In its first AMA Superbike race, under the guidance of Nicky Hayden, the RC-51 finished second at Daytona. Not too long after that it finished first in one leg of a WSBK race with Colin Edwards at the helm, on his way to a strong second overall. Last weekend the RC-51 (VTR1000-SP1 in Europe) finished first in Le Mans, the first time a twin won the prestigious endurance race. To say Honda is off to a great beginning is an understatement.
Aprilia has undergone a few changes of its own recently, including its purchase of Moto Guzzi. Aprilia recently acquired Troy Corser in a move that surprised many people. In his first race on the Aprilia at Kyalami, the likeable Aussie finished a strong fourth in the first race and followed up with another fourth-place finish in the second after struggling with a rear tire. Then, just this past weekend, Corser won the second leg at Philip Island. This is especially impressive considering Aprilia spends only a fraction of the amount of money on racing the Castrol Honda squad spends.
After all the hoopla surrounding the racing twins, we needed to see how the street versions of these bikes all stack up under familiar situations. When it's backroads and not racetracks, and when we are the riders instead of Foggy, Edwards and Corser, are the tables turned? When you're dealing with two relatively small manufacturers with only one or two press bikes on hand, tests can become a logistical nightmare. Unlike in previous shootouts where we've had all bikes together for a few weeks, we weren't able to run all three of these open-twins through the usual gamut of back-to-back tests in various locales.
"We had only one day where we had all three bikes at the same time -- and that day was spent at the track, of course."
We did have the opportunity to ride the bikes on the street under a number of conditions, but unfortunately it was at different times over the course of a week. Still, because Honda's RC-51 was the common denominator, we have a pretty good idea how the Aprilia and Ducati would stack up if we rode them back-to-back on the street. On the track where we rode the three bikes back-to-back-to-back, we were able to compare apples to apples, but because of time constraints, all bikes were tested on stock tires.
This meant that the Ducati 996S came shod with Michelin's fantastic Pilot Sport tires (the street version of the Pilot Race tires) while the Aprilia wore Pirelli Dragon Evos (the street version of their Evo Corsa race tires) and the RC-51 came shod with Dunlop's D207-ZRs (street version of the D207GP-Stars). Good tires, but different nonetheless. So instead of a straight-up shootout on equal footing what we have here is more of a large comparo. It's not such a bad thing really; there are a large number of differences and discrepancies among these three bikes that showed themselves in relatively short order. Each bike has certain abilities and disabilities that make it more or less suited to a particular situation, so there's definitely something here for everyone -- that is, if you like "big jugs" like we do. Going into the test, Aprilia's Mille was the unknown quantity. We had sampled Honda's RC-51 at the Press Intro at Laguna Seca a few months ago, and we had experience with Ducati's 916/996 from the 1998 Open Twins Shootout.
Aprilia told us that their Mille "represents a major breakthrough on the high-powered sports motorcycle scene," that combines the best qualities of both four-cylinder and twin-cylinder machines. We had heard some good things about the Aprilia and were anxious to spend some time on it. The heart of the Mille is a 60°, 997.62cc twin (displacement is via 97 x 67.5mm bore and stroke) with four valves and two camshafts per cylinder. The cam is driven by a chain and gear system and the fuel is supplied by electronic injection, the mixture lit by two spark plugs per cylinder.
Aprilia says that even though a 90° twin is intrinsically balanced, they chose a 60° design because it allows a smaller overall stature for the motor. To combat the vibration, Aprilia employs its patented AVDC (Anti-Vibration Double Countershaft) which uses a smaller secondary countershaft in the rear cylinder that rotates in the opposite direction of the front countershaft balancing out the motor. The transmission is a six-speed unit that uses a bit of race trickery in the form of a PPC (Pneumatic Power Clutch) which is a slipper clutch that avoids chattering the rear wheel during high-rev downshifts caused by a twin's engine-braking.
There is a pipe going from the intake tract to the outside of the clutch housing. Mounted on the outside of the clutch pushrod is a saucer-shaped disk that is pulled by a rubber diaphragm under engine vacuum on trailing throttle, allowing the clutch to slip proportional to the amount of vacuum.
