Torrance, California, May 1, 2001
It's our own little World Superbike stop, really, but without the whiny four-cylinders.
Mini could pass for Colin Edwards if he were shorter and much better-looking, Hackfu Calvin's almost indistinguishable from Haga if you're a round-eye like me (though his McRib/fries staple diet means he's also too tall), and with longer sideburns I could pass for Troy Bayliss in the dark--but I don't have to because we brought in a real Australian to serve as expert witness.
Aaron Clark is actually a New Zealander, but comes to us by way of Australia, where he raced GP bikes extensively. In 2000, he won the Aprilia Cup Challenge (on one of their cute little RS250s), and then campaigned an Aprilia Mille R last season--one which turned out to be woefully underfunded as so often happens in the wonderful world of motorcycle racing. His Aprilia affiliation, however, is a thing of the past. He's impartial (and racing Suzukis now - Minime).
Man From Metzeler
Once again, tires were provided by the lovely and talented Tom Jirkovsky of California Sportbike Racing, Huntington Beach, California. This time we chose Metzeler's M-1 Sportec rubber--tires designed for heavy-duty street abuse and occasional track days, because a) these twins should be a bit easier on tires than the fire-breathing four-cylinders featured in our last comparo and b) Willow Springs' Streets course is not so dang blazing fast anyway and c) the Sportecs are fine street rubber and will last at least until the manufacturers pry these three lovelies back out of our clutches. Speaking of tires, man I'm bushed....
Have a look at The Streets of Willow 1.8-mile road course. They keep adding new sections onto the track, so that now parts of it are high speed, and other sections remain a point-and-shoot affair--a good multi-angle test of a sportbike, really.
Some places you throw out the anchors and drop it down to second (or was that first?), others you clench your sphincter, roll 'er wide open and aim.
Mr.Clark didn't like the way the Ducati fit him, complaining of a strange handlebar angle and a lack of room to scoot rearward on the seat (he's a motocross guy).
Again, wish we would've asked to have the 998 delivered with the rake set at the steeper of its two angles--23.5 degrees. (My feeble attempt to do it at home resulted in abject failure, a slightly marred top triple clamp, and the acquisition of a new pair of snap-ring pliers.)
"Ducati is, pardon the cliche but here it fits: very confidence-inspiring."
As partial compensation, all you need to adjust the bike's rear ride height is one 17mm and one 19mm wrench--it's an easy adjustment. (You can adjust the Mille's shock length, too, but you have to disconnect its bottom mount first. The Honda has no ride-height adjuster.)
Even raised a bit in the back to a slight stink-bug attitude, Clark still thought the Ducati felt "a bit lazy everywhere." The Ducati wants to run wide at corner exits, and needs stronger inputs to initiate turns and change direction.
Throughout the day, we added spring preload to the rear of the bike, took a bit of preload out of the front in an effort to steepen rake, and experimented with different damping settings (more rebound in the fork keeps the nose down at corner exits, for one), eventually reaching a point where the Ducati felt much better than when the day began--but it remained a high-effort ride compared to the other two machines. The Aprilia's steering geometry is even less aggressive than the Ducati's though, and it steers lighter and quicker. Part of it then, is down to engine architecture: With the front cylinder of its 90-degree Vee lying down nearly horizontal, the Ducati does feel less "mass-centralized," and as a result, slower-reacting, than the other two bikes.
Go ahead and give it that extra effort, though, and the Ducati is, pardon the cliche but here it fits: very "confidence-inspiring." It never gives you the idea that you could steer the front wheel out from under yourself if you're not careful, and once you adjust to its "manual steering," pushing on the inside clip-on tightens your line just as surely as with the other bikes. The other Ducati controls complement its steering manners, too: the clutch is a little heavy, downshifting needs more pressure (and upshifting too, slightly). The rear brake is nearly impossible to lock, which is a good thing sometimes, but then too it gives very little retardation all the time. The front pair of Brembos don't have quite the feel of the tricky four-pad Brembos of the Aprilia, but braking power isn't a problem for any of these machines.
"The Honda is at the other end of the effort scale from the Ducati."
The bars are higher and closer, the front wheel is tucked up under tighter.
Both heavy cylinder heads, the side-mount twin radiators, and everything else, feels dense-packed right between your thighs and beneath your fundament, and so the bike requires very little effort to throw at apexes. Light clutch, light shifter action, strong deceleration as soon as the brake lever's squeezed--and the Honda has the revviest motor of the bunch, too: Even when expert Aaron Clark gets a better drive out of a corner than whoever's on the Honda, the RVT still manages to scoot away and fend him off--until it comes time to slow for the next corner, at least... As for the Honda, Aaron says: "It just feels very neutral. It's not really outstanding in any area, but it does nothing wrong, either." Overall, with its dense, short, quick-reacting feel, the Honda feels almost more like a 125-horsepower four than a twin.
"Honda aims to give the RC51 rider a bigger target to aim at when getting the suspension dialed for track use."
We did detect a bit of lurchy fuel delivery at lower rpm aboard the Honda, or maybe a bit of excess driveline snatch?--whatever the cause, in a couple of the Streets' slower, second-gear corners, it behooved the rider to be very smooth with the throttle--and even then, the bike's power would wander off and on unexpectedly. Calvin thinks maybe the flapper valve in the airbox can't make up its mind? Seems like you get used to it, and adjust after a few laps, and strangely, it's less noticeable on the street. Whatever, those big 62mm throttles do not come back onstream as seamlessly as the other bikes' systems. Hmmm... could it be because the Honda's just making more POWAH?
As with its 954RR, Honda aims to give the RC51 rider a bigger target to aim at when getting the suspension dialed for track use. There's no ride-height adjustment, like we mentioned, but the RC is the only bike here with a ramp-type rear preload adjuster, which means you can whip the spanner out of the tool kit and raise the rear a bit, toot-sweet. Honda's new fork preload adjuster, though (like the one on the 954), is a bit of a step backward in that you can't go by "lines showing" as usual. You need to measure sag with a ruler or tape measure, or count turns (if you happen to have the right socket which we never do at the track); it's just not as easy to tell at a glance where in the range of adjustment you are.