'We're back' – Kevin Ash reports on the return of the British superbike, at the launch of the T595 Daytona

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March 1997, Alicante, Spain: Triumph is at the biggest gaming table of its (second) life. And it’s just cast the dice in the shape of the bike they benchmarked on the FireBlade and the 916. Please god let it be Great AND British…

he new Daytona T595 is very, very important to Triumph. It’s the first bike to be conceived outside the modular engineering concept which has allowed Triumph to create a wide range of models from relatively few key components, and it’s the first bike to take on the Japanese and Italians directly at what they do best – building brilliant, cutting edge sportsbikes.

Success with the Daytona means Triumph will have to be taken seriously as a world class motorcycle manufacturer. Failure will be financially painful and do untold damage to the company’s engineering credibility, and it will take years to put right.

And the big capacity supersports class is hardly a soft option if you’re planning to stake your credibility. The Honda FireBlade moved the goalposts when it was introduced in 1992, getting its go from weight reduction instead of boosting power, and it’s still the bike that sets the class standards. The Ducati 916 has dominated World Superbike racing and matches a seductive motor with sublime handling and drop-dead gorgeous looks. It’s red, Italian and horny as hell.

Triumph’s engineers studied these two machines in particular when they started designing the T595 two and a half years ago, and as soon as you sit astride the bike it shows – the bars are wide apart and angled forward, and the fuel tank is broad, splaying your legs apart. Only one other bike has the same feel, and that’s the early model FireBlade. It’s not a great riding position to copy, but it’s less committed than the Ducati’s and after a few miles you do get accustomed to it.

But first you have to fire up the motor, and if you’re something of a throttle fidget when you thumb the starter you could get frustrated. The French-made Sagem sequential fuel injection system is claimed by Triumph to be the most sophisticated to be fitted to any production motorcycle, even predicting the engine’s fuelling requirements by measuring the rate at which you’re turning the twistgrip, but come start up time it only plays the game if you leave the butterflies firmly closed. Do that and there’s no problem, the bike firing up reliably if not immediately, a bit like a lot of Kawasakis.

No Kawasaki sounds like this though. Modern emissions laws means it’s muted, but there’s still nothing like the snarl of a three pot sports motor. Response to the throttle is electric – Triumph says the only components shared between this and the old triples are the conrods and valve springs, and you believe it as the tacho needle is fired manically round the black-on-white dial (if you can see it – at dusk it’s a strain to read).

Snick the bike into first gear and the motor barely notices the load. There’s a broad spread of torque, enough in the lower ratios to be useful right down to 2000rpm, but the action really starts once 7000rpm is dialled in. Then the bike hurtles forward with all the strength of a FireBlade, front wheel skimming the road and threatening to pull clear of it if you get too heavy handed. There’s no let up until the rev limiter spoils the fun – but saves the motor – just beyond the 10,500 ceiling, when it’s time to nudge the gear lever for the next ratio. Sadly, it often takes more than a nudge as the action is notchy and demands a little too much pressure. On rare occasions some bikes were dropping out of second when pushed really hard, but as no machine had more than 150 miles (Hinckley was deep in snow when Triumph was trying to put some miles on the motors) this is something which might improve as things loosen up.

Whatever, the gearchange was no more than a minor irritant, and did nothing to spoil the fun the engine generates. The sound is great, especially from the intakes under the tank, and the engine takes on a slightly harsh feel when you open the throttle which adds to the experience – when it’s working it lets you know. There’s no vibration likely to annoy anyone, all you get is a low frequency shake through the bars which is preferable to the buzz of a four.

The engine is truly great, but it’s not perfect. Below 3000rpm snapping the throttle open can induce a quick stutter, and up the scale at 5500rpm there’s a flat spot big enough to have you hunting another gear to dig your way out. The T595 is not alone in this, even the Honda Blackbird demands the odd ratio change if you need to accelerate with this number showing, and we can blame the legislators for choosing unrealistic noise regulations for this. A bike’s sound output is measured at 5000rpm, so the engineers make it go quiet – and flat – at this point, then get on with churning out serious horsepower in the rest of the rev range. The pain is, although you can feel it go flat, you can’t hear it get any quieter.

Regardless of this, the motor’s in the same division as the FireBlade’s and 916’s, losing a little here and gaining there, while the chassis is, if anything, superior to either in the real world of fast road use. The suspension is a little softer than a Blade’s and much more than a Ducati’s, but the quality of damping is high, so wheel control was tight even on the bumpy, twisting back roads of southern Spain where part of the test took place. The rest of the riding was on the technically demanding Cartagena race track, where the damping was firmed up at both ends of the bike, although it was still on the soft side for really serious use. But this is a road bike, not a racer, and on many roads it’s quicker than either the Honda or Ducati. Where the FireBlade rider might back off to save the flighty front end from flapping about and the 916 pilot will hold back for gear of being kicked off line by a rough surface, the Triumph will charge straight through with an ideal mix of stability and real world suspension. And it still turns in quicker than the Ducati, although the ground clearance doesn’t match the Italian bike. It’s not bad, but the quickest riders will be able to touch down a footrest and the trailing edge of the fairing.

The British bike is superior to either of the two performance icons when it comes to scrubbing off speed, although these days the FireBlade is feeling decidedly underbraked, and even though Ducati has improved the once very average 916’s front stoppers they’re still not class-leading. But the Daytona’s four-piston Nissan callipers with their exclusive-to-Triumph pad compound are a treat to use. The power on tap seems endless, and it’s so usable. The bike can be stood on its nose, the brilliant Bridgestone BT56 howling with the effort of gripping the surface, with no fear of losing control.

Holding the whole plot together is Triumph’s unique aluminium tubular frame, laid out in twin spare fashion. Triumph admits that is stile came before its function, but nothing seems to have suffered for that except maybe the manufacturing cost of polishing and lacquering the awkward shape. There’s no hint of flex at any speed, and the geometry is just right, making the Daytona one of the easiest bikes around to ride very fast.

It’s easy to ride far, too. Urban speeds could strain your wrists after a while, but the rest of the time comfort’s good, the seat offering enough support make several hours in the saddle a pleasure, not a pain, while the low screen directs air at your chest rather than head cutting out wind noise and buffeting.

Some of the bike’s detailing might be bothersome. The warning lights, set in a carbon fibre surround, are hard to read in daylight, and a bike at this level ought to have a span adjustable clutch lever as well as brake lever. But if the fit of some of the panels is more Ducati than Honda, the finish generally is up there. When you see a Daytona first hand, check out the yellow paint in the sunlight (probably won’t happen for three months). It’s rich, deep and with a multitude of subtle tones that keeps you walking around and looking time and again.

The Daytona has its own distinct character, and though it might not set new standards, it’s playing in the same ballpark as the best in the business.

That’s all it needs to do – job done.

Kevin Ash

By Kevin Ash

Late MCN columnist and most celebrated bike journalist of his generation