The Honda SP-1 should need no introduction, but for the benefit of anyone who’s been living under a rock for the last 20 years, the SP-1 is what happens when the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer decides to make a point.
Unlike the 996R and Mille SP, which are pumped up, super trick, drop-dead gorgeous versions of an existing road bike with essential parts that were needed to be homologated for racing added, the SP-1 isn’t. Honda built the SP-1 for one reason and one reason only; to homologate a complete motorcycle that they could enter into and win the World Superbike Championship. There was no need for a low cost, mass produced affordable version for the masses; Honda skipped all that nonsense. They also bypassed any pandering to the marketing department to make it look pretty, comfortable or practical. If they never sold a single one, I suspect Honda wouldn’t have minded. They designed their interpretation of the perfect V-twin race bike, built enough to homologate it, then raced it. Selling them doesn’t seem to have been high on the priority list, or even on it at all. The SP-1 had one job to do… and just one job.
Honda had the hump because they felt the rule which allowed 1000cc V-twins to compete against 750cc four-cylinder bikes favoured the cheeky chaps in Bologna. In fairness, they had a point; in 1999 Fogarty on a Ducati finished a massive 128 points clear of second-placed Colin Edwards on Honda’s RC45. Fogarty could have missed the last FIVE races, and still been world champion. Honda was on the receiving end of a kicking, the likes of which their corporate pride just couldn’t accept. Fast forward just 12 months later to the end of the 2000 season, and Edwards was crowned champion on Honda’s brand new 1000cc V-twin SP-1, 65 points clear of second-placed Haga. Edwards and Honda backed that up with runner-up in 2001 and then champions again in 2002 with 11 wins, and were only off the podium in one race without a single DNF. Point proven, and like all the best flounces, satisfied they had claimed the moral high ground, Honda left the party.
In 2003 Honda were focused on the then new four-stroke rules in MotoGP (and Valentino Rossi’s wages), so withdrew from the World Superbike Championship. Then in 2004 Honda Europe appointed Ten Kate
Racing to run the then new 1000cc Fireblade in World Superbikes as the official Honda entry to bring the SP-1’s brief cameo appearance in World Superbikes to an end. The SP-1’s stats are impressive: it was only entered into three World Superbike Championships, and it won two and finished runner-up in the other with a total of 26 wins.
Setting aside the intriguing backstory of Honda deciding to build a brand-new bike from scratch to prove a point instead of lobbying the rule makers, the truth is that the SP-1 is more about its legend than it being a particularly dynamic bike. Like a lot of homologation special bikes of the era, the SP-1 wasn’t any different insomuch that for it to really sing, it needed a truckload of ultra-exclusive race parts and an army of engineers and mechanics behind it.
SP-1s, like many bikes of that ilk, are generally cherished and coveted. But this one’s lived a 35,000-mile life full of track days, winter commutes, suspect modifications and let’s just say diplomatically, ‘economical’ maintenance; it’s also been in the bottom of a ditch, literally not figuratively. It is far from the perfect example of Honda’s all-conquering World Superbike weapon, but it’s still an SP-1 nonetheless.
What’s so wrong with this one, then? Well, some of the mods might look great, but there’s definitely a bit of refinement needed to get the best out of their offerings. For whatever reason, the back brake pedal doesn’t return, so is useless for its intended purpose but superb as a hand brake. The side stand doesn’t flick up, so needs pulling up by hand because if you use your heel to pull it into position, you will fold the retractable gearshift away, which is of course is all but seized so doesn’t return and therefore needs pulling back into position. The clip-on ’bars aren’t straight, the clutch lever feels like it could fall off at any time, the aftermarket quickshifter doesn’t work, every panel has
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some sort of damage to it and the frame and swingarm are corroded. Purists would have cold sweats at the sight of it, but you could also take the view that this is what happens when a bike has been well and truly used, and no doubt well and truly enjoyed. It’s also fair to say that none of the above really matters because all of it is easily sorted (apart from the corrosion on the frame, which I’ve been told is the result of road salt over this last winter) and none of it actually affects how it rides, which is another story…
For me, the chassis set-up is much more frustrating than the general condition and lack of maintenance of the bike. It bothers me much more because it does massively dumb down the experience and is completely avoidable. The aftermarket Öhlins shock feels okay; admittedly I didn’t take any measurements, but it felt like it was in the ballpark, if a little bit on the stiff side, but the set-up of the front end was so bad it renders the whole point of a posh rear shock utterly pointless. Okay, I’m a different size and weight to the owner, but at times I wondered if there was even any oil in the forks, such was the total lack of damping in either direction, and then there were the brakes.
