The World Superbike Championship celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and it’s no exaggeration to say that, historically, European brands have dominated that series. Honda won the first two titles, but in the intervening 23 years European brands have won 15 times. A remarkable 14 crowns have gone to Ducati alone, most recently in 2011, while Max Biaggi gave Aprilia its first title in 2010. Japanese manufacturers might have more money and engineering muscle, but none compete so fiercely as scrappy European brands with racing history hardwired in their DNA.
This close relationship between R&D and racing traditionally makes European sportbikes harder-edged and more aggressive than their Asian counterparts. That’s why, for our annual “Class of 2012” superbike comparison, we decided to divide the Japanese and European machines into two separate tests. Last month we pitted the Big Four’s Big Fours against each other, and Kawasaki’s Ninja ZX-10R rose to the top. This month it’s time for the Best of Europe to square off...
First up is Aprilia’s awesome RSV4, the very bike that won the SBK Championship two years ago—not to mention our “Class of” trophy the past two years running. Once again we selected the Factory APRC version, with upgraded Öhlins suspension, forged wheels, carbon-fiber bodywork and, of course, Aprilia Ride Control electronics. Essentially unchanged from last year, could it manage a three-peat against significantly updated competition?
The challengers include MV Agusta’s F4R, featuring an all-new Corsacorta engine. Though the basic F4 chassis is 15 years old, the redesigned short-stroke motor is cutting-edge and now comes within 1 horsepower of matching the BMW S1000RR’s tremendous output. Speaking of which, the S1000RR’s 169-horse inline-four is the only thing that hasn’t changed for 2012. The rest of the bike is all-new, including a comprehensively redesigned chassis, revised electronic programming and subtly restyled bodywork. Last, but certainly not least, is Ducati’s highly anticipated 1199 Panigale S, which uses an all-new Superquadro V-twin along with all-new everything else, including an ultra-light “frameless” chassis and electronically adjustable Öhlins suspension—the first sportbike equipped with that technology.
An exotic lineup indeed, and one we relished thrashing for two days over some of SoCal’s best backroads, including Ortega Highway and Palomar Mountain Road, split by two full days of wide-open performance testing at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. Desert Center is far from the Autodromo di Monza—SBK’s spiritual home—but our aim was the same: to identify the best superbike in the world, no matter what the country of origin or how much it costs.