Whitham samples the top two WSB bikes from 2009

The two best superbikes on the planet: 2009 World Superbike champion Ben Spies’ Yamaha R1 and runner-up Nori Haga’s Ducati 1098F09. And the mighty James Whitham gagging to wring their necks at the spectacular Parkalgar circuit

The last time I rode a full-on factory Superbike was three years ago at Monza on Haga’s ’06 R1 and I really enjoyed it. Rusty as I was, I felt I could push the big Yam on a bit around the superfast but uncomplicated Italian track. But riding bikes with another three years development behind them and on one of the most demanding short circuits in the world was a different kettle o’ fish.

Most of the advances over the last few years have been in electronics. These days all machines in the Superbike class at national level and above are generally fitted with a Pectel, Motec or Magneti Marelli engine management and electronics package.

All the bikes I rode had traction control, launch control, anti-wheelie and changeable engine maps. Spies’ Yamaha even had an auto-blip on the throttle as you down-shifted going into a turn. A lot of these features are adjustable from onboard, the switches look like Smarties stuck near the left-hand grip.

This stuff should make the bikes easier to ride, and for the top guys it does – it’s essential. But for the rest of us it’s the opposite. I’m not saying they’re impossible to ride – they’re not, anyone could jump on and ride ’em round. But to try and go quick on one is physically and mentally taxing.

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To cope with the immense amounts of grip and power available the suspension is set up very hard. Consequently, going round fifteen seconds a lap slower than the bike’s capable of, it’s almost impossible to get any feeling. No feel means no confidence means no feel means…

With the limited amount of track time we had, and the pressure of not putting any of these priceless machines on their roof you just can’t go fast enough to get them working properly. They’re so focused – built for a specific rider to go at lap-record pace round a specific track.

A few years ago it was only Grand Prix bikes that felt this tailored to a particular task, Superbikes were a lot more like their road-going cousins, but with more power, less weight, better suspension and brakes, and maybe a quick-shifter. Back then most road riders would’ve jumped on these bikes, instantly appreciated how well they worked and loved them.

Modern Superbikes feel quite alien to anyone not riding them on the limit every day. You’d lap quicker on your stock R6 or GSXR 1000 than you would on Haga’s factory Ducati. Even Ben Spies said his R1 feels awful when he’s riding an out lap or running in a new motor.

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It’s a lot harder now for a rider to come into Superbikes from a different class of racing and go well straight away. Without time to get up to speed and without a bike that’s working the way you want it’s almost impossible to compete. Gone are the days when you could 'ride round a problem' by sheer force of will.

When it rains it’s not just a case of chucking your wets in. Getting the best out of the reduced grip levels means totally changing the set-up – softer springs and damping front and rear, different engine map, different traction control settings, even different gearing sometimes.

Downloading the data after my four laps on this year’s World Championship winning R1 Yamaha was a bit depressing. On my best lap I only had the throttle against the stop (100%) for 7% of the time, about 8 seconds in a full lap! Even on the straight it was impossible to relax. Spies’ and Haga’s bikes are the most nervous of the lot. By the time you got out of the last corner, settled down and onto full gas you had to start shitting yourself about getting the thing stopped for turn one.

I also had a go on the two top Supersports bikes, Crutchlow’s Championship winning factory R6 and Laverty’s Parkalgar CBR600RR. Compared to the Superbikes both these machines were a joy to ride. At the speed I was going they gave loads more feedback and confidence. The suspension felt more forgiving and you could be a bit less precise without getting yourself into a pile of trouble. They felt a lot like the old 750cc Superbikes I rode in the late 90’s.

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Spies’ YZF R1 Yamaha

Ben sets his up to steer into the turns very, very quickly. It’s high at the rear, low at the front and the suspension’s very firm all round. He’s not bothered about the bike being “kinda” nervous on the straights and over bumps, he just needs it to steer quick. And it does. A couple of times I turned in and had to sit it up to avoid running over the inside kerb.

The anti-wheelie system comes in very aggressively too. You have to be ready for it over the crests to avoid nutting the screen as it slams the front back onto tarmac. Apparently (so the man says) the faster you go the less aggressive this feels.

The motor is awesome, loads of power, masses of torque and really good throttle-to-wheel connection. The rev-limiter comes in at 14,200 and I had to ask this because I daren’t look down at any point to find out for myself. Because the tank is under the seat and you have your chin on the airbox lid you can feel the induction roar going right through your chest.

The system that blips the throttle on back-shifts works well, but you have to be really careful not to touch the gear lever with a careless foot once you’re in the turn. If you do, as I found out, it’ll give you another nice big blip of throttle and send you careering wide right when you don’t want to.

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Haga’s Ducati 1098 FO9

The factory Ducati is a work of art, by far the trickest bike to look at – which made me nervous. Then we were given a dos and don’ts pep talk by Nori’s crew, which made me even more nervous. I’d already decided if I crashed this bike I’d walk out of the gravel trap, scale the fence and disappear into the bush rather than face the music back in the garage.

Just setting off down pitlane was a challenge in itself. First gear is very high and the clutch is a bit grabby. Luckily I’d seen a couple of people stall the thing and make themselves look like real amateurs, so I used plenty of revs to get her away.

Haga traditionally has his bike set up to steer very quickly, like Spies. It’s a little longer and less compact than the Yamaha but still turns on a pinhead and is just as nervous on the straights. Haga prefers to run reduced power in the first three gears and less anti-wheelie.

I found this a lot smoother over the rolling crests of Parkalgar. It’s more stable than the Yam when you’re braking in a straight line but I couldn’t get any feedback whatever if I tried to trail the brakes into a corner. It always felt like it’d lock in an instant and have you down the road.

The motor is unbelievable. Loads of torque in the mid-range and it kept pulling strongly right to the limiter at 12,200rpm – incredible revs for a twin with bigger pistons and heavier rods than the fours.

The suspension is so firm at the back it was difficult to get much weight transfer when you opened the throttle mid-corner. It felt like if it broke loose you’d have very little chance of catching it. A really, really hard bike to ride.