Weighing in at just 157kg with over 270bhp on tap, MotoGP machines are the finest motorcycles the human race can produce, capable of mind-boggling lap times, 63-degree lean angles and top speeds well in excess of 200mph. But while they might be the most capable bikes in the world, what are they actually like to ride?
End-of-season tests for the world motorcycle press used to be an annual occurrence after the final round of the season at Valencia, but the global have-a-go sessions were brought to a halt way back in 2007 following a run of expensive crashes.
Nine years later and MCN’s guest road tester and BT Sport MotoGP presenter Neil Hodgson is about to leave pit lane on the very Ducati Desmosedici GP16 on which Andrea Iannone secured his first victory since 2010 at the Red Bull Ring this summer.
It’s taken close to a decade for any manufacturer to let a civilian out on their priceless machine and even then it’s not a ‘normal’ rider, it’s Hodgson, a man that still has a place in Ducati’s heart having won the World Superbike championship for them back in 2003.
After taking a few minutes to calm down, Hodgson spoke to MCN about the once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is what he said…
Nothing prepares you
“I’ve only ridden road bikes since I stopped racing in 2009 but I’ve done about 80 days on track so far this year including five days in August, so I do a lot of track miles. I’ve also ridden all of the latest road going superbikes when I’ve been testing with MCN, but nothing prepared me for this.
“I was extremely nervous, not only because I was riding a MotoGP race winner, but because I was riding at an official MotoGP test and I was on track with the Aprilia, Ducati and KTM MotoGP and test riders.
“I’ve also been riding for the last six years with a road gear shift (one down, five up) whereas on this bike – because of the seamless shift gearbox – it’s the opposite. In fact it’s six down with neutral right at the top that can only be engaged by pulling a special lever on the bars. As a result my brain was flat-out reminding me not to go the wrong way and blow the thing up by changing down a gear when I should be changing up. That would have been a bad way to start the test!”
This bike is plain weird
“I believe that your initial reaction when you first get on a motorbike is the most accurate. As human beings we have the ability to adapt and absorb so quickly that you soon get used to what’s happening. My initial impression was that it was just plain weird. It felt long and low, like a chopper. It felt rock solid and like it had been stretched – the absolute opposite to what you think a MotoGP bike would be like.
“You expect it to be so nimble and for it to be falling to the inside of the corner and that you’ll be running over the inside kerb. But it’s just not like that. It is so hard to turn – I got to turn four and thought ‘sh**, I’m going to run off the outside of the track’.”
It’s so physical…
“MotoGP has changed. Compared to when I raced there the bikes have so much more power and you have to utilise that, and as a result the nimbleness has been sacrificed.
“It’s a new school of riding and it’s so much more physical. As a rider I sit in the bike, but if you ride this Ducati like that it simply won’t turn. Now you need so much upper body strength to hang on. I’m not used to riding with my head underneath my inside handlebar, but that is the technique you have to use to get the bike to turn. The GP16 is so long and low there is no pitch under braking and no weight transfer when you’re riding at my speed – and that just made things worse.”
…But it feels incredible
“The power is ridiculous. The moment you see the exit of the corner and you get on the gas you’re in heaven. It’s exactly how I’ve always wanted a bike to be. The feeling is incredible. I’ve raced in WSB and MotoGP and back then it was a constant battle to keep the front wheel on the ground. I spent my career literally climbing all over the front of the bike and stamping on the back brake to stop wheelies.
“This bike is different. Once you understand the grip you have and trust the electronics you can be so aggressive with the throttle. You can go straight to 100% throttle on corner exit and it’s like being smashed in the back with a bat with the front wheel hovering a few centimetres off the ground and the throttle on the stop. But it’s not physical, you just sit there with the wheel floating and the throttle pinned. The performance is absolutely mind-blowing.
“When you’re accelerating it gives a gliding sensation or a feeling that the front is surfing across the track, I don’t know how else to explain it. Because of the seamless gearbox, you don’t get any front wheel bounce when you change gear. It doesn’t feel like a wheelie, the rear just grips and propels you forward faster than I’ve ever been before. The electronics give you the confidence to go to 100% throttle and while it is clearly controlling the spin there is absolutely no sensation of them holding you back. Just acceleration like nothing else on Earth.”
Behaves like a drag bike
“Because of the performance of the bikes now you can absolutely see why MotoGP riders square the corners off so much. I was watching the factory riders on track the day before I rode so I could see the lines they were taking and what I needed to do. You have to tip in late, hold out for a late apex, get the turning done and then accelerate. It behaves like a drag bike so the key is to make the most of the straights. I honestly found myself giggling inside my helmet every time I got on the straight. Even when you short-shift the power is ridiculous.
“I could feel the tyre moving and I had a few slides but I didn’t feel the traction control kicking in even though when I looked at the data with the engineers they said I was using it a lot. The front tyre was different – I honestly never felt what the front tyre was doing, I could never push it hard enough. It’s also the most stable bike under braking that I have ever ridden. There is an auto-blipper for downshifts and it’s such a clean autoblip. It blips to much higher RPM than a road bike auto-blipper and it sounds incredible – like an F1 car.”
“The riding position is incredibly cramped because the footrests are so high and so far back to get the necessary ground clearance as these guys are leaning the bike to over 60 degrees. I had cramp within a few laps, cramp in places I’ve never had cramp riding a motorbike. Cramp in the back of my legs like you get when you’re dehydrated after a big night and cramp in my shins. Who gets cramp in their shins?
“The whole bike just felt so alien. Modern day road bikes are so good, so easy to ride and this bike isn’t. If I were on my bog standard S1000RR I use for trackday tuition I’d be so much faster over a lap.
“The bike and tank is so narrow and small there is nothing to lean on and nothing to support you. A lot of this has come from Stoner who has had a massive input into changing the shape of the bike. There is nothing in front of the rider so that they can move around and hang off. The only area that is big is the seat. It acts as a platform and even when you think you’re hanging off, you’re not even on the edge of the seat. It also allows the rider to hook their inside foot when they are hanging off.”
Excited but confused
“At the end of my first five-lap run I was excited, but also confused. Then after my second run it was real mix of emotions and I had a sad realisation that I couldn’t ride the GP16 how it needed to be ridden. Back in 2003 I was at the top of my game and became World Superbike champion, but at the time I didn’t realise how good I was and how well I could ride. I still ride a lot, but at this test I was thrown into the lion’s den and I found out that I can’t do it anymore.
“In terms of lap times it was embarrassing – I was miles off. Now I really understand just how good the guys in MotoGP are. The three riders generally close to the back are Tito Rabat, Alvaro Bautista and Stefan Bradl and they are all world champions. Riding these bikes is so, so difficult.”
Holding my breath
“After five laps I was breathing like I’d sprinted a mile, which was through a mixture of adrenaline and holding my breath. I was holding on like it was my first time on a motocross bike and I was doing literally everything I tell my pupils not to do when I give them tuition at the Focused Events track days I instruct on. Forget arm pump, I had complete body bump!”
What an experience
“During my final run I stopped giving a running commentary for the piece I was doing for BT Sport and just had three laps for me. Halfway round I reminded myself that I was riding a 2016 MotoGP bike. I was riding for a full factory team on a full factory race-winning bike. This is as good as it gets. What an experience! It was one of those moments where you press play and record in your brain and just try and hang on to the memory.”
Check out the gallery of the epic ride here.
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