Aprilia hasn’t exactly made a habit of letting anyone other than racers and factory testers on its works machinery, yet here I am, waiting to ride the bike that took Troy Corser to fourth in the World Superbike series.
The RSV-R Mille is a pretty extraordinary beast. A relative newcomer to the class, it quickly got on the pace and has proven itself around the world as one of the fastest bikes in a straight line. The stock road bike is no slouch, and the handling has a featherlight touch that makes it a delight to ride on track. Presumably the racer is just going to be more of the same. A lot more …
The sun makes it feel hot inside, but outdoors the air remains defiantly chill. A lap of the totally unfamiliar track on a scooter does nothing to help my confidence. The sun may be beaming down on us, but the overnight frost has dug deep into the Tarmac. The vital final corner looks like a guaranteed crash zone.
Aprilia is giving each of us three 15 minute sessions. Most manufacturers will only allow you five or six laps on their works bikes. To get this sort of time is little short of miraculous.
Finally the track is dry and we’re running. Drowning in a sea of booming V-twin noise, I climb into the seat of Corser’s A-bike, his number one choice throughout the 2001 season. This is going to be a monster. This is going to have killer drive and it’ll flip me over backwards on a whiff of throttle.
This has just stalled. Oh great, in front of everybody I kill the motor. Mechanics swarm around and get me going again and I realise my mistake. Fearing a bike that would flip over backwards in pitlane I gave it too much respect. I give it a bigger handful and slip the clutch and this time we’re away down pitlane and on to the track.
The bike is fitted with a race shift – first gear is up, the rest are down. Don’t close the throttle at all, don’t even think about the clutch. Just hit the pedal and it shifts. No clunks, no crunches, no pitching the machine from end to end like a ship in heavy seas. Just the smoothest gear change you’ve ever made at speed.
You get on to the main straight in first. Rev it until the red shift light comes on at 12,300 rpm then stab the pedal. Second with a boom and crackle, third, fourth, fifth. Under the gantry and back down again to second. Downchanges need a blip of the throttle to smooth them out, but still no clutch.
There’s an easy way to spot how good the top racers are. As I down shift, the sound that marks the changes go boom … boom … boom. Think back to WSB and Corser’s downshifts go boom,boom,boom. He’s later on the brakes, way harder on them and gets down the gears and from upright to madly cranked over in the blink of an eye.
And then it’s all over. The chequered flag is being waved from the pit wall to tell us to come back in to the pits for the end of the first session.
After lunch I’m back on the bike again. Managing not to stall this time, it’s out on to what is virtually completely dry Tarmac now. This time the track makes much more sense and it’s possible to give the machinery much more attention.
First that throttle. This bike is delivering a claimed " more than 160bhp at 12,000 revs " – rather conservative against the 175bhp figures claimed by Ducati for this year’s 998 Testastretta. Notwithstanding the ‘low’ figure, the bike has been unquestionably one of the fastest in a straight line. On board cameras at the final round at Imola showed Ducati’s Ruben Xaus getting good drive out of the corners and closing on the Aprilia. Then, as the speed rose, the RSV just seemed to be able to edge ahead, pulling away on the straights.
Yet the delivery is utterly smooth. Mid-corner, fully cranked with toes on the floor and start to wind it on. First your brain expects the bike to go sideways as you overload a rear tyre at full lean. But instead you just pick the bike up out of the turn. Try hard and pick up quicker. Try harder again and it starts to work properly.
As the weight squats on the back and the front goes light there’s a little wiggle from the bars. Had the same thing on road bikes. But not like this. It’s hard to describe. The movement somehow feels bigger. Not bigger as in like a tank slapper, but bigger on information. You know exactly what’s going on to the smallest detail, yet there’s not a hint of harshness. You could read braille through the forks.
Then there are the brakes. At the end of the main straight you can hammer them as hard as you dare. You can’t believe the rate you slow at, nor can you outwit the grip from the front slick or the control from the forks. You’d have to be going something crazy – like WSB pace – to really exercise these.
Three sessions have run by, and it’s tiring. Ready to change out of leathers, the team ask if I want a final session. Track day experience says: " Don’t do it " . This is the time to screw up. But my photographer says: " Yes " on my behalf and off I go again.
The sun is glaring low at the west end of the track. Down the straight you’re fine as it’s on your back. Turn one’s OK. Turn two and you’re suddenly blinded by the light. Pick your line, stay on it and you’ll be OK. Lap three and the line’s wrong. I know it as I go in. The last thing I can see is rumble strip before the glare blinds me. Make a choice – keep it cranked or pick it up. The bike almost seems to beg me to choose. I choose. I pick it up and run through deep gravel at what feels like 60mph. As the bike slows the front starts to dig in, tugging the wheel one way and the other. It takes a lot of muscle, but thankfully I keep it upright, find neutral and keep it running.
Looking back, my line runs parallel to the track but a couple of feet into the gravel. There’s a yard or so where the bike jumped – no tracks at all. I actually feel bloody happy. I made a split second, race type choice and I think I made the right one.
When the team see me ride it back, the relief is clear. I hit the kill switch, hand it over and they shake my hand. They tell me the racers don’t like to ride at this time of day here because of the sun.
The bike is incredible. It gives so much, yet looks after you too. You could run this on the road, no worries. In fact I’d love to see that electronic shifter on the RSV now. Please.
You’ll find more on this in MCN published December 19, 2001.