Friday, April 16, 2010

BMW S1000RR (2010 onwards)

Can the Germans really produce a superbike capable of rivalling the Japanese and Italians at the first attempt? It appears about as probable as me beating Valentino Rossi to the chequered flag.

But I have to say, after riding BMW's new S1000RR; the bike is more than just impressive; it really could be a future champion.

Slip streaming another rider; I dive into Portimao's last right-hander high in third gear, skimming the apex with my knee. I whack the throttle open as the rider in front traces a fat black line on the asphalt. I'm probably laying equally impressive darkies but as he insists on keeping the throttle to the stop, I follow his example without question. Of course I'd normally exercise far more caution, but the S1000RR's traction control has boosted my confidence.

The gear-shift light blinks furiously, encouraging me to shift without shutting the throttle. I grab another gear; the optional HP quick shifter cuts the ignition for a fraction of a second and enables fourth to be engaged. I do my best to find shelter behind the small windscreen as the needle runs to the red zone like a madman. The front wheel lifts briefly to crest a small rise and when the front tyre reconnects to the tarmac, the steering damper tempers the flailing handlebars that threaten to flap wildly out of control.

Up to fifth and sixth, I dive into the madness. I force myself to keep the throttle to the stop for gear after gear as the horizon rushes towards me in a wall of speed that is almost too fast to register.
Portimao's straight never seemed this short before, not on Ducati's 1198S or on KTM's RC8R. With the security of ABS brakes, I grab the anchors without hesitation, especially as in slick mode, the ABS won't be activated when the rear starts to step out. I shift down to third and stay late on the brakes to the apex. There's a light vibration in the front forks, but that doesn't prevent me from putting the S1000RR exactly where I want it. At this very moment, I feel convinced that this is the very best stock superbike currently available.

However, I wasn't a fan from the first encounter. A day earlier, I'd studied the S1000RR on display in the launch hotel in Portugal and was torn by the combination of innovative design at one side and a finish that leaves room for improvement on the other. The asymmetric fairing and headlight design has divided biking population; but in my opinion, it's not only brave, but stylish too.

However, there are a few incidentals that are less attractive. The windscreen has no less than eight visible bolts compared to the flush finish on Yamaha's R1, the seat lock is sunk into passenger seat rather than being housed underneath the rear unit, and the plastic additional parts on fuel tank look cheap.

If the S1000RR had shared the same price tag as Aprilia's RSV4 Factory or Ducati's 1198S this would be unacceptable. But at £10,950 for the basic model - and £12,235 for the Sports version with ABS and DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) the standard bike's cost is comparable to Japanese superbikes. Admittedly, it is still far from cheap and it doesn't quite have the exquisite finish of a Fireblade but it does offer a more sensational ride.

For my first few laps on track, I select the most restrictive of the four electronically controlled ride options - Rain Mode, where the ABS and traction control have the most sensitive settings and power is limited to 150bhp. Unlike the RSV4 Factory, the S1000RR doesn't feel like it's been brutally castrated but more 'pinched' instead. Power build up is extremely linear and useable and, after three measured laps to scrub in the tyres and dust off my track knowledge, I'm beginning to feel frustrated. The bike feels as though someone has tied an elastic band to the sub-frame and anchored it to the ground.

Still in Rain Mode, I crank the S1000RR over on Portimao's bone-dry track and confidently add more throttle. There's no need to stop to activate a different mode, just press a button, pull the clutch in and shut the throttle to activate the system. Sport Mode is essentially full power with a slightly less restrictive safety net. It's designed for sporty road use, which on track translates into traction control that's activated way before I'm on my own limit. Although the throttle response is still direct and without hesitation or delay, the power delivery is measured and progressive until you reach the throttle's half way point. Past that, it's ballistic.

On the straight the 192 sleeping stallions stampede towards the horizon with a breathtaking force that feels similar to Suzuki's GSX-R 1000 K5. Unfortunately the rear suspension, just like the old Gixxer, also appears to lack adequate damping force. As a result, the S1000RR feels unstable over bumps and is reluctant to maintain its line. For the next session, I make one simple adjustment by switching to Race Mode and I'm instantly rewarded with a performance that clearly belongs to a 1000cc superbike.

Experienced track day addicts are unlikely to find the traction control restrictive on this setting, but you will be comforted by the little jerks which indicate the system is quietly preventing the rear from stepping sideways. However, after another 20 minutes in the saddle, I've got forearm pump that would put Popeye to shame - and indication how hard I'm trying.

After a short break, I'm back on track in Slick Mode and it all makes perfect sense. Although the S1000RR isn't as agile as the Fireblade, it is extremely precise and stable on the brakes. I follow another rider who has disengaged his traction control and I'm instantly aware of how the electronics are holding back my bike's acceleration in some areas. But in the circuit's more technical sections, I gain ground due to the freedom and confidence the traction control offers me.

For the last session I ride with the traction control turned off and allow the bike to show me its true, brilliant potential as the Metzler semi-slick rear tyre flirts with the limit of grip. This is BMW first attempt at producing a really competitive superbike and they've hit the nail head on. It's not only cracking good fun; it's easily capable of holding its own in a group test and it is even more likely to be crowned champion.

Facts at a glance
Model BMW S1000RR £10,950
(£12,235 with ABS and traction control)
Engine liquid-cooled in-line four of 999cc
mounted across the frame, producing
192hp at 13,000rpm at 83 lb ft at 9,750rpm
Transmission chain drive through six-speed gearbox
Weight 204kg (dry weight 183kg)
Seat height 820mm
Fuel capacity 17.5 litres

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