Class of '89: Honda RC30 V Ducati 851

It’s 1989. Superbikes are on the cusp of being quite brilliant, and Honda’s RC30 and the 851 Ducati are now leading the charge

Having penned his current best-selling book The Satanic Verses poor old Salman Rushdie is in a spot of bother. Seems like his criticisms of the Muslim religion haven’t gone down too well in Iran and the Ayatollah has just slapped a fatwa on his head. I have no idea if poor old Salman can ride a bike, but I tell you what, if I’ve got some nutter chasing after me with a murderous glint in his eye I’d as sure as hell want one of these as my escape vehicle. Both these bikes are little more than racers with lights bolted on and are the fastest things on the road today.

Honda’s RC30 and Ducati’s 851 both need little introduction. Since their release in 1987 these engineering masterpieces have revolutionised the way we look at sportsbikes, both on the track and off it. If you are an aspiring racer then the RC30 is the bike you need. Fred Merkel is looking good for his second straight World Superbike title, British up-and-coming four-stroke star Carl Fogarty tied up the F1 World Championship last year and Steve Hislop set a blistering 120mph lap of the TT in May, all on board RC30s.

Want to know where your premium goes when you hand over that huge £8,495 sum in your local Honda dealer? Well just look at the race section in MCN - RC30s are winning everything right now, but that’s not to say the Ducati isn’t a dab hand on track either. Merkel hasn’t had it all his own way in the WSB championship, Raymond Roche on the blood red 851 has been snapping at his heels and even topping the podium on a few occasions. The smart money is on Fred this year, but with a year on the bike under his belt Roche isn’t going to be far behind on 1990. Ducati’s Superbike challenge is coming of age.

So, with two such track-focused bikes to test, we decided to enlist the help of British star and current 500GP rider, Niall Mackenzie, a man not unfamiliar with RC30s. As well as owning one himself Niall raced the RC at the Suzuki 8-hour in 1987 and 1988, sticking it on pole in ’88 and leading the race before the engine went bang. Hopefully we will have no such problems today.

I’d arranged to meet Niall just outside Peterborough, as I had a feeling that with two such fast bikes it would be best to avoid busy roads. His arrival, in typical racer fashion, is a grand one. Impossibly trick white RS Taichi leathers slung on the back seat of his Mercedes 190, that famous AGV with the thistle on the crown resting on the passengers seat. Niall’s attention is immediately drawn to the two bikes.

“I’m looking forward to riding the RC. I’ve had mine for two years now but its done less than 500 miles,” he confesses, “I’ve kept it as a bit of an investment.” Ever the canny Scotsman, Niall is onto something here. Only about 300 RC30s made it to the UK, guaranteeing it as a future classic.

Formalities over it was time to get the bikes running. Sitting astride the Ducati I spent a few fruitless seconds looking for the choke lever, before remembering it doesn’t have one. Nope, Ducati has fitted the 851 with fuel injection (a first for the Italians) so there is no such thing as a choke, it’s a manual affair.

Hitting the starter the big V-twin rumbles into life and using the tiniest whiff of throttle I hold the revs at 3,000 to tweak some heat into the Desmodromic motor and get the temperature gauge registering. I have to say, as a way to pass time warming up a Ducati rates quite highly. There is nothing quite like the deep thud-thud symphony that a Ducati engine can produce at low revs as the two huge pistons slap up and down the barrels. Well, I thought there wasn’t until Niall fired up the RC30 next to me.

Despite being such a track-focused machine Honda couldn’t allow the RC30 to be anything but perfectly practical. Niall simply raised the discretely tucked away choke lever, hit the starter, and then left the Honda ticking over on its sidestand to warm up. No holding the throttle, the RC’s rev-needle flicked up to about 2,500rpm and stuck there, unwavering while the exhaust note hit a steady drone.

At tickover the Ducati certainly sounds the more alive of the two. It has a mechanical rattle where the Honda simply sounds refined and perfectly machined with a slight whirring, but once it warms the Honda’s character is transformed. Satisfied it was up to temperature, Niall knocked the choke off and started to blip the Honda’s throttle.

In the space of a few short rpm the RC’s exhaust note changed from a calm drone to a deep, guttural bark as the revs rose sharply then drop down again. It’s a sound that sends an instant shiver down my spine and made memories of watching Hizzy flying over the Mountain during TT fortnight come flooding back.

Snicking it into gear Niall fires off down the road while I tried to bend my six foot two frame into the 851. This Ducati probably has one of the most extreme riding positions of any bike today. The single seat unit (no pillions with an 851) places your body quite high in the air while the low-slung clip-ons force your weight onto your wrists. The feeling is one of being perched above the machine and isn’t all that comfortable, something that is only compounded by the footpegs. Although racers will undoubtedly argue they aren’t, road riders will certainly feel that the Ducati’s pegs are set somewhere up near the sky, but all this soon changes when you are on the move.

The 851 is a bike that demands to be ridden hard. The V-twin engine and super-slick gearbox combine beautifully with the almost perfectly balanced chassis when you unleash the Ducati. Last year the 851 received a 17-inch front wheel, replacing the 16-inch one of the original 1987 bikes, but it hasn’t slowed the steering down at all. The 851 still cuts through bends like a butcher’s knife through a nice steak, but it never feels fast.