Also technologically notable is an engine management system with a continuous automatic diagnostic circuit that constantly monitors all things motor-related as well as a dash-mounted screen that alerts you of system anomalies.
Especially cool on this Aprilia's dash-mounted computer is a lap-counter (activated by flashing the high beam) and an adjustable shift light. As for redline, one plug stops firing at 10,200 rpm and the second is cut off at 10,500 rpm. Suspension on the Aprilia is courtesy of Showa 43mm inverted forks up front that work with a comparable Sachs piggyback-style shock in the rear. Brakes are Brembo units that employ dual 320mm disks up front and a single 220mm disk in the rear, all squeezed by four-piston calipers. These brakes are the same items found on the 996, though the Ducati uses braided-steel lines in place of the standard-fare rubber hoses found on the Mille. The Aprilia's swingarm is aluminum and, just like on the MV Agusta F4, the chain
passes through the GP-style swingarm for a nice bit of eye-candy.
Beauty aside, it was the Aprilia that impressed us the most with the graceful way it generated quick lap times under everyone from pros like Curtis Adams to slow guys like our Graphics Editor, Calvin Kim, who's got more business riding a tricycle up a ski slope than an Aprilia around a race track. The Mille's suspension was nice at average racetrack speeds, yet it needed additional damping when the pace heated up and we became more dedicated to finding out which bike was tops at the track. After a few clicks, however, the Aprilia started chasing down the Ducati.
"Compared to the Ducati and the Honda, the Mille was not only the easiest to ride on the track, it was also the best street mount of the bunch." The Mille has excellent wind protection, a roomy seat and, despite its racing pedigree, a compliant suspension that leaves the other two bikes feeling like Hardtails. The ergos on the Aprilia was also the most comfortable, allowing enough room for even our tallest testers while remaining lithe-feeling under our smaller riders.
Both the Honda and Ducati felt more hard-edged which was great when circulating the track at high speeds, but not so good when riding to-and-from the track.
The brakes on the Aprilia were in the running for being the best of the three, but as the speeds increased most testers preferred the feel and power of the Nissins fitted to the RC-51 better than the Brembos of either the Ducati or Aprilia. Of the two Brembo-fitted machines, the consensus was that the braided-lines on the 996 provided a better feel and a bit more power than the Mille's items, even if they did require a firmer squeeze at the lever. On the track, we all knew that the Ducati, despite its aging platform, would be a serious contender.
PAGE 2 In our recent 600cc World Supersport Shootout we were able to reaffirm what we always knew about Ducati's; though down on horsepower, they are supremely competent track weapons, and there are few bikes we'd rather be perched upon when going for fast lap times. When we had the 748 out on the Streets of Willow course for our World Supersport Shootout, the tight track hurt the Ducati since it wasn't as easy to turn-in as the Japanese 600s and it didn't have the motor to squirt out of the turns.
We surmised that, given a more open track , high corner speeds would make up for any power shortcomings, and we were correct. The 996S was still slow to bend in towards an apex, but once leaned over our riders never felt like they were behind the eight-ball. Mid-corner line changes could be made easily and the chassis remained completely settled and never lost its composure, even in the bumpiest of corners.
It's interesting to note that, despite using the front tire all the way to its edges, the same could not be said about the Ducati's 190-section rear tire. We've talked to a few other Ducatisti and they concur that a 180-section is all the tire the bike needs and that the 190 is Ducati's version of eye-candy, helping it sell to the bench-racer crowd. Also, the 180 is supposed to aid in turning the bike into a corner, doing away with one of the main gripes we have about an otherwise fantastic package.
On the street, some testers felt the Honda was just as harsh as the 996 while others agreed that, while it may be sprung more tightly than the Aprilia Mille, it had nowhere near the punishing ride dished out by the 996. In the canyons, where these bikes are most likely to dwell, the RC-51 seemed to have the upper hand on every bike with its easy turn-in and a motor that absolutely stomped on the other twins here. Sure, the Aprilia was more comfortable and the 996 was more stable in the fast stuff, but the RC-51 split the seam just perfectly, finding the correct balance between VFR and NSR.
