2018's hottest bikes and their secrets

Hurrah! It’s officially 2018, which means there’s not long to wait until we get to ride some of the amazing bikes unveiled at the back end of last year.

To get us in the mood, we spoke to some of the men behind the hottest bikes of 2018 to find out just how they came into existence.

Ducati V4 Panigale
Claudio Domenicali, Ducati CEO

After decades of V-twin superbikes, Ducati’s latest flagship bike has four cylinders. CEO Claudio Domenicali explains why…

“What seems a huge decision is actually simpler from inside Ducati than from the outside. We have a very long history and are loyal to it, but we’re looking forward to the future, too. Being loyal to your history doesn’t mean just being nostalgic.

“The V-twin has a super-strong character. We developed the best twin for a sportsbike and everyone else gave up. The Panigale and the engine in the Superleggera are masterpieces but we were thinking about what’s next.

“We had to work out whether we wanted to push the twin some more or use the experience and knowledge from the last 15 years of MotoGP. We’d invested a lot of money and had a lot of experience in MotoGP with this V4 engine so it made sense. We put the idea on the table, came out with all the pluses and the minuses and in the end it was actually a very pragmatic decision.

“When we were developing the first Panigale, the project name was ‘Extreme’ and when you’re developing a bike that is already extreme, it is almost impossible, so you need to change. The V4 has more potential for development than the V-twin in terms of performance.

“This driveability was a key point. We had developed that in MotoGP because when you want to be faster, making the bike easier to ride with a super-strong connection between the throttle and the rear wheel is the way forward. We had an engine that is already there – super powerful and easy to control. So not to use that would have been a real shame.

“We decided to make the bike 1100cc to make it even more flexible. It was hard, but I’m glad we did it. When we started to make a simulation, it was clear we would have an engine with fewer revs because we kept the same 81mm bore as the MotoGP engine and increased the stroke. The result is an engine which revs a little bit less and makes more torque. Which is super!

“We won’t see smaller middleweight versions of the V4 for bikes like the 959 Panigale. The engine is very balanced in this capacity and the cost is very high. Our V4 is one of the most complicated around – a counter-rotating crankshaft, a Desmodromic top-end and construction like a Swiss watch. We’ll keep on making the V-twin for the 959. It’ll have a long life.

“We spent a long time developing smooth power and a chassis that has good mechanical grip – and then put the electronics on the bike. It will be easier to ride than the V-twin Panigale. Our bike has 211bhp, but you have cars on the road that have more than 600bhp and are smooth and easy to drive. You can stay within the limit and then enjoy the performance when you get to a place like a German Autobahn. This bike has a very high level of electronics which lets you exploit the bike when the time is right to do so. There is no real difference between 195 and 211bhp – except that on the racetrack the 211bhp bike will be faster.”

KTM 790 Duke
Hubert Trunkenpolz, Chief Sales Officer

Hubert Trunkenpolz’s family put the ‘T’ in KTM. As Chief Sales Officer, he’s very excited about the firm’s first mainstream middleweight parallel twin – the 790 Duke…

“We’re entering a super competitive segment. It took a while before we were convinced we could do it with a premium brand like KTM and work out how we could do it without losing sight of what KTM stands for.

“The parallel twin turns out to be most compact engine – from the side it is smaller than the 690 single and delivers more than 100bhp. It is so light, so compact. We bought all the parallel twin motors on the market, dismantled them and could see that ours is almost half in comparison – it allowed us to make a very light, compact motorcycle with an 800cc parallel twin.

“There are the Yamahas and Kawasakis that we need to go up against. But we didn’t aim to beat one specific bike; we wanted to do our own thing.

“We’ll introduce the engine for a range of bikes, like the 790 Adventure, and share the engine platforms with Husqvarna. So you don’t have to be a genius to workout that we’ll have a Husqvarna Vitpilen using a version of that motor and possibly with different mapping and gearbox, too.

