Riding the MotoGP Motorcycles: Ducati Desmosedici, Honda RC211V, Kawasaki ZX-RR & Yamaha YZF-M1

MotoGP heaven: Riding the ultimate racers from Kawasaki, Ducati, Yamaha and Honda. By Alan Cathcart

In a dramatic turnaround, Grand Prix racing has transformed itself in the past two years -- and the powersliding, fairing-bashing, exhaust-howling racing that's resulted has been a damn good spectacle, too. The invention of the four-stroke MotoGP class as a response to the increasing spectator allure of streetbike-based World Superbike has proved to be a master stroke -- even if, as in the old 500cc two-stroke days, Honda has dominated, with 29 wins in 32 GP events run under the new MotoGP formula.

Even in the early days of this anything-goes category -- four strokes up to 990cc, with a differential weight rule for triples (135 kg), fours and fives (145 kg), and six cylinders or more (155 kg) -- the formula has inspired a wide range of technical approaches to reaching the checkered flag first. Yes, all the bikes are fuel injected, drive their twin overhead camshafts with gears, and all except the 20-valve Yamaha M1 have four valves per cylinder. But otherwise, the Universal Racing Technology syndrome of the old V-four two-strokes -- or the current V-10 Formula 1 circus -- hasn't yet asserted itself. We've got everything from a pneumatic-valve triple (Aprilia), a 65-degree spring-valved V-four (Suzuki), a 90-degree V-four desmo (Ducati), one inline-four with rearward-rotating crankshaft (Yamaha), another with a forward-rotating crank (Kawasaki) and that other V-five, Kenny Roberts's new Proton four-stroke, this time with a 60-degree cylinder angle and two cylinders at the front, three at the rear -- the opposite of Honda's 75.5-degree V-five.

Technical differences are emphasized by each bike's distinctive and extremely loud exhaust signature. With noise limits having been raised to 130 db -- as in open megaphones, just like the Manx Norton and RC166 six-cylinder Honda 250 of days gone by -- the sound of mechanical music has at long last returned to GP racing.

I'd ridden two MotoGP racers in 2002: Valentino Rossi's title-winning Honda RC211V V-five and Suzuki's GSV-R V-four. The Honda was near-magical, the best racing motorcycle I'd ever ridden. The Suzuki was a bit of a disappointment, offering slow, heavy handling and only a touch more power than Suzuki's own GSX-R750 Superbike. So the chance to compare and contrast three of the '03 MotoGP bikes on the same day after the season-ending Valencia GP, followed two days later by getting reacquainted with Rossi's Honda RC211V on the Catalunya GP circuit in Barcelona (where, ironically, Honda had suffered its only defeat of the '03 season at the hands of Ducati's Loris Capirossi), was a dream assignment -- even if things started badly when I crashed the Kawasaki!

KAWASAKI ZX-RR

The Green Machine was the last of the Japanese manufacturers to show up on the MotoGP grid, first with an ultra-Superbike, then a second-generation bike seemingly stuck halfway between a Superbike and a true MotoGP machine. The bike struggled to score points in 2003, with riders Garry McCoy, Andrew Pitt and occasional wild-card entry Alex Hoffmann totaling just 23 between them all season. Riding the bike on a tight, twisty circuit such as Valencia underscored why this was so, and hinted at some hope for the future.

Basically, the ZX-RR has a promising engine totally let down by its chassis. Once straightened up and flying out of a turn, it offers speed comparable with the Yamaha M1. That was noticeable during the race, when Honda-mounted Nicky Hayden -- who'd fallen earlier -- had to wait until after the long straight to pass the Kawasaki duo, using the V-five Honda's superior corner-exit drive.

The ZX-RR pulls cleanly from as low as 7000 rpm out of a slow turn, and has excellent midrange and top-end. But getting power to the ground has been the problem, especially on Dunlops, which have proved to be the least effective of the three tire brands in MotoGP. That direct link between throttle hand and tire that is any world-class rider's nirvana is absent on the ZX-RR, even if the electronic powershifter is one of the sweetest I've yet used on any racer -- just graze the lever with your toe as the green dash lights flash at 14,000 rpm and it slots smoothly up a cog.

