Take a good look at the Suzuki TL1000R, or the S variant, and you might wish the Suzuki had made their big V-twin sportbike a bit funkier looking.
Then cast your gaze over the voluptuous curves of the Bimota SB8R and realise the truth; Japan may make some wonderful motorcycles, but Italy is a land where genius is at play.
The TL1000 motor gets a stunning set of clothes from the small scale Rimini bike maker. It also loses about 20kgs of dry weight, runs 45mm USD forks plus Ohlins monoshock rear suspension and a whole van load of carbon fibre. One of the last great road monsters from an Italian factory, with style oozing from every nut and bolt.
It´s a simple format that has inspired many of the best Bimotas over the years. Find a Japanese bike whose engine is better than its chassis; preferably one that looks a bit bland. Remove the engine, tune slightly with intake and exhaust mods, place in a innovative, lightweight frame, bolt on high-quality cycle parts, and wrap the whole thing in classy bodywork.
Trouble is, Japanese superbikes have got so good in recent years that it´s a difficult task for a small manufacturer to match them, let alone produce something substantially better. I mean, how would you like to be given a YZF-R1 or FireBlade engine and told to go away and build a bike that would justify being sold for well over 50 per cent more than the original?
But Suzuki´s TL1000R – now that´s the sort of bike that gives Bimota a fighting chance. It combines a stoating V-twin engine with a slightly heavy and uninspiring chassis, and a distinctly ordinary appearance. Given that Bimota has a long-standing link with Suzuki, notably with the GSX-R1100-powered SB6 and SB6R that have been the Rimini firm´s most successful models of recent years, a TL-powered model was an ideal next step.
Bimota´s recent financial problems (caused by the unreliability of the radical 500 Vdue two-stroke) have delayed the arrival of the SB8R, which was unveiled at the Milan Show in 1997, but at least the firm has used the time to change its appearance slightly, to good effect. It´s not the sexiest Bimota ever but it looks sleek and very purposeful, not least because it´s the world´s first production bike to use a main frame that is at least partially made from carbon-fibre.
When launched the aforementioned SB6 was notable mainly for its innovative frame, whose main spars ran all the way down to enclose the swing-arm pivot. The SB8R´s uses similar spars at the top, and its pivot area is again the central feature – this time because it is made of a bolted-on piece of carbon at each side, made by ATR, a specialist firm that also supplies Ferrari. Bimota says these sections are stronger and lighter than the aluminium equivalents.
Up front a pair of milled-from-solid aluminium yokes hold stout 46mm upside-down forks from Paioli. Rear suspension echoes the SB6 in featuring an Ohlins shock that is mounted horizontally between the engine and the right frame spar, and operated by an aluminium rod running from the chunky swing-arm. There is no rear subframe, just a self-supporting carbon-fibre seat unit that is curvy and unmistakably feminine in shape.
Suzuki´s 996cc 90-degree V-twin engine is rotated forwards by six degrees from its position in the TL1000R. The liquid-cooled eight-valve lump is internally standard, but its fuel-injection system is replaced by a Marelli set-up that is modified by Bimota with larger, 59mm diameter throttle bodies. The airbox is also bigger than standard, and is fed by two large-diameter carbon-fibre scoops that run back from the top of the fairing.
In conjunction with a new stainless steel exhaust system, whose twin pipes sweep up behind the engine before diverging to high-level aluminium silencers beneath the tailpiece, this allows Bimota to claim a peak output of 134bhp at the rear wheel, compared to about 125bhp from the standard TL-R (Suzuki claims 135bhp at the crankshaft). The larger throttle bodies are intended to give the potential for increased power on the Superbike racetrack, where Suzuki´s attempts to make the TL1000R competitive were hindered by the need to retain the standard 52mm diameter bodies.
Those big airscoops dominate the view from the seat, which is thinly padded and quite low. At a claimed 178kg the SB8R is competing with Yamaha´s R1 (officially 177kg) for the title of world´s lightest open-class superbike, and is a handy 19kg lighter than the TL-R. Although the top of its nylon fuel tank is as broad as the Suzuki´s, the Bimota´s tank is cut away to give plenty of room for the rider´s knees.
Where the Bim does feel wide is further forward, where your arms reach round the airscoops to grip the low-set clip-ons. The carbon-filled view seems strange at first, although I got used to it. Despite being tall I didn´t find the racy riding position cramped, but the low screen obscured the top of the standard Suzuki clocks as I headed off, immediately impressed by the Bimota´s rorty exhaust note, lightness, lumpy V-twin feel and willingness to pull at low revs.
The TL1000R has often been criticised for lacking the rip-snorting midrange response that makes Suzuki´s original TL1000S such fun. Given that the Bimota´s TL-R motor had apparently been tuned for more top-end power I´d been expecting it to feel distinctly flat lower down. But although the SB8R really started working hard at about 7000rpm, when its induction whistle changed to a harder-edged snarl, that wasn´t how it felt at all.
Instead the SB8R churned out TL-S style torque anywhere above about three grand, making it difficult to accelerate hard in first gear without lifting the front wheel. Naturally the Italian bike´s lower overall weight was part of the reason, but the injection and exhaust mods seemed to have added some midrange grunt. That made the bike easier and more fun to ride, although the throttle action, which is slightly stiffer than normal due to the new injection system´s stronger return spring, had the opposite effect.