After being so impressed with the Honda at Laguna Seca and then in our follow-up road test, we expected similar results on the big track at Willow. Despite the high-desert track's layout being composed of faster corners and longer straights where power is more important than flickability (the RC-51 has both, mind you), we were disappointed to find ourselves fighting the Showa suspension right off the bat. Willow was particularly bumpy in turns two and eight (both fast, long, sweeping right-handers), and the suspension that we raved about just a few weeks prior was now the target of frustration.
The bike turned in a bit heavier than we recalled, but this wasn't much of a problem compared to how the bike behaved once in the corner. The superb balance we felt on the Honda at Laguna was gone, replaced by a porpoising motion.
Starting with the stock suspension settings, we tried to get the suspension to work more in unison by first reducing the rear pre-load (thinking the rear was overloading the front) until a few laps confirmed that change to be a step in the wrong direction.
"The best all-around bike here is the Aprilia Mille."
We then went the other way and increased the pre-load and proceeded to make a few clicker adjustments, trying to settle the yawing RC-51 down. We made similar adjustments to the front and, regardless of how hard we tried, we could not get the bike dialed in to the polished race bike we rode at Laguna -- not to mention the Ducati and the Aprilia.
This particular RC-51 was crashed at the intro, so we started to think it was something that Honda missed while rebuilding the bike. The Honda was by no means slow or out of place on the track. The motor was the strongest of the three, but the chassis was not able to put the power to the ground or provide the rider with the kind of confidence it takes to chase down the 996. It seemed every caliber of rider that piloted the bike felt uneasy going the same pace that they easily attained on the two other bikes.
The best all-around bike here is the Aprilia Mille. No other bike was as easy to ride on the racetrack while retaining a pleasing ride on the backroads and freeway. We were able to get up to speed far more rapidly on the Mille than on any other bike here, and the only trade-off was a slightly slower lap time than the Ducati when we started to push the limits of the bikes and tires. We expected the Aprilia to have more of a "cottage bike" feel to it, but in the end we were blown away by how good the Aprilia worked in such a wide variety of conditions.
"The Ducati finishes second by virtue of its unflappable chassis which shines in the confines of a racetrack but conspires with grab-the-front-axle ergos to make street duty more of a chore than a joy."
Riders who have more track experience than on-road experience immediately felt most at home on the Ducati and couldn't care less about how impractical the 996 is on the road since their ideal bike will never see a speed-limit sign. The 996 may still be the best available package for racetrack use, but it's too uncompromising for real-world use and the price is still significantly greater than that of either the Honda or Aprilia.
Honda's RC-51, which we thought had a real chance to upset Ducati, fell a bit short of expectations. As a road-bike it's more livable than the Ducati, but still not as good as the Mille. The price is attractive enough to make you forgive a few shortcomings, but spending an entire day at the track just to get the bike handling somewhat acceptably is inexcusable.
In company as close as we had here, little things that might otherwise go unnoticed showed themselves easily when flogged underneath some extremely talented riders on a demanding circuit. If you've already ordered a RC-51, don't fret; you'll still love your bike and will never notice anything wrong with your bike. For those of you looking for the ultimate in open-twin racetrack weaponry, look no further than the long-reigning king, Ducati. But if you want a bike that will haul booty up a canyon backroad as easily as it will do 300-mile days while retaining the high-performance edge that's a crack of the throttle and a few degrees of lean angle away, look no further than the new Aprilia Mille RSV.
Brent "Minime" Avis, Head Hack
Oh, how I wanted to love the RC-51. I've grown quite fond of it in the time we've had it. It's just one of those bikes that, as soon as you step off, you can't wait to get back on it, and it never disappoints you. That is, until we got it to the track. My beloved RC-51, what happened to you? Did Calvin kill you? What was such a fantastic bike on the tighter and technical Laguna Seca circuit was a wallowing mess at Willow's big track; we all love big jugs, but the whole package has to be there. As everyone knows, Ducati's 996 is a piece to be lusted after. It's still the sexiest, I'm-gonna'-get-me-some bike out there, and it doesn't disappoint on the track. When you take a porn star to bed, you expect certain things; likewise with the 996 and the track, but unlike the Honda (and the aforementioned starlet), the 996 didn't let me down.
In fact, the Duc' looked me in the eyes and called me bad names because I wasn't doing it justice, but I didn't mind. That's just the bike's character. Whatever you do, the 996 has you covered and makes no bones about letting you know it.
