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


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.”


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.


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

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