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The people’s champions

Published: 04 August 2000

WHERE were you on Sunday afternoon? If you were sat beside a certain track in Kent, or glued to the BBC’s Grandstand, you don’t need telling how big the World Superbike series has become.

The championship offers some of the best racing on the planet. It has also been dominated by a Brit for the last few years and UK fans are fortunate enough to get two rounds every season.

But these aren’t the best things about WSB. No, that accolade lies with the bikes, and the fact that if you’ve got the cash, you can go out tomorrow and buy a road-going version of any one of the machines seen hurtling around Brands Hatch.

Can you think of any other world championship sport where the equipment used by the experts is so easily attainable by the public? No, neither can we.

OK, we admit the bikes that lined up on the grid on Sunday are all hand-built by big-budget teams, they feature unique parts developed by factory technicians, put out much more power than a road bike and don’t have lights and indicators. Oh, and some are worth the best part of a million quid.

But to people who don’t know Foggy from slightly cloudy or Chili from chilli, the bike parked in your garage is a genuine racer. Of course, some are more genuine than others. Take the £22,765 Aprilia RSV Mille SP, for example. Just 150 have been made so it qualifies for competition, and it resides in an elite group of race-homologated road bikes which also includes Ducati’s £17,000 996 SPS and Yamaha’s £21,449 R7.

None of them are cheap, but then none of them are even remotely ordinary. At the other end of the scale, you have mass-market machines like Honda’s SP-1, Suzuki’s GSX-R750 and Kawasaki’s ZX-7R. These form the basis for their racing relatives, but they are more like third cousins than brothers and sisters.

So how do they compare? Is the Ducati twin really worth £7000 more than Honda’s equivalent? Is it worth saving for another 12 months so you can afford a used R7 rather than a ubiquitous R1? To find out, we took all six to Donington Park and its surrounding roads.

A race for keys takes place before every MCN road test, but this time there was a touch more urgency in the rush. It’s hardly surprising when you think there was more than £85,000 worth of motorcycle waiting.

Me being the responsible road tester of the bunch, I refrained from lunging at the Aprilia or Ducati and opted for the Suzuki. I wanted to start in the real world and save the best

until last.

As each rider fired up his bike of choice, we were met by a wall of sound not dissimilar to that which you’ll have experienced twice if you were sitting in the main grandstand on Sunday afternoon.

The RSV was the first to bark into life, followed instantly by the booming bellow of the 996. Then, as if guided by some unseen conductor’s baton, the SP-1 joined in the assault on our eardrums. The R7’s race pipe preceded the ZX-7R and the Suzuki to complete the crescendo. I knew the day was going to be good because the hairs on my neck were standing up and I hadn’t even left the office car park.

With almost 800bhp on tap it was difficult to resist temptation as we weaved our way through the rush-hour traffic to the open roads. All six bikes were surprisingly adept at slow speeds, but this wasn’t what they were designed for.

As we left the congestion behind, the first stretch of open road gave everyone a chance to see what their machines had to offer. I was sitting behind the Aprilia when its rider decided to give it some beans. It was as if I’d been transported to an RAF runway as the thunderous, resonating soundwaves from the RSV’s twin side-mounted cans infiltrated my lid. It was the same for the bloke behind the SPS, though the other four bikes didn’t quite have the same effect.

After a while the aural bombardment from the Italian twin became too much, and I found it necessary to crack open the Suzuki’s throttle for a quieter time up front. At this point the sun was shining and everyone was happy, but this was a British summer and anything might happen. So it did.

Ten miles from the track we could see dark clouds in the distance. A mile from the track the first spots of rain started falling on our fly-covered visors. When we arrived at the track the heavens opened, thankfully just after we’d pulled into a pit garage.

I noticed the faces of my colleagues get longer and longer as the trickle down the pit lane turned into a torrent. There were a few hardy souls out on the track, dragging rooster tails of spray behind them as they passed along the straight, but we were not prepared to risk an insurance bill the size of Leicestershire just to see how the bikes performed in atypical conditions.

However, with six race bikes and a great race track at our disposal, it still took the resolve of a monk to resist going out for a couple of " slow uns " .

The wait did have one benefit, though – it gave us time to park all the bikes side-by-side and have a good poke around. It’s a close-run contest as to which grabs the most attention, but as members of the public strolled past, gawping in amazement at the sight before them, it was the rarest and most expensive of the bunch which attracted attention.

Six months ago, the RSV SP would probably have taken second place to the 996. But since then Troy Corser has manhandled the Aprilia to second in the world championship, while Ducati-minus-Foggy has struggled. The tables have been turned.

The Aprilia we had was one of only two registered for the road in the UK, and it bristled with carbon bodywork and quality parts like Ohlins suspension. Its red and black paintscheme is just like the one seen on Corser’s bike, and I’m sure a few of the people who casually strolled over thought the Aussie rider might have been hiding at the back of the garage.

