RC30 vs 851
The Ducati 851 and Honda RC30 battled it out in the early years of World Superbike. So how do the road-going versions compare now?
The bikes that made WSB an instant hit, back-to-back on dry, sunny roads
The World Superbike series has a lot to answer for. Homologation rules for the championship, launched in 1988, demanded that race bikes be based on production machines (up to a point) and stipulated that a minimum number of bikes had to be made available for sale. Two of the leading players in those early days of WSB took very different approaches to producing the required number of customer bikes. Honda went the hightech route with their RC30. The V4, purpose-built for racing, was complex, beautifully engineered, compact and very fast. Ducati’s 851 was a road bike created as a replica of their successful racers. It was raw, rowdy, handled brilliantly – and was also very fast. Who got it right? And which delivers the WSB experience on the road?
We’re hoping to find out and, thanks to the largesse of Ciarán Perrin, who runs Extreme Trading Ltd in Norfolk, we’ve got one of each to answer some questions on the road. The Ducati is a 1991 Strada model, with Showa suspension and 17in front wheel and the Honda is also from 1991. Both look great, so let’s see.
CB’S Mike Armitage has grabbed the keys to the Honda, so I’m on the big, red Duke first. And before I ride I take a long, hard look at Ducati’s superbike contender. Its light but strong trellis-type frame has its V-twin engine suspended beneath it. There’s that boughtin Showa suspension, Japanese switchgear and blood-red bodywork which, since late 1987, has become something of a Ducati trademark, and the uncompromising raceinspired lines that revealed fresh thinking from Ducati’s styling department. It’s a great-looking package.
But it’s the engine that makes the biggest statement of intent. The 851 was a major landmark for Ducati as they moved out of the bevel-drive era into a brave new world following the Cagiva takeover in 1985. Ducati needed a new model – and Cagiva bosses the Castiglioni brothers had the cash to make it happen. Massimo Bordi came up with a new engine fit to carry on Ducati’s proud traditions, while at the same time bringing the image of the brand into the modern age.
Initially retaining the crankcases of the old Pantah range of engines, Bordi grafted on an all-new top end. It retained the traditional 90° V-twin layout and desmodromic valve actuation, but for the first time on a Ducati the 851 engine sported double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, liquid cooling and electronic fuel injection. In Ducati terms it was revolutionary – and it worked. The prototype 851 racer almost lasted the distance at the Bol d’or in 1986, before going on to take victory in the popular Battle of the Twins race at Daytona in spring 1987, with Marco Lucchinelli on board.
The die was cast and the road bike version appeared at the Milan show later in the year. Production bikes arrived in dealers’ showrooms early in 1988 in both Strada (road) and ‘Kit’ versions – the latter with a host of factory performance parts. On the track, Lucchinelli underlined the potential of the new bike by winning the very first race in the new World Superbike series. Ducati were embracing the modern world.
The 851 thundered forward in various forms including hotter SP versions which, like the WSB bike, were 888cc. In 1993 the 888 range took over, however the essential character of this major development milestone for Ducati remained throughout. It seemed the concept was right back then, so how does it shape up 30 years later?
First impressions are all good. The first stab of the starter button has the bike rumbling away moodily with
‘FROM JUST 3000rpm, THE 851 HAS MORE GRUNT THAN A GLOUCESTER OLD SPOT’
the dry clutch jingling merrily. It certainly sounds the part – and it gets better as we head out of town towards the Norfolk Broads. The gearbox is impressively positive and the dry clutch works faultlessly as I weave through weekday traffic. But it’s when we get out onto the open road that Massimo Bordi’s creation really shows its class.
The engine is simply superb. There’s a claimed 104bhp on tap from the desmoquattro mill, but that only tells part of the story. It’s the mammoth torque available that lifts the 851 far out of the ordinary. From just 3000rpm, there’s more grunt than a Gloucester Old Spot. It makes the Ducati the perfect tool for car-hopping past lines of traffic. And when I get to the front, the revs build quickly and the 851 really flies.
Handling is typical Ducati – slightly old school, but none the worse for that. Pick a line, tip it in and the 851 will respond with near-flawless stability. It’s perhaps not quite so nimble as the more compact Honda, but it does offer a slightly more spacious feel for the taller rider than the RC30, as fellow tester Mike confirms: “There isn’t a great deal of distance between the seat and footpegs, but the higher race-inspired perch and longer reach required to the slightly higher clip-ons make the Ducati more comfortable, and also easier to control.”
And, like me, Mike falls in love with the 851’s V-twin when he tries it. “What a glorious engine,” he says. “Ease away, open the throttle and it responds, bounding through well-spaced ratios on a torque-rich, booming, touchy-feely drive. It hasn’t got the ‘special’ air of the RC30, but it makes much more sense on the road.”
