WSB on the cheap (Part 2)

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‘Damn, that thing still sounds good!’

hink we’d forgotten the booming and beautiful work of HRC art that is the SP-2? Double world champion Colin Edwards certainly hasn’t…

The Honda SP-2 holds a very special place in the heart of double World Superbike champion Colin Edwards. Fourteen years after they conquered the world together, MCN reunited the pair to see if the romance is still flourishing.

“Damn, that thing still sounds good!” As soon as Edwards hears the SP-2 arrive he is straight over to twist the throttle and increase the sound from its booming Yoshimura exhaust pipes. “I love these bikes, it was the best race bike I ever rode and I am so proud to have been part of its development. I guess enough time has now passed that I can reveal the bike’s whole history.”

With an offer like that, MCN decided to stand back and let the Texas Tornado do the talking: “Back in 2000 we used what was called the S2 profile rear Michelin on the SP-1, but in 2001 it was replaced by the bigger S4. It used to push the SP-1’s front and make it chatter its nuts off. The bike was so stiff it just smoked the rear tyre and so Shuhei Nakamoto, who is now the boss of HRC but was in charge of the WSB project back then, went out and bought a Ducati. They stuck it on a chassis jig and it was 50% weaker than the Honda, so we started to remove things like the engine mounts to give the SP-1 a bit of flexibility. In the end the motor was barely hanging in there and we even milled the mounting points to allow it to wobble! But that gave us the right direction for the SP-2’s chassis.

“I first tested the SP-2 at the end of 2001 in Sugo and you could do no wrong with it. We instantly went a second a lap faster than the SP-1. I entered the 2002 season on top of the world as I thought we had caught Ducati with their pants down, but the season didn’t start well.

“We struggled before the Laguna Seca round as Ducati had also upped their game and Troy Bayliss built a massive lead on us of 63 points. In the second race it was win or crash, so it was balls to the wall and I got the win. I knew that the SP-2 would go good at the next round at Brands, and we took the double, and the following weekend was the Suzuka 8-Hour and we always got a bunch of upgrades after that. With these new bits I could now draft by Bayliss, which I couldn’t do before. We started a roll of race wins that saw us take seven on the bounce and entered the final round at Imola a single point ahead.

“Bayliss hated to get beaten, so I played with him a bit. In Germany I knew I had him so I put my head down and rode five perfect laps in the second race, breaking the lap record every lap. I needed him to make a mistake so I was trying to push him into one, but he didn’t bite that round. At Assen he bit in the second race, crashed, and handed me the championship lead.

“I don’t remember much pressure at Imola, probably because I had come from so far back so all the pressure was on Troy. It was an awesome weekend, the atmosphere was amazing.

“The first race was in the bag until a red flag came out, so I had done all the work and just followed Troy home to win on aggregate times. I didn’t care he took the flag as I got the win, and I had six points on him so could have finished third in race two. But I thought screw this, I’m going to win it.

“While we bashed fairings a few times in the last laps, I was always on the inside of the corner when I was on my limit with him on the outside, so if it had gone wrong, I knew my bike had a starter where his didn’t! I had a plan.

“Afterwards we were cool, he congratulated me like I had him when he beat me in 2001 and we had a beer. Troy and myself weren’t friends at that time, but we respected each other – I just had a secret weapon in 2002, the Honda SP-2. And that’s why going to MotoGP in 2003 was so tough.

“I wanted to stay in WSB at the end of 2002, but the team folded and so I left for MotoGP on the Aprilia. I honestly reckon the SP-2 had two or three more years of racing left in it, but at least she retired at the top of her game and her spirit lives on in the road bikes.

“I hardly ever ride on the road, but this feels exactly the same as my race bike to sit on. The seat, bars, everything is exactly the same. It’s a proper race replica and I do smile when I see them out on the road, especially in the awesome Laguna Seca paint scheme. The funny thing is, I don’t actually have an SP-2 myself, although I should.

“Part of my contract was that I’d get my championship bike when I retire from racing. I had a bit of paper from HRC and when I retired I went to Nakamoto and said, ‘You guys owe me a bike.’