Whether the Bimota is substantially faster than the standard Suzuki is impossible to say without a back-to-back test, but it stormed up to an indicated 155mph and was still pulling when I ran out of road. Up near the 11,000rpm redline the big motor made its presence felt with some vibration through the pegs and the thin seat. But despite being low the screen gave a fair amount of wind protection, and overall comfort wasn´t too bad.
As well as being lighter than Suzuki´s own V-twins the Bimota is also every bit as radical in its dimensions. Its wheelbase is just 1390mm, making this bike 5mm shorter even than the TL-R and the R1. And its rake, which is variable in Ducati 916 style using a reversible steering head insert, can be set at either 24 or 23 degrees. (Bimota´s official figures, 23.9 and 22.9 degrees, sound a bit like attempts at one-upmanship.)
Given all that I was slightly surprised that the SB8R´s steering wasn´t outstandingly quick (at least when in the less radical 24-degree position, as tested). Not that this was a problem on the road, where the Bimota gave a superbly stable feel, thanks partly to the steering damper fitted on the left of its frame. I never even had to think about the prospect of a tank-slapper despite the fact that when powering out of a tight bend, the front wheel was often barely touching the road.
The flip-side was that the bike required slightly more input to get through a series of tight bends than its spec sheet suggested it should. Given more time I´d have liked to try it either with the geometry in the steeper position or with the rear end raised slightly using the ride-height adjuster. Chances are that the chassis´ rigidity would have allowed quicker steering with no loss of stability.
The quality of the Bimota´s suspension had a lot to do with the way it coped with the often poorly surfaced roads in the hills inland from Rimini. Occasionally a big tarmac ripple would send the front wheel off-line as though it had a mind of its own. But although the bike was designed for smoother surfaces than these, its multi-adjustable Paioli forks and Ohlins shock floated over most of the bumps, as well as working brilliantly on faster, smoother roads later on.
Brembo´s four-pot brake set-up was as good as any streetbike system I can recall from the Italian firm, and the SB8R´s Michelin Hi-Sports, the rear a relatively narrow 180-section boot to aid manoeuvrability, performed flawlessly too. That couldn´t be said of every detail: the tacho occasionally stopped working, the mirrors couldn´t be adjusted up far enough to be of much use (due to my height), and the motor didn´t much like starting when in gear.
Such niggles will doubtless seem more annoying to anyone who has paid £14,495 (very nearly twice the TL1000R´s price) for the SB8R, which will be available in small numbers from new Doncaster-based importer Premier Bikes any time now. But overall this latest Bimota gives every impression of being a classy, well-sorted bike that outshines the standard Suzuki in style, performance, handling and pose value. That old Bimota format has done the trick again.The SB8R´s Racing Background.
The R in the SB8R´s name is for Racing, and it is not there just for show. Bimota plans to use this bike as the basis for a full factory-backed World Superbike challenge in 2000, run by the Bimota Experience team that will be based near the Rimini factory.
Racing has already been used to develop the roadgoing SB8R. A prototype bike, run by Bimota´s German importer, competed in last season´s 24-hour races at Spa in Belgium, Oschersleben in Germany and the Bol d´Or in France. It finished all three races, with a best result of ninth overall (first in the Prototype class) in Germany.
The old phrase ’racing improves the breed’ is certainly true of the SB8R which, following its 24-hour ordeals, was modified in several ways before being put into production. Its exhaust system was redesigned to prevent cracking due to pressure of the seat; changes were made to its fuel pipe layout; fork internals were revised; and exhaust heat shields were added to protect the rider´s legs.
Bimota will offer a race kit for the SB8R, containing items including Arrow carbon exhaust cans, magnesium triple clamps, a steering pivot in ultra-light Ergal, quick-release wheels, and a special potentiometer that allows the engine management system to be switched between eight maps.
For road riders there will be a more exotic version of the SB8R, called the SB8RS (for Special) and built only to order. It features all-black bodywork with more carbon in the fairing, gold-anodised footrests and hangers, Ergal engine screws, black-finished wheels and a few other details. Claimed dry weight is down by 2kg to 176kg; price is up by almost ten per cent, to £15,695.
Get Bimota motorcycle insurance for the SB8 R.
|Engine||Liquid-cooled transverse 90-degree V-twin|
|Claimed power (bhp)||134bhp|
|Front suspension||46mm inverted telescopic Paioli, 120mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping.|
|Rear suspension||One Ohlins damper, 130mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping.|
|Front brake||2, four-piston Brembo calipers, 320mm discs|
|Rear brake||Double-action Brembo caliper, 230mm disc|
|Front tyre||120/65 x 17in Michelin Hi-Sport radial|
|Rear tyre||180/55 x 17in Michelin Hi-Sport radial|
|Front wheel||3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|Rear wheel||5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|Rake/trail||22.9 or 23.9 degrees/87 or 93mm (3.4 or 3.7in)|
|Seat height||810mm (31.9in)|
|Fuel capacity||20 litres (4.4 gal)|