Superbike classics - Ducati 916SP v Honda RC45

The mid 1990s was the era of the racebike on the road. World Superbikes became massive, so the manufacturers produced exotic superbikes for the fight. And none were more special than Ducati’s bellowing 916SP or Honda’s mighty RC45

Click to read: Ducati 916SP owners reviews

Click to read: Honda RC45 owners reviews

World Superbikes was simply massive in this country in 1995. While GPs were dominated by Mick Doohan and turning into a predictable procession, WSB was tough, gnarly racing and incredible to watch. Carl Fogarty smashed the WSB crown in ’94 and ’95, grabbing the title both times convincingly on his booming Ducati 916 and making the vast Japanese manufacturers and their bottomless racing budgets look utterly stupid in the process.

His wins at Brands Hatch WSB became the stuff of legend while his on-track battles with New Zealand rider Aaron Slight on his Honda RC45 were simply electric to watch. Foggy was always one to make it personal, and Slighty and he used to take their verbal onslaughts onto the racetrack, in the process creating some of the most thrilling bike racing ever seen on TV.

The public loved WSB because they could buy the same bikes these legends were racing on the track. Albeit with 60bhp less power and 60kg more weight. The homologation rules of the time stated that for a bike to be eligible for World Superbike racing a minimum number of production bikes had to be built for public sale, and the YZF750, GSX-R750, ZX-7R, RC45 and Ducati 916 that you bought in the shop looked pretty much identical to the bikes being thrashed around the most glamorous racetracks in the world.

It was a time of Dream Machine race-replica paintjobs and matching Dainese leathers, and as the sportsbike craze went stellar in the UK the two fastest bikes in the WSB series became the two most desirable bikes in the High Street: the Honda RC45 and the Ducati 916SP.

Both were ridiculously expensive. A hand-assembled 916SP would sting you for £14,500, while the HRC-built RC45 would do you for a monster £18,000. Even by today’s money that’s lunatic cash for a sportsbike, so much so that Performance Bikes branded the RC45 a “waste of money!” on their cover and Honda promptly pulled all their advertising from the title for a year.

The 916SPs of the time were built in the Bologna factory and you never, ever knew what you were getting. Some Showa forks from here, some Öhlins dampers from there, maybe a three-spoke wheel, maybe a five-spoke. SPs built on Friday afternoons were always very different machines from those built on Monday mornings. But both were also ruthlessly exclusive and to be seen on either one clobbered you serious kudos from the knowing sportsbike crowd.

Today, these two bikes are as desirable as ever. The resurge of interest in modern classics has meant bikes like the ’45 and 916SP are right at the pinnacle of collectors’ wishlists, and these bikes are commanding serious money even today. This RC is for sale at £10,000 and a good SP will do you for around the same money. And it’s not surprising. Even though it’s been well over a decade since I last rode either of these two bikes, the years haven’t dulled their appeal one bit and they both mean a great deal to me personally.

The 916SP is still the best-looking motorcycle ever made, period. MV Agustas and 1098s can come and go, but they’re all pale copies of something that’s already been. Wheeling the SP out of owner’s garage, the bike looks well-used, well-maintained and seriously sexy. The only aspect that’s dated is the rear seat unit (bulbous, bulky) but everything else on the 916SP is still as sparse and beautifully designed as it always was. The markings on the switchgear have faded with time and the Termignoni stickers on the carbon cans are threadbare, but the 916 reeks of clean oil and I just want to get out there and use it as it was meant to be used.