First Ride: BMW HP4 track review

It's just a pumped-up S1000RR, right? Well no, not exactly..

It’s 7am and I’m standing in the dark in the pit lane of Circuito de Jerez. It’s so quiet and a racetrack without noise is like an empty church: eerie, intimidating even.

I get nervous before I go out on track, that's natural, but today I'm extra-nervous - every goosebump has come out to see what's going on.

I'm going on a pumped up S1000RR, that's what's going on.

Knowing you’re about to beat your survival gland to within an inch of its life? I don’t like it.

Especially when it involves riding a lighter, faster, sharper version of BMW’s already plenty-fast-enough-thank you-very-much S1000RR.

If you don’t know; the HP4 is something a bit special. The lightest production four-cylinder 1000cc superbike to date, it’s dripping with exotica and I don’t just mean the stuff you can touch but the stuff you can feel. It comes in two flavours, the HP4 and HP4 with Competition Package.

The HP4 weighs just over 199kg wet. A ‘Blade weighs about 10kg more. These are the bits that separate it from a stock S1000RR: forged lightweight wheels, a titanium full exhaust system, radial Brembo monobloc calipers, a 200/55 section rear tyre and a gearshift assist.

Underneath the skin, it features launch control, Race ABS with an IDM (Germany’s superbike series) developed setting, a lighter battery and increased midrange torque. Oh and one final trick: the suspension features Dynamic Damping Control.

DDC is a clever concept and a world first for a production motorcycle. Sensors fitted on the front and rear suspension read and react to difference surfaces and riding conditions. You can still set your suspension up with spanners and screwdrivers as you would on any other superbike, but the DDC fine-tunes the compression and rebound setup on the fly. BMW claim it takes milliseconds for the system to read throttle position, speed and spring travel and activate an electronically-controlled valve to adjust the flow of damper oil. Broadly speaking (and BMW will curse me for this), the faster you go, the firmer your suspension will be – but - the system is designed to constantly monitor what you’re doing and, according to BMW: ‘provide maximum traction for optimum deployment of engine power during acceleration’.

The Competition Package ups the ante even further by adding lots of carbon-fibre bits, including a one-piece bellypan with catch tank and HP-branded Gilles rearsets, folding levers. As KTM would say: Ready to race. Well, after you’ve ditched the sidestand, indicators and taped up the lights..

Thanks to the still-low sun obscuring a good third of the track, I treat the first session as a fact-finding mission for the nerves rather than an airstrike on the senses.

The HP4 wasn’t as I expected. The music that accompanied the HP4’s presentation video was thrash metal played with the volume wound-up to 11. So I thought I was in for an experience similar to being stuck in a small lift with a one-man band and a crate of Red Bull: eye-opening, ear-splitting, torturous.

BMW should have whacked on a bit of Ray Charles instead because this thing is smoooooth. Despite the HP4 hype, it’s still a BMW and wonderfully easy to ride.

Could I feel the Dynamic Damping Control working? It’s not like the bike is soft one corner and stiff through the next. The HP4 feels like a well-setup race bike - pert and precise – a race-bike setup for my riding style. Maybe I lucked-in. Except, according to the other journos on the test, they lucked-in too. That’ll be the DDC then; you can barely feel it working. I guess that’s the point.

I’m sure you could get a stock S1000RR to feel very similar if you knew how to set it up. The HP4 is good out of the box, better than a standard S1000RR but Jerez is super-smooth and flatters most bikes. We didn’t get to ride it on the road but that’ll be a really good test for it.

I kept the HP4 in ‘Slick’ mode for all three of our sessions on the stock Pirelli Supercorsa SP tyres. The power is the same in all the modes but in ‘Slick’ mode the rear ABS is disabled. I use the rear a fair bit and ABS kicking-in would throw me off the scent hence I didn’t use ‘Race’ mode.

‘Slick’ mode also allows you to adjust the traction control. Genius. There are 14 settings, it starts on 0, winding it up to +7 means the system is more sensitive and restrictive whereas with it set to -7, I couldn’t word it better than BMW: the slides are ‘more powerful’.

In session three, I left nothing on my (modestly-sized) shelf and headed out to get everything I could from the HP4. I don’t want to sound like Billy-big-bollocks, but with the traction control on the base setting the HP4 bogs-down out of the fast corners where you’d expect to really be taking off. Feeling brave, I set the traction control to -3 but four corners into my hot lap, through a fast left, I wound it back to -1 after I realising the HP4 has balls. And they’re bigger than mine.

Well into the lap and it feels like I’m riding the sixth sense. I know somewhere in there, there’s a very hot ECU crunching the numbers, mopping-up my ham-fisted inputs and answering the questions my brain hasn’t yet understood but despite the electronics, it doesn’t feel numb.

The throttle response is one of the best things about the HP4 when compared to the S1000RR. Sure, the wheels, exhaust system and all those other bits add-up but he HP4 feels more composed and less aggressive in ‘Slick’ mode than the stock S1000RR which is abrupt and brutal at the best of times.

Nudging 150mph on the back straight, the Brembo monoblocs shave off 100mph in 200 metres, with ease. The stock bike’s brakes are hardly lacking and while the HP4’s Brembos don’t appear to have the initial bite of other Brembo monobloc setups I’ve tried but they’re not short of stopping power.

The HP4 feels better through the faster corners than the slower stuff. Jerez has its fair share of fast corners, none more menacing than in the last section. As you build up speed through the last series of right-handers, trusting the front is vital. With each turn building speed, the HP4 doesn't show its weight and it isn't hard to get it on its ear. The HP4 takes the final complex - and grips through the outside- inside-outside kerbs - with ease.

Respect to Pirelli’s Supercorsa SP tyres too, I pulled out a one-lap-wonder and bagged a 1m53 on them, a well setup S1000RR racebike on slicks will do around a 1m49. For a treaded road tyre, they’re pretty special.

The HP4 is a refined S1000RR and not a pumped-up S1000RR. I thought it would be lairy but it's measured and yet feels exotic at the same time. It goes about its business without making a fuss and not many exotic bikes do that; if you want drama, look towards Italy.

That said, the HP4 is a ridiculous thing: ridiculously expensive, ridiculously fast and – most importantly - ridiculously effortless.

Plug yourself in.

Price: HP4: £16,000 (est.) and HP4 Competition Pack £19,000 (est.)

Colours: Blue/White/Black HP colours. That is all.

Available: Dec 2012