RIDING THE RACERS
We’ve ridden the roadgoing bikes spawned by the early days of WSB, now it’s time to rewind to the late ’80s, when Alan Cathcart track-tested genuine Honda RC30 and Ducati 851 factory racers
We ride the fastest Honda and the Ducati that won the first race
Thirty years ago, the inaugural round of the new World Superbike Championship (see page 36) provided an upset, with the only twin-cylinder bike on the grid – Marco Lucchinelli’s works Ducati 851 – sweeping to overall victory. It defeated its multi-cylinder rivals by virtue of Lucchinelli placing second in the first race and winning the second, handing Ducati the victory on combined results (this being the first and only time a WSB round used aggregate scoring).
For the Bologna firm, this was success on a par with Paul Smart’s win in the 1972 Imola 200 and Mike Hailwood’s comeback victory in the 1978 Isle of Man TT. On the earlier occasions nobody expected the lusty, slower-revving V-twins to have the measure of more powerful four-cylinder Japanese bikes – and though Ducati had a new fuel-injected ‘desmoquattro’ engine, it was the same at Donington. Victory proved that the performance of their desmodromic cylinder head design (see page 44) made a twin competitive in large-capacity four-stroke racing where Japan dominated.
The 851’s unexpected performance added an extra dimension to the fledgling WSB championship and was a key factor in making the series an immediate and enduring success. For Ducati, it was the first step on the road to 14 World Superbike titles. With hindsight, we
should have seen it coming. Ducati’s new liquid-cooled, fuel-injected V-twin with four valves per cylinder was first seen in prototype 748cc endurance racing form in September 1986, in the Bol d’or at Paul Ricard. Although always intended to be 851cc, it was sleeveddown to comply with the FIM regulations and produced 94bhp – compared to 87bhp for their equivalent aircooled, two-valve, carburated 750TT1.
Marco Lucchinelli then raced in the Pro Twins race at Daytona in March 1987 with the full-size motor and had 115bhp – the first time any Ducati had broken the horsepower ‘ton’. He scored a decisive victory with the prototype bike, his lap times equivalent to the fourcylinder 750cc factory Superbikes racing in the Daytona 200 the same week. A pair of victories in the ’87 Italian Superbike series followed, where the Ducati defeated the Yamaha-engined works Bimota and the Honda RC30 of future WSB champ Fred Merkel.
Having ridden Lucchinelli’s 1987 Daytona winner and the customer 851 which followed, the prospect of riding Marco’s 1988 factory Superbike promised to be a thrill. From trackside, it sounded like a very loud, highrevving version of a traditional V-twin. Yet my chance in the hot seat revealed something completely different. Like a cross between a four-cylinder Grand Prix twostroke and small-capacity racing car engine, the Ducati was completely unlike any twin I’d ever ridden. It didn’t grunt, didn’t thunder, and didn’t even bellow. It howled.
Cracking the throttle open, the front wheel pointed skywards as I vainly tried to slip the clutch to keep it on the deck. Massive induction roar from the twin throttle bodies housed in a primitive airbox completely dominated the exhaust note, especially when wound wide open. The noise was because the front of the fuel tank was lifted, and hollowed-out to improve airflow. The improbable feel for a V-twin was matched by the way the needle scooted round the tacho, aiding that subconscious impression of riding a two-stroke. Though the fast-revving 851 pulled hard from around 6000rpm, there wasn’t as much torque as you’d expect; it was only from 8500rpm upwards that the motor really came alive, and with an 11,000rpm rev-limiter you needed vigorous use of the six-speed gearbox to keep in the powerband and really make the engine sing – or howl. With 125bhp at 10,500rpm at the wheel, according to Ducati’s guru Franco Farnè, the performance of this V-twin was staggering in 1988. The way Marco’s bike rocketed forward at improbably high revs was thrilling and astonishing. It was helped by the 2mm overbore, to give 888cc, squeezing a little more capacity from the 851cc engine that started the season – but without taking full advantage of the 1000cc capacity ceiling.
However, as ultra-impressive as the 851’s performance was, it wasn’t really that nice to ride. Exhilarating, yes, but agreeable, no. The engine felt harsh and raw-edged, and you had to use the gears and rev it. No doubt it was a downside of making a twin competitive with fours, but it was disappointing all the same. So too were some
‘AS ULTRA-IMPRESSIVE AS THE 851’S PERFORMANCE WAS, IT WASN’T THAT NICE TO RIDE’
handling aspects. The 851 held its line well through fast sweepers, but it weaved at full throttle down the straight – probably due to a lack of weight on the front end that made wheelies ever-present and was surely responsible for Marco’s contrived forward-control riding position. The V-twin engine was quite tall as well as long, so weight transfer under the sudden power unloaded the front. The supposedly slimmer, lighter V-twin Ducati wasn’t as agile or fast-steering as multi-cylinder rivals, and didn’t give feedback from its front tyre. The team were trying Marzocchi upside-down forks that damped OK over bumps but contributed to a dead feel under braking and turn-in, dropping into low-speed corners. The Marzocchi rear shock worked well, however, laying power down well and assisted by an aluminium swingarm beefed-up with a sheeted-in brace. And the big 320mm Brembo front discs and four-pot calipers stopped the bike brilliantly by the standards of the day.
