuring tape to 140.9cm compared to 139.5cm for an R1. But it doesn’t feel long when you’re riding. If anything, it feels compact. And the longer wheelbase helps that high-speed stability. The steering head didn’t shake once during my ride, however hard I tried to prompt it. In typical Honda fashion the gearbox is faultless, too. I didn’t get one missed shift during my ride. The gear ratios are tight so you can always find the right gear for any corner. It’s so slick you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a clos-ratio box.

Early reports from people who rode racing prototype SP-1s in Japan suggested the bike suffered from throttle response problems, complaining that the power delivery was abrupt when the throttle was wound open. But that wasn’t the case with the bike I rode. The throttle response of the production SP-1 is superb, with no glitch fuel injection problems at all. I think previous criticism were more likely a problem with the mix of parts the tuned bike featured, rather than a design flaw. With the smooth power delivery and slick gearbox encouraging you to push the bike to its performance limits, you need top-class braking set-up to keep everything in check, and the SP-1 has just that. The four-pot Nissins are similar to those on the standard VTR, but the calipers work better on the bigger 320mm discs. They give masses feedback and amazing power. I yanked on the lever a couple of times at about 150mph and didn’t notice any fade. They just hauled me down to a stop with minimum amount of effort.

On the practical side this is the first Honda I’ve ridden on which the windscreen seems to be almost an afterthought. If you are five foot nine you will not be able to tuck in behind the screen for more than a few seconds at a time because you need to crouch so low. The footrests are good and high, out of the way of the ground when you’re ranked over, but they do feature some pretty absurd-looking hero blobs. They’re nearly an inch-an-a-half long, twice the length of what you see on most superbikes.

‘Most riders will go faster on an SP-1 than an R1 or Hayabusa’

The seating position is comfortable, but if you have big feet you’ll run the risk of wrecking your boots because the pegs are close to the pipes – one of the Honda technicians present managed to melt the heels of his size 11s during a brief spin on the bikes. A lot has been said about the look of the SP-1, and Honda has been keen to point out that some of its lines are based on the firm’s NSR500 GP bike. But I didn’t quite realise how closely it resembles the all-conquering racer until I pulled into a service station for a cold drink. As I walked back to the bike I did a double-take – if it had been painted blue and orange it could have been Alex Criville’s title-winning racer.

I love the look of the U.S. and Canadian-spec SP-1 which I rode. The distinctive black, red and silver paintscheme makes it look soooo special. I just think the “winning red” colourscheme that we’re getting in the UK makes the bike look like an old VFR800. Honda Europe could also learn from its U.S. counterpart in naming the model. In America, the RC51 on the tailpiece signifies the last chapter in Honda’s racing history (see separate story). The RC designation, like the RC45 and RC30, evokes emotion not normally associated with mass-produced Japanese machines. But SP-1 shares more than just the RC designation with its predecessors. It also has that feel about it which Honda seems to be able to engineer into special models and with other firms so desperately try to duplicate.

Everything is right about the bike. Only a few machines I’ve ridden have had that magic formula –the Vincent Black Shadow, Yamaha R1, Suzuki RG500, Honda RC30 and RC45 are among the select few. It’s hard to describe the feeling it gives, but it’s as if you can’t go wrong on the bike. Even though the SP-1 is not as fast as an R1 or Hayabusa, there is no doubt in my mind that most riders will go faster on it than its rivals. It is easy to ride quickly and the smooth throttle response lets you get the power down good and early. Big in-line fours will be snaking around trying to get out of a corner while the SP-1 rider winds on the gas and disappears into the distance. The twin is also much less intimidating, with a less aggressive power delivery which will give many riders a lot more confidence to take things a step further.

In my opinion it is also a better road bike than the RSV and the 996. Why? It beats the Ducati because it is more user-friendly and has a more practical riding position. It also has the benefit of Honda’s reputation for reliability which counts for a lot. The RSV falters because it can be awkward for shorter riders, with its long, long reach to the bars. The Honda does everything the Ducati or the Aprilia can do, but it does so with less hassle. I’d never even seen the bike before, but I didn’t even need to turn a suspension adjuster on the Honda to get the best from my ride. It felt right from the word go, while with the Italian twins you need to change things to get to get the same feel. At £9795 it is £750 more expensive than an RSV and £1600 less than a 996. For my money it represents the best value as a road bike, but it could be another story on the track – we’ll just have to wait until South African WSB round on April 2, when Colin Edwards and Aaron Slight take on Foggy and Co, to find out…

Key details

ENGINE

The motor in the Sp-1 has little I common with the old VTR. More than 90 per cent of the old bike’s engine has been changed so it now makes more power and carries less weight. It has a compression ratio of 10.8:1, which is high for a large displacement V-twin. The pistons are also larger than the standard VTR’s – they’ve gone up from 98mm to 100mm to become the largest ever made by Honda. The stroke has been shortened to help it rev quicker and the piston sleeves are made from ceramic-coated aluminium to keep the weight down. This high state of tune means the bike needs super unleaded fuel rather than standard unleaded to avoid detonation at high revs. The Sp-1 only needs a low-pressure oil pump because it uses the centrifugal forces created by the rotating crankshaft to help distribute the oil. Keeping the oil pressure low creates less resistance within the engine. It also means the pump can be lighter and smaller. Like the RC45 this bike has gear-driven cams. They are more reliable that chain driven cams, but can be a bit noisier. The head covers, clutch cover and left rear crank cover are all made of lightweight magnesium.

CHASSIS

GONE is the aluminium trellis frame of the standard VTR1000. In its place is an all-new twin spar unit using Honda’s Combined Pivot Frame design. The frame is said to be so stiff it doesn’t need modification, even when mated with the WSB-spec race engine. Only time will tell, but included in the race kit sold to WSB teams is an even stiffer swingarm mounts directly on to the rear of the engine and frame, and even though if features huge spars, Honda has added extra bracing.

