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Road V Race - Superbikes

How does a roadbike become a BSB contender, and how different are they? We find out

Two blokes in the pub. One says, "did you see British Superbikes at the weekend? John Reynolds was awesome, absolutely flying on that GSX-R".

Other bloke replies, "yeah, I saw it. That bike looks like a weapon. I'm going to get one you know".

"Really?" says bloke one, now really impressed.

"Nice blue and white one, sling a pipe on it for a bit more go and then I'll go get a few trackdays in. The rest of the lads won't know what's hit 'em."

Conversations like this are going on in boozers all across the country - there's probably one in your local right now - and are one of the reasons superbike racing's so popular. The 'watch 'em race on Sunday, buy 'em on Monday' philosophy's nothing new, but there's still something cool about being able to buy your own slice of BSB pie should the fancy take you.

Obviously we all know the showroom superbikes and the ones lining up on the BSB grids are different beasts, regardless of the fact both started life as the same machines, and we all know this difference is bigger than just whipping the lights and mirrors off before slapping on a few sponsor stickers, but beyond this it all gets a little shrouded in myth and mystery. Just how different are they?

Well, wonder no longer because we have lined up the cream of this year's BSB crop with their equivalent roadbikes to go back-to-back to settle this little debate once and for all.

Team managers and mechanics have been grilled for the lowdown on just what it takes to transform standard roadbikes into British championship contenders, riders have been interrogated under spotlamps about exactly how their racebike behaves dancing on that narrow cusp between lap record breaking glory and earth-sky-earth-sky-ouch-disaster, and most importantly we've ridden all the racers next to their donor roadbikes.

One racetrack, five days, two photographers, seven riders, a million quid's worth of bikes, and a grand total of 1860bhp - welcome to the very best superbikes in the world. Let's go to work...

ETI Ducati 998

ETI DUCATI 998

Nothing Short of Nirvana

Love 'em or loathe 'em there's no denying Ducatis are where it's at in superbike racing. In superstock racing with its more restrictive rules, the big Dukes are nowhere because they just can't muster the firepower, but throw more scope for development and pots of cash into the equation and the tables are turned.

And when I say pots of cash, I mean it. ETI's bikes are Steve Hislop's British championship winners from last year so they're full factory 998 Testastretta F02s and if you want to run one competitively you'd better open your wallet because for starters you'll want five motors per rider. At £20,000 each.

Why five? Because the service life on most parts in these babies is 700kms. And 'service' doesn't mean a quick oil and filter change either, it means a total stripdown and replacing a load of parts with new ones whether they look knackered or not.

"You would not believe the stuff in our bins", says team manager and ex-British Superbike champion Ian Simpson, "but to keep these bikes reliable, you must follow the factory's schedules. Anything else and you're risking a mechanical failure and no points".

It's not just motors that wear either. The handmade Promotive titanium exhaust system on this bike costs £3000. The team reckon on needing at least three per season before crash damage comes because the bike's vibration rattles them apart.

But there are advantages to this costly system because no other bike lets you buy full factory kit. If you've got the cash, then you can have a championship-winning bike. Go with the cheaper (to buy) fours and you may save money initially but unless you've got the time and cash to do the right development work, you may still struggle.

Talking of struggling, this is not an easy bike to launch. Unlike the roadbike that rolls away on tickover, this thing needs plenty of revs and little mechanical sympathy or it'll stall. As I learned in the middle of a packed Donington pitlane before having to wait there like a lemon while the team ran over with the starter wheel.

Embarrassing hiccups out of the way it was time to head for the track where I was amazed. You can see straight away why these bikes are winning because they're so easy to ride.

