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You thought track cars were fast? We ride BMW’s new superbike

Published: 26 September 2011

In the new October 2011 issue of CAR Magazine, we tested the sublime new BAC Mono against the Ariel Atom 3 Mugen and Caterham 7 R400. Three of the fastest road cars around – so we took along one of the fastest superbikes on the road, the BMW S1000RR, to see what really fast means. Here author Mark Walton, who’s owned a Honda Fireblade, tells us just how fast a quick bike is compared to the quickest cars. 

I thought BMW didn’t do superbikes?

Until recently, they didn’t. While the Japanese makes have been producing ever-faster inline four cylinder superbikes, the average BMW has remained a big tourer with massive boxer cylinders sticking out the sides like two Bavarian beer barrels, and an elderly rider wearing an open-faced helmet and a moustache.

So what changed?

BMW’s best seller, the R1200GS, found fame in Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Long Way Up/Down/Around TV series, but while the hardcore biking press admire that bike, journalists have always been a bit dismissive about BMW as a ‘serious’ manufacturer.

Maybe the disconnect between its biking image and the whole ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ thing finally got to BMW – so the factory developed the S1000RR, a proper four-cylinder sports bike, and started racing it in the World Superbike series in 2009. The road version went on sale last year.

So, is the BMW S1000RR credible?

Yes, very. BMW came out all guns blazing, and the S1000 RR has set new standards on the Japanese manufacturer’s home turf. The RR has a 999cc engine that produces 190bhp at 13,000rpm. The weakness in many high-revving bike engines – a lack of low-down torque – has been tackled with BMW’s massive engine know-how, using (amongst other things) variable air intakes and exhaust butterflies.

Light and nimble, the RR looks incredibly taut and well packaged, and it can come loaded with electronics. The key option (that surely every rider will choose) is an integrated ABS and DTC traction control, featuring an anti-wheelie system, triggered by a gyroscope under the seat, and traction control out of corners that’s linked to your angle of lean. The system has four modes, including a power-inhibiting ‘rain’ setting. Best of all – if you’re used to supercar prices – the RR costs just £11,950 (plus £1360 for the ‘sport package’ electronics option).

190bhp on a bike – it’s quite quick then?

It’s hard to describe how brutally fast the BMW S1000RR is. Put it this way: riding it on the road, I couldn’t get it to the redline. I tried! And I couldn’t fully open the throttle either. It was just too much. Now, hardened bikers out there may snigger and think I’m a wuss – to which I reply, okay, maybe I’m not the most experienced bike tester in the world, but I’m no slouch either, and I’ve owned 1.0-litre superbikes before (including a 180bhp Honda Fireblade). So please, trust me, it’s not just me – the BMW RR is extraordinary – just plain nuts. And really difficult to wring out.

So what’s the problem with opening the throttle? Well, for starters the acceleration is strong and effortless from the moment you start rolling – and this is a bike that peaks beyond 13,000rpm. You pull away, accelerate hard, click it up into second gear, and you’re already doing well over the speed limit. You’re in the outside lane, the engine is screaming at say, 8000rpm – open the throttle now, and for every millimetre of twist of your gloved hand, the bike surges forward with such a ferocity, you literally have to hang on to stop it taking off from beneath you. That happens with just a couple of degrees of twist – now try to apply full throttle all the way to the stop, and it’s hard to keep your head straight just to look where you’re going. And you probably won’t be able to give it full bananas all the way to the redline, because by now the bike is absorbing time-space like it’s in some kind of sci-fi wormhole, and that distant car ahead, half a mile up the motorway, is suddenly right in your path and you’re bearing down on it doing well over 150mph. It’s profoundly intense, and yes, scary.

On a back road, it’s even more impossible – you can do a winding backroad completely in second gear, never changing up or down. If you want to explore the gearbox, short shifting is the only option, and even that doesn’t slow you down much – it just changes the soundtrack from F1 screech to a deep, bassy roar.

The raw figures are these: at 190bhp, and with a fully fuelled kerb weight of just 206kg, this is a bike with a power to weight ratio that’s nearly double that of a Bugatti Veyron.

Still, things didn’t go to plan at the circuit?

No, they didn’t. Read the latest issue of CAR Magazine to see our track test of the new BAC Mono vs Ariel Atom Mugen and Caterham R400. We took the BMW S1000 RR along to do a power-per-pound comparison, but I was terrible. Cadwell is unnerving at the best of times, but on the BMW… reaching high speeds on the straights was easy enough, though you have to tread a fine line not to trigger the anti-wheelie; but I just could’t bring myself to make a late-braking dive into the corner, rely on the ABS, then tip it in and get hard on the throttle, happy that the traction control would keep me sticky-side-down. I was too cautious, I waited until the bike was up and straight before I really opened the taps, and I backed off every time I went over Cadwell’s roller-coaster ‘Mountain’ section. Click here if you want to see why. The result was a lap time that was 20 seconds slower than the cars. I was actually relieved to get off it, and I’d be quite content if I never ride a bike on a circuit ever again.

So you don’t want one?

Are you kidding? Of course I want one. I absolutely loved it on the road. After a couple of days riding, you stop worrying about opening it up to the max all the time, and just ride it within yourself, within what’s safe in the traffic and the conditions. And just having all that energy in reserve, under your control, feels amazing. Along with the usual bike stuff – the adrenalin, the speed, the ability to whip through traffic – the BMW also gives you a sense that you are the undisputed Lord Of The Road, who just chooses not to display your awesome firepower at every traffic light. It’s a densely packed, beautifully made sensational speed-bomb. Yes – I really, really want one.

By Mark Walton

Contributing editor, humorist, incurable enthusiast