Year 2000 Twins Comparo
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?