PH2 Ridden: In the saddle of a World Superbike

I'm perfectly happy to admit that I still get the old butterflies in my stomach before taking to a track on a new bike. But today the butterflies have morphed into sodding great eagles. Although I've ridden just about every model of bike launched in the past 10 years, today will be the first time I've actually ridden a proper race bike on track. And I'm not talking about a street bike with a race fairing; I'm being allowed out on a 220hp WSB bike. The very same bike that Marco Melandri put on the top step at Donington Park a few weeks ago. But there is a catch.

Starting off 'easy' with the road bike
Starting off 'easy' with the road bike
We are at the Misano circuit in Italy, just a few days after the WSB round (during which Melandri took fourth spot), and the sun is out - which is the good news. The thing that is causing me slight concern is the fact I have absolutely no idea which way the track goes and only nine laps to work it out before I'm let loose on Marco's machine. This is just the start of my worries, the vehicles I have to learn the track are a standard road S1000RR (no problem) a World Superstock spec S1000RR (slightly concerning) and a WSB-spec non-factory S1000RR (very worrying).

Did I mention each one is equipped with a race gearshift, the complete opposite of a road bike? Oh, and the teams have dataloggers strapped to the bikes and all of the riders (and Marco's awesome girlfriend) are looking on. To be honest, if I make it out the pit lane without making a total idiot of myself I'm going to consider it a result...

The standard road bike
With 'just' the 195hp on tap, the stock road bike is a nice way to ease myself in. It's the most powerful of the litre sports bike but comes with an electronics package to make those of a less godly status than WSB riders feel more secure opening the throttle.

As the bike has been on tyre warmers I can dispense with any caution and it's knee-down at the first corner and time to concentrate on remembering which way to change gear (it's also converted to race shift) and looking where the hell the track goes. Oddly enough, while the engine still remains outstandingly powerful, the suspension feels soft and a bit soggy at the back.

Moving up to Superstock
Moving up to Superstock
With my three laps completed I discover that the race team mechanics have set it up high at the front by pushing the forks down through the yokes a few millimetres and have the shock on a lowest of the two ride height settings - something that makes the bike run wide and feel less than pin-point accurate as a 'normally' set-up S1000RR does.

World Superstocker
This class is very much a converted road bike series. The changes allowed are fairly minimal - the forks can have new internals, the shock replaced, road gubbins removed and the engine gets minimal tuning. No new parts such as high-lift cams, just stock road internals that have been selected so they are as closely balanced as possible making it the perfect 'stock' motor.

As it is theoretically so close to a road bike I was expecting the Stocker to ride a lot like the standard S1000RR. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The view into the cockpit is sparse, there are none of the plastic panels that are on the road bike to make it look all pretty and the bars seem wider spread - but it was through the corners that I was shocked.

The Superstock machine was simply horrible to ride, feeling as if it was fighting your every input and giving the impression of an aggressive and awkward machine. While the engine felt slightly perkier than the standard bike, we are talking about 10hp more at most so it wasn't that noticeable, but the forks were set so hard I found it almost impossible to get any kind of feeling from the front. It was a case of tipping it into a bend and hoping the Pirelli tyres would do their job. Then, on exit, the bike would shake its head at every gear change and threaten to go berserk as the front wheelied under power. In short I hated it, but that's more a case of me not being up to the job.

then the Goldbet superbike
then the Goldbet superbike
Superstock is a fiercely competitive class and if you aren't 100 per cent on it every single lap then you might as well go home. The forks are set hard so the front can be driven into the tarmac as braking is left to the very last second, while the shock is set soft. This set-up, I'm pretty sure, is why the road bike also felt a bit soggy - I have a feeling that an aggressive racer may have helped them with the settings rather than a lardy journalist!

A 'B spec' World Superbike
I'm not taking anything away from the BMW Motorrad Italia GoldBet Superbike team, but rather than the 'full factory' team, they are effectively the next step down in the rung when it comes to WSB machinery. That said, the beautiful blue and gold bike was the trickest machine I have ever ridden.

Then I looked at its brand-new tyres. Anyone who has ever ridden on new tyres will know the feeling of insecurity. On track you can knock the shine off in a few laps, but with only three laps allocated in my stint, what was I meant to do? Collaring a mechanic I pointed at the tyres and said "are they OK?". He looked at me, confused. 'grip' I said, miming a highside. "No, no, all good, just go for it," was his response.