Still, the power can be plenty abrupt. Every lap, exiting the final turn onto the front Valencia straight, the ZX-RR would wheelie in the bottom four gears, the front wheel bumping down for a brief moment before reaching for the stars again in the next gear. This abruptness made the bike feel less than controllable exiting corners on the gas, and while my pace found no problem with the side grip of the Dunlops, the sudden blast of power was intimidating enough that I made sure I was mostly straight up before I nailed the throttle. So no matter how good the Team Green motor is, riders end up losing time in the corners.

The ZX-RR's riding position is strange, too. With the twin-spar alloy frame looping up and over the tall engine, you find yourself perched awkwardly on top of the bike, feeling quite detached from it. This contrasts greatly with the sense of sitting within the Ducati, being draped over the smaller-seeming Yamaha or becoming part of the Honda. The riding position makes the ZX-RR seem tall, difficult to shift from side to side and especially vulnerable to weight transfer, which probably explains those wheelies under hard acceleration.

But it was the bike's performance under braking that was most disconcerting. It wanted to stand up and understeer if you tried to brake hard while leaned over. Not only did this mean I had to muscle it back on line, but I couldn't brake as hard and late as on the better-balanced bikes. And that was my downfall (literally), as explained via the on-board data-acquisition system that provided the post-mortem for my crash. After gradually getting up to speed, I came into the tight left-hander at the end of the short back straight a few mph faster than I had the lap before, and on a slightly different line that took me over some bumps I hadn't encountered previously. Braking harder than before, my extra body weight made the fork bottom just as I hit the bumps, while trying to turn with a bike that wanted to head straight. The result? I folded the front wheel and low-sided into the kitty litter. Oh, the shame of it...!

"Relax," Andrew Pitt said, "I've done the same myself, only your extra weight made it happen more easily. The bike's just not very wieldy." Kawasaki team boss Harald Eckl was equally philosophical and forgiving -- maybe because the team had a brand-new and much smaller '04-spec prototype sitting in the garage with a chassis built in Switzerland by Eskil Suter, on which Pitt would lap no less than two seconds faster the next day than he had in the race on the bike I crashed. So things look promising for Kawasaki in '04 with the new bike -- but to be honest, they couldn't get much worse than they were this season with the Incredible Hulk....

DUCATI DESMOSEDICI

Wiping off my scuffed leathers, I walked up pit lane to the Ducati garage half-fearing that my invitation to ride the Desmosedici had been cancelled. Luckily, Race Engineer Corrado Cecchinelli and my old race mechanics from the Bimota factory Superbike team (Bruno and Massimo, who are now Troy Bayliss's Ducati GP wrenches) were more interested in making sure I got my turn on what is surely the most powerful bike on the MotoGP grid (250-plus horsepower!) before the threatening skies dumped on us.

Firing up the Desmosedici cued up a passable imitation of a fire-breathing dragon of a racebike -- just the thing to get your confidence back less than an hour after a get-off! The Ducati sounds and feels like exactly what it is -- a pair of half-scale desmo V-twin Superbike engines. There are no numbers on the tach en route to the 16,200-rpm rev limiter, but trust me on this: There is power anywhere in the rev band.

Still, the Ducati isn't as brutal in its delivery down low as the Kawasaki (or especially the Yamaha). Exiting the last turn onto the pit straight in bottom gear and gassing it hard for the drive out did bring up the front wheel. But using a higher gear and short-shifting between corners to use the engine's fantastic torque made it a much more controllable bike to ride. With peak power arriving at 16,000 rpm (and peak torque hitting just 2000 rpm lower!), this is the highest-revving machine on the MotoGP grid. Ride the amazing torque curve and the Ducati is both stable and balanced, but rev it hard and you come face to face with stunning power -- even when compared with the Honda, which revs 1000 rpm lower. Amazing.

