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The Mille Family - RSV & Tuono track test

With more inbreeding than a small Welsh village Aprilia's Mille engine comes in many guises. We took five of the best to Donington Park to put 'em through their paces

The mess that 72,000 people and a pit area full of race teams can make really is staggering. It's the day after the British GP and I'm looking over the now deserted Donington Park fields which only 24 hours earlier had been host to a record-breaking GP crowd attendance. Everywhere the eye can see there are fag packets, drink cans, paper, rubbish and other assorted bits of junk. An army of kids are swearing and complaining as they struggle to clear it all up.

And the pits aren't much better. Instead of the fast food packets the whole pit area is littered with empty cans of Repsol fuel, worn tyres, wooden boxes with manufacturer's names on and huge transporters preparing to start the journey to the next round at the Sachsenring or a Brno test session.

The track is also a mess, but in a good way. The entrance and exits to Coppice, Melbourne Loop and the Old Hairpin are covered in black lines left by the rear tyres of Rossi, Biaggi and the rest of the MotoGP gods and every now and then gouges and scrapes in the tarmac show where those who pushed that little bit too hard came to Earth with a bang.

The whole of Donington Park had a kind of ghost town feel about it, the gold rush had happened the day before and now the circuit was trying to deal with a massive come-down. Luckily a full trackday of riders pepped up from watching the racing the day before was on hand to restore life back to the track, and we had brought along some very special bikes to the after-show party.

Originally the plan had been to get the five best Aprilias we could find together and then let Aprilia MotoGP rider Colin Edwards loose on the track with them. Well, best laid plans and all that, this idea was scuppered when Aprilia arranged a last minute test for the Cube in Brno and Colin had to drive his motor home, complete with wife Alyssia and baby Gracie, across Europe as soon as the GP finished to make it. Never mind, we still had five Aprilias and Donington Park at our mercy.

To actually get all these bikes together in one place was something of a minor miracle to start with. Mille Rs aren't exactly two-a-penny, the Tuono is selling out faster than Aprilia can get them into the shops, only 45 Edwards reps will make it to the UK, when we did the test only one Tuono Racing was in the UK and only 150 Mille SPs were ever made, and that was in 1998! So all in all only missing Colin wasn't that bad really, and anyway we had a bike with his name on it so we could all pretend to be Colin for the day.

With all five bikes safely unloaded and lined up in the pit lane the one that really stands out from the bunch is the Tuono Racing. Why? Well, mainly because it was the one propped up against the wall as it didn't have its sidestand attached. Designed predominantly to take part in a race series in Italy in which entrants have to be naked road bikes, when you buy a Racing as well as the Öhlins suspension front and rear, steering damper and lightweight OZ you get over the standard Tuono you also get a carbon bellypan/oil catch tray, race can, carbon nose cone, pre-drilled bolts and reverse gear linkage for racing. Unfortunately, if you fit the bellypan you can't fit the sidestand too. But never mind, it does look cool propped up against the local newsagent's wall.

Casting an eye over the Edwards replica you have to wonder what the extra £2000 over the Mille R gets you. Yes, the anodised blue top yoke is very flash, the blue wheels (although the owner of this bike replaced them with gold ones) are kind of funky and having a limited edition has its own prestige value, but the design is a let down. For a start half of the Alice sponsor logo is missing, which gives the bike an unfinished look, and the rest of the bike looks just like a Mille R, which it is. But delve a little deeper and the Edwards Rep starts to justify its price. The lovely twin can race exhaust system is included in the price - on its own it's the best part of £1175 - and the engine is subtly different as well. It has bigger throttle bodies, up from 51mm to 57mm, as well as a different engine management chip, bigger valves, different con-rods and a faster flowing airbox that gives the Edwards an extra kick of mid-range over all the others, with the exception of the Mille SP.

Where the Tuono, Tuono Racing, Mille R and to some extent the Edwards replica all have identical motors, the SP has a very trick piece of kit nestling between its frame rails. When it was launched in 1998 the SP was designed only to allow Aprilia to race in World Superbike. It was a homologation special, which means that anything on the SP could be on the race bike. And so Aprilia threw everything at the SP. Every one of the 150 bikes has an engine that has been hand-built by Cosworth - the company that helped Aprilia make its Cube engine as well as many Formula One teams' engines - and has a totally different top-end to the current Mille, with a shorter stroke and larger valves to give the SP more power. But that's not all. The SP's chassis also has an adjustable swingarm pivot and headstock as well as a lightweight aluminium tank and race pipes and all for a bargain £25,000.

But this particular SP has even more to it than that. It's owned by Paul Bridgland, who runs rsvr.net, a company specialising in Aprilias. Self-confessed Aprilia nut Paul has used his SP as a showcase of what can be done with a large cheque book and a visit to his website. In addition to what Aprilia supplied the bike with, Paul has added forks and radial brakes from the 2003 Mille R, carbon wheels, bigger throttle bodies and a whole host of other extras. Just log on to www.rsvr.net to see the whole list. The end result? Well, on paper at least it's probably the trickest Aprilia in the UK, and with a very healthy 128bhp on tap. I have to confess that I am not a huge fan of 'specials'. More often than not owners throw thousands of pounds at a bike and all they succeed in doing is buggering up what was once a perfectly good package. So it was with this thought in mind, and the potential bill should I sling Paul's SP down the road, that I opted to ride the standard Mille R in the first session of the day.

Not having ridden a Mille on track the first thing that surprised me was how much effort they take to get to change direction in fast corners. Coming through the fast right/left of Craner Curves you really have to muscle the bike over. According to Wozza, who raced a Mille last year, dropping the forks in the yokes by a few millimetres and raising the rear slightly makes all the difference. And to be fair the last bike I rode around Donington was my Triumph Daytona 600, which is a very quick steering bike. So this is probably just down to a bit of careful set up.

