Two tribes go to war: The story behind the Honda SP-1

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 It is not often that the might of HRC gets rattled, but in 2000 this was the case. Despite dominating the premier class of racing with Mick Doohan and the NSR500, Honda were being given a very public bloody nose in the increasingly popular World Superbike series by Ducati.

Huge R&D investment in the homologation-special RC45 had only led to a single title since being introduced in 1994 compared to Ducati’s five and head-to-head the Bologna bike was handing Honda their backsides with 81 race wins compared to 33.

In HRC’s mind the issue was not their V4, it was WSB’s rules which allowed V-twins a 250cc advantage over the 750cc fours, so they decided to prove a point... "There was definitely a bit of needle between Ducati and Honda," remembers Dave Hancock, who was Honda’s Chief Development Rider at the time, "and there was certainly a feeling of wanting to prove a point but there was more to the SP-1 than that.

Honda SP-1 on the road

"People see HRC and think it is all about racing but HRC is actually Honda’s R&D area and they take on engineering projects to learn from them. The guys saw Ducati literally swapping an engine after every race and wanted to demonstrate that they could build a reliable V-twin superbike – so they did!"

All systems go

With the V-twin superbike project greenlighted, the development team were given a tight timeframe of less than three years to complete the bike, which led to a few issues and is actually the reason why the SP-2 exists, but more of that later.

The fact Honda had already built a big V-twin in the shape of the VTR1000 Firestorm gave them a good foundation as despite the SP-1 having a totally different engine, Honda had already encountered a few of the quirks that you get on big-capacity twins that you don’t find on inline fours or V4s.

Honda SP-1 frame

"We had a terrible time on the VTR trying to sort out its fuelling,” remembers Dave Hancock. “It would stall on the over-run into roundabouts, which was something we had never encountered with an engine before and we used all this knowledge on the SP-1."

But with the SP-1 Honda needed more than a road bike motor, they needed a superbike engine, which led to more issues. During the SP-1’s development reliability was a concern with crankcases and conrods unable to deal with the huge demands placed upon them through not only the 170bhp-plus the WSB race engines were producing, but also their need to rev to hit these power figures and do so with a huge 100mm diameter piston.

On the road bike this wasn’t an issue as it only revved to 10,000rpm but the HRC-kitted bikes were hitting 11,500rpm.

A tale of two halves

Honda SP-1 front

"I was testing the SP-1 in early 2000 at Eastern Creek," remembers WSB legend Colin Edwards. "I headed out and three laps in the engine just went ‘waahh’ on the start/finish straight. I coasted in and the rod had literally sawn the engine in half – you could see all the way through it!"

But this was nothing to the challenges the road bike development team were facing. "The SP-1’s chassis was a nightmare," remembers Hancock. "The bike sat quite flat with little weight on the front and that caused it to wag its head a lot. We had to jack the back end up, change its suspension, so many things. Then, just when we thought we had it right, we took it to a track and it under-steered terribly, running wide out of corners. But by that point production was ready to start and so we had to let it go as it was."

Despite all the issues, the SP-1 road bike hit the streets in March 2000 with a price of £10,000, which was £1000 less than a Ducati 996 Biposto, and Edwards lined up on the WSB grid in South Africa on the Castrol Honda SP-1 alongside Ducati-mounted Carl Fogarty. Which is when fate played its hand...

Unfinished business

Colin Edwards riding a Honda SP2 leads Foggy on a Ducati 996

Edwards won both of the opening WSB races, giving the SP-1 a dream start. At the next round Fogarty’s career was ended when he collided with Robert Ulm and later that year Yamaha’s Nori Haga, who was Edwards’ closest title challenger, failed a drugs test after weight-loss drug ephedrine was discovered in his system and he was excluded from one meeting’s results and banned from two rounds.

Against this background, Edwards won eight rounds on the SP-1 (more than any other rider) and took the 2000 WSB title by 65 points from Haga. Honda had proved their point. Or had they? With road bike sales slow due to criticisms about the bike’s handling and fuel-injection and some dismissing the WSB championship win due to the unusual circumstances surrounding it, Honda did still have a bit of unfinished business.