Part of this was down to Sean's set-up - he likes his bikes low at the back so although this bike was still taller than the roadbike, it was nowhere near as extreme as the other superbikes here. But the most mesmerising thing was the way it steered. Road Ducatis, for all their excellence, always need muscling into corners. Stable and accurate they may be, but they still need turning hard. The racer could not have been more different, floating into turns before I'd thought about it. No oversteer, no understeer, just exactly what was wanted with bugger all effort, whatever the pace

The chassis and suspension ironed Donington Park flat, and also seemed to coat it with Shellgrip - grip levels were unreal. This bike felt uncrashable. Uncrashable but ferociously fast. Those 180-odd horses on tap come at you smooth and hard, but even wobbling around like I was, I still found the front wheel coming off the floor still leaned over coming out of third gear corners.

What a motorbike.

She's not without her nasty side however, as Sean was careful to remind me before I went out, and as a man with six years top level race experience on 'em I was mindful to pay attention. "They'll let you go faster than you ever have before, but they still have a limit and if you just overstep it one inch, you're off".

Respect is due, and if you've got a road Duke in the garage you'll be pleased to know that although no superbike, our example was the closest in comparison to its racing cousin than any other roadbike in this test even if it couldn't steer like the racer could. Then again, I'm not sure any other bike could manage that.

A Racer's View - Sean Emmett

"The superbike isn't the fastest or most powerful bike out there but it's how it hangs together as a package that makes it so good. It's just very refined and the chassis lets you carry loads of corner speed. Because you rely on torque more than revs it never feels that fast, but when you see the lap times you know it is.

"Of all the roadbikes, I've always thought Dukes were closest to superbikes, and this one was no exception. Like my racebike, but toned down"

Hawk Kawasaki ZX-7RR

HAWK KAWASAKI ZX-7RR

Evolution of the Finest

No bike in the BSB paddock boasts the same heritage as Hawk Kawasaki's ZX-7. Honda Racing's SP-2 may have won WSB in '02 and ETI's Dukes may have done the same in BSB that year, but nothing can trace its lineage as far back as the Kawasaki.

On the one hand this is a very polite way of saying this bike's old. On the other it's another way of highlighting how special this machine is because there isn't a superbike in the world today that's had the development this has.

Seven years racing on the world stage have all played a part in bringing this bike to where it's at today. Hawk's bikes were last year's factory WSB bikes so it's safe to say there isn't a better ZX-7 on the planet. And nor is there a racer here more removed from its original bike. The superbike's bodywork may have similar lines, and both may be the same shade of green, but that's where it ends.

Taking the roadbike out on track first was like shagging an ex-missus - friendly and familiar but not something you'd want to do too often. Power was docile and predictable, ground clearance was marginal and meant smooth and swift was a better option than hard and charging, and although the bike acquitted itself well enough it gave the strong impression it would far rather be on the road.

By contrast, the superbike wasn't just the machine the roadbike never was, it was also the bike that felt most like a thoroughbred racer here. Where the others all bore traces of their roadgoing ancestry, in the Kawasaki it was all but gone, lost to years of development.

What was left was the ultimate four-cylinder 750cc racebike. The throttle was heavy (operating massive flatslide carbs it needs to be), but response was crisp and sweet and although hugely fast, this was an easier one for me to get my head around thanks to a (slightly) more roadbike-like 160bhp rather than the 180-plus of its competitors.

And 160bhp harnessed perfectly by hot slicks and an impeccable chassis is an experience to die for. Enough power to be way faster than any roadbike I've ever had on a circuit, but not so much as to be terrifying.

Glen confessed the lower power was a mixed blessing, letting him get on the gas harder, earlier, but leaving him vast gaps to make up after any sort of straight. And don't get the impression the superbike motor's a pussycat either - "I learnt early on what I could and couldn't do after she slapped me down with a few highsides," he admitted between sessions.

The biggest eye-opener on the Hawk bike though had to be its sensitivity. I've done more than my share of laps at Donington over the years, but the ZX found bumps and ripples I never even knew existed. Like the fairytale The Princess And The Pea, feedback and finesse was so much as to be almost overwhelming.