Whatever you think of Foggy and Ducati, you can’t deny that the 996 is a design masterpiece, which is why it was next to attract attention once onlookers had finished with the Aprilia. A red bike with a single-sided swingarm and twin underseat exhausts only means one thing in motorcycling, and this is it.

The design is seven years old, but it still looks as fresh today as it did when it was launched. It’s an icon which has been made famous by an icon, Mr Fogarty, and though it didn’t beat the Aprilia in the popularity stakes, for me the SPS epitomises race replica superbikes.

Unsurprisingly, the other bike to receive a similar amount of the attention was the Yamaha – though not at first. When it was parked next to its Japanese rivals in the dimly-lit Donington garage, it looked like an R1. It was only when people did a double-take at the " 7 " designation on the seat hump, the Ohlins suspension and massive black frame, that they suddenly realised they were in the company of greatness.

The other three models were somewhat relegated to also-rans in our straw poll of style. But that’s no surprise considering you can walk into any dealer in the country to buy an SP-1, ZX-7 or GSX-R.

The former is getting more common all the time, and in this state it bears little resemblance to the machine Colin Edwards has taken to the top of the WSB title table. If you were to spend a few grand on some of the race parts now available for the twin, you’d be closer to the real thing. But it would take some serious cash – and very good contacts at Honda’s race department in Japan – to make an SP-1 as close to a WSB machine as the RSV or 996.

A similar principle applies to the Kawasaki, which in its stock form is a world apart from the ZX-7RR raced by Akira Yanagawa in WSB. But if you have the cash, and the inclination, something resembling a factory race bike is attainable by fitting a selection of aftermarket goodies.

The Suzuki received less attention than anything else simply because you could see three or four of them by poking your head over the pit wall and looking on the track. A price tag of £7499 means you don’t get any over-fancy suspension or engine components, but what you do get is a bike that’s more practical than at least four of the others and capable of handling what most road riders would put it through on a Sunday morning thrash.

Unlike the the ZX-7 and SP-1, performance-enhancing race kits are not available to the public, but with details of a new GSX-R750SP leaking out of Japan, the factory probably feels they don’t need to be.

As much as we’d liked to have sat there all day, drinking tea, chatting to MCN readers and drooling over gorgeous motorcycles, we had come to Donington with a job to do, and as the sun combined with the breeze to dry the sodden surface it was time to get down to business.

As we flipped down our visors and tightened our gloves, there was a real sense of excitement among the group. No-one spoke because there was no need for words. Even though we weren’t there to race, I could appreciate how men like Corser and Edwards must feel before a race.

I suppose I should say I knew how Nori Haga must feel, because I managed to prise the keys to the R7 from the vice-like grip of one of my colleagues, and the chance to ride this bike just heightened my sense of anticipation.

As I checked the dash display on my way down the pit lane it gave no indication of the insane capabilites of this thing. The R7 has the same read-outs as most road bikes, a neutral light, indicator lights, even a digital speedo. But the high pegs and low, clip-on bars tell you this isn’t simply a model to fill the gap between R6 and R1.

The marshal seemed to take for ever letting us loose one-by-one on to the drying track. I slotted in behind the Suzuki and the Aprilia, and a pair of R1s joined our group as we weaved all the way down Craner Curves in a bid to generate some heat in the tyres. I could hear the 996 behind me over the burble of the R7’s titanium can, and I sensed the rest of the WSB replica pack was not far behind either, just waiting to pounce.

The wait ended at Coppice, when first the Suzuki rider, then me, then the guys behind and even the two strangers on the R1s pinned their throttles for the dash down the straight to Fogarty’s Esses.

I held on tight and nailed the Yamaha, expecting to be launched into another dimension. But it didn’t happen. I checked that I was in the right gear. I was, so I slowed a little and tried it again. It was the same result.

However, as the needle spun round to the red line I could see I was catching the riders up ahead. Mmm... I eventually caught them at the Melbourne Loop, so I decided to knock it down a gear and... wow!

I’d suddenly realised how to ride this thing. You need to keep the engine spinning hard and it’ll reward you with an enormous amount of power.

I kept the revs high through Redgate and found that I could catapult the bike out of the bend and down Craner Curves. It was scary, particularly as there were damp patches if you strayed off line, but it was addictive.

The Pirelli Dragon Corsa rear tyre didn’t like it one bit as I put the power down. It squirmed for what felt like a foot across the track as it battled to contain all 143 horses. I could understand why Haga always seems to be riding on the edge, especially as his bike has an extra 30bhp.

By now I’d acclimatised to the power delivery and was learning how to use it. I was more confident and the experience was getting more enjoyable. I was chasing the 996 for much of the session, and we seemed to pass just about everything. I know we were lapping quickly, but we seemed to be passing the same bikes every two or three laps – even the R1s.