I can’t think of anything good to say about them other than the Brembo master cylinder looks quite trick. They had no feel, no power, no bite, and even at a moderate pace on the road, they overheated and the lever went soft. The combination of the PFM calipers and Brembo master cylinder almost certainly should make for a great pairing, but somewhere along the line there’s something amiss. Maybe it just needs some new pads and a fluid change? The result is a bike that didn’t really want to stop, was really slow to turn, couldn’t hold its line mid corner and wanted to run wide on the exit. None of which is a huge surprise when even just parked up you can see that it sits low at the rear and tall at the front, as though the rear ride height has been set wrong and/or the forks are in the clamps wrong. Having said that, the SP-1 was never noted for being a bike that turned fast, and that it did sit relatively flat on its suspension, causing its unwillingness to hold a line. Legend has it that in order to hit the deadline to put it into production so they could get it homologated in time for the season, Honda did so knowing that the bike’s geometry wasn’t right and ran out of time to finish the chassis set-up.
Despite the poor maintenance, total lack of set-up and questionable choices on aftermarket parts, it is true that quality always rises to the top, and it’s a testament that while everything around it is so far from being good (never mind perfect), the engine does in fact feel smooth, free of any nasty sounds, vibrations or smells and behaves exactly as it should. The fuel injection is better than a lot of the current Euro5 suffocated bikes, most notably the off/on throttle movement. There is not even a hint of snatchiness or hesitancy, it’s like velvet and makes picking the throttle up mid corner one of the few pleasures to be had with this particular SP-1.
Honda didn’t mess about with the SP-1’s engine. While they did have some experience of building a big V-twin engine in the form of the Firestorm, they didn’t use a single component in the SP-1s, not even the bore and stroke were used. Honda elected to take the bore right out to 100mm and reduce the stroke to 63.6mm to give a capacity of exactly 999cc as opposed to the Firestorm and coincidentally the Ducati 996’s measurements of 98mm bore and 66mm stroke. Going all the way to 999cc feels like a statement to the rule makers by taking the maximum advantage of the rule that Honda had protested for so long as unfair. It also meant that the SP-1’s shorter-stroke engine revved to 10,000rpm, 1000rpm higher than the Firestorm’s, which caused a lot of reliability issues with crank cases breaking during the early development phase, but Honda sorted them all out before it went into production and there’s never been any major issues with them. Elsewhere, other points of interest on the engine are the fact that Honda blessed the SP-1 with their hallowed gear-driven cams and split the radiator in two, mounting each half to the side in order to create some much-needed space behind the front wheel; another clue that the basic architecture of the chassis and engine position wasn’t ideal.
The engine is the star of the show, it delivers useful power from very low down in the revs with all the theatre of a big V-twin engine, while the intake noise from under the fuel tank is ever present, unlike the fuel
inside the tank which disappears every 70 or 80 miles. Then there’s the obligatory cliché of the twin exhausts booming out the back to make sure the locals can also appreciate the motor. Just leaving the SP-1 in third gear and winding the throttle on and off, using all the revs is all it takes to be rattling along at a pace quick enough to make the front page of the local rag for all the wrong reasons.
Getting the chance to ride a bike as iconic as the SP-1 is always a treat, and despite this one being a long way from perfect, thanks largely to the engine and fuel injection, there was still that magic present which you get from bikes with a sole purpose in life. Homologation special bikes have very narrow windows of operation inside which they come to life and make complete sense, and outside of which they make no sense at all. Of the three bikes on this test, the SP-1 is probably the most usable and easiest to access its good stuff.
Carl’s 996R was an absolute bitch to start, and as gorgeous as it is to look at (the bike, not Carl), the (literally) uncomfortable truth is that it is a torture device to sit on for anything longer than five minutes. It’s cramped, rock hard and your hands get trapped between the tank and handlebar when you try to use all the steering lock available. Bruce’s MilleSP is okay, but it’s too precious and too rare to not constantly worry about when you’re riding it, and the dashboard looks like an 80s shell suit compared with the SP-1’s fully digital offering that doesn’t look out of place
in the present day.
As homologation specials go, the SP-1 might not be the prettiest, it was definitely a case of function over form when Honda sat down with the crayons, and it might not be the most dynamic to ride, or up there on many people’s lottery win wish lists, but it definitely has one of the most interesting stories to tell and ironically all these years later that rushed-through chassis design which left the SP-1 with lethargic handling is what makes it that bit easier to get on with on the road.
A thought that runs through my mind as we ride back to Fast Bikes HQ is that it is the SP-1’s usability that’s a big factor in making the particular example that I’ve been riding so much more used than the other two bikes. It’s been well and truly used, which is surely the ultimate proof that of all the homologation specials, the SP-1 is probably the easiest to live with.
Part of the SP-1’s image and performance problems also came from within its own stable; the Fireblade was better in every way, and significantly cheaper. It meant that SP-1s were discounted from the word go, which meant immediately it lacked the aura of exclusivity that pretty much every homologation special has. However, fast forward to the present day, and would I have one in my garage instead of a similarly aged Fireblade? Absolutely yes.