ROSSI’S bike may be the epitome of pure class racing, but it’s the road-based machines that us fans really identify with.
Most of the money tied up in HRC goes to the NSR, but the real value lies in machine like Colin Edwards’ SP-2 World Superbike. People feel more familiar with it, more at home than with the NSR. And that’s because the VTR1000 SP-2 has its roots in the bikes you or I can buy any day of the week.
Of course, Edwards’ bike is in reality a far cry from the SP-1 available now and the road-going SP-2 Honda will be selling from early next year, and that’s why my butterflies have returned.
I’m still getting my breath back from my rodeo ride on Rossi’s NSR. My mind is still a little fuzzy, perplexed at the amount of data it has just had to process on the NSR. And time is running out already – Edwards’ mechanics are beckoning me to climb onboard his bike for the second massive thrill of the day.
I’ve never ridden a V-twin racer before and I’m a mess of anticipation. The familiar tingling feeling that assaults my body as endorphins and adrenalin rush through has returned.
I’m keen to find out if V-twins are as nice on the track as they are on the road. It’s instantly clear they are. In fact, the SP-2 rates as one of the nicest race bikes I’ve ever ridden.
All things are relative, of course, but after the 500, the SP-2 feels like an armchair. Rossi, who partnered Edwards to victory at July’s Suzuka Eight-Hour aboard an endurance-spec VTR, affectionately calls the bike a " fat 250 " . Like a 250 it’s not intimidating, and like a 250 it’s deceptively fast. Around some tracks the SP-2 can lap within a second or less of the 500, while feeling much slower.
Even Edwards admits the SP-2 took him by surprise when he first rode it: " I’d never been on a twin before and I thought, man, this is just too easy, it seems slow, but it’s going places and it’s spinning the rear tyre. "
The SP-2 feels slow because it doesn’t build revs manically like the 500, because it’s 30kg (66lb) heavier and most of all because it sounds so gentle, burbling through corners like a cruiser. Power is everywhere and you never feel like the thing’s getting away from you, but it’s still crazy fast and lively as hell for a 1000cc twin. Honda claims over 180bhp at about 12,000rpm and the bike throbbed its way to 185mph at this year’s Monza WSB round.
But it still wasn’t fast enough to hang on to the title Edwards won in 2000 (Troy Bayliss’ Ducati clocked 188mph at Monza). Engine failures, blamed on material problems that were quickly solved, didn’t help Honda’s title defence, but the Castrol crew admit Ducati made a big jump forward for 2001 that they couldn’t match.
" The Ducati was faster on top end this year and it hooked up better out of the turns, so it would get a jump on our bikes, " says SP-2 engine man and former SuperTeen racer Mark Lloyd.
" That could be chassis set-up or engine power, we’re not sure. Ducati says it already has another 10bhp for 2002, so that means we’ll need to find another 12bhp. HRC will work on a lot of stuff for next year, especially on reducing internal friction. "
Edwards will also have a new chassis next year, courtesy of the new road-going SP-2 (ironically, his bike isn’t really an SP-2 until it gets that chassis). The new unit is slightly less rigid to provide more feel from the road. Edwards has been mostly happy with the SP-2’s handling and steering since making set-up improvements during the latter stages of 2000.
" Before that it would push the front in a flash, " says the ex-champ. " In the end we just got as much weight over the front as possible. We lifted the rear higher than ever before, steepening the front right up and that transformed the bike, so now I can feel what it’s doing. "
Not surprisingly, the SP-2 steers slower than the NSR, which, to be honest, is a relief. You need to help haul it into turns, but she steers straight and true. Corner exits are more of a problem, for me at least. I found the rear would squat as I got on the power, lifting the front and sending the bike into mildly worrying tankslappers, but that was only because I was riding like a wuss. Edwards uses much more corner speed, which compresses the suspension so when he gets on the throttle the attitude of the bike doesn’t change dramatically. He also runs the steering damper on its minimum setting so it doesn’t interfere with input.
That’s why the whole concept of journalists testing race bikes is suspect, because unless you’re within a couple of seconds of a racer’s lap times, you’ve no right to make observations about the machine’s behaviour.
But I can reasonably comment on the SP-2’s superb slipper clutch. You’d expect a big, race-tuned V-twin to get unruly on the way into corners, as those two pistons try to slow the rear wheel faster than it wants to slow. But there’s none of that bad behaviour from the SP-2, the bike glides into turns with just the right amount of engine braking, keeping the rear taut and hugged to the ground, but never holding back.
And I can congratulate Honda for building a race bike with a starter motor. That’s right, the SP-2 starts at the touch of a button, so no sweating mechanics and no Ducati-style starter rollers. Honda designed the SP-2 to run within the weight limit with a starter from the beginning, because it was also created to win endurance races. And the starter gives Edwards a crucial bonus – if he slides off during a race he can get the motor going again, giving him the chance to salvage crucial extra points.
But Edwards ended the 2001 WSB season a gaping 52 points behind Bayliss, so he’ll need more than a few lucky extra points to overhaul the Aussie next year. No doubt about it, the SP-2 may be the nicest racing motorcycle in the world, but Honda’s British-based squad has some serious work to do this winter.