PICS: James Wright/Double Red
'What’s the best bike you’ve ever ridden?' That’s a question I’ve been asked a lot over the years, and I’ve often found it a bit difficult to answer. In sheer show-off terms, I’ve always been able to say ‘Nicky Hayden’s V5 RC211V’, which I grabbed five laps on round Sepang in a previous life at SuperBike Magazine.
For connoisseurs, I would maybe swap the V5 for Dani Pedrosa’s RS250RW two-stroke, which I managed three laps on during the same Malaysia trip in 2005. After those, there’s the Big CC Racing Project Pisstake drag-race Hayabusa, which made about 500bhp when I rode it more than a decade ago (and now makes 1,000bhp…). A factory WorldSBK 999R, Ducati 748R, Mondial Piega, MV Agusta F4 Oro, Panigale V4S – I’ve swung a leg over all of those too – as well as almost every new bike from the past 20-odd years.
But I’ve maybe now got my answer to that question. Is this the ‘best’ bike I’ve ever riden? Well, in some senses yes – because BMW’s HP4 Race is a bike that begs for more than superlatives. Hyperlatives is perhaps what it needs. On paper, it’s a coldly-calculated attempt to make the ultimate 1000cc sportsbike, without any compromises, and with absolutely every gadget and posh bit that could make you go faster round a track.
It’s both expensive – at £68k – yet also a bargain, in that the parts which make it up are probably worth a lot more than that on their own. BMW may well be making a loss on every one of these it sells. Ohlins FGR300 forks, Brembo GP4 PR calipers, 2D dash and datalogging – this is the stuff of proper, genuine world-class racing bikes. It’s the kind of kit that folk like Rossi, Marquez and Rea would all recognise as the tools of their trade.
But the Munich firm has gone a step further. It’s actually gone beyond what’s possible in the production-based WorldSBK class. Carbon fibre wheels are banned in racing – but BMW has fitted them to this bike. And while carbon frames are allowed, this one can’t race, because it’s not been built as a road bike, so can’t even be homologated. The HP4 Race has no ABS, lights, catalyst, any of the stuff needed to be road legal. It’s also too expensive – there’s a price limit on what homologated bikes can cost (£35k, ish). This is double that.
WorldSBK is for road bikes. This is no road bike. It’s actually *too special* to get onto a superbike grid. And as a result, it’s far lighter than the racers which line up on the grids under Johnny Rea, Chaz Davies, Tom Sykes. The dry weight, according to BMW, looks like a typo - 146kg. That’s 23 stone. I know blokes who aren’t far off weighing that in their boxers.
It’s all very very serious indeed. And as we arrive at Almeria circuit for a spin on the thing, the mood is also very very serious. BMW and Almeria staff are keeping us on a tight leash, with top racers around to shepherd us round, S1000RRs to help us get our eye in, and black flags at the ready for any shenanigans… No-one wants to be signing off on the repair bill for one of these buggers after it’s been cartwheeled into an Almeria gravel trap like a Barnes Wallis bouncing bomb. That would be a dam shame.
Steady away then for my first session! I’ve got 20 minutes on an S1000RR, which on most normal days would have me whooping and hollering. The German litre superbike is a bit of an unsung hero these days, strangely. Part of that must be down to its comparative lack of race success, but every time I get on one, I have a proper ball. It’s fast as fuck, with a totally neutral, friendly chassis package, and has as many bells and whistles as most of us will ever need. For a road-going superbike, the S1000RR is fantastic, end of, and after my jaunt round Almeria on it, I’m wondering just how much better this fancy-pants HP4 will be.
Like all true revelations, that took a wee while to sink in though. Partly because my first session on the HP4 was shepherded round – this time by genuine hero and bona fide legend Niall Mackenzie. Niall would keep me right for the next 20 minutes, so I could bed into the HP4 experience. And it is a proper experience. The very nice (but quite serious) factory technicians take off the tyre warmers, lift it off the lovely, bespoke, paddock stands, and invite me to swing a leg over their baby.
That first impression is quite intimidating actually. The carbon and race-foam seat is high – you can adjust it to three positions, 15mm either side of 831mm – and I had a picture in my head of me catching the tail unit with my boot, cracking the carbon panel, then overbalancing on the thing, and crashing it to the ground like a pissed-up TT camper in a ropey YouTube video.
So, we were all very careful at that point. Leg over and down, grab the bars, and the tech lets go. Good. Now, I’m on tippy-toes, looking for a button to start the thing. There’s no ignition key, just a nice silver toggle switch on the carbon dashboard next to the megabucks 2D LCD display (I won’t say megabucks again – just assume it applies to everything on this bike).