Think back to the television coverage of the MotoGP races this season. Remember watching Bayliss and Capirossi powersliding the Ducatis and laying big darkies, the front wheel cranked sideways like a dirtracker? After getting used to the Ducati, especially in Valencia's third- and fourth-gear corners, that type of balls-out riding felt almost achievable. The motor spits out so much controllable power that sliding and slewing and putting the bike right where you want it at the exit of corners seemed totally rational. Ducati's legendary connection between throttle and rear wheel is present in spades thanks to fantastic response from the well-mapped Marelli electronic fuel injection. All this feedback makes riding the bike much less daunting than its fire-breathing first impression leads you to believe.

The wide, high handlebar placement on Bayliss's bike (Capirossi prefers lower and more angled bars) allowed a roomy riding position and plenty of leverage for steering and correcting what feels like a slightly bulky machine. This may be due to the bike's streamlining, and of sitting in it rather than on it. It's a physical bike to ride, so due respect must go to the pint-sized Capirossi for his race-winning exploits aboard it.

While the Ducati has lots of electronics aimed at enhancing performance (like the Japanese bikes), this is essentially a "proper" motorcycle, with traditional core engineering. Unlike the Yamaha, the Ducati offers no digital aids to backshifting, so you have to blip the throttle, just like on a Superbike, with which the MotoGP machine shares the same effective ramp-style slipper-clutch all the Japanese makers have copied. It also brakes better than the others, with more bite from the radial Brembo carbon brakes complemented by engine braking from the desmo V-four, and good stability slowing hard for a turn. Ducati has evidently applied all the right lessons learned winning 10 World Superbike titles into a MotoGP bike that went from zero to beating Honda in just six races. Big Respect.

YAMAHA YZF-M1

A half-hour later it was time to assess the challenge facing Valentino Rossi in 2004 by riding Carlos Checa's Fortuna Yamaha YZF-M1. Climbing into the saddle, the M1 felt much smaller than the other two bikes -- and felt almost 600 Supersport-like compared with the Kawasaki. On track, the M1 was much easier to change direction quickly than the others, especially in the fast esses. Checa prefers steeply dropped handlebars, so there's not as much steering leverage as on Bayliss's Ducati. But because the M1 is quite agile in comparison with the Ducati, it's a push.

Still, the bike wants to play tricks on you in corners, first feeling like it wants to tuck the front wheel as you let off the brakes and get back on the gas. And secondly with an the engine-management system set up to disguise the fact it's a four-stroke. Because of this there's very little engine braking. Brake hard at the end of a long straight (the carbon discs have less bite than the Ducati's) while fanning Checa's stubby clutch lever and you backshift through the gearbox almost as fast as a two-stroke. The only difference is you must release the clutch lever between each shift, rather than hold it in as you zip down through the ratios all at once. Don't blip the throttle because the ECU is programmed to do it for you. I can't see the point of this except to satisfy riders who were brought up racing two-strokes and haven't been able to adapt to four-strokes; the Ducati brakes better without any of this electronic tomfoolery. I'll bet Rossi tells Yamaha to bin it in favor of a Honda-type system with more engine braking -- where the rider knows he's in charge.

The 240-plus horsepower M1 engine doesn't feel much slower than the Honda's, but it's definitely harder than even the Kawasaki's to take full advantage of. The bottom four gears are close together, and with an explosive power delivery that lofts the front wheel in all four of them, you spend most of the time looking skyward exiting slower corners. Unlike the Ducati, the M1 prefers to be revved exiting corners, the rider flirting with the 15,000-rpm rev limiter to keep power delivery more constant and predictable. This isn't always possible, so you have to be prepared to cope with the flighty midrange delivery. On balance the M1 engine isn't as good down low as the others, and definitely has more steps in the powerband, which again makes it difficult to use.

