The PB100: 1 - Honda SP1

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The 100 bikes to ride before you die, brought to you by the guys at MCN’s sister title, Performance Bikes.

It seemed Honda was saying, ‘Sorry about the Firestorm’.

My dad once said to me, ‘Son, Honda make the best engines in the world.’ I’m not sure on what grounds this cast iron assertion was based, for while his red and silver mower certainly started first time and possessed a fair turn of speed, the white Concerto he drove was devoid of a single redeeming feature.

Had he been around when the RC45 fought desperate battles with Bologna’s twins in WSB every other weekend, dad would almost certainly have adopted HRC’s 1999 vintage 749.2cc, 90-degree V4, with its gear-driven cams, otherworldly noise and NSR500-troubling 185bhp as a case in point.

But, by the late 90s, beating 1000cc V-twins with a 750cc four had become all but impossible. Honda won the 2000 title with a brand new bike, the SP-1. It was the coolest bike on the planet. By 2001 this red and black twin had become my obsession.

One bright Saturday morning I dropped my RVF400 off for a service. The dealer took my keys and yelled to the workshop for a demo. Expecting a Hornet at best, I couldn’t help but smile when a barrage of blattering exhausts revealed my ride for the day would be an SP-1. Honda’s 996. The Firestorm’s cleverer, sexier and wilder younger sister. Hand me those keys.

Two years in from a test I shouldn’t have passed, I didn’t know my arse from my elbow. Like a young lad from the Ruhr rushed into the cockpit of a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 because the Reich had run out of time, pilots and fuel, I fumbled with an intimidating device of unfathomable potential. The uncompromising spring rates and damping just weren’t interested in High Wycombe’s bumpy streets. The fuel injection was surging, fitful.  

Then I got the thing out of town. Hunkered down behind the coolest clocks ever seen on a production bike, knees pressed nervously into slim, hard flanks of aluminium beam, I put the throttle to the stop in third. The drive was insistent and heavy. It felt serious in a way an accelerating RVF just didn’t. The left-to-right arc of the digital tacho gained LCD blobs at a blinding rate. Wide-eyed and euphoric, the SP-1 and

I headed off for a day that, with hindsight, the two of us were lucky to survive. We’d again meet years later and, while the chassis would impress, with its unfailing minx of a front end, for me the bike’s epic yet exploitable power would remain its defining quality. The chassis played a part, but here was an engine that was strong everywhere and usable, on proper roads at least. Seems dad may have had a point.

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