Light to throw into corners, and stuck like glue to the tarmac throughout with ultimate confidence whatever I did, I could not imagine how hard you would need to push to actually crash this thing. It's a shame we'll never see these bikes race again, but if you've got a hefty lump sum burning a hole in your pocket you might want to give Hawk a call because as a riding experience, this bike is a unique thrill.

A Racer's View - Glen Richards

"The best thing about the superbike is how fun it is. It doesn't do anything bad, and although it doesn't have the engine of some of the other bikes it stops good, turns good, slides good, and lets me get on the power early. The fun kind of goes out of it looking for that last half a second come raceday though. The roadbike was unbelievably disgusting. Being 40kilos heavier than my racebike and as fast as an old 600 it's a bit long in the tooth, but as a road bike for cruising about on it's not so bad"

Virgin Mobile Yamaha R1

VIRGIN MOBILE YAMAHA R1

Big Rob Mac's Red Yam

Virgin Yamaha DO not mess about. Minutes after squeezing into Donington with their vast team truck they were decamping and, in a scene reminiscent of the A-Team preparing for battle, a race-day garage was appearing in front of my eyes with bikes, mechanics and datalogging wizardry fast filling it up.

As this was going on I grabbed Kevin Stephenson, the man responsible for the team's motors and asked how he made the roadbike into a superbike contender.

"We get the standard motor and throw most of it away, then we blueprint and balance the whole thing, re-work the head substantially, throw in the factory kit gearbox and a slipper clutch made to our own design. It's the same story with the cams and valves - we have those tailor-made too. Then there's £2500's worth of Motec fuel injection which means we can adjust the fuelling anywhere in the rev range. We started with Yamaha's own system but this one gives the riders much better feel, and another five brake horse up top too."

And the result? 180bhp to you guv'nor.

Considering this figure as I peered out of the garage at the still sodden track and the grey skies above I was glad there were a couple of hours to go before my turn in the driving seat came around. Even so, nerves were still kicking in, a fact not helped by team boss Rob Mac jokingly explaining the consequences to my person should I lunch his motorbike in the manner of someone who isn't joking at all.

But then I figured weather probably wasn't an issue. After all, not only were the team carrying more tyres than my local Kwik Fit, but if anything could make light work of the conditions then the racebike's chassis was it.

The frame stays the same as the roadbike but has been heavily stiffened up around the headstock and swingarm pivot. You may think the standard kit's stiff, but the forces of racing and 180bhp would have it bending out of shape faster than one of Uri Geller's spoons.

"We had a high-speed instability problem early on," explained one of the guys, "but as we braced the frame more it disappeared."

But enough of talking the talk, because it was time now to walk the walk. The bike was warmed and waiting for me and all that lay ahead was a clear, if slightly damp Donington.

The first few laps were not pretty. Unlike the roadbike the racer is anything but forgiving. It is skyscraper tall at the back, hard, as in Mike Tyson hard, and about as friendly as a hungry Rottweiler. And rather than falling into corners more sweetly and faster than anything I had sampled before, it was reluctant to turn in.

But this was because I was riding too slowly and too gingerly. Even so, it made a point - you wouldn't want to take this the end of the road, let alone on a Sunday jaunt.

Upping the ante things began to change.

The motor which had felt less than pleasant revealed itself as nothing like an R1. The crispness of it all when you gave it some gas, the speed at which it spun up and the sensitivity of the throttle were shocking to say the least while the brute screaming force firing its way through the back tyre was like nothing I had ever ridden.

Brakes were in the same league. Never using more than one finger I was still harnessing braking power akin to running into a brick wall just brushing the lever. Despite this, the feel in the system meant you were never in danger of overcooking it while the Öhlins forks demonstrated every ounce of their worth soaking it all up and then some.

But despite all this, and despite the bike's phenomenal stability and poise once into a corner, it never turned in so sweetly, and there was still that R1 feeling you should be braking, then turning, rather than combining the two.

