The best just got better, as Japan's Euro nightmare returns with a vengeance
Despite a formidable reputation for performance in the car world, until recently BMW motorcycles (or Motorrad as they like to be called) was regarded by bikers as an old man's brand, a bit 'pipe and slippers.' Through the mid-2000s BMW started to alter this image with fresh looking new models then in 2010 they spectacularly changed people's opinion of the brand with the launch of the S1000RR.
Overnight the S1000RR changed the 1000cc sportsbike market. In typical German fashion BMW had studied the market, analysed the top dogs, noted their strengths and weaknesses and built a machine that could beat them all.
What made the original S1000RR so revolutionary was its electronics package. While Ducati had unveiled the first 'proper' traction control system on two-wheels on the 1098R in 2007 (yes I know the Pan European had one, Ducati's system was far more advanced), and Honda had 'race' ABS on its CBR600RR in 2009, BMW put it all together in the most electronically advanced motorcycle on the market. The BMW came with variable ABS that switched sensitivity depending on which power mode you had the bike set in (Rain, Sport, Race or Slick) and this in turn also altered the traction control, throttle response and fuel maps.
These electronics made average riders feel like heroes and when combined with a stunning chassis and class-leading powerful motor made the BMW instantly the top of the 1000cc sportsbike food chain. The Japanese didn't know what had hit them.
So, in its first major update, what has BMW decided needed changing on the 2012 S1000RR? The inline four engine has been left alone and still produces a claimed 193bhp with 112Nm of torque but the forks have been tweaked, an adjustable steering damper added and the bike's geometry altered to improve the handling. Racers (or just tech-geeks) will love the new instruments which come with a 'best lap in progress' warning. Working in conjunction with the inbuilt lap timer it assesses your progress every 100 meters, showing a green light if you are lapping faster in that section than the previous lap - this is as cool as it sounds and horribly addictive to watch. Other than the usual 'updates to fuel maps, traction control and ABS settings' plus colour and subtle styling changes the bike is pretty much the same as before.
So rather than a radical modification, the 2012 bike is a refresh and general iron-out of any teething issues. Not that there was much to sort out, since it was launched the S1000RR has ruled the track in 'production racing' Superstock form (but interestingly not World Superbikes) and generally emerged victorious in magazine group comparative tests against the Japanese competition. So what's the new model like? Unsurprisingly, still bloody fast and very, very good!
The S1000RR isn't a bike for a non-experienced rider. BMW hasn't pulled any punches and it is unashamedly aimed at grabbing headlines through dominating track tests, which can make it quite an intimidating machine to ride. When you take to the circuit on the S1000RR you just know that no matter how hard you are riding, the bike is capable of so much more. But this huge safety net of ability also helps give you confidence and the electronics package is so good that you get the real feeling that should you make a right hash of it, the BMW will get you out of jail. Probably...
When riding the bike the biggest difference that you feel on the new model is in the engine's power delivery. The outgoing 2010/2011 S1000RR could prove a bit of a handful and when the power chimed in at around 8,000rpm it did it with such ferocity (in full power mode) that the front had a nasty habit of trying to go upwards rather than forwards, something the anti-wheelie wasn't overly good at dealing with. By fiddling with the fuel maps, BMW have altered the engine's power characteristics and made the 2012 bike far smoother and stronger in the midrange while still delivering the same peak power. Exiting corners the updated BMW has much more linear drive without the nasty powerband of the old model. It's still horrifically fast, and swallowed up Valencia's main straight at a frightening rate of knots, but it did it in a more controlled fashion and although it will still rear up in second gear on the throttle (when in Slick mode which de-activates the anti-wheelie feature) it is far less ferocious. However I'm glad BMW have added some adjustability to the steering damper, if you watch the video you can see the bars twitching on the start/finish straight well into third gear...
Through the bends the S1000RR feels stunningly good. I rode the new 2012 Yamaha YZF-R1 at the same circuit last week and while it is an extremely capable track bike, the BMW is in another league when it comes to handling and corner speed. The chassis on the BMW delivers such precise feedback that no matter how fast you go around a corner, you come out the other side thinking 'I could have done that faster.' Unlike the R1, which was quite a relaxing bike to ride on track, the BMW requires total focus, simply because it is so fast. The traction control system, which runs on gyroscopes as well as wheel speed sensors unlike the R1, calculates how far you are lent over, throttle position, speed and actually alters the amount of power depending on lean angle. So if you crack the throttle open at maximum lean it regulates the power and gently increases it as you pick the bike up and drive out. The result of this is not only a feeling of total safety despite the huge power, but also an exit speed that is considerably faster than you ever thought possible. As a result the next corner tends to appear a bit sooner than you were anticipating.
Handily BMW have also armed the S1000RR with ABS and an excellent set of stoppers. As with the bike's acceleration, you have to recalibrate your brain as to just how fast it can shave off speed. Some may argue that ABS doesn't belong on a sportsbike and while that was true a few years ago, modern ABS is so advanced it's hard to come up with an excuse as to why it shouldn't be there. Brake hard into a bend using the BMW's ABS and not only will it prevent the front from locking, it will also gently apply the rear brake for you, helping keep the back end from snaking around. Don't like the sound of that? Change to 'Slick' mode and it won't do it, allowing you to back the rear into the bend - should you have the talent.
Despite already being the best sportsbike on the market, BMW have taken the S1000RR and improved it even further. It is still insanely fast, but the refined electronics and midrange performance reduce a bit of its wild edge and make it more manageable for the 'average' rider. To get the very best out of the BMW you need to be a British level racer, if not higher, but to go faster than you ever have on track with a huge safety net of electronics to shield you from disaster you just need the balls to push the S1000RR harder.
When it comes to the annual magazine group test I have no doubt the S1000RR will retain its title as top dog on track (although the Aprilia RSV4 APRC could upset the apple cart) and for less than £13,500 (the current model is £13,275) it is quite simply mind-blowing just how much of a performance machine you could own. The only issue with the S1000RR is, ironically, also what makes it so good.
This is a track-focused machine and as such pretty extreme. It will wheelie on the throttle when you put the power down, it will shake its head a bit under hard acceleration and it is quite intimidating to ride. But what the hell do you expect from the best sportsbike on the market?