2003 Mondial Piega
In which Our Man in Italy approaches a very sharp bend...
Exclusivity, yes, let's talk about it. It was quite a few years back that I had my first and so far, only chance to place my sorry behind on what was supposed to be back then, an indisputable Italian object of desire, plain unobtainium stuff--a Bimota to be exact.
After a few laps on a totally unsorted bike, I couldn't help but wonder how could this, ahem, "gem", ever make people weak in the knees?
To make things worse, it was during a sport bike comparo and the original Japanese machine powered by the same engine was running rings around the Bimota, no matter how much effort the present factory technicians were putting in to sort the thing out. And the riding position ouch! After that experience I thought I learnt my lesson regarding the worth of a small venture's slant on building an "exclusive," but only partially cooked, thoroughbred. And don't even get me started on this repulsive old-brands revival thing, it's been getting up to here lately... So here comes this big shot that buys yet another brand name, past glory included, slaps together a fancy frame with a proprietary engine again and Yeah sure, bring it on
So forgive me dear MO-ridian because I've sinned, sinned an unforgivable sin for a journo, the sin of skepticism--but as you can see, I had my reasons. But little could I believe that by the end of the day I'd be humbly shaking Mondial's boss' hand and muttering: this might be the best road bike I've ever ridden on a track...
OK. Conscience clear now, let's begin with a short history lesson. If the name Mondial doesn't mean much to you or me, that's because when this Italian outfit was winning World Championships, we weren't even in the conceptual phase. FB Mondial, as it was known, was founded in 1948 by a motorcycle passionate Italian Count, Guiseppe Bosselli (F.B. standing for Boselli Brothers). Right from the start its tiny twin-camshaft 125 singles were breaking world speed records, and soon they were headed for the GP's. Within nine years of its foundation Mondial had conquered no less than 10 world titles (five individual and five manufacturer championships), a string that was cut only by the Italian teams' collective pull-out from racing in 1957. But, as Mondial's fame was totally based on on-track success, sales of the racy 125-175 roadsters dropped and brought on the company's collapse.
Back to our times. A successful and bike-crazed young Italian entrepreneur named Roberto Ziletti meets Pierluigi Boinini Boselli--the Count's son--and a deal is struck: to resurrect the historic name by building a modern superbike that'll keep the heritage of the race derived road bikes that Mondial was selling in the Fifties. Thing is, developing an engine from scratch is not the easiest task. Suzuki agreed initially to supply Mondial with TL1000 power units but shortly before the bike's launch, pulled out of the deal. And here's a beautiful fairytale for you. When Soichiro Honda was still trying to figure out how to make a proper race engine to break into the world GP scene, Mondial agreed to supply Mr. Honda one of its race 125 singles, to help him out. In return for that early days favor, Big Red agreed to supply RC51 engines for Mondial's relaunch model. Nice, no? Quite an unusual situation, as Honda has never really sold power units over 250cc to other manufacturers.
Ziletti gathered a small team of savvy motorcycle engineers and developed around the RC51 engine a supersports machine with the objective of creating a heavily track-oriented model with just the necessary concessions to be road legal, the way ex-racer Count Bosselli would have had it. Continuing the old-world craftsmanship theme, a tubular chrome-moly frame was developed, something that allowed the creation of a much narrower bike than possible with the twin alloy spars of the RC51. Unlike Ducati's tubular space frame, the Mondial Piega's frame is actually more of a twin spar affair, with each spar being built up from an upper and lower tube joined by thinner tubes triangulating the structure. Have a peek at the pics and you'll be amazed at its tiny size. As fine as the classic chrome-moly frame is, further weight savings were achieved by use of ultra-modern materials. The whole rear subframe is a weightless carbon fiber shell, and the rear swingarm mixes the two technologies by being a chrome-moly structure boxed in by carbon fiber panels. For all the rest of the mechanical parts, copious use of CNC machined aircraft grade aluminum was made, all in all, creating a real visual tech-feast. Wherever the eye rests there are beautifully crafted parts to be enjoyed. My favorites are the blue anodized covers for the engine bolts with tiny, CNC-ed Mondial logos.