Back on the roadbike, I was knocked out. It felt like a 10-year old VFR750 with shagged suspension. No real confidence, no ground clearance, and it felt so slow that for a minute I wondered if I'd hopped on an R6. But I hadn't, it was a brand new R1 and it felt terrible.

A Racer's View - Gary Mason

"The superbike's awesome. How could you not enjoy 180bhp? Light, flickable, powerful, loads of grip and a predictable power delivery. It needs riding hard though - you've got to be aggressive stuffing it into corners, getting it turned and then firing it back out onto the straights.

"I only took the roadbike on the road, but there it was right at home. Fast, but so stable, and hooked up on the back wheel a treat. With this as the starter kit you can see why the superbike works so well"

Appleyard TDB R1

APPLEYARD TDB R1

Hard, Harder, Hardest

Another R1, and another R1 out of the Rob McElnea stable at that, but this is not the same as the Virgin Mobile bike despite being built under the same roof.

See, the Appleyard TDB superbike team is a smaller outfit than the main factory one. Think of it as a satellite team. So the bikes are technically the same as the factory ones, but without the benefit of the latest development parts or quite the same budget.

So where Virgin Mobile had a new exhaust system developed for the beginning of the season to up the motor's torque a fraction, these boys are running last year's affairs, and where the factory team has switched to Motec engine management to make the bike more rideable, and for a touch more power, TDB still use the Yamaha kit system. All this means the motor that's already a serious beast, is that little bit more serious, and that little bit less easy to manage from the driving seat.

A fact not helped much by Youngy's throttle either. Not only does he have smaller hands than the average Action Man but a few (hundred) crashes over the years mean he's not quite got the movement in his wrists he could have. His solution to this is to use a quarter-turn throttle from a Honda CR250 motocross bike. Think about it - that's 0-175bhp in about an inch of movement. I was glad the track's damp patches had cleared before going out on this one.

Fast, vicious, hard and raw were all words that came into my mind during that session. This thing is a beast, battering the track into submission with all the subtlety of a breezeblock nailed to a cricket bat. Finesse it doesn't have, but brute power and ability it does.

Having dipped a toe in the R1 waters already on the Virgin bike I was better prepared for this one, so acclimatisation didn't take quite as long, and with the dry track easing my costly crash worries I was able to enjoy myself a bit more.

The bike still wasn't exactly eager to turn, but employing the brake, chuck it in, then get back on the gas as hard as my abilities would let me for the exit, it was amazing fun. As with the Virgin bike, mid-corner grip and poise was exceptional, and the drive out onto the straights shockingly fierce. More so in fact thanks to the on/off switch masquerading as a throttle and the slightly less sophisticated engine management.

In summary? This is an exciting, evil bastard of a bike that feels like it wants to spit you into casualty at the first available opportunity. Highly recommended, but needs respect.

A Racer's View - Paul Young

"The superbike feels vicious compared to the roadbike. It's not got the benefit of exhaust valves or anything like that, it's just made for pure power. Every time I get off it I just think 'you vicious cow'. As for similarities between the racer and the roadbike there are none. I think I'd prefer the racebike on the road - they're what I'm used to but if I had a year away from racing I'd much prefer the roadbike - it's so much more easy-going"

Honda Racing SP-2

HONDA RACING SP-2

This Won WSB Dontcherknow

Talk about a bike with a reputation. Man, this bike has it all going on right the way from its stratospheric price tag (£250,000 and it's yours. To lease for a season. At the end of the year you still have to give it back...), through its myriad one-off HRC factory parts, and all the way down to the small fact it took the World Superbike title last year ahead of the rampagingly dominant Ducatis in one of the most memorable races in living memory.

None of this pedigree gives the bike any airs and graces however. There was no royal treatment for this little miss, instead she arrived at Donington in the back of a tranny van as if going to a club race. It was a smart tranny van, and the kit inside was a little beyond that of your average club racer but nonetheless it was a low key arrival if ever there was one.

