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First full test on Benelli superbike

Published: 11 November 2001

Halway through this year’s World Superbike race season a stunning green and silver bike appeared in the paddock and qualified for the two races at Misano. The Benelli Tordano had arrived.

The even meant different things to different people. Those old enough to remember or with a knowledge of racing history found themselves with a tear in their eye as they recalled Benelli’s long GP history and cast their minds back to the firm’s last world championship in 1969 with a 250 four cylinder bike. The legend was back.

But even those with only a hazy knowledge of Benelli’s past couldn’t take their eyes off it. It was simply a gorgeous machine. Some may have seen the road version that had been shown around the world, including a demo at the Isle of Man TT. But with that not due to appear in showrooms until at least April next year, both bikes were equally beyond reach.

In fact the nearest most of us had come to a Benelli was on one of the comeback scooters the firm built to boost their finances and get their name back in the public eye. Up to now, no-one outside the Benelli factory and their WSB rider Peter Goddard has ridden the Benelli Tornado 900 in any form, road or race.

But that’s all about to change, as I and a handful of other journalists arrive at an Italian circuit on a cool, sunny morning to finally get our legs over it. Appropriately, that circuit is Misano, the place where Benelli finally made its race comeback in June. Reliability problems and a crash didn’t bode well for the future on that debut, but a 13th at Brands Hatch, and 13th at Imola meant Benelli ended up with seven championship points not bad for a first effort.

Okay, this is the Tornado 900/3 Racing, not the eagerly awaited road bikeso it might seem irrelevant to mere mortals like us. However, it will give us some strong hints about the bike you and I will be able to buy.

But first the differences. The road bike (let’s call it the Tornado Tre, pronounced " tray " , as that’s what it’s called) weighs 185kg (407lb), while the Racing is down as 169kg (372lb) on Benelli’s spec sheet, or 172kg (378lb) if you ask the boss, Andrea Merloni. The race bike makes 165bhp, the road version 140bhp.

But power and weight differences aside, this is still a Benelli Tornado and for now it’s the nearest indicator of what the road bike will feel like. And it’s very special. To be honest, it doesn’t even matter if it’s really any good or not. For Benelli to have been brought from the ashes by boss Andrea Merloni for it to have created a bike as stunning as this which is also capable in its first year of scoring points in it’s first season, is some achievement. The firm has created a motorcycle from an idea much more quickly than most of the big Japanese manufacturers with billions of yen and years of race development behind them.

The Benelli fatcory is based in Pesaro, 20km from Misano, and the team spends most weeks testing at the circuit. The smooth-talking Merloni is heavily involved. He simply can’t wait to get his leathers on and help develop the bike with Goddard and the firm’s test rider.

But we’re not here to develop the bike, we’re here to swing a leg over it and tell you, and the rest of the world what it’s really like.

Apart from fleeting glances at the Brands and Donington WSB races I’ve never looked at the bike properly. Underneath the aggressive lines of the bike which mimic the road bike, except for the absence of the underseat fans, it’s a very strange and very interesting machine.

OK, it’s a WSB bike, so it’s bound to be cock-full of exotic parts, but the Tornado is even more exotic than most. There’s the two-part frame held together with glue (somehow I don’t think they used Pritt Stick), the under-seat radiator with carbon intakes and that tiny three-cylinder engine with Benelli’s logo stamped on the cylinder head, barrel and magnesium crankcase just to make sure

Then there’s the usual WSB-type stuff. The Ohlins forks with radially-mounted front Brembo race calipers, an Ohlins rear shock, digital Magneti Marelli clocks which display everything from lap times to oil temperature, water temperature and the rest,plus that SP1-style rev counter climbing in digital segments around the outside of the clocks.

There’s three bikes here today but we’re only getting to ride two of them. Although the Benelli team won’t admit it, the third bike with " T " written on its number board, is the bike the firm is developing for next year with more power and less weight. But that’s only an educated guess you understand, and I never did do very well at school.

Benelli mechanics mill around as new slicks are pulled out of the race truck and tyre warmers are slapped on. I’m getting a little anxious while the team check the bikes over then give them to the test rider for a few laps to test everything is on the money.