After riding like that we felt as if we could beat the likes of Foggy and Haga as we came into the pits at the end of the session, salivating like a wino who has just found a fiver and gibbering like fools.

It was only then that one of the marshals informed us that in our haste to get started we’d gone out with the slow group! That was followed by the comment: " You scared half of them to death! " Sorry.

Session two arrived with us swapping bikes and taking the trouble to check we were in the right group. I went for the Ducati this time round and as I rumbled down towards the end of pit lane it felt just as focused as the R7.

The high seat, high footpegs and minimalist instrument panel, which was dominated by a big rev counter with a 13,000rpm red line, all indicated this bike wasn’t designed for touring.

More admiring glances came my way as I rolled out of the pits before snicking the big twin into first and deliberately blipping the throttle just to hear that addictive rumble from the cans.

The tyres were still warm from the last session, so I could go fairly quick straight from the off. But after a lap and a half I was happy the rubber was at its optimum operating temperature and I could have some fun.

Up ahead I noticed the Aprilia and the Honda were head-to-head down Craner Curves. It was as if we were attached by a rope as we all followed the same line, but I was gradually gaining on them down the hill and through the Old Hairpin. As we peeled into Coppice I was with them both, winding up the Ducati to slingshot past and on to the straight. Well, that was my plan. In reality, the extra power of the other twins helped them ease away.

Under the Dunlop Bridge, with the front wheel airborne as I crested the rise, the Aprilia was almost three bike lengths ahead and the Honda wasn’t far behind. I only caught them as they slowed for the Esses because I was slightly later on the brakes.

At that point I was able to slip the sweet-handling Duke up the inside and turn in just ahead of the bucking Aprilia, which had locked its rear wheel under braking.

Getting hard on the power on the way down to the Melbourne hairpin, the Ducati’s 123bhp was exceptionally flexible. It was so easy to get the power down that it seemed to be lulling you into a false sense of security, but it never threatened to get out of control no matter how much abuse I gave the twistgrip.

Time was pressing now and I still had four bikes to sample, so I darted into the pit lane to swop SPS for RSV. The engine hadn’t even been turned off as I slung my leg over the Aprilia and handed the 996 keys to my colleague. Getting heat into the tyres wasn’t a problem because the wheels had only been static for a minute, so it was just a matter of kicking up the sidestand and heading back out.

A quick glance over my right shoulder revealed the straight was clear, so I nailed the throttle on the way into Redgate as if I was Corser on a Superpole qualifying lap.

I stayed on the power through Hollywood and Craner Curves before settling the bike on the brakes and changing down one for the Old Hairpin.

I had to hang farther off the heavier Aprilia than I did on the Ducati. It turned well, but took more effort to hold a line.

As I wound on the power I could feel the rear Dunlop Sportmax D207GP skipping over the Tarmac. Making full use of the impressive grunt from the V-twin motor I short-shifted up the gearbox and leaned in through Schwantz, feathering the throttle before getting back on the gas for an instant surge to McLeans. This thing is seriously fast.

Get the power down hard and the front wheel rarely stays in contact with the ground. It’s just as well the four-pot brakes can bring the thing under control with two fingers. Any more and you risk locking the rear as it leaves the deck.

The Aprilia begs to be ridden like this. It was conceived in a paddock and its natural habitat is the race track. But if you take advantage, or don’t show it maximum respect, it can turn round and slap you in the face.

It’s fantastic to ride hard, but it demands total concentration, and after four laps mine was waning. This was as good a time as any to come back into the pits for another change. This time the ZX-7RR was waiting, its engine burbling, can pinking and tyres warm to the touch.

I climbed on and it immediately felt portly compared to the last three bikes, but this wasn’t a problem because it also felt familiar. I’ve ridden dozens of these, but you can count the number of R7s, SPSs and RSV SPs I’ve tried on one hand.

As I slid into the ZX-7’s comfortable seat I was faced with a dash which actually looked like a dash. No gimmicks here, just a simple layout which has everything you need within view. It seems to belong in a different world to the other three race-spec machines... until

you look at the large rev-counter with a 15,000rpm red line. If that wasn’t enough to convince me of the bike’s potential it only took the run down the pit lane to highlight this was a WSB rep after all.

I spent the first two bends getting reaquainted with my old friend, and decided to give it some stick going into the Old Hairpin. As I leaned over the bike just went over. It felt as if it had run off the edge of its front tyre, but as I carried on through the right-hander I started to remember how well the ZX-7R turns in.

After the big twins I had to recalibrate my brain to ride the four-cylinder Kawasaki fast. Though it’s " only " a 750, it puts out 116bhp and it’s anything but slow. I was holding the needle above 9000rpm and keeping up with bigger bikes no problem.