But once you have got it over the Mille feels fantastic in a corner. The Öhlins suspension takes all the ripples and bumps of corners such as Mcleans and floats over them, no fuss, no messing. Because the Mille is a very tall bike, something you notice every time you clamber on board and kick the tail trying to swing your leg over the seat. It feels as if you are about to drop off the end of the world before your knee goes down but the suspension is so composed that you can happily simply lean and lean the thing over.

I have always liked the Mille motor as I reckon it has a bit more character than the Ducati V-twin, and around Donington the Mille R was lovely. Once you remember that you are riding a twin and sort out which gear you have to be in it's a joy to ride. There is hard drive from just over 5000rpm until the 10,500rpm red-line with a lovely kick in power at just over 7000rpm for character. To get the most out of it it's best to keep it between 7000 and 10,000rpm, but really anywhere above 4000rpm and it flies.

Having completed a session on the Mille R I jumped on the Edwards replica to see what £2000 gets you. The actual differences in ride are minimal, which isn't surprising as the chassis and suspension are identical, but the extra bits in the engine of the Edwards bike combined with the race cans give it a definite edge on power delivery. It feels that bit crisper and faster revving than the Mille R - not by a lot, but the changes have definitely made a difference.

A race track isn't the best place to try and identify slight differences in power, but I have been told that on the road the differences are even more noticeable. Although one thing that did annoy me with the Edwards Rep was that riding with the balls of your feet on the pegs (as I do) makes both your heels rest on the exhaust cans. Now this may be relaxing for motorway miles but more than once I got the distinct feeling that my boots were melting on to the pipes.

With two bikes under my belt, and not in the gravel trap, I was feeling confident enough to risk the SP. Well, not for the first time I have been proved wrong. The SP is simply beautiful. It just feels like a very, very well sorted and set-up bike. Through Craner the combination of the altered geometry, carbon wheels and sorted suspension make it far easier to change direction than the Mille R or Edwards Rep. It feels much more like a 600 and was, after reading reports on the Mille, what I was expecting the other Aprilias to feel like. It still retains the lovely planted feeling of the Mille mid-corner but adds to it by reducing the rider effort required to ride it fast. Paul has a lot to do with racing Aprilias and his expertise has taken a good package and made it even better. The motor also feels superior to the Mille R engine.

The dyno charts show how much more powerful it is but, like the Edwards Rep feels crisper over the Mille R, the SP feels even better over the Edwards. But there is a drawback. Because the SP motor is hand-built and limited edition it'll cost you should things go wrong. How does £400 for a gasket set grab you? It costs around £50 on a Mille. Having managed to not blow it up, and after the side-stand scraped the floor a few times scaring me (it was bent slightly outwards reducing the ground clearance), I returned it to Paul's loving arms and turned my attention to the Tuono.

The only bike here not to have radial calipers, the standard Tuono's brakes start to feel normal. You forget just how good the Mille R set-up is and with the Mille R, Edwards and SP all having identical Brembos the Tuono's normally fixed brakes feel, well, just very good instead of brilliant. Last month we tested Ducati's oddball Multistrada around Donington and I had a whale of a time chasing sportsbikes on it. The Tuono is even more fun. It has an identical chassis and engine to the Mille R, with the exception of the suspension and brakes, but the wide bars give you the extra leverage to really throw it around.

Aprilia dealers have a term called 'Tuono Grin', which is the look that anyone has after they take a Tuono out on a test ride. They are brilliant fun and totally, totally mad to ride. You can do almost everything you can on a Mille, but with flat bars. On track the Tuono felt totally at home. It could happily mix it with sportsbikes and you never feel as though it's the bike that is the limiting factor. Okay, powering out of corners the bars start to wobble slightly but that just adds to the amusement. I actually found it far easier to brake late with the Tuono than with the Mille simply because the upright rising position makes it easier to brace against the braking force. The session seemed to fly past and I returned to the pits with the stupidest inane grin on my face and dived straight for the Tuono Racing.

If the Tuono is mad then the Race should definitely be sectioned and locked in a room with rubber wallpaper. It's everything the Tuono is, but madder. Engine-wise there is virtually no difference between them but the uprated suspension on the Racing and its lighter wheels makes it feel a bit more confident in corners where the front on the Tuono started to feel a bit vague. Stick this with the fantastic radial brakes and you have a totally insane track or back road bike which everyone was fighting over by the end of the day.

And that just about sums it up. Out of all the five bikes nearly everyone opted for the Tuono Racing simply because it was so much fun to ride. We voted the Tuono the best naked bike of the year and the Racing is everything the Tuono is - and more. Does it do enough to justify its extra price over the standard Tuono? Well, probably not to be truthful because the Tuono is already such a cracking bike. But then again if you were to buy Öhlins suspension, OZ wheels, race can and all the carbon bits the Racing has separately they would definitely cost more than the £4000 price difference between the bikes. If you can afford it then go for the Racing, but don't be disappointed by the Tuono.

The Edwards replica certainly does enough to separate itself from the standard Mille R. For 'only' £2000 more you get a limited edition bike with changes that make a real difference to its performance. But the Mille R is still a brilliant bike. Which leaves the SP. Paul reckons that you can still find a few SPs around and they really are stunning bikes with huge amounts of history and kudos in the right circle. rsvr.net has shown what you can do but really only if you have the cash. It's a brilliant bike, but at a cost and with a lot of time invested in it. But there again that's the whole point of a special, I suppose.