He said, ‘One problem, there is only one bike left and it is in Honda’s museum, and we can’t find your contract.’ I’d lost my contract too by then, but I guess it is better off in a museum than rotting at my place.”

Ducati 916 owner Jon Urry admits Honda’s WSB-winning V-twin is still very, very good

‘It’s still a racer at heart’

As an owner of a Ducati 916, by rights I should hate the Honda SP-2. But I don’t, I absolutely love it as it’s a brilliant bike that demonstrates that superbike V-twins can be refined, reliable and smooth. And also start on the button every time.

Personally, I don’t think the SP-2 styling has dated that much and it remains a good looking bike, although I had to chuckle when owner Phil warned me not to hold the choke lever out for more than 15 seconds or it might damage the coating on the cylinders. It seems as if all V-twins have their quirks.

Riding a Honda SP-2 is a totally different experience to a Ducati 916. Where the Ducati feels small and narrow with a head down, bum up, jockey riding position, the SP-2 is far more relaxed. It doesn’t feel like a converted racer; it feels like a traditional road-going sportsbike that is aggressive in its stance, but not overly so. I wouldn’t want to go touring on one, but even at low speed it’s not heavy on the clutch. But it is the engine’s sound and feel that I found the most surprising.

Despite the SP-2 having exactly (bar 0.1mm of stroke) the same dimensions as a 998, the Honda’s engine both feels and sounds totally different to a Ducati. The Ducati has a low and long exhaust note, where the Honda’s is far sharper with a hint of urgency that is reflected in the way it picks up its revs. V-twins are always deceptively fast due to their flat torque curves, but the SP-2’s engine feels a bit more spirited and faster to rev than the Ducati while retaining the same even torque characteristics. Despite the perky aftermarket exhausts on this SP-2, I still found myself needing to look at the rev counter to see when to change gear as there are no kicks or peaks in the engine’s delivery to give you a clue. I guess that’s why some riders find V-twins dull, but not me.

In bends the SP-2 feels far more Japanese than Italian. Where a Ducati is lazy to turn in, the SP-2 is sharper and more aggressively planted on its nose, giving a lovely feel from the front end. Mid-corner the 916 is nicer, but if you are used to an inline four, the SP-2 feels far more natural where a Ducati can feel slightly ponderous. It’s certainly modern feeling in its handling, which is what you would expect from a bike built by HRC, but it can still shake its head every now and then just to remind you it’s a racer at heart, which I like.

Being reacquainted with the SP-2 was a great experience and aside from the last few tenths of handling ability, it was only the lack of bite and power from the conventionally mounted brakes that reminded you this is a bike nearing a decade and a half old.”

Phil Nicholls, owner of this 2002 SP-2, reveals what it’s like to keep a WSB winner in your garage

‘Full service history and original pipes? I had to have it’

“I’ve had my SP-2 for about three years now and I absolutely love it. I was so lucky as I got it from a guy who cherished his bikes and it was totally standard. Full service history and original pipes? I had to have it, and at £5000 it was the right money, too.

“Life with the SP-2 is wonderful; it’s a great bike. I’m not that tall and it actually has quite a low seat height and the handling and sound is brilliant. Everyone stops and wants to talk about the SP-2, which is nice, and it’s not that impractical. I find the riding position comfortable and it is totally reliable and actually cheap to run.

“The SP-2 needs a big valve clearance service at 16,000 miles, which costs about £500, but other than that there are no hidden expenses. It’s typical Honda, starts on the button and won’t let you down, but it is a touch thirsty as the throttle bodies are massive!

“I have removed the flapper valve in the airbox, added aftermarket pipes and also removed the smog reduction system; it’s a valve on the exhaust port that blows air into the pipe on the over-run and although it’s a nightmare to get to, is simple to blank off with an aftermarket kit. These small changes let the SP-2’s engine breathe far better and clean up the power curve. The only criticism I have of the bike is that the screen acts as a magnifying glass in the sun and melts the top of the dash! It’s a standard SP-2 issue and Honda still sell original dashes, along with most other spares aside from the Castrol sticker kit.”

Words: Jon Urry Photos: Paul Bryant