On the run in to Coppice I held a deliberately wide line so I could get a good slingshot down the straight, but even I was surprised when I passed a pair of R1s. Don’t let anyone tell you 750s are slow compared to litre bikes.

I was barrelling into the Esses so fast that I was a little concerned I wouldn’t slow down in time to make the turn. But I needn’t have worried. The stock Nissin six-pot set-up is superb.

When you think this thing costs less than a third of the price of the Aprilia, it seems hard to justify spending the extra cash if all you want is an exciting ride. But if you want kudos...

I knew what to expect from the Kawasaki, but I wasn’t quite as familiar with the next bike which had been prepped for my imminent arrival in the pits – Honda’s SP-1. You can see the firm’s reason for building it as soon as you climb on board.

It’s small for a 1000cc machine, it’s light and the riding position is very race-orientated. Every component, from the brakes to the power delivery and the handling, also feels on the edge.

As soon as I turned into the first corner I sensed this was a riders’ bike judging by the amount of feedback you get through the chassis. All you have to do is flick your wrists and the SP-1 follows your lead. Even through the fast, downhill Craner Curves it felt solid, which was odd for such a quick-steering chassis set-up. The engine puts out almost 140bhp, and you could use every one of them if you dare.

The SP-1’s lack of weight proved a boon through the bends, but when you get on the straight and short-shift through the six gears, you really need to put your weight over the front to stop the wheel rising. When it does, the short clip-on bars give a little headshake as they come back down just to let you know what’s happening down below.

As I focused on keeping both wheels on the ground, the Suzuki GSX-R750 flashed past on the inside at about 140mph. I gave chase and rapidly closed on the 750, but the Suzuki is even easier to ride quickly, so that once the rider got into a good rhythm he had a slight advantage.

I stayed behind the Suzuki all the way down the back straight, through the Esses and on to the Melbourne Hairpin, but I couldn’t pass it. It just stopped and drove out of corners too well. That’s why Pier-Francesco Chili has beaten Edwards on more than one occasion this season. While I stared down the GSX-R’s pipe I again wondered whether the extra £2500 for the Honda is worth it. And I decided that it probably is.

If you want maximum performance for your money, the ZX-7R, GSX-R or SP-1 will suit you down to the ground. But if you want people to walk over and chat next time you’re at Matlock Bath, Devil’s Bridge or Boxhill, start saving now for that Aprilia, Ducati or Yamaha.

APRILIA RSV-SP

Cost: £22,765

Availability: Aprilia UK 01776-888670

Colours: Black/red/white

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 996cc (100mm x 63.4mm) 8v dohc four-stroke 60° V-twin. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: Ohlins 43mm

inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Ohlins single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Dunlop Sportmax D207; 120/70x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear

Brakes: Brembo; 2 x 320mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

DUCATI 996SPS

Cost: £17,000

Availability: Ducati UK 01604-750851

Colours: Red

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 996cc (98mm x 66mm) 8v dohc four-stroke 90° V-twin. Marelli fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Tubular steel trellis

Front suspension: Ohlins 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Ohlins single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Michelin Pilot Sport; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Brembo; 2 x 320mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 4-piston caliper

HONDA VTR SP-1

Cost: £9999

Availability: Honda UK: 01753-590500

Colours: Red/black

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 999cc (100mm x 63.6mm) 8v dohc four-stroke 90° V-twin. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Michelin Pilot Sport; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Nissin; 2 x 320mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 220mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

YAMAHA R7

Cost: £21,449

Availability: Yamaha UK: 01932-358000

Colours: Red/white

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 749cc (72mm x 46mm) 20v dohc four-stroke in-line four. Fuel injection. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: Ohlins 46mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Ohlins single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Pirelli Dragon Corsa; 120/70 x 17 front, 180/55 x 17 rear

Brakes: Sumitomo; 2 x 298mm front discs with 4-piston calipers, 245mm rear disc with 4-piston caliper

KAWASAKI ZX-7R

Cost: £6795

Availability: Kawasaki Motors 01628-851000

Colours: Green, black, red

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 748cc (73mm x 44.7mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. 4 x 38mm carbs. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Pirelli Dragon Evo; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Nissin; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 205mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper

SUZUKI GSX-R750

Cost: £7499

Availability: Suzuki GB: 01293-518000

Colours: Blue/white, yellow/black, blue/black

SPECIFICATION

Engine: Liquid-cooled, 748cc (73mm x 44.7mm) 16v dohc four-stroke in-line four. 4 x 38mm carbs. 6 gears

Chassis: Aluminium twin-spar

Front suspension: 43mm inverted forks, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Rear suspension: Single shock with rising-rate linkage, adjustments for pre-load, compression and rebound damping

Tyres: Pirelli Dragon Evo; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear

Brakes: Nissin; 2 x 320mm front discs with 6-piston calipers, 205mm rear disc with 2-piston caliper