Misano has never been one of my most favourite tracks and the last time I rode here was way back in 1997 for a Michelin tyre test.

So I steal one of the Benelli paddock scooters for a slow look round. With only 50cc underneath me, this isn’t quite the Benelli experience I was expecting! It’s also different because we’re using the short circuit, as a car meeting at the weekend has filled the top half of the track with oil, which is now covered by a thick layer of concrete dust. Less to learn I suppose.

When I’m back in the pits, we’re tp;d we’ll have three laps before we have to pull in, followed by a further five laps. If the team feel we’ve got time, and the bike’s are all in one piece, we’ll be able to sneak in a few more laps.

The bikes are lined up in the garage along with eight cabinets. In the drawers are camshafts, master cylinders, exhausts and gearbox parts, all in soft foam cases. Every gleaming piece looks like it was hand-crafted by Michelangelo. Even the tyre warmers are special with digital temperature gauges displaying their temperature. As I get my lid on they’re up to 86.5°C front and 87.2°C rear.

The rear tyre is turned by hand to prime the motor, the roller is attached and the clutch is dropped when it’s in sixth gear at 85mph. Suddenly the rapid-fire of Italian voices is replaced by a high-octane rumble as the Tornado explodes into life.

And then it’s my turn. The last question I’m asked before getting my shot on the bike is: " Quick shift or no? " I’ll take the quickshifter please, because if that’s the way Goddard rides it, that’s the way I want to ride it.

The bike’s warmed up with a brutal whirring noise from the twin high-level Arrow oval Titanium silencers and I’m ready.

In front of me is a high double bubble screen, and blue anodised fork tops sticking just a few millimetres out of the milled aluminium top yoke. It looks like a fairly sedate set-up compared to some bikes, where the forks stick out of the yoke by an inch or so. The riding position is fairly relaxed, too. The pegs aren’t particularly high and the bars are in a sort of GSX-R position radical for a road bike, but not steep for a racer.

Above the large digital clocks are the on/off switch, the quickshift on/off switch, and a third switch which can change the engine mapping system if conditions change, like if it becomes damp halfway through a race.

Unfortunately, there’s no switch to beam me back to Blighty if I crash it, but I hope that’s not going to happen.

I pull in the adjustable Brembo Racing clutch lever, change up into first on the race pattern gearchange, blip the throttle and feed in the power and the clutch. Even if it was all over at this point I could say I’d ridden the Benelli. But it isn’t. Second, then third are slotted in as I wobble round the track. Even after my scooter tour I’m not entirely sure where I should be going, _ but I suppose I should be thankful I’m not trying to negotiate my way around the excitable streets outside the track.

I change down to first gear and give it some out of the first hairpin left hander. It pulls the front wheel up in the air, then it’s into second, third and fourth for the multiple apex Carro left-hander. By the time I pull in after three laps at the end of my session I’m just starting to feel comfortable with the track, but not yet the bike.

While the mechanics bustle around getting ready for the next rider, I sit down to collect my thoughts and analyse what the bike is all about. The first thing that gets you is the noise. It’s not as sexy as a Ducati WSB bike, but still very seductive. It’s a strange mix of a deep, hollow whirr with a high-pitched howl when it gets to maximum revs, which in this case is 12,000rpm. In a race Goddard shifts at 11,800rpm and the bike is limited at 12,600rpm. Though it’s fast compared to a road bike like an R1 and picks up a lot faster and a lot more dramatically it does need to be revved to find the meat of the power. And although it will pull cleanly down the pits from below where the rev-counter starts at 5000rpm, to get it out of a corner fast needs at least 9000rpm before the power chimes in hard and kicks its way round to 12,000rpm. And compared to other bikes its up against, it needs a fair bit more torque.

Keep it up here and the thing’s a missile but makes it quite hard to ride. A GSX-R1000 would kill it out of a low-speed corner… until the Benelli started revving and things would be reversed. But keep it up in the rev-range and use the quickshift without shutting off the throttle when you change gear and the power never dies away and every gear change gives you the chance to hear that howling triple climb the revs again.