I find the Brembo brakes excellent, the switchgear acceptable and the overall finish and build quality a step up from what we’d come to expect in the late ’70s/early ’80s. The 851 represent a huge leap forward for Ducati – but, so far at least, it hasn’t become an unaffordable luxury. Maybe now’s the time to pick one up...
In the bottom drawer of my tool cabinet at home – where I keep all the stuff I never really use, but is too good to sling – there’s a genuine factory chain-adjusting tool for an RC30. It’s a legacy of my days working at Mocheck in the late ’80s and early ’90s and it’s the nearest I’m ever going to get to owning an RC30 unless my numbers come up one weekend. But, rest assured, if they ever do, one of these HRC beauties is already inked in on my lotterywin bucket list. So I’ve got to try hard to be objective.
Hot on the heels of the VF750 road bike that almost drowned Honda in warranty claims following problems with cams and their chain drive, the VFR750F had to be good. And the new V4 was. But the race homologation VFR750R RC30 took things even further. As well as gear-driven camshafts (like the 750F), the RC featured titanium conrods, a 360° crank, single-sided swingarm, QD rear wheel and close-ratio gearbox. UK full-power models made a claimed 118bhp at 11,000rpm. It was a genuine racer with road kit bolted on and proved good enough to win the fledgling World Superbike title for the first two seasons of its existence. It was that good. Thirty years on, does reality live up to the legend?
Certainly this 1991 model has an air of quality about it. And it’s a genuinely innovative machine. After a decade of shrieking across-the-frame fours, the sound of the RC30 is simply unique. That menacing drone as the engine starts to come on cam at about 7000rpm is as addictive as it is unusual. Back in 1988 it was the sound of science fiction – almost alien. It became the soundtrack for a generation of TT fans. As Mike says:
‘THE MENACING DRONE OF THE RC30’S ENGINE IS AS ADDICTIVE AS IT IS UNUSUAL’
“Every time the tacho needle passes 7000rpm you feel like Joey Dunlop flat-stick across the Mountain.”
It’s just as good on snaking B-roads. After the Ducati, it feels more civilised. There’s more room between the footrests and seat, so the riding position doesn’t feel so extreme – even though the bike feels as small as a 250. It’s a stocky-looking machine, but fits me perfectly and steers with minimal input. Handling has that lovely, neutral Honda feeling that lets you get on and go fast right away. The suspension is supple and the ride surprisingly relaxing. No wonder it made such a great TT bike.
To my eyes, the RC30 looks stunning. That singlesided swingarm and the way everything is squeezed into the minimum of space makes it an era-defining bike to me. The engine is a huge part of the equation – there’s precious little happening below 7000rpm, but after that it’s a seamless rush of power all the way to its peak at 11,000rpm. Top end is probably around 150mph, but the bike is just so good at maintaining fast averages. The engine never feels stressed and the gearbox is sublime with a short, crisp movement, so it’s easy to keep in the fat of the power. First gear is mightily tall, so I’m grateful for the smooth, efficient clutch as we ease through a small town – but that’s not what the RC30 is all about.
Despite having a spot of bother folding his long limbs around the Honda, Mike largely agrees. “The gearbox is a delight – slick, accurate and with switch-like minimal lever travel, it’s better than many modern bikes,” he observes. And, of the Honda’s racer-like handling, he’s equally effusive: “It’s stubby, tight and pivots beneath you. You don’t bank the Honda into a curve, it rolls in.”
Neither of us are in any doubt about the engineering class of the Honda. The fit and finish of every component is superb – Honda really were hitting their straps for build quality in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it shows. An instant classic in 1988? I think so.
It’s clear both Honda and Ducati got it right with their road-going superbikes. These are exceptional machines. If I had to choose, I’d still go for the RC30 – but if I had to pay, it’d be the Ducati every time. Much as I love the RC30, is it really £24,000 better than its rival? Mike agrees. “Earlier Ducatis fetch eye-watering prices, and the later 916 is going the same way. That makes sevenodd grand for a gleaming 851 seem pretty reasonable. Next to the Honda it’s the bargain of the year.”
‘MUCH AS I LOVE THE RC30, IS IT REALLY £24,000 BETTER THAN ITS DUCATI RIVAL?’
ABOVE: Typically neutral Honda handling makes for immediate jumpon-and-go-fast fun
BELOW: Both bikes are great fun to barrel down fast country roads
ABOVE: Thundering 851 has old-school Ducati handling – tip it in and it’s super-stable
BELOW: Side by side, the Honda’s petite dimensions compared to the more spacious Ducati are clear to see
Two opposites that are very attractive: Mr Chalk, Ducati’s brutal 851 and Mr Cheese, Honda’s sophisticated RC30
ABOVE: The 851 hasn’t achieved the asking prices of other classic Ducatis – not yet, anyway BELOW: Honda’s supple ride hints at the great TT bike it was, and evokes Joey Dunlop fantasies