The trouble with the Honda’s original Firestorm was that it was just too nice, too soft, too slow for most sports riders. However all those criticisms were addressed with the Y2K SP1 model, an absolute rocketship of a V-twin.
Forming the base model for its continued assault on the WSB title, the RC51/SP1 is quite a motorcycle. Incredibly fast, with deceptively powerful brakes and possessed of wonderfully user-friendly handling.
Comparisons with the Ducati 996 are inevitable of course, and here, the SP1 is undoubtedly the plain Jane of the two. But when it comes to the track, there’s very little to separate these stunning twins from Japan and Italy.
If I close my eyes I’m still out there now, chasing the setting sun at the end of a memorable day on Honda’s new sportster. Winding open the throttle and hearing the hard brrrrruuuuum of induction noise as the SP-1 surges forward with the distinctive power pulses of a big V-twin. Holding on tight as the road unwinds in a blur of speed; occasionally glancing down to see the digital tacho bar extend rapidly across the dial towards the 10,000rpm redline.
In reality I last rode the bike several hours ago, but the SP-1 made a big impression during my day-and-a-half in its saddle. I’d expected Honda’s new super-sports missile, the basis for the racer that will contest this year’s World Superbike championship, to be good. I hadn’t expected it to stamp itself on my consciousness in a way that few bikes have managed. ’Character’ is not an attribute generally associated with Hondas, but this new V-twin has it in spades.
The unique experience of riding the SP-1 begins the moment you turn on its ignition. The fuel-injection system squeaks and the high-tech instrument console comes to life: the curved tacho bar leaps to it’s redline and back again, and the digital speedometer below flashes up its 190mph maximum before settling at zero. The fast-idle button is down inside the fairing by your left knee but the engine fires up without it even when cold, its induction snarl audible above the mechanical whir with each blip of the throttle.
The VFR’s racy personality is clear even before you pull away. The bike is compact and its clip-ons are low, set below a top yoke through which protrude huge fork tops and their anodised adjusters. Footrests are high; the seat thinly padded and apparently for the rider only (although in fact a pad for a brave pillion can be clipped onto the top of the tail-hump). The finish is basic by Honda standards, with unlacquered stickers, and wiring visible inside the fairing.
If that doesn’t convince you that this bike is a real racer for the road, then letting out the clutch should do the trick. The SP-1 takes off effortlessly despite a hugely tall first gear, which is good for 70mph if you take it to the redline. Such is the big eight-valve motor’s midrange grunt and its long-legged V-twin feel, though, that even when I began the test by riding through London traffic in a downpour this was not a problem.
Out of town on rain-soaked roads that morning, the motor’s flexibility, its willingness to pull strongly from way down low, helped make the bike fast and easy to ride. The twin-injector fuel system’s response is always crisp, although the bike tends to surge slightly if held on a steady throttle in the lower gears. But the Honda felt good splashing along the motorway, its lovely, lumpy, long-legged V-twin feel such that at an 80mph cruise it was virtually idling at just four grand in top, and even in fourth was turning over at less than 5500rpm and feeling totally relaxed.
That showed the SP-1’s softer side, but as the roads dried and my pace increased, it became clear that this VTR is much more aggressive, speed-hungry machine than the VTR1000F Firestorm with which it shares its basic engine layout. The motor really loves to rev, rocketing towards the 10,000rpm redline with such enthusiasm that your left foot has to work hard to keep up. This is a pleasure rather than a problem, because the close-ratio box is superbly slick, as good as I can recall on any Honda.
On the often wet and heavily policed roads heading towards the south coast, the most I saw on the neat digital speedo was 145mph, at which point the Honda was still pulling hard in fifth gear up a slight hill. With 136bhp on tap and a racer’s aerodynamics, it should be good for 165mph plus in standard trim. Less impressive is its thirst, which at under 30mpg with a mix of fast and motorway-medium riding was heavy even by superbike standards, meaning you’ll be lucky to get a range of 100 miles from the 18-litre tank.
Another figure that raised a few eyebrows when the SP-1 was launched was its weight figure, then estimated at ‘under 200kg’ and now confirmed at 196kg. Honda says the difference between this and the four-cylinder FireBlade’s 170kg is partly due to the higher volume of ’Blade production making it viable for them to use more lightweight alloys on that bike than on the SP-1, which will be built in relatively small numbers and uses less exotic metal, although some parts including the clutch cover are magnesium.
The SP-1 might not be particularly light by modern standards but on the road, at least, that wasn’t a handicap. Rake and trail figures of 24.3 degrees and 100.6mm are shared with the Firestorm and fairly conservative by super-sports standards, too. Factory insiders say this is partly because Honda’s policy of not fitting a steering damper means they’re reluctant to specify radical geometry for risk of instability problems if the bike is not correctly set-up.
What all that means is that for track use the SP-1 might not be particularly quick-steering, at least until chassis kit parts are fitted by serious racers. But on the road it was superb, its massively rigid twin-spar frame combining with top-quality cycle parts to make for a brilliantly racy ride. Inevitably there was occasionally a slight twitch of the bars as the bike hit a bump while I was hard on the power, but it recovered straight away.