The task of shaping the Piega landed on the shoulders of a young Italian designer, Sandro Mor. The end result might not be the equal of a Tamburini masterpiece, but is nevertheless pleasingly aggressive and classy. Then there are plenty of character-laden details such as the bulging tandem headlights (done way before the 999 was penned), innovative rear view mirrors with embedded LED turn signals and the extremely sexy tail-exhaust combo. Cans have been placed under the seat before, but the Mondial's rear end has a slick look all of its own. All body parts are crafted in the inevitable fiber carbon by Carbon Dream and finished off with the historic Mondial racing colors of silver and blue. It won't hurt to add, that hanging from the hand-welded TIG frame, are top-notch components: Triple-bridge Brembo calipers, a TiN- coated 46mm Paioli USD race fork, an Ohlins shock with piggyback reservoir, tasty five-spoke wheels Mondial claims to produce themselves, titanium headers, stainless steel silencers made by Arrow hope you get the idea by now, `cause I'm sure forgetting some other exquisite odds and ends. An aluminum tank for instance. This thing is capital E-Exotic.
On the engine side of the equation, things are a bit more mundane if you can ever say that about a power unit that won Honda an SBK crown first time out, catching Ducati with its pants downtwice. The Piega's engine is lifted straight off the RC51 Mk I, complete with its injection system. In the name of reliability, no internal changes were made, but Mondial claim to have modified the power delivery of the engine via the exhaust system and injection software, adding a few horses in the process and enhancing driveability.
My moment of truth came on a very special occasion. The first production units are starting to roll out now, a good occasion to invite a few journos to test the thing on the historic track of Monza, just around the corner from the factory. To make things really feisty, a pit box full of Mondials wearing tire warmers is welcoming us and in the next garage, tuxedo-wearing waiters are setting up tables for the religious mid-day Italian lunch. Cool and hard not to run straight for the bikes to try them for size. Even with the rear wheel held off the ground by the racing stand, my first impression is, ultra narrow, racy indeed, but a lot less severe than I expected. A good old 916 can make your wrists hurt even while standing still--not so the Piega, courtesy of a very reasonable reach to the bars. Much more racy is the position of the footpegs, yet if during road use your knees need to flow more blood downstream, there are umpteen mounting holes to move them lower.
History of Monza
As you drive along Parco Reale, the central park of the city of Monza, it's hard not to start feeling the chills running down your spine. The little signs saying "Autodromo" put you in the mood as you are about to enter the oldest active racetrack in the world. Since its foundation in 1922, the long straights and fast sweepers of Monza have staged so many historic racing events it would be hard to list them all. Guzzi's flat single's first GP win in 1925, the defeat of the third Reich turbocharged wonders by the Gilera fours in `36 and `37--and maybe the most tragic racing accident in the history of motorcycling racing when two of the most charismatic talents of all time were killed. In a major pile up in the `73 250 GP, Italian Renzo Pasolini and Finish wonder, Jarno Saarinen lost their lives, shocking race fans across the world.
On a lighter note, I still keep the video of Pierfrancesco Chili's fantastic `96 win after riding off the track on the last lap, and rejoining the race in fourth.
Because of its long, long history, Monza is a standout in the current scene of modern, slow and aseptic racetracks. Built at a time when high speeds were paramount and vehicles had little, if any braking, it was all long straights and wide open turns. Agostini, for instance, managed a 120-mph plus lap in 1971--a record that stands to this day. As power outputs rose, chicanes were added to the layout, producing a strange mix of ultra-high speed straights and turns with two ultra-slow chicanes. Nevertheless, the special characteristics of Monza always supply tight racing. Last year's elbow to elbow battle between Troy Bayliss and Colin Edwards is a nice sample. The long straights allow heavy drafting too, so that even power- disadvantaged riders can some timeskeep up with the front runners, and the extra wide sweepers allow for a variety of lines.