Ride a GSX-R750 Slingshot and you know the inline four is working hard, screaming its way towards the redline, but in comparison the 851’s V-twin never feels pushed. Twist the throttle open, a feat that requires some effort due to the amount of rotation you have to use to get it to maximum, and while the engine’s speed picks up the exhaust note doesn’t, it simply continues at the same tone, all be it at a bit of a faster rate. If you like to hear you superbikes being thrashed then the Ducati isn’t for you, what you really want to experience is the RC30.

Having managed to prise the RC30’s key from Niall, I received my first taste of ‘Force V4.’ And what an experience. Compared to the Ducati the RC30 sits lower at the back while the pegs and bars are set at a far less extreme position. Despite being physically tiny the Honda isn’t racebike small, instead it has much more of a natural riding position. Get it rolling and the RC30 doesn’t feel as extreme as the Ducati, either. Although the handling is super stable I would have said it isn’t as sharp as the 851. Honda have chosen to give the RC30 an 18-inch rear wheel combined with a 17-inch front, whereas Ducati have matched front and rear with 17-inch items, a route racers are also taking with the RC30. This is obviously working on the track, but for the road I would personally opt for the standard sizes taking stability over slightly speeded-up handling characteristics, and bearing in mind the limited selection of 17-inch rear tyres available.

What I would never swap, however, is the beautiful V4 engine. Get the motor singing and the Honda’s engine comes alive like no other can. The V4 produces flat levels of torque and drive all the way through the rev-range while still delivering a whopping top-end rush of pure acceleration, and all alongside an exhaust note that deserves to be recorded and played on Top of the Pops. You can’t describe the symphony an RC30 produces at full chat, it’s proper music to the ears and the sweetest sound in motorcycling. Get yourself down to a race track, stand at the start/finish straight and soak it all up.

Which also sums up the riding experience. Riding an RC30 is a unique joy, a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s like a Swiss watch, it’s put together incredibly well and you can feel that every time you ride the bike. Everything on the bike works perfectly, there are no rough edges, loose ends or unfinished corners. Honda has managed to create a stunning racer and convert it into a fantastic road bike that, if you didn’t know better, you would assume had always been intended for mass production rather than limited edition.

Ducati’s 851, on the other hand, feels much more like a race bike with lights fitted as an after thought. This is in no way a bad thing, but it lacks the level of detail and finish the RC30 comes with and feels raw and basic. The flip-up stand is a quick solution to an easily cured problem, the riding position is designed for performance rather than covering miles and the clutch is a heavy old affair. But at the end of the day who really cares? If you aren’t a racer then you are buying either of these bikes for the pure riding pleasure, which both offer in abundance. Well, unless you are Salman, in which case I reckon the RC30 offers the faster exit strategy from mad bomber types.

The Joy of Flicking Vees

When they were launched in 1987 both of these bikes moved the engine design game forward a giant leap. Although it isn’t the first V4 road bike Honda has made, the RC30’s motor is a work of art. Gear driven cams on ball races reduce the internal friction while a close ratio gearbox with an 80mph first gear is standard. The 90-degree V4 engine has 16 valves and a claimed power of 110bhp with aluminium cases, twin curved radiators, titanium rods and a full stainless steel exhaust system. Full HRC race kits parts can be bought over the counter from any Honda dealer and when fitted your stock road bike would make a genuine race wining machine, as Carl Fogarty proved. And it’s solid, RC30 engines seldom break down, although Niall was unlucky twice. The chassis, designed by Mr Horiike (who was later appointed managing director of HRC), is a full aluminium beam affair with Elf Honda inspired single-sided swingarm and a quick-release front wheel spindle for endurance racing. The fairing is fibreglass while the tank aluminium to save weight. Overall the RC30 weighs just 185kg, but it feels lighter. “The RC30’s engine is ahead of its time, it’s simply miles better than any other 750 engine,” is the view of RC30 engine tuning legend Tony Scott. “You honestly can buy one in a dealer, tune it, and win a World Championship race. I did it last year. Carl Fogarty’s F1 World Championship bike has no HRC parts, I tuned it all myself from a standard road bike. It’s a complex motor, but beautifully made, and very reliable.”

The 851 Strada is the first 90-degree V-twin Ducati to use fuel-injection and have a DOHC four valve head with desmodromic valves. As you might expect from the name, the 851 has a true 851cc engine capacity, unlike the race bikes which run nearer to 888cc, although many believe this figure to be even higher. In road trim the engine makes a claimed 93bhp and is good for a genuine 150mph in the right conditions.

When it comes to the chassis Ducati has opted away from the aluminium beam frame design common on most bikes today and instead stuck with its steel trellis frame, which it believes offers the optimum balance between weight and strength. Although the standard 851, or Strada, comes with Marzocchi forks, last year Ducati unveiled an 851SP, which has Öhlins suspension, an 888cc motor and loads of other trick bits. Although this engine formed the basis of the firm’s WSB racers, unlike the RC30 a lot of work is required to make it competitive and it lacks the reliability when tuned. “Racing a Ducati is an expensive business, you can’t take the road bike and make it a racer, you need the Corsa,” says Ducati tuner Geoff Baines. “In 1988 you had to buy the £15,000 Lucchinelli rep, then add the £10,000 factory kit to it. Even after all that expense the wheels still leaked, typical Ducati! It took us a while to get to grips with the race bikes. The engine is so advanced, fuel-injection, four valve head, desmo valves, how many other bikes do you know with that? Which is the problem. We have had to ask for help from Ferrari on how to set up the injection, bikes just don’t run systems like that. And the crankcases are a bit weak, down changes especially can ruin a motor. Expensive yes, but the factory is full of passionate people who want to win.”