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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.

Our RC45 had been re-painted in the Castrol Honda colours of a TT marshal’s bike, which was a shame. The ‘Groundwork Southeast’ logo under the seat looked especially uninviting. The ’45 was never a pretty bike but has always had a squat, purposeful stance to it. Like the 916 the Honda has a single-sided swingarm (at least Honda’s had genuine heritage from endurance racing Championships), but unlike the Ducati the RC45 is no work of art.

Mild-steel bolts keep the various sections of the exhaust together, the footrest hangars are clunky after-thoughts, there’s no Öhlins to be seen anywhere and the bodywork is made of the usual plastic instead of the 916SP’s carbon seat unit. It’s hard to see how Honda justified that £18k price tag, but that was always the thing with the RC45. On paper it did indeed look like a waste of money, but then you rode it flat-out and all of that changed in an instant.

We head out into the fast, open A-roads around Cambridgeshire, the flat bark of the Honda a stark contrast to the Ducati’s exhaust boom and clutch rattle. These are proper sportsbikes, raw and difficult to master. The RC45 is stupifyingly uncomfortable, I remember it being bad but this is ridiculous. The Showa forks are nigh on solid (great for front-end feedback but lousy for anything else) while the rear is low and the distance from seat to pegs is about four inches. Add in the fat fuel tank and you’re squatting like a toad. Then factor in the 85mph first gear and through traffic it’s hard to imagine anything more ungainly.

By comparison, the 916SP has Pan European levels of comfort, the tall ride height, skinny tank and long stretch from the seat to the pegs making it surprisingly comfy. You’re pivoted onto your hands and your wrists take a battering and fingers go numb from engine vibes after 30 minutes, but riding racebikes was never meant to be pain-free.

Today’s sportsbikes are rounded, refined and very easy to ride fast. Not so these two. Get them into the open, give them full rein and learn how to ride a motorbike again. The RC45’s flat torque curve is like nothing else on two wheels. The redline is set at 12,500rpm and from six thou’ to this point there’s a surging wall of torque – not power, but torque.

It feels like you’re being pulled from in front instead of shoved from behind, the sound of the gear-driven cams and exhaust note (some bastard had decided to fit the cheapest ART can available to this two-wheeled work of art) mesh together to form a marvellous mechanical din that has you reaching for the throttle just to hear more.

It’s not what you’d call traditionally fast – it never was – but the limitless torque curve means you’re never out of power and 150mph comes up very, very quickly on the analogue speedo.  The close-ratio gearbox isn’t butter smooth but is very positive in its action, and you just whip the tacho round the dial, feeding in gears as you go. For just 105bhp at the back wheel (10bhp less than a modern 600!) the RC45 feels like it’s got 40bhp more than that, the V4 motor is exquisite and addictive and feels like nothing else today.

Which can’t be said for the 916SP. Unlike the Honda it hasn’t aged and it’s still a very contemporary ride. For the week previous to this ride I’d been lucky enough to have a 1098R as my personal transport, and while the 916SP is nowhere near as ferocious as that the heritage and feel are there for all to see and feel.

The racket from the legendary twin pipes is matched by the rattle from the clutch, and there’s a hard edge to the exhaust noise that rises to a glorious bloody din under full throttle. The SP is geared normally (50mph first gear) and the front wheel scythes upwards as you hit the sweetspot at 5,000rpm. There’s no redline on the conventional green tacho, but you don’t need one on the Ducati.

You’re perched very much on top of the bike but you’re completely plugged-in, the SP is alive beneath you and you’d swear there was blood coursing through its veins and not petrol.

We spend the day jumping from one to the other and back again, and the differences between these two WSB icons are huge. This SP has been set-up to drop into corners for fast track action. Stock 916’s steered very slowly and raising the rear ride-height and dropping the forks through the yokes sped up the steering to the point of instant handling. First time I pitched the bike into a corner I thought the front had washed out, it drops in so fast.

Back on the RC45 and the opposite is true, the low rear contributing to a totally stable but slow-steering package only offset by the tiny 16-inch front wheel. It was a huge problem on the racebikes (Honda perpetually messed around with the centre of gravity and never got it right) and while the front is very precise there’s a vague, wishy-washy feeling to the rear that even found its way onto the SP-1 V-twin that eventually replaced the RC45. You can ride the Honda very, very fast on public roads due to the power delivery and the unflappable nature of the handling, but it is in no way precise like the Ducati.

What mere words can’t get across is the thrill of riding either of these two superbikes fast, on the road. They’re both so much more involving than any of the latest 170bhp missiles out of Japan, and you have to use your head as well as your right hand to get the most out of them.

The handling (as different as it is on each bike) just won’t allow you to barge into corners and rally around the bend like you’ve got four-wheel drive. You have to balance the bikes on brakes, power and torque to get the most out of the chassis. Ride awkwardly or cack-handedly and neither the SP not the RC will spit you off, but they’ll feel unbalanced. This is an era where you had to know how to ride, where the machine wouldn’t do it all for you.

Talking of brakes, this is one area where MotoGP technology has pushed things ahead dramatically. Both bikes use big, floating discs (the Ducati’s cast-iron rotors rattle at a standstill and oxidise up within seconds of a rain shower) but the Nissin/Brembo calipers of then are monkey business compared with today’s mono-block brakes and it’s a brave man who uses just one finger at the lever.

But I can’t think of a sportsbike since that evokes the same passion as these two. In the 2000’s the supersport thousands arrived and they’re all completely soul-less. The best ones were the first GSX-R1000 and ZX-10R models, but after that they all became sanitised. Other V-twin and 750cc sportsbikes have come and gone, but none of them have the immense character of the RC45’s V-four motor nor the 916SP’s long-legged punch.

Tucked down behind the bubble, eyes straining for the corner ahead and muscles sore from too many hours already in the saddle, on the RC45 you really do feel like Aaron Slight getting on the gas and the 916 is Carl Fogarty personified. These are machines that were designed to be raced and demand to be ridden.

Verdict

There’s no doubt the 916SP is the better motorcycle to ride, it just hasn’t aged like the Honda has. The timeless styling, the baritone rumble from the pipes and the way you have to warm it properly before setting off are all part of your Sunday morning ritual. But there’s something immeasurably rare about the RC45 and the way it makes its power that still gets my nerves tingling. If you can find one in its original Force V-Four paint-scheme with the black tailboard, a pair of stacked Kevlar exhaust cans and the latest-spec tyres, you’re going to have something incredibly unique. And you simply won’t see another one out there, which cannot be said of the 916. My heart says take the Ducati, but my head says RC45. It’s nice to have a choice.

Specifications

Ducati 916SP
Value now: £10,000 Engine: 955cc, water-cooled, 8-valve v-twin
Top speed: 166mph Power: 124bhp @ 9,200rpm Torque: 74ft/lb @ 6,200rpm
Front suspension: Showa, fully adj Rear suspension: Öhlins monoshock, fully adj
Front brake: 320mm iron rotors, four-piston Brembo calipers
Rear brake: 200mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight: 188kg Seat height:  800mm Fuel capacity: 16l
Colours: Red

Honda RC45
Price now: £10,000 Engine: 748cc, water-cooled, 16-valve v-four
Top speed: 156mph Power: 105bhp @ 12,000rpm Torque: 68ft/lb @ 10,000rpm
Front suspension: Showa, fully adj Rear suspension: Showa monoshock, fully adj
Front brake: 310mm discs, four-piston Nissin calipers
Rear brake: 245mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight: 199kg Seat height: 785mm Fuel capacity: 19l
Colours: Red/black