And finally Melandri's works machine
And finally Melandri's works machine
Time to man-up and be brave, then, not exactly easy when you have around 215hp and a bike worth well over £100,000. I pitch it in the first corner and, much to my relief, the mechanic is right, knee-down on brand-new tyres - please don't try this on your local roundabout!

What a bike. Where the Superstock machine was a frightening beast, the Superbike was actually considerably more pleasant. The brakes were ridiculously powerful and the forks once again set firm, but the whole attitude of the bike was more relaxed and it was far less of a screaming animal.

Where the Stocker seemed to relish being up in the rev range, at which point it started to become unstable, the Superbike had more grunt out of corners, something that made it nice to ride. While I was wallying around at about 60 per cent of its ability, I actually started to feel quite confident on it and started to ride faster than I did on the Superstock bike. After being scared silly on the Stocker and relieved to finish my three laps, I was actually a bit sad when I had to return the WSB machine to the GoldBet guys .

The full Monty - Marco's machine
"Don't use the clutch, only for getting moving, it will be bad" the mechanic points at a sticker on the bike's headstock. Next to Marco Melandri's hedgehog logo (yep, this really is his bike) is written 'auto blipper'. Oh crap, another first. So, as well as having to remember where the track goes, deal with a 220hp superbike, use a race gearchange pattern and try not to crash, I also can't use the clutch for down shifts without screwing up the bike's electronics.

look, Ma! I'm a real racer!
look, Ma! I'm a real racer!
An auto blipper is effectively a quickshifter for downchanges. When you want to go down a gear you just stamp on the gear lever and the electronics do something clever that blips the throttle and allows the gears to mesh together. I have no idea exactly how it operates, it sounds like witchcraft, but I can tell you it is the most amazing piece of kit I have ever used on a bike. Accelerating out of the pits I get into third gear before closing the throttle, braking and stamping down twice on the gear lever. The exhaust backfires and growls, the engine's revs automatically flick up twice and the huge digital dash shows 1st gear. It is the coolest moment of my motorcycling career.

Once nearish the apex (well, within a few feet...) I open the throttle and the S1000RR drives out of the corner like a missile. The torque from really low in the revs is mind-blowing - like a tuned Hayabusa engine has been inserted into the BMW's frame. Marco's bike dispels any myth that race bikes are animal by definition; the engine is simply lovely to use - bloody fast but with monstrous amounts of grunt.

WSB get nekkid
WSB get nekkid
I'm staggered just how much torque they have managed to get out of the bike. Back to back with the factory bike, the GoldBet machine feels positively weedy in the mid-range. Out of the four race bikes, the most powerful was actually the most refined and least aggressive.

So then, will PH2 be booking a slot on the WSB grid?
Having ridden the whole spectrum of WSB machinery I am more in awe than ever of the job that top-class racers do. I can ride at a reasonable level but to get anywhere near the limit of a proper race bike takes dedication and massive balls. Each bike had incredibly stiff forks so that the front could be buried into bends under extreme braking while the shock was soft so that the rear slick could be forced into the ground on acceleration.

In the hands of Marco and his fellow WSB stars this set-up makes total sense and works to maximise speed and reduce lap times - in my hands it made me run wide at nearly every corner and feel like a total novice. Race bikes operate in the final 10 per cent of the limits of traction and physics, I'm more than happy to admit I'm nowhere near this level.

But, and this is what surprised me the most out of the whole day, what us road riders like in our bikes is exactly what BMW have discovered is required to win at WSB - and that is torque. Peaky engines with huge power figures make life hard for the very best (and worst) of riders. I could have told them that years ago, maybe I have a future in WSB after all...


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Comments (25) Join the discussion on the forum

  • SirSamuelOfBuca 15 Jun 2012

    great read. quickshift thingy on the downshift sounds epic. Id be going round doing that all day! biggrin

  • ashjones 15 Jun 2012

    ... and I thought I had a cushy job.

  • ludicrous speed 15 Jun 2012

    Interesting, now try and blag a ride on a motogp bike so you can tell us how it feels compared melandri's bmw! biggrin

  • MrKipling43 15 Jun 2012

    Stamping down the gears? wink

    Sounds epic - top write up. Jealous. But also not. I'll be jealous in a couple of years.

  • PILCH 23 15 Jun 2012

    You lucky blighter. What an amazing opportunity. I am sure that these bikes must be so hard to ride near their limit that it is really difficult to understand the set up. But we'd all like to have a go.
    Great article.

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