The understated theme continues with the simple black/red paint that keeps the bike demure, until the clothes come off that is and a handcrafted rolling work of factory racing art appears. The dimensions may be similar, but stripped off this thing is nothing like an SP-2 as you or I know them.

Take that Akrapovic exhaust for example. Looks like an over-the-counter item, but is in fact handmade to HRC specifications and priceless - you couldn't buy it if you wanted to. Much like the rest of the bike.

Crankcases are heavily machined inside, the crank and pistons are handmade HRC, as are the rods, CNC-ported heads, fuel injection, and close-ratio gearbox (30 ratio options, naturally.)

Then there's the frame. Looks kinda familiar, and is made of standard frame rails, but they're shipped from the production line to HRC and assembled there with ultimate precision then given a load of headstock bracing to harness the power. As a final pub fact, did you know the forks on this aren't your common as muck Öhlins superbike ones either, they're factory Showas, with the same spec as used by Valentino Rossi on his 500 in his first title year, and (of course) you couldn't buy them for all the tea in China.

But one thing the superbike SP-2 does share with its roadbike cousin, despite all the changes, is the way the motor feels. Get on the gas and there's that same revvy 'durr'durr' solid thudding to it all, except with the racebike you're looking at 180bhp on tap.

And that you do know about. The power doesn't smack you in the face the way the Yamahas do, but, like a very strong undertow in stormy seas it drags you forwards and hurls you at the horizon with immense force. A force that's not quite matched by the brakes in comparison with the other bikes here either. I'm not saying this bike's underbraked, just that the anchors were less obviously stunning than the rest here despite still outshining the roadbike tenfold.

As with the SP-2 roadbike and the R1s in this test, the SP-2 racer wasn't the quickest into corners either, needing that same mix of brake, then turn, wait, then gas out again approach to corners rather than letting you blend braking and turning as one effort.

My abiding impression at the end of my time with the SP-2 was one of knowing I hadn't been able to get close to really making the bike work. It needed pushing harder and faster than I was ever going to manage. As for me, I'd just been some chancer lucky enough to get a shot on the most exclusive superbike in the world.

A Racer's View - Steve Plater

"Best thing about the superbike is the power delivery - it's a proper V-twin with loads of grunt. Fire it to 11,500 and hook another gear - beautiful. But it took some getting used to after fours. The engine weighs 90kgs and that's pushing you into every corner so I had to adapt my style a lot. The roadbike felt very different, but I still enjoyed myself. It wasn't razor-sharp but that's not what roadbikes are about"

Rizla Suzuki GSX-R1000

RIZLA SUZUKI GSX-R1000

The best GSX-R1000 in the World?

Twas the morning after the end of the season, and all was quiet. Donington's paddock that just the previous day had played host to the final round of BSB just now looked like a bomb had hit it thanks to the combined effects of a packed race weekend followed by becoming the number one party location of choice for most of the paddock.

Mindful of the task that lay ahead the following day (ie: riding someone else's 200bhp superbike worth more than my house) I'd taken it easy on the sauce during the night's revelries and consequently turned up at the track too awake and too early. Still, professional to the last, the Rizla boys weren't far behind, soldiering through the debris and getting the bikes ready despite force 10 hangovers.

No matter how technically brilliant this bike may be, it's all overshadowed by that power. 200bhp, two hundred brake horsepower, or twice the grunt of a roadgoing 600. However you look at it, that's a hell of a lot of poke.

But can the bike harness it? "You've got to treat her right," explained JR. "We've worked hard over the past two years to get traction and power rather than power on its own and now we're seeing the results."

While we were talking sat on the back of the team's transporter I noticed JR's feet swinging in the breeze like a schoolkid's at the dinner table. Fast as you like he may be, but tall he ain't and I was worried the bike could be a struggle to even contort myself onto.

But despite pegs as high and far back as they would go it wasn't. I'm not saying you'd want your roadbike like this, but for track riding it was surprisingly bearable, helped in no small part by the length of the bike that left plenty of room for a natural stretch to the bars.