Considering the characteristics of his bike, Lucchinelli’s Donington win is even more impressive. It’s clear what really counted at WSB’S introduction was Ducati’s amazing engine performance against its fourcylinder opposition, with the rocketship Ducatis usually considered fastest in early seasons. But the 851 wasn’t always quickest – at fast tracks like Österreichring the revvier fours matched the big twins, and usually it was the Dholda Honda VFR750R RC30 heading the charge. Ridden by Stéphane Mertens in the 1989 World Superbike series, this RC30 was one of three HRC works bikes supplied to the Belgian. Only ’88 and ’89 champ Fred Merkel and Britain’s Roger Burnett were similarly favoured with factory tackle. Stéphane’s bike wasn’t the same as the others, though; as well as using Michelin tyres where Merkel had Pirelli, its 748cc V4 was tuned by Jean D’hollander, boss of Dholda Honda (one of Belgium’s biggest Honda dealerships).
This name is legendary for followers of endurance racing during the ’70s and ’80s, synonymous with fast, reliable bikes that invariably led the privateer teams in gruelling 24-hour events – and often embarrassed works machines. During the 1989 season the Dholda RC30 was consistently one of the fastest four-cylinder WSB bikes in a straight line, and always the fastest Honda – at Paul Ricard, Mertens was a whopping 9kph faster than Merkel’s Honda through the speed trap.
“I don’t know what they’ve done to Merkel’s Rumi bike, but I suspect they may be running it as it comes from HRC,” D’hollander told me in ’89. “I’ve tried to improve a little on the factory engine, but only using original Honda parts. The only special parts we made ourselves are the valve springs, the rest is stock HRC, but with modification – not to increase power and speed so much as to improve midrange.”
Though the crank was untouched, almost every other major part was lighter. Valves were reshaped, timing altered, the CDI reprogrammed, and cylinder heads flowed and ported. Losing weight from the oil-bath clutch by skimming plates by hand reduced flywheel effect, though Mr Dholda still wasn’t happy. “I want a dry clutch, but that’s not possible. Starts are a problem – there’s little feel and the lever is like an on/off switch. That’s why works Hondas wheelie so much at the start.”
‘THE 135bhp+ ENGINE HAD NONE OF THE LAZY FEEL OF A STOCK V4’
HRC’S ‘standard’ RCS have a mile-wide powerband and fuel accurately from low down, with a dead-flat torque curve, strong midrange and acres of power from 8500rpm up to the 13,800rpm limiter. Even in racewinning form the Honda can be ridden like the road bike it’s derived from, its flexibility making the HRC race motor especially appreciated in tricky conditions.
It took about 300 yards to realise this was a Honda of a different colour. Producing “over 135bhp”, the tuning gave an engine with none of the lazy feel of a stock V4. It had a raunchy, free-revving, nervous kind of delivery. Power was pushed up the revs, the really strong pull coming at 10,800rpm rather than a little over 10,000. Close ratios in the RC30 kit gearbox and a positive leftfoot change made it easy to keep the engine in that fivefigure band and take advantage of the snappier engine’s main strength – acceleration out of slow turns.
It felt like a bike with a higher compression ratio or camshafts with more lift, yet D’hollander swore it was the same 12:1 as other Hrc-kit bikes and used standard lift. The perky feel of Mertens’ bike was simply down to improved flow and lighter internals.
Not just the engine made this bike stand out. Stéphane’s RC30 also had a totally different feel to the handling, thanks to its Hrc-sourced 15mm shorter swingarm, revised steering geometry and a big pad on the seat pushing your weight forward to increases frontend weight bias. The result was a production-based racer that felt and handled like a 500GP racer.
The RC30 steered very quickly in slow corners, thanks to the shorter wheelbase, steeper steering head angle and very little trail. In fast chicanes the Honda zapped from side to side with hardly any effort. It enabled me to concentrate on holding the front wheel down as the throttle was cracked open on the exit; the shorter 1390mm wheelbase made it wheelie-happy with the extra punch of the freer-revving engine. However, it was at the expense of being twitchy round fast sweeps and oversteering dramatically with the power off, falling into low-speed turns in scarcely predictable fashion. In this form, the RC30 needed to be ridden with a lot of commitment, entering corners with the power on.
With the Honda’s rapid low-speed steering and freerevving power taking on Ducati’s high-speed accuracy and desmo punch, WSB’S introduction provided so much intrigue and excitement. Add in grids full of wildly different machinery and it’s no wonder the series was an instant hit with fans.
‘HONDA’S RAPID LOW-SPEED STEERING TOOK ON DUCATI’S HIGH-SPEED ACCURACY’
Dholda Honda RC30 was campaigned by WSB racer Stéphane Mertens – and ridden by Alan Cathcart at Zolder, Belgium
CB’S Cathcart test riding Marco Lucchinelli’s factory Ducati 851 as raced in 1988 World Superbikes
Factory 851’s engine was very un-ducati-like, with almost two-strokestyle fast-revving power delivery Bang up-to-date eight-valve V-twin, totally traditional trellis frame
HRC 15mm-shorter swingarm and revised steering geometry made this RC30 handle like a 500GP race bike Tuned by Dholda Honda, this RC30 had many lightened engine parts. It was the fastest Honda in WSB at the time
Quick steering in slow corners let the rider concentrate on keeping the front wheel down when accelerating out The 851 provided the basic formula on which Ducati was to build its future domination of World Superbikes