Once that’s flicked on, there are six genuine WorldSBK race bike buttons on show (and another hidden round the front). None of your nasty hazard-warning light switches and roadbike rubbish here – just colour coded buttons for starter, kill switch, riding mode, traction and engine brake up and down and preset, and display mode switching. Impressive stuff, although part of me wishes they’d left the cruise-control buttons on there.
Let’s go. I sort of expect all hell to break loose on the starter button, but it’s surprisingly quiet. Where a Ducati trackbike would be scrambling your brain with B52 Arc Light waves of exploding sound, the HP4 sounds almost civilised. Hard-edged certainly, but urbane and sophisticated, rather than crashing heavy metal.
The first pitfall is the race shift of course, but the S1000RR lever was also swapped round, and I’ve persuaded my left foot to go along with it today. Clutch in, up into first, a wave from Almeria boss Kevin Healey, and I’m off, following Niall Mac down the hill into turn one. I’m assaulted by a wave of inputs, some mundane, some weird. The handlebar grips might seem like a bizarre thing to start with, but they feel thin, sculpted, precise in my palms.
The stock bike has heated grips – a boon on the road – and they feel perfectly fine in normal riding. But now, they seem like a mad puffy foam-rubber touring conceit in comparison. Ditto the seat – the HP4 has a sliver of foam, with a grippy surface, which holds you in place against the forces going through you and the bike. Again, a small thing, but one which you flag up immediately as out of the ordinary.
Niall Mac looks round to make sure I’m still there, and pushes on a bit. We’re going steady still, but I’m already feeling new weirdnesses. A definite ‘on rails’ feel to the steering, like the bike knows what it’s doing better than you do (no doubts there ha), but a really easy, agile feel as you turn into a bend. Now, every modern sports bike is good at this nowadays, but the combination of light carbon wheels, full SBK slicks and minimal overall mass lifts the HP4 up into another dimension.
The engine is just monstrous. Last big bike I rode on track was the Ducati Panigale V4 earlier this year, and that was a proper beast, which also puts out a claimed 215bhp. This feels like a harder-edged power though, coming from ‘just’ 999cc rather than the Ducati’s 1,103cc. Relentless, remorseless drive, that just rips up the rev counter as fast as you can drop-kick new gears at it. The HP4 box has closer-spaced ratios than stock, another little detail change which alters the overall picture massively. And I get another brand-new experience courtesy of the HP4 Race – a race shift gearbox, with a near-perfect up- and down- auto-blipping quickshifter. Nice.
As Niall edges away in the last couple of laps, towing me on a bit, I get to stretch the throttle a bit more each time, edging further into the HP4’s massive reserves of grunt. Luckily, of course, the Brembo brakes are equally monstrous in reverse, crushing the front slick into the asphalt with utterly beguiling, controlled violence. There’s no ABS on this bike, but on a warm track, with slicks, I’m not going to need it today. Hopefully.
The chequered flag comes out, and I breathe a wee sigh of relief that I’ve managed not to throw the thing up the road. We’re in for a lunch break, and then head out to follow a fast car for some tracking video and stills photography on the HP4. Then we get set for the afternoon sessions.
Once more, there’s an S1000RR ride first, this time on your own. I only do a few laps though, prefering to marshal my stamina and fitness to give the HP4 a proper go on the last run of the day. I trundle round, amazed again at both how nice the S1000 is round here, and also how different it feels from the ostensibly-similar HP4. I remember years ago doing some tests at SuperBike magazine where we’d ride a stock road bike, then move onto the supersport or superstock race version, and the feeling is exactly like that here. The HP4 is harder, faster, better, while the S1000 almost feels like a comfy old sofa in comparison.
Unlike even a national-level race bike though, the HP4 has an extra level of civilisation and sophistication – little foibles which a racer would ignore are ironed out here. You’ve got much of the single-mindedness you see on a proper race bike, but here that’s been combined with the classy finish, attention to detail and slick design of a luxury automotive product. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. A carbon-fibre Fabergé egg, in 215bhp motorcycle form.
Best get out for the last ride then. I’m heading out on my own, the track is virtually empty, the threatening lunchtime rain showers have gone, and the technicians are taking off the tyre warmers. I’m better-prepared now, and am ready for the tall seat, the minimalist buttons, the LCD dash. A wave from Kev, and I’m off.
I probably reach my own personal HP4 nirvana on the third lap out. I’m dialled into the track as much as I’m going to be today, and am fast using up the last of my stamina reserves. I’ve realised that the noise which I thought was the wind resonating in my helmet vents, is actually the ‘fapfapfapfap’ noise of the DTC traction control cutting the ignition, as the torque finally overwhelms the rear Pirelli. And I’m having the time of my life.
