Drawing The Line - BMW S1000RR - The Conservative Radical

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Barly last year, Hendrik von Kuenheim, president of BMW Motorrad, spoke about the company's plans for its new S1000RR in the World Superbike Championship: "We are taking the battle to their battlefield, to play by their rules. This year we hope to develop the bike and finish in the top 10."

The bike that BMW built as the basis of its World Superbike effort is a combination of radical ends and conservative means. The S1000RR is claimed to have the most power and the lightest weight in its class, and it has perhaps the most sophisticated electronic aids to performance of any motorcycle. This puts its performance potential at the radical end of the spectrum.

The fact that this radical performance comes from a company known for its conservatism becomes a clear statement that the company intends to change its image. This is a radical change for BMW.

The performance may be radical, and the culture shift at BMW may be radical. But how radical is the engineering? Is the designa collection of unexpected, original work?

No. BMW has taken a deeply conservative approach, in that almost every detail of the S1000RR's architecture and mechanical elements follows precedents set by the Japanese manufacturers. From the stacked transmission shafts to the under-engine muffler box to the twin-spar frame structure to the central ram-air duct, the details are familiar to anyone who's studied the Big Four's inline-fours.

This is not to say that the S1000RR is a "copy" of any other bike, but rather that BMW looked to the Japanese machines as models of what a superbike should be. A conservative approach is a safe approach, and the BMW engineers took what they hoped would be a safe and sure way to put together a competitive superbike. Now that the 2009 World Superbike season has concluded, has the safe approach proven to be the best course? How has this Conservative Radical performed?

I'd rate BMW's debut SBK season a success. This is an intensely competitive series, and it was especially so this year. BMW didn't finish in the top 10 as hoped, but Troy Corser led races and finished 13th in the series, with Ruben Xaus not far behind in 17th. Had the S1000RR performed all season as it did in the final third, a top-10 finish would have been a safe bet. Top speed and individual lap times were very competitive, but the team often had to use softer tires to get those times, meaning that performance went off late in the race. A best finish of fifth came at the Czech Republic.

BMW's conservative approach thus resulted in a solid development season that will surely serve as a strong basis for this year's effort. But there was one detail that must have frustrated the team and caused them to question their conservative approach. Most seasons of World Superbike don't feature the introduction of a new bike by a new entrant, but the '09 season saw not only BMW's entry but also Aprilia's new RSV4.

The Aprilia is the first V4 in SBK since the Honda RC-30s of the late '80s, and in many ways it's radical relative to the conservative BMW. Its 65-degree V-angle makes for a very compact engine, and the bike looks more like a MotoGP weapon than a Superbike. What must have shocked the BMW team, however, is that while they struggled to get up to speed with the S1000RR, the RSV4 rocketed to an astounding season.

Aprilia's Max Biaggi was already on the podium with two thirds at the second event at Qatar, and he followed with seven more podiums topped with a win at Brno. For a completely new bike, the Aprilia's record was stunning, with Biaggi failing to finish only once during the entire season. Placing fourth overall for the season, Aprilia beat every team except the Yamaha of Ben Spies and the Ducatis of Noriyuki Haga and Michele Fabrizio.

BMW's debut season went very much according to its conservative plan, and it's only in comparison to the remarkable Aprilia effort that the question arises: Was BMW perhaps too conservative in its approach? The '09 season saw another threat to BMW's strategy in that the Yamaha that won the championship wasn't a conventional inline-four, but rather featured a crossplane crankshaft, in some ways a radical departure from the norm.

The conservatives are under attack from the radicals. What else is new?

The Conservative Radical