“We like to produce R versions of our bikes and would like to do the same with the 790, but it is a bigger job than we thought because the engine is very efficient and very good as it is. To get more power it will need some more investment. We’re also looking at a race series for the bike, and a track version of the bike, too. With good suspension and 130bhp, the track bike will be great fun!”

Yamaha NIKEN
Makoto Shimamoto, Director, Yamaha Tech Centre

Yamaha’s NIKEN looks like a concept bike, but next year you’ll be able to walk into a Yamaha dealer and buy one. Makoto Shimamoto, Director of Yamaha’s Technology Centre, reveals why they took the plunge.

“We were assigned to look at how to give motorcyclists front-end confidence. To go to the next level, we felt that three wheels were the way forward. But there’s more to it than that – two wheels at the front means the contact patch is increased by about 80%, so we can increase the cornering force and also increase the braking performance. This makes the bike great fun!

“It was a challenge applying three wheeled technology to the NIKEN. We’d been looking at this concept for about ten years and have been working on developing this bike for about three. We have experience of making a bike like this with the Yamaha Tricity [a three-wheeled 125cc scooter], but the CP3 motor means that we have much more performance to deal with than before, so maintaining the stability and handling was a challenge. The two fronts wheels are completely independent of each other and the machine can lean up to 45 degrees.

“When people ride the bike, they say it doesn’t feel strange – it is as natural as a two-wheeled bike. But it looks very different from the saddle – much wider than an MT-09 for example. But when you go to a tight corner, the feeling you get from the front is high and you get more performance, carry more brake and ride to a high level. There is a small weight penalty, but not huge and the bike will have similar power to the MT-09.

“If customers like the NIKEN and enjoy the feel they get from it, then we can look at increasing the range, but the customer has to be there. I would ask people who doubt this bike to try one. A test ride shows what it is capable of.”

Kawasaki H2 SX
Keishi Fukumoto, Senior Managaer, Styling and Design

Keishi Fukumoto headed up the team that styled Kawasaki’s new H2 SX – the lairiest sports tourer ever.

“It’s the next evolution of the H2, but we wanted to make it more practical, easier over distance. We wanted to bring the technology to a wider range of people, but still have the power that makes it so impressive.

“The supercharger is different, the impeller is different, the tuning of the entire bike is aimed around flexibility. The SX isn’t just about speed, it is about relaxed riding and touring as well.

“Styling the bike was a hard job – it must look like an H2, but at the same time have good wind protection and be able to expel heat. The supercharged motor produces heat, and expelling that – while having a bike that looks aesthetically beautiful – was hard. The other big hurdle was that the riding position was more upright, which provoked questions about airflow.”

Honda Gold Wing
Yutaka Nakanishi, Gold Wing Project Leader

Honda Gold Wing Large Project Leader Yutaka Nakanishi set out on a mission to make the latest version lighter, faster and cleverer.

“If you look at the current Gold Wing, we believe that it had got too big, too heavy – too much in all aspects. And it started to spoil the emotional aspects of riding. There was no wind, there was no noise – it was sometimes more like sitting in a living room than riding. But you have to be careful if you start making it too extreme – there is a certain line where it stops becoming a Gold Wing any more. We defined the line and didn’t go below it.

“But we wanted the customer to enjoy riding their motorcycle, so we made it more engaging to ride. It wasn’t about making it less refined, we just made it more refined, slimmer and leaner than it was before. We reduced weight, overcame it looking heavy and gave it easy handling.

“There is a big benefit for bringing the rider forward – the closer they are to the fairing, the smaller it can be, and the better the aerodynamic performance and fuel economy. To make this happen we had to make the engine more compact.

“The weight reduction programme was comprehensive, starting with engine design, selection of materials, simplifying how things are put together. We made the engine more compact and changed the bore and stroke to achieve this. We evaluated many different engine sizes and smaller capacities with a turbo, but nothing beats the smoothness of a flat-six.

“Part of the change to double-wishbone suspension was to keep the bike short. The wheel travels directly up and down, while with a telescopic fork there is always some rearward movement. This allows the bike to be shorter and our system also separates turning and braking, reducing inertia.”