The main straight that starts your lap is actually not that long, but as it's approached at more than 120 mph, WSB superbikes reach close to 190 mph, while WSS 600's touch 170 by its end. Fast indeed-- though the width of the track filters out some of the speed rush. By now the cruel first chicane--Prima Variante--is coming up fast and braking towards it is almost like performing an emergency stop. You have to drop five gears, down to 40 mph, position the bike just to the left, drop it right fast and immediately get ready for the hard flick left. The pros do it all in one smooth move, but they all hate its sheer slowness. Time for some WOT. Accelerating toward Curva Grande is easy at first but as you get into the 120 mph range you realize this blind turn goes on and on... Eric Saul, the 250 winner in `81 tells me in the pits, "tutto aperto!" (All open!), but my mind tells me to turn it back a click or two...
It's really hard to keep on the throtle in front of the postive-cambered chamber bowl that rises in front of you. This is the spot where you'll see the SBK racers spreading all over the track, leaning hard at 140. The short straight after the Grande pushes speeds up to 160, and then it's time again for some brutal braking. The second chicane is a bit more humane than the first and is taken at about 55 mph. Powering out of it in second or first gear, front wheels get airborne before braking for the two classic 90- degree, second-gear, knee down Lesmo turns. The second Lesmo leads to the kinked straight through the woods area. Unlike the main straight, here you do feel the speed and how... the trees are close to the track, there's an ultra fast 150 mph left kink (Serraglio), and the track dips down under a bridge while you're close to top speed. Anchors out, down to 80, it's time for Monza's last and most technically challenging chicane.
Three linked turns allow for classic outbraking maneuvers and stealing your adversary's line. Line choice in the first left is critical as it impacts heavily on the rest of the section and your exit speed into the last long straight. Bang through the gears while WOT again--liter bikes see 150 while WSB's reach 180 on the back straight. Braking for the Parabolica is straightforward as you have a slightly better view of what lies ahead and, the noticeable banking is there to help you. Apex early for this increasing radius turn but be careful, it's prime passing ground as there are a variety of fast lines. From the apex onward, a crazy drag race begins as you bang through the gears while leaned way over.
This turn can really make you dizzy with its overdose of speed, acceleration and lean angle, intoxicating stuff. After all those rights, the rear tire wants to cry Enough, and gives clear signs that you are on the edge of disaster. It's a good example for the classic saying that the fast turns are the ones that separate the men from the boys. As the Parabolica opens up, you fix your eyes on the end of the long straight and brace yourself for another adrenaline-laden lap. Feel free to imagine that you are KR Senior running after Mr. Spencer in the `81 500 race, with Lawson and Gardner glued to your tail. Sweet dreams at 160.
Biggest surprise, though, is the amount of space available for moving my butt around: At 6'4", I usually beg for more bum room, but not so here. The seat feels almost too long for a single seater. Switch on, and the stylish exhaust starts to emit a very mild rumble. Sorry, we're in the Exhaust Correct Third Millenium. If the improved power claims are true, it makes you appreciate Mondial's and Arrow's work even more, since they achieved improved performance without having to resort to the ungainly looking big cans of the RC51 or making a noisy system. Tire warmers off, that's right tire wamers, a technician rolls my Piega off its stand and even pushes me as I start my ride, GP-style... Good thing too because the Piega's track orientation manifestates itself immediately in a tallish first gear. As I accelerate in Monza's pit lane, the first big question is how does the Piega's engine response compare to the good old RC51, which had quite an abrupt power delivery? What an improvement! The Piega pulls nice and clean from down low, 3 or 4K rpm even, without any of the jerkiness that I remember from the RC51.
With such a cooperative engine and smooth controls, I can start to assess the handling immediately. Soon enough it registers that the Piega is way more intuitive and easy to ride than any exotic twin has any right to be. Half expecting an RC51-like steering response, the Piega's super quick turn-in causes me to apex too early almost everywhere. With really warmed up Supercorsas on a track that I know quite well nowadays, it was time to see if the same would hold at a higher clip. Answer is yes. In the fast flip-flop of the Ascari chicane, a place where you usually need to really brutally force bikes to change direction at 85 mph, the Piega was allows a choice of lines, responding to sharp steering inputs like no other twin I've ridden. If Mondial's claims are true, this is the world's lightest twin, lighter than an RC51 or 999 by almost 40 pounds, and only 20 heavier than the lightweight wonder fours from the east.