As with all great motorbikes, the HP4 is making life easy for me, holding its line through the never-ending left hand turn three, and letting me put it where I think I want it. It changes direction through the chicane better than the 2017 Yamaha R6 I rode here last year. And down the long straight, it provokes huge giggles inside my Arai at just how fast the speed increases. Pushing back my cautious, old-man braking markers as far as I dare down the straight, there’s a big scary silence, the world seems to go into reverse, then the emperor-spec Brembos impose their nickel-plated will upon proceedings. The back tyre drifts up off the deck, and the whole carbon-fibre shebang weaves gently from side to side, as if it’s having a big old belly laugh at my efforts.
I stay out until the chequered flag of course, but each lap gets a little slower, as my strength is sapped by the massive forces going through me. The incredible acceleration and deceleration, hanging on against the centripetal forces round the eternity of turn three, it’s all incredible stuff still, but tiredness is creeping in. My lines become (even more) ragged, I start to make little mistakes, even finding a false neutral in the box going into the chicane at one point. I’m sad to see the flag, but a little bit grateful too…
Into the pit garage, and I’m stunned. That’s partly a physical thing; I’m properly beat up by the effort needed to ride this beastie round here. But I’m also mentally weary from thinking about all that’s gone on here today. I’m a little frustrated that there’s not been more time – we’ve barely scratched the surface of this bike, and you feel like you want to spend days, weeks, months working through all the different permutations – suspension front and rear, traction control, engine braking, not to mention the chassis adjustments – swingarm pivot, steering head angle, fork offset. Not necessarily because I’d go much faster, but just to feel how those small changes affect how this incredible machine rides. To the 750 folk who are going to buy one of these limited machines – I’m extremely jealous of what you’ve got to explore in this bike. And if even one of these bikes ends up in a collector’s garage, never turning a wheel in anger? Well that’s little short of a crime against motorcycling.
Knackered though I am, I can definitely relax about one thing now though. The next time someone asks what the best bike I’ve ever ridden is, I can now give a pretty simple, straightforward answer…
Engine: 16v DOHC, liquid-cooled inline-four, 999cc
Bore x stroke: 80 x 49.7mm
Compression ratio: 13.9:1
Max power: “minimum of” 215bhp@13,900rpm (claimed)
Max torque: 88.5ft lb@10,000rpm
Transmission: six speed, chain drive
Frame: carbon fibre twin-spar, adjustable swingarm pivot and steering head
Front suspension: Ohlins FGR300 43mm USD gas forks, fully adjustable. Adjustable offset yokes
Rear suspension: Ohlins TTX36 fully-adjustable monoshock
Brakes: twin 320mm discs, four-piston radial Brembo GP4-PR calipers with titanium pistons (front), single 220mm disc, four-piston Brembo caliper with titanium pistons (rear). NO ABS!
Wheels/tyres: carbon fibre/Pirelli Diablo SC2 Superbike slicks, 120/70 17 front, 200/60 17 rear
Rake/trail: 24.5° (adjustable +/- 1°) /102.5mm (adjustable from 95-112)
Dry weight (claimed): 146kg
Wet weight, fully fueled (claimed): 171.4kg
Fuel capacity: 17.5 litres
Weighs around 2–4kg more than a MotoGP bike
Dry weight 146 kg
Carbon frame weighs 7.8kg, 4kg less than the stock RR frame
All fasteners are titanium
Polished aluminium tank
Suter swingarm, fabricated aluminium WorldSBKunit. Carbon swingarm was tested in development but wasn’t suitable apparently…
HP4 RACE factory engine is a mix of WorldSBKand Endurance race tune
215 hp – only 3 hp less than a WorldSBKS1000RR
Full titanium Akrapovic exhaust – even the header pipe flanges are titanium
Gearbox is a reinforced WorldSBKtransmission, with longer first and second gear, shorter other ratios
Brembo GP4 PR brake calipers – identical to MotoGP bikes
6.75 mm brake disk thickness
Each carbon wheel is 770g lighter than a forged alloy wheel. Together, they are almost 3kg lighter than the stock RR wheels
2D dashboard is straight from WORLDSBK/MotoGP. Race wiring harness has fittings for 2D suspension position sensors, and has full GPS functionality.
5Ah lithium battery
Endurance-spec quick-release wheels front and rear – brake calipers don’t need to come off for wheel changes (they rotate out of the way)
Pit lane speed limiter function, launch control