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The Aprilia Racing Specials: RS250, RSV Mille and RS3 Cube

From the dominant RS250, to the V-twin Mille and the beastly Cube. Visordown details three bikes that define Aprila's racing pedigree

RS250 - Grand Prix Racer, 1996

Black and red, Chesterfield and Biaggi, wins and tantrums…smells like Aprilia spirit

They say in racing success has a momentum all its own, breeding as it does the confidence required to carry on winning. In the early 1990s Aprilia was all about confidence.

Having won its first race back in 1987 the race department, working under technical director Jan Witteveen, refined its 250 racer into a frontrunner looking for a champion. After an early career with the Noale marque, Max Biaggi returned to the fold to complete the package for 1994.

“In 1992 we used quite simple systems compared to the sophisticated electronics of the Japanese,” say Witteveen of the evolution of Aprilia’s 250 racer. “We improved this through 1993 and at the end of that year we won a lot of races. That continued in 1994. The Aprilia was a disc-valve engine and still is. Back then the reed-valve engines were better able to handle the peakiness of a two-stroke 250 without electronics, but reed valves cost you flow and energy so you have less torque. At that time everybody was laughing, saying I should forget the whole concept of disc valves, but I wanted to go my own way. I knew that with work electronics would make the disc valve engine more tractable.”

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Aprilia’s 250 was the fastest bike out there but it didn’t suffer fools gladly. In character it was comparable to Ducati’s highlystrung MotoGP 800. “It didn’t give you much feel,” recalls MotoGP journalist Mat Oxley. “It had a very peaky disc-valve engine where the Japanese bikes were friendlier, as is the case in MotoGP today. Max’s Aprilia had an engine that made power at any cost and a chassis that didn’t let you know things were going wrong until it fired you through the screen.”

A demanding machine, the Aprilia needed a skilled and headstrong rider to realise its potential. In glass-smooth Max Biaggi it found one. Capable of astonishing speed apparently without effort, Max’s riding was eerily faultless. He took the 1994 world title after a season-long struggle with the Hondas of Loris Capirossi and Tadayuki Okada. Success only accelerated the Aprilia 250’s evolution. Over the coming seasons carbon wheels, ultra-trick Öhlins forks and carbon swingarms all graced the Noale racers.

Biaggi won again in 1995 and looked to be on for a hat-trick when his 1996 season fell apart with six races to go. A string of DNFs hinted at trouble at the mill (Biaggi reputedly demanded a huge pay rise for ’97 and Witteveen admits to a less than easy working relationship in the garage) and set up an incredible decider at the last round, Eastern Creek in Australia. A sleepless night failed to ruffle Biaggi’s composure and he headed the Honda-mounted Ralf Waldmann to take the championship.

Aprilia were quick to capitalise on their Grand Prix success. The lauded RS250 road bike arrived in 1995, the opening barrage in an assault on the mainstream that took on real momentum with the arrival of the RSV Mille V-twin. How crucial was the 250 Grand Prix bike and Max Biaggi to Aprilia’s success? Mat Oxley is unequivocal. “Before Valentino Rossi, Max made Aprilia,” he says. “He said as much when he was fighting for more money. He was arrogant but he had a point.”

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RSV Mille - WSB Racer, 2002

Troy Corser realised the RSV’s potential as a race bike and proved Aprilia could build fast four-strokes.

Fate, coincidence, call it what you will, but when Troy Corser crashed at the last round of the 1999 World Superbike championship to finish third in the standings, Ducati decided they no longer required his services. Aprilia wasted no time in signing the Australian to ride their RSV racer, previously piloted by Peter Goddard. With Corser on board everything came together just beautifully. Well, apart from the crash the very first time Troy took to the track in pre-season testing.

“The first time I rode the RSV was at a private test at Valencia,” says Corser, now using his well-documented development skills to hone BMW’s S10000RR World Superbike racer. “At that point I hadn’t actually signed on the line; I said I’d wait until I’d ridden it. It was pouring down with rain – I actually crashed at the end of the start/finish straight – but I basically told them, ‘Yeah, I wanna ride it’.