Another mental note on this suspension-challenging left-right-left: There's not even a hint of tail-wagging, as the smooth-stroking Ohlins damper takes everything in stride. This friendly and controlled agility isn't compromised by any instability at full warp speed either. Monza has at least three points where you kiss 150, if not 160, on a liter-bike, and the Piega remains rock-steady. No shake, no rattle no hum.
Monza is a killing track for brakes too. With its three chicanes coming up right after those high-speed straights, some bikes here lose all traces of anchoring ability after a few laps. Time and again, though, the Piega's triple-bridge Brembos supply strong and easily e modulable reverse thrust without hinting at fade, while the Paioli fork copes well slowing the Piega from 160 to 40 in total control. In fact, if you're a real hard-core late braker, the Piega allows you to move your markers well beyond the point of no return. After a few laps, with braking markers readjusted and caution out the window, I begin to discover too that the Piega digs trail-braking into turns, and that doing so doesn't cause any slowing of turn-in...
Just in case this is starting to sound like a monotonous Ode to Piega, there are some smallish things to complain about. Unless it's a Porsche, a piece of true exotica can't be perfect, can it? So I wouldn't mind the tank being narrower at the top, as it somewhat gets in the way of my elbows in full attack mode. And the longish seat, although useful for transferring weight to the rear while on the brakes, requires me to perform a horizontal pull-up to prevent sliding backwards under acceleration.
No riding impression at Monza can be complete without some tales from the loony Curva Grande and Parabolica. In these super-fast sweepers, among the fastest of any track, you really understand why twins still kick four's asses the way they do in SBK. When you have to keep the throttle twisted open in these long turns, knee on ground at 120-plus for eternity, the RC51 power unit lets you put the power to the ground without thinking too much about the altitude you might reach in a high side. On this right-hand intensive track, the tortured Supercorsas continue to simply dig themselves into the tarmac, at least at the semi-serious speeds that I was carrying through these fast turns. On some big-bore fours I've ridden here, the danger of an imminent spin out is literally always around the next corner...
Confident drive out of corners also explains why, by the end of the main straight, I was seeing about the same 160 mph I usually see on fours with 30 horsepower more. That said, Eric Saul, one Mondial's development riders and 250 GP star of the eighties (winner of the 1981 race at Monza) said he was seeing some 6-7 mph more.
I wonder, why is that? I mean, the guy must be in his 50's... Time for a pit stop and a deep breath. No road bike (the thing has mirrors mind you) put together by about twenty people in two years has any right to be this good. Or sorted. Or sexy. Unlike some big mouths out there, Roberto Ziletti, has managed to build and bring to market just what he intended: a top-notch tool that should give, for about $30K, an ultra-exclusive option to anybody who's grown tired of run-of-the-mill 999's, Mille R's, what-have-you. One last thing. As final proof that he really is no poseur, Roberto dons his leathers and proceeds to clock some laps just a few seconds slower than the pace set by his ex-racing testers. Know any other CEO's that fast? Now, if I could only find a hat to eat for lunch...
999cc DOHC liquid-cooled L-twin, 4v/cyl.
Bore X stroke: 100 X 63.6mm
Compression ratio: 10.8:1
Claimed power: 103KW (140cv) @ 9800 rpm
Claimed torque: 10.2 KgM @ 8800 rpm
Fuel delivery: Electronic injection, Mondial ECU
Exhaust: two-into-one, disappearing undertail muffler...
Frame: TIG-welded chrome-molybdenum vanadium steel-tube trellis
AXLE BASE 1420 mm
Front suspension: 46mm Oleodynamic Paioli TiN, 120mm travel, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Ohlins piggyback single shock, 115mm travel, fully
Front brake: two 320mm discs with four-piston/ four-pad Brembo calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc with two-piston caliper
Wheels/tires: Mondial light alloy; 3.50 x 17 in./ 5.50 x 17 in.; 120/70-ZR17
and 180/55-ZR17 Pirelli Supercorsa
Claimed dry weight: 179 kg
Seat height: 815mm
Fuel capacity: 20 L
Colors: Silver/blue, bright carbon