BODYWORK

HONDA says the overall design and shape of the bodywork is similar to the NSR500 Alex Criville took to the 500 GP world title last year.  It’s low and narrow at the front and has a high tail section like the NSR. The SP-1 is built as a race bike with a small frontal area, but riders still need to be able tuck behind the screen for the best aerodynamics and road riders want some weather protection from the fairing. Honda says the fairing panels are extremely light yet strong thanks to new manufacturing process called GPI (Gas Press Injection), which allows reinforcing ribs to be moulded within the plastic so the panels can be thinner than normal.

DASH

THE SP-1 features a digital speedo and bar graph-style tachometer. The system is fully electronic and has a digital trip meter. Unlike other speedos, which can be out as much as 10 per cent out, Honda claims this one is extremely accurate – our speed tests will find out.

RAM-AIR

HONDA kept the SP-1’s front end narrow by incorporating the ram-air intake into the centre of the upper cowl, between the twin headlamps. The air pressure is extremely high at this point and it should prove more efficient than traditional ram-air systems, which divert the air around the headstock. The frame actually doubles as the intake, channelling air into the airbox. Look into the air intake from the front and you can se the velocity stacks of the fuel injection system, it’s that open.

SUSPENSION AND BRAKES

THE SP-1 has a set of 43mm upside-down forks held in yokes which are hollow to reduce weight. At the back the Showa shock is a piggy-back design which has previously been used on many of Honda’s factory bikes. The shock is fully adjustable for pre-load, compression and rebound damping, as are the forks. The bike’s front brakes are the same Nissins four-pots are used on the Blade which grips 320mm discs. At the back there’s a single-piston caliper and a 220mm disc.

The real reasons behind Honda's break from tradition

Look back at road bikes like Ducati’s 996 and Honda’s RC45 and you’ll see they couldn’t be more different. As a rule, Honda likes to set trends, not follow them, so it is significant that its first four-stroke V-twin racer should be a pretty obvious attempt to try and replicate the success of arch WSB rival Ducati. The firm says it is “taking advantage of the rules” by “building an affordable racer for privateers”, but we know the truth.

The two firms have dominated WSB since the series started in 1988, but back then the idea Honda would one day abandon its V4 concept to build a twin would have had the Italians chocking on their pasta. Can you imagine Ducati building a 750cc V4 for WSB? Thought not. If there was such a thing as Ducati religion you can bet page one of their bible would say a sin to build anything other than a twin. In WSB, 1000cc twins are allowed a 25cc capacity advantage over 750cc fours. This is because twins rev lower than the fours and therefore flow less air through the engine, so the rules are designed to even the odds. As it is, twins still make less peak power – the 185bhp RC45 had around 11-13bhp over the works 996s, but the Ducati was always more rideable. The one time the Ducati was a real hand full was in 1997, when the firm tried to copy Honda and build a bike with sheer horsepower as its main asset.

It was not a success. Carl Fogarty lost the title that year abroad a bike he said was a nightmare to ride, having lost all of the rider-friendly characteristics Ducatis are famed for. So Honda’s switch to a twin represents more than just a move away from the V4 concept. It says to the world “we are no longer trying to build the most powerful bike on the track”. Instead, the firm has built a bike which is designed to let the rider make the difference, not power. After all, the RC45 may have been more powerful than Mick Doohan’s NSR500 in its most recent guise, but compared to Foggy’s Duke it handled like a pig. Fielding the SP-1 is also an admission that the RC45 is just too expensive to be competitive for any team other than the big-money factory squads.

From 2001, new WSB rules come into force which effectively outlaw factory bikes. Each machine must only feature parts that are generally available in a kit to any team that wants them. This kit’s price can’t exceed £30,000. Given that works RC45 costs more than that to service, it wouldn’t be eligible to race. Since costs have to be kept down as much as possible, it makes sense to build a bike which has half as many major engine components. Factories take perverse pride in having bikes that are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and it might come as a surprise to the money men when they realise that the bikes the pay for are worthless than the team’s hospitality budget. So the real test for the SP-1 won’t come this year, which logic says will be an uphill battle for such a new bike, but in 2001, when the rules force everyone to build something down price. Then, budgets will count for little, and riding skill and bike design will count for everything. At least it will end the debate that Ducatis only win because they have more ccs, not that Aprilia or Suzuki – who have both raced 1000cc V-twins so far without wins – made that claim. Ironically, Aaron Slight and Colin Edwards still say the rules are unfair, but we can’t see them handing back their world title if they win, can you?

THE FACTS

Honda VTR1000 SP-1

Performance

Price £9795

Power 134bph

Colours Red

Weight, power to weight ratio 192kg (422.4lb), 0.69bhp/kg

Insurance Group 17

Top speed est. 170mph

Engine Liquid-cooled, 99cc (100x63.6mm) 8v dohc 90° V-twin. Electronic fuel injection, 6 gears

Rake, wheelbase 24.3°, 140.9cm

Chassis Aluminium twin-spar

Tank capacity 18l

Front suspension 43mm inverted forks with adjustable for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Average mpg 30
Rear shock Showa shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping Range 120 miles

Tyres 120x70 ZR17 front, 190x50 ZR17 rear

 

Brakes Nissin 2x320 front discs with 4-piston calipers, 22mmrear disc with      2-piston caliper

 

Our verdict

 

Engine 95% Masses of usable power

Comfort 92% Better than you expect

Handling 96% You direct, it follows

Grin factor 98% You just can’t get enough

Braking 96% Razor sharp

Overall 97% Watch out Ducati