On the roadbike first it was a familiar GSX-R experience where for all its good points you always feel the motor outstrips the chassis and tyres. Handling is remarkable for an out-of-the-crate machine, and particularly one so large, but the motor is even more remarkable and, like a small owner walking a large dog, you never entirely feel in charge of it all.

But that was just the starter, and now it was time for the main dish.

It was astounding, and completely unlike any of the other four-cylinder machines outhandling everything but the ETI Ducati. With a similar effortless neutrality and poise at all times, the Suzuki could be teased into corners with the lightest of touches, and thrown side-to-side through the flick-flack Fogarty's Esses so easily you'd swear it was a 250 - it felt more like flying than riding a bike at times.

All the while feedback was immense, something highlighted braking into the Melbourne Loop where unlike on the Yamahas or Honda it felt quite natural to brake and turn all at once, letting the brake off just to the apex and feeling the forks gently rebound ever-so-slightly, all the while both ends oozing huge amounts of grip and confidence.

And all this with 200bhp. A supremely clean 200bhp at that. No glitches, no stutters, just clean, sharp, free-revving drive anytime and anywhere. The fascinating thing though was the delivery and chassis set up which were fine-tuned for pure accelerating efficiency and nothing else. Gassing the less powerful roadbike over the rise beneath the Dunlop Bridge saw huge wheelies off the throttle if you so desired, whereas on the superbike such showboating histrionics required severe effort as all the bike really wanted to do was bugger off down the straight as fast as possible regardless of the road surface.

The whole bike, despite its vast power, was amazingly composed with no one aspect outstripping the other, which all meant it never felt unrideable or frightening, just awesomely fast and superbly controllable. Back in the pits however I realised my arms were knackered thanks to the huge forces generated by the bike's acceleration and braking abilities.

Paul Denning, JR and the rest of the boys at Rizla Suzuki have worked very hard to get this bike to the stage it's at now, but I'd say they can rightfully lay claim to having created the best GSX-R1000 in the world.

A Racer's View - John Reynolds

"Of every bike I've ever raced, this is the most powerful. Even when I was in 500GPs they only had 160bhp - this has 200. It needs treating with care when you're leant over, but the chassis gives plenty of feedback. She has spat me off a few times, but that's to be expected and it hasn't spoiled our relationship - we're still in love. The roadbike was softer and slower but still a mega handful - I ride pretty slow on the road you see, so would probably want something less powerful to be honest"

Conclusion

CONCLUSION

There's no doubt these superbikes began their lives as standard roadbikes, but like some alien creature in a dodgy B-movie they've morphed, mutated and pumped themselves up to such an extent they've now evolved into altogether different beings. They are the steak to your roadbike's burger, the Kylie Minogue to its Jade from Big Brother, the Cristal champagne to its four pack of Stella.

Based on riding experiences alone, you'd never know you were even on the same bikes thanks to radically different riding positions and far harder set-ups. They have grip that makes a roadbike feel as if it's on marbles by comparison, power that can make even a GSX-R1000 feel kinda puny and brakes of such strength and feel it takes a leap of faith to get your head around using them.

But it's not just the quality of the kit involved that's responsible for all this because countless specials and superbikes use some of the same gear yet none come close to achieving the abilities of these bikes. It's the painstaking and perfect manner in which everything's been matched, mated and assembled in each case, as well as the quality of the raw materials that makes the difference.

All of these bikes took my breath away, and it was a privilege to be let loose on them but if you want my top three, here it is:

In third comes the Hawk ZX-7RR for its pure racer feel and balance. In second, the Rizla Suzuki for its precision and mindbending power. And in first? The ETI Ducati - simply the most intoxicating, rewarding and downright stupid fast motorcycle I've ever been on.

You wouldn't want any one of them on the road though. Not only would service bills be horrendous (you'd need three mechanics just to fire them up in most cases), they're uncomfortable, rubbish for pillions and useless in traffic too.

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