Another slight problem is the fuel-injection system is snatchy. Pitch it in to a fast corner and it’s fine, but on slower speed bends you need the throttle control of Mick Doohan to stop it lurching around mid-corner. It’s not really a problem when you’re nobbing around like me, but if you were hanging a few inches off someone’s rear tyre in the middle of a WSB race and you’d have a few concerns. It gets better the more you get used to it, but it could with some work.

To be honest I was concentrating so hard on figuring out which direction to go next that I barely noticed what the chassis was up to at all in my first session. Put it like this my kneesliders were in no danger of wearing away. But that was the idea of the first stint to elarn the track and start to get used to the bike. And after mainlining a couple of espressos, my next session is approaching and I feel a lot more ready.

After mainlining a couple of Espressos my next session’s up and I feel a lot more ready. The first bend is taken in second gear. I gas it out and the thing charges out to the next right-hand flick up to third gear before I squeeze on the brakes for the second gear left-hander. Waiting for it to get in to the rev-range it pulls hard out of the next left-hander. I snick up to third and then fourth, constantly increasing speed before exiting the turn flat in fourth gear.

Only the slightest nudge on the lever is needed to change gear. Getting the bike to hold a line around the fast corners takes the minimal amount of effort, too. And you can get on the power hard and fast. Unlike some bikes of this calibre, you end up using full throttle more and as you come on to the back straight in fourth you can hold it down hard, tapping the gear lever down to go up the box.

As I get more and more used to the bike, I get a slight wiggle exiting this fast bend as I change in to fifth, but it’s nothing that the Benelli steering damper can’t cope with and is more to do with my weight making the bike squat a bit.

Down the back straight you hold top gear for a few seconds, pulling up to 11,500rpm then wait for the 150 and 100 braking markers. Although the bike is above the WSB weight limit it’s so well balanced you’d struggle to notice and it’s extremely stable under hard braking for the next left-hand second gear hairpin.

The brakes, are amazing. The initial bite doesn’t feel that strong but add a few microns of pressure and you slow down faster and faster. And you can still keep it turning on the brakes and put it exactly where you want.

The chassis lulls you in to thinking you’re not actually that far over until you realise you’re pulling your knee in from the ground and sliding away. And it will take a lot more than you can offer it.

On the way out of the next corner I give it a real handful and change direction as the front wheel is coming back down. I slot it into third and fourth gear, then drop back down to second for a right-hand hairpin. The surface is pretty changeable here and that shows up the bike’s snappy fuel-injection as I adjust the throttle mid-corner.

Then it’s hard on the gas up to third gear before braking and down to second for the next left-hand double-apex bend. It feels like it a first gear corner but the bike’s much more comfortable and less snatchy in second. You can pull the bike in to the apex with very little effort before feeding in the power gently down the start-finish straight.

It hoiks its front wheel in second gear when the power kicks in and again wheelies when changing to third gear, before settling down in to fourth and fifth for the first corner. I can feel the slipper clutch doing its job and the chassis making light work of the braking and cornering forces.

The Benelli is awesome. If you’d just stepped off the latest sports bike on to it, the speed it gets around a track would absolutely blow you away. But as a race bike it doesn’t quite have the potency it needs. Generally, it’s easy to see why the bike can’t get the results it has needed compared to the factory Ducatis and Hondas. But to get this far with a bike, especially the chassis, that’s so easy top get on with, and plenty of power once the revs are in the east of the gauge, is a massive achievement the firm should be proud of.

And if this is how good the WSB machine is, which is essentially a more powerful version of the road bike, then we’ll be getting an absolute blinder in April. The team know they’ve got a lot of work to do on the race bike to make it truly competitive. But it also knows things can only get better and it has plans to revamp pretty much all of the engine internals for more power and torque and make the bike easier and quicker out of the bends.

If development goes to plan you’ll be able to watch their progress next season. Until then I can’t wait to see what the road bike feels like. I reckon it’s going to be pretty special to ride not to mention stunning to look at, given that it's already being spoken of in the same breath as the MV Agusta F4 and Ducati 996.