"There's no better choice than the all-around Mille. It's fast, it's beautiful and it's a few grand less than a Ducati "
As much as I loved the Ducati on the track, my biomechanical engineer friends saw the damage it did to me after every street ride. Sore wrists and a tender back are fine if you've just sparred a few rounds with Jet Li, but after a street ride on the 996, my eyes turned to the Aprilia.
The Mille did the Willow nine-step about as well as the Ducati until the pace reached that magical place where braking markers play second fiddle to that deity in the sky who, at the very last moment, forces you to roll out of the throttle and squeeze the brakes until you swear you're impotent before trailing off the binders and leaning into the corner as things begin to touch down. Should that scenario be your cup of tea, then pick the Ducati. But if you want something that's almost as capable, yet offers street manners and reasonable comfort as well, there's no better choice than the all-around Mille. It's fast, it's beautiful and it's a few grand less than a Ducati so you can take your girlfriend to dinner as you try to rationalize your purchase.
Calvin Kim, Associate Editor
In order of preference:
Ducati = Absolutely the best. Granted, it was easier for me to learn the track layout on the Aprilia, but once I got comfortable with the track the Ducati allowed me to go faster and faster every lap I rode. Handling was predictable and power was ample. In the end, isn't that what a race bike is all about? The Duc's no street bike, but as if what you're after is a dedicated racetrack weapon, go for the red bike.
Aprilia = As I mentioned before, I like the Aprilia due to its user friendly ergos and handling. However, once I started getting accustomed to the track and rode more aggressively, the suspension started to disagree with me. In hindsight, it could be because coming off the Ducati, the Aprilia's suspension felt rather soft and lacked the edge the Ducati has. However, I could not complain about the motor. It didn't pull quite as hard as the RC-51's, but the Mille's powerband was much wider than the 996's and the whole package was much better suited to real-world situations.
Honda = As I was the one who rode the Honda to the track, I'm a little partial to the RC-51. I found the sensitive throttle response to be an annoying trait on the street while it nearly disappeared at track-appropriate speeds. The ergos where fine, however it must be noted that freeway droning is not one of the RC-51's forte's. We never could get the suspension dialed in and constantly struggled to get the bike to be stable through the sweepers. It felt like the front and rear ends where doing completely different things. However, through the slower technical areas, the quirky suspension issue diminished considerably. The motor pulled super strong everywhere and the digital tach was easier to read then a bouncing needle. Overall, if we had some way to sort out the suspension, the RC-51 could've scored mass brownie points and taken the title.
Jeff Rheaume, MO's Fleet Manager and ex-AMA Nat'l champ
The only bike I rode on the street and only about 8 miles was the RC-51 and my reaction was man I cant wait to ride this thing on the race track. Unfortunately my expectations were not met. Our RC-51 had some handling quirks that made it difficult to go fast on. The bike pushed badly going into corners then it would yaw back and forth. In fairness, this bike was crashed at the Laguna Seca press intro.
Aside from the handling, the motor has the best acceleration of the bunch and the brakes worked equally as well at the end of the straights. I would like to give another RC-51 a try for a more fair evaluation.
The Aprilia Mille was quite a surprise to me. While I had expectations for the Honda and the Ducati, the Mille was a total unknown. The Aprilia had the best all-around motor of the group with power over a larger rpm range.
"The Ducati was born and raised to work on a race track and it's uncompromisingly perfect for the task. Pure bred heritage rises to the top." The suspension was quite compliant and soaked up Willow's bumps with ease and made riding it fast very easy. This bike being designed for the street with real world ergonomics will make an excellent street mount. This brings me to the 996s Ducati. I have always lusted after this Italian work of art. This was the first time I have thrown a leg over one, with the key in my hand anyway.
The Ducati was born and raised to work on a race track and it's uncompromisingly perfect for the task. The gearing was tall for Willow so it didn't have the acceleration the other two had, but the knife-edge handling made riding fast a joy. You could run it in hard on the brakes, flick it toward the apex, adjust your line, and it would go anywhere you asked. Pure bred heritage rises to the top. Gee, I wonder if anybody has one they would let me use the third Sunday of every month. Hey, no harm in dreaming, is there?