Suspension at both ends is firm, and worked fine on standards settings even when the roads finally dried enough to allow some hard cornering. The Metzeler MEZ3H rubber gripped the mid-February roads well despite never having the chance to get really hot. Although I wore out some knee-slider I didn’t ground the footrests’ long hero-blobs. Honda takes the SP-1’s cornering ability so seriously that the exhausts are not symmetrical from the rear, because they’re both tucked in as far as possible, and the bike is wider on the left due to the chain.
For rapid road riding the brakes were excellent, too, with the front set-up of 320mm discs and four-pot Nissin calipers giving real bite with just the right amount of lever feel. I’m sure they’d be fine for some prolonged racetrack use, too, but Honda realises that serious racers normally want to upgrade front brakes. So the SP-1’s calipers are mounted on aluminium stays, instead of directly to the fork legs, to facilitate fitting replacement calipers.
In many ways that neat touch sums-up the VTR1000 SP-1. There can be no doubt that this bike has been designed primarily for the track, to recapture Honda’s reputation for building the fastest four-stroke motorcycles on the planet. The SP-1 will only be regarded as a success if it does what its V4 predecessor the RC45 never managed, and dominates World Superbikes over the next few seasons. (First signs are promising, with Shinichi Itoh, Colin Edwards and Aaron Slight faster than Foggy and the rest at the opening test sessions at Phillip Island.)
Equally importantly, in designing the street-legal machine on which to base its factory Superbike challenger, Honda has produced a roadster that combines the Japanese firm’s traditional sophistication and engineering quality with much of the V-twin feel and character traditionally supplied by Duc… you know who I mean. It’s an exciting combination. And as the SP-1’s price of £10,000 on the road is much more competitive than the RC45’s ever was, that makes Honda’s first super-sports V-twin a real star.
Although it was released three years after the VTR1000F Firestorm, the SP-1 is not really a development of Honda’s first big V-twin. Development of the two bikes began at the same time, and a prototype V-twin engine was put in an ex-Mick Doohan NSR500 race chassis several years ago. But the project was shelved for a year while the company decided whether to continue with the twin or revert to a V4. The twin eventually won the vote, partly on grounds of cost.
One of the biggest problems for Honda’s engineers, unused to large-capacity V-twins, was combining the necessary high power output and large pistons needed with engine speeds of 10,000rpm and more. The 999cc SP-1 engine’s dimensions of 100 x 63.6mm (the VTR1000F’s are 98 x 66mm) mean this bike’s forged pistons are the largest that Honda makes for any vehicle.
The SP-1 shares fewer than 10 per cent of its engine parts with the Firestorm. Its motor differs significantly in having higher 10.8:1 compression ratio, using gear instead of chain drive to its cams, exotic iridium-tipped spark plugs, and having RC45-style aluminium ceramic composite cylinder sleeves plus a close-ratio gearbox. Its side-mounted radiators are 20 per cent larger. A novel lubrication system, which feeds oil down the centre of the crankshaft, distributing it to bearings with the aid of centrifugal force, allows a smaller oil pump and is likely to be used in other motors in the future.
In place of the Firestorm’s carbs the SP-1 uses fuel-injection, with two very precise multi-hole injectors per cylinder. They are fed by an innovative intake system whose central main port runs from a fairing slot between the headlights, through the special steering head casting to the airbox, reducing the turbulence generated by normal intakes. An electrically operated valve in this inlet port remains closed a low revs (to boost low-to-midrange performance) and opens as engine speed increases towards 9500rpm, where peak output of 136bhp is produced. Maximum torque is 105N.m at 8000rpm.
In contrast to the Firestorm’s pivotless frame, which is not stiff enough for racing, the SP-1 has relatively conventional twin aluminium main spars. The frame uses the engine as a stressed member, and mounts the rear shock on a large aluminium lower cross-member. The aluminium swing-arm pivots on both engine and frame. Front forks are upside-down 43mm cartridge units, and like the rear shock are multi-adjustable. Wheels are 17 inches in diameter, with a six-inch rear rim, and wear Metzeler or Dunlop tyres in 120/70 and 190/50 sizes.
For racing use Honda has developed comprehensive engine and chassis kits, which will be offered for sale to anyone with the money to buy them. The engine kit includes CNC machined cylinder heads, race cams, titanium valves, new pistons and crankshaft. Compression ratio is increased to 12.7:1. Using a factory-style exhaust system that is also available, power is increased to 170bhp at 11,000rpm.
Race kit chassis parts include carbon-fibre fairing and seat unit, 47mm Showa upside-down forks, Showa racing shock, magnesium wheels, Brembo front brake calipers and master cylinder plus larger discs, aluminium fuel tank and new airbox, stiffer swing-arm and bigger radiators. Dry weight of a fully kitted SP-1 is 170kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 1:1 and, in all probability, the potential to win races at any level below World Superbike.
Get Honda motorbike insurance for the honda vtr1000 sp1.
Engine……….Liquid-cooled 90-degree V-twin, cc 999
Claimed power (bhp)……….136 bhp @ 9500rpm
Front tyre……….120/70 x 17in Metzeler MEZ3 H
Rear tyre……….190/50 x 17in Metzeler MEZ3 H
Front wheel……….3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel……….6.00 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension……….43mm upside-down fork, 130mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension……….One Pro-Link damper, 120mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake……….2, four-piston Nissin calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake……….Nissin caliper, 220mm disc
Top speed……….190 mph
Fuel capacity……….18 litres