Obviously it was damp so we weren’t going fast but I could tell the engine was good. We tried some different cams and stuff but mainly we just changed the geometry to suit my style. I knew I could sort the chassis out and the engine had race potential. It was somewhere between a four-cylinder and a 90-degree V-twin. It liked to rev but it had good torque and less engine braking than the Ducati. I could run it into corners like I wanted to, using the clutch and throttle to change lines. It was an easy engine to ride.”

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Certainly something had clicked by the time the 2000 season got underway at Kyalami. Where the Aprilia’s best finish the previous year had been seventh at the South African circuit, Troy took pole and a rostrum. Aprilia only had to wait another three weeks for their first win too, at Troy’s home track of Phillip Island. Four further wins followed, helping Corser secure third overall at in the championship standings at the end of the year.

“We were heading to tracks I’d not ridden before on that bike but I had a good feel for the engine, and if you’ve got that you can work around everything else,” says Corser of the Aprilia’s easy speed. In the off-season, perhaps smelling a world championship in 2001, Aprilia went to work on the RSV, tweaking the bodywork to make Corser more comfortable and working on the engine to free up even more peak-free grunt. When the bike came away from the first round of the championship with a pair of wins, Aprilia looked to be on their way to their first four-stroke title.

But these were the years of Troy Bayliss versus Colin Edwards and Ducati versus Honda, a development arms race that left Aprilia in a supporting role. Troy and the RSV salvaged two further wins and fourth in the title standings – Noriyuki Haga, who raced this actual machine, also secured fourth overall in 2002 – and there the Aprilia World Superbike story lay in stasis, until the arrival of the RSV4 in 2009.

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RS3 CUBE - MotoGP Racer, 2004

Aprilia’s Vietnam is easily dismissed as a hugely expensive mistake. Except every race fan on earth has a soft spot for this evil son-of-a-bitch

When Grand Prix racing’s premier class went four-stroke in 2002, entries from Kawasaki, Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha were predictable; Honda in particular could barely contain their delight at the four-stroke-centric rule change. By contrast few people saw Aprilia’s 990cc four-stroke RS3 coming, perhaps because, despite the RSV Mille V-twin, the company was still synonymous with two-stroke 125cc and 250cc racers.

Unveiled in late 2001 the RS3 was a MotoGP machine unlike any other. Four or five cylinders offered  the best combination of power and low weight within the new rules.

Aprilia chose three. And where the Japanese, and Yamaha and Kawasaki in particular, played pretty safe, Aprilia emptied an F1 engine onto their drawing board; pneumatics to actuate the engine’s valves fast enough for really high revs, internals from infamous British engine gurus Cosworth and, inexplicably, fly-by-wire (Italian arrogance is the only explanation for why, with the likes of Colin Edwards and Shane Byrne on board, Aprilia chose to filter their riders’ inputs through an ECU).

The chassis geometry was brave too, apparently laid down to create a bike that stayed flat and level. The backwards-rotating crank should have stopped wheelies, as should the position of the gearbox output in relation to the swingarm.

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The result should have been spectacular – light (the rules allowed triples to be 10kg lighter than fours or fives), fast and, with Aprilia’s back catalogue of sweet-handling 250s, tidy in the corners. In reality the RS3 couldn’t get close to its minimum weight limit. The engine demanded a balance shaft, a compressed air tank for the valve pneumatics, myriad radiators and enough electronics to put a man on the surface of the sun. The power was there but the bike was little short of brutal; bucking, sliding spitting its riders from the saddle and catching fire while Honda’s serene RC211V whirred its way to countless race wins like a really trick VFR800.

“It was really difficult to ride,” remembers Shane Byrne, who raced the RS3 in its final year, 2004. “The Aprilia was an all-out, fire-breathing, tear-your-arms-out-of-sockets beast.

“The Aprilia had been fast in a straight line but by 2004 the Ducati was by far the fastest thing out there, followed by the Honda. But the Cube was great fun to ride; a man’s bike. The thing was just on-edge all the time. On most bikes you can get within two-tenths of a second of the limit and still ride comfortably. On the Aprilia you felt like you were pushing your luck within half a second of the pace. We planned to develop it into something more rideable but all that went out of the window when Piaggio came in.”

But everyone loves a villain and, while the RS3 may not have been able to hold a candle to Honda’s RCV as a race machine, it’s the MotoGP failure everyone remembers. The brutal, beautiful RS3 is wayward Italian race engineering at its most endearing.