Honda SP1 tail

"The truth is that we never totally finished developing the SP-1 road bike because we ran out of time," admits Hancock. "The factory had set a date for production and at that time that was all that mattered. The reason the SP-2 came out just two years after the SP-1 was to correct the issues we had.

"The SP-2 is the finished version of the SP-1, the bike it should have been in the first place if we had been given more time!" And the race bike? Having lost the 2001 WSB title to Troy Bayliss on the Ducati 998, Honda made one final stand against Ducati and in an epic duel that went down to the last lap of the last round at Imola, Edwards gave Honda their second V-twin WSB title in 2002.

This win drew a line under Honda’s V-twin superbike story and the HRC team left the WSB paddock, only returning in an official capacity 19 years later with the inline four Fireblade. Point thoroughly proven, Honda could build a reliable and Ducati-beating V-twin!

Joey Dunlop specials

Joey Dunlop rides a Honda SP1

In 2002, British tuner Russell Savory created a limited run of SP-1 models to celebrate the life of Joey Dunlop. With a paint scheme based on the bike on which Joey won the 2000 Formula One TT the bikes had the backing of Joey’s widow Linda.

Only 26 were built, one to signify each of Joey’s TT wins, with each one having a plaque on the billet top yoke with its individual number and Joey’s signature, OZ Racing wheels, carbon hugger, Laser exhaust, Power Commander and a WP shock. The bikes cost £14,300 and now change hands for anything upwards of £17,000.

Buying an SP-1? Keep it original

Honda SP1 dash

The SP-1 is built with real precision and a very high level of finish, however there are a few things to look out for when buying a used one. The first is originality as they are viewed as collector’s items so you want the original exhausts, licence plate holder, screen etc. The SP-1’s wiring loom has an exposed area under the seat, which can rot through next to the bank angle sensor.

Any damage can cause the bike to misfire and even cut out, so check for any signs of corrosion. Both the SP-1 and SP-2 suffer from a weird issue where the screen can act like a lens (it is worse with aftermarket double-bubble screens), focusing light on the top of the dash and melting it, so check this area for damage.

Finally, always scrutinise the bike’s service history. The SP models have 4000-mile service intervals, however at 16,000-miles the valve clearances need checking, which is a bill of around £600 as it is a complex operation requiring precision and accuracy when it comes to HRC’s specified tolerances!

Talking tech

Engine - Both the Honda SP-1 and Ducati 996 use 90-degree liquid-cooled DOHC 8-valve V-twin engines, however the Honda has a 100 x 63.6mm bore and stroke (the biggest pistons Honda had used on a motorcycle) with a 999cc capacity where the 996 has 98 x 66mm dimensions and a 996cc capacity.

Just like the previous RC30 and RC45 V4 machines, the Honda uses gear-driven cams on the SP-1 where the 996 has Ducati’s traditional cam belt-driven desmodromic system.

Tested power - On the dyno, the SP-1 made a genuine 122bhp with 74.2ftlb of torque where the 996 made 110bhp with 72.3ftlb of torque.

Fuel injection - The SP-1’s huge central air scoop channels air through the frame into the forced airbox where each cylinder has two fuel-injectors feeding 54mm throttle bodies. The Ducati has twin side-positioned air scoops with 54mm throttle bodies and also twin injectors per cylinder.

Chassis - Ducati stuck with the steel trellis and single-sided swingarm where Honda used an aluminium dual beam with an aluminium swingarm using the engine as a stressed- member. Both have 24.3° rake (Ducati’s is variable to 23.3°) but the SP-1 has a longer 100.5mm trail with the 996 running 94mm.

Radiators - Honda split the radiators on the SP-1 and side-mounted them to give more room behind the front wheel where the 996 runs a conventionally-located radiator. Both bikes run a very similar wheelbase, with Honda claiming 1409mm and Ducati 1410mm.

Suspension and brakes - Both run fully-adjustable 43mm Showa forks with a fully-adjustable Showa shock. Neither road bike has radial calipers, with the Honda running Nissin four-piston front brakes and the Ducati Brembos. Bayliss’s race bike gained radial Brembo brakes in 2000.

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Jon Urry

By Jon Urry

MCN contributor, original 916 & R1-owner, human labrador