Where the M1 scores is in its light steering and delicate handling by the standards of the MotoGP class, which results in a balanced feel with excellent feedback from the -hlins suspension. It feels more compact and narrower than the others, though with its high seat height you feel somewhat draped over it, and once you begin to get the hang of the backshifting technique, as I'd begun to do by the end of my 20-minute session, it's stable under braking and stops well, which is maybe the point of all the electronics. But I think Valentino Rossi will make major changes in the character of the M1 from the beginning: back to basics, with a more user-friendly powerband at the top of his wish-list.

HONDA RC211V

Two days later it was on to Barcelona for a date with my own personal dream bike. We all experience landmarks in our lifetime, experiences you look forward to repeating, and this was definitely one of those. Riding Valentino Rossi's Honda RC211V V-five was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career.

Further development of the reigning world-champion RC211V has produced a bike literally beyond criticism. The few minor niggles I had last year -- snatchy response in lower gears, or steps in the powerband higher up that pushed the front wheel skyward at 140 mph -- have been resolved. The RC211V is of course extremely powerful and very fast, though it's the bike's refinement that makes it so effective. It was developed without losing sight of that all-important ingredient of being user-friendly, forgiving, even, for the rider. It's much more rideable than its rivals.

It's obvious that Honda approached the new MotoGP formula from a slightly different standpoint than the others. The RC211V feels to have been designed and developed all of a piece; not as a rolling computer laboratory, or a small-scale Formula 1 racer, or just as an engine producing awesome amounts of power, which must somehow be harnessed to a frame to put all that power to the track. This is a fast, but ultimately predictable and controllable, motorcycle, one that has a huge amount of feel programmed into it.

The RC211V's architecture sees the rider as part of the motorcycle, not perched on top, wedged in place or hung out the back. The fact that this one feels longer than the others, yet still slim and agile, is a key factor in making it so controllable. Your knees tuck tightly into either side of the bike, allowing you to feel a part of it without extra body weight on your arms. That makes it easy to flick side to side.

Acceleration is impressive, for sure sharper low down than a year ago, thanks to a combination of the new exhaust and revised engine mapping, and there's also better response from closed throttle. This friendlier delivery made firing the RC211V out of slower corners easier than the other three bikes. OK, the RC211V still lofts the front wheel easily exiting slower corners, but it all felt controllable as well as highly thrilling. The same was true exiting the medium-speed right-hander in the stadium, where the RC211V's long, (56.7-inch) wheelbase and ideal riding position meant I could have fun power-sliding without worrying about the front wheel making friends with the sky. Might even have left a darkie as proof, too...

There's not nearly as much weight transfer under heavy braking on the RC211V as on the Kawasaki, a reflection of its longer, lower architecture and the rider's lower positioning. The RC211V was superbly stable through the long, fast sweeper climbing the hill away from the chicane, plus it steers into corners well on the brakes. On the exit, the 240-plus horsepower output delivers vivid midrange acceleration as that lovely exhaust growls in your ear. All this goodness is matched by a broad spread of power from 8000 rpm to the 15,000-rpm rev limiter. You must force yourself to shift less and use a higher gear much of the time, somewhat like Honda's world-champion RC51 Superbike. I'm sure that with a few more laps I'd have been taking that last turn onto the pit straight in third rather than second, and grabbing sixth gear even sooner on the run down to the first chicane. Pity the V-five didn't have a speedo fitted; now I'll never know if I managed to break 300 klicks on a racetrack for the first time...

This year more than ever, it's really beyond my capability to criticize the RC211V because this is in every way simply the best of the best -- and that's because Honda has kept it simple. My respect for Valentino Rossi was already at an all-time high after watching him deal with his fellow-Honda mounted rivals at Valencia three days earlier. But to leave Honda, and this motorcycle, for Yamaha and trying to turn the YZF-M1 into a winner, just for a new challenge -- that says it all. What a man, what a champion -- but what a bike!

Both Ducati and Yamaha will have to work very hard to beat the 2004 RC. But hey, it's going to be a lot of fun watching -- and hearing! -- them try.

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