Honda RC51, RC45 and RC30 on the road

The VTR1000 RC51 has assumed the position in Honda's model line-up traditionally occupied by the 750cc V4 superbikes. Honda decided that the World Superbike 750cc capacity limit for 4-cylinder machines would never allow them to be truly competitive with 1000cc twins. The outright power output of these configurations are very similar, but the bigger twins have a noticeable advantage in torque, and consequently the ability to put the power down exiting corners. Even the 360-degree firing interval of Honda's unique droning race v-fours (always considered better than the 90-degree pulses of inline fours) could not make up the gap. The 'big-bang' Grand Prix engines, introduced in the early 90's by Honda and subsequently copied by the other 500cc engine manufacturers, were an attempt to harness the power of the engine by improving traction. It allowed a generation of racers to get to grips with the slightly tamed awesome performance of these machines. However, some of the spectaclar rear-wheel steering was lost, and the powerslides common in the days of Doohan, Rainey, Schwantz and Lawson are a rare sight on today's racing circuits (Red Bull Yamaha rider Garry McCoy is a notable exception). Seasoned observers speculate that the current crop of GP racers don't have the level of machine control evidenced by the likes of these heroes, but that is not the only factor.

Back to the 4-strokes, and specifically Honda's Superbikes. Motorcycle News brought three generations of racing Hondas together for their May 3 2000 issue, taking an RC51 for a run in the country with elder family members RC45 and RC30 in tow. How would the new boy shape up? Would the years of R&D mean it eclipsed its legendary forebears? Evolution has been an ongoing feature of Honda's impressive race pedigree.

The RC30 was a like-new example, with just 2800 miles on the clock. It seems almost a crime to have such a wonderful bike for 10 years and yet cover so few miles - after all, it's what it was built for. MCN recruited Superbike and ex-GP racer and sometime bike journalist Sean Emmett to give his expert opinion. He said
"It's showing its age and doesn't feel as fast as a modern 600, but it must have been great in its day. The power is realy smooth and the brakes respond instantly."
The RC45 came along in 1994, and the progress made was incremental; in fact, some critics say its lack of success, relative to that of the RC30, demonstrated a backward step in some areas. Racers consistently complained of feedback problems from the front end, and the revised engine position was thought to be at fault. Superbike rules do not allow moving the engine in the frame, so there was no opportunity to cure this. However, the RC45's lack of success came at a time when Ducati's 916 ruled four-stroke racing, and it spent much of its time in the shadow of the larger-engined Italian bike. Exceptions to this pattern were in endurance racing and on the roads of Ireland and the Isle of Man. On the island the RC45 took over where the RC30 left off, and proved unbeatable until modified 1000cc road bikes were allowed to compete in the F1 and Senior classes in 1999.

Emmett found the RC45 to have similar characteristics to the RC30, its compact nature and linear power curve were distinctive features in the class. The handling was not pushed on the road, so the front end's limitations would not be uncovered. If its performance has been left behind, that certainly cannot be said for its looks. An RC45 will always draw a crowd at a bike meeting, and the MCN team echoed the widely-held sentiment that it's a shame Honda didn't pick up some of its styling cues on the best-selling Fireblade and CBR600 models.

Honda's racing division HRC haven't been sitting around since the RC45 was introduced in 1994. They have worked hard to keep the RC45 competitive, and Alan Cathcart considered the 1999 bike ridden by Colin Edwards to be the best ever WSB machine. Honda hope that the VTR will be the basis for the next generation of race-oriented machines. You can read excerpts from Alan Cathcart's article on the last of the World Superbike V4s here.

Onto the RC51 v-twin. After the v-four engine and classy looks of the of the older bikes with their single-sided swingarm, the VTR superbike looks bland and unassuming. But it is still a race bike first and foremost, and the riding position is certainly more radical than the RC45 or RC30. The fuel injection is rather on-off at low revs, but the impressive midrange torque makes up for it. It brakes harder, turns quicker and fires out of corners harder than the other two bikes. "The chassis is so good there's just no drama when you're riding it" said Emmett. It wasn't a suprise to read that the VTR was Emmett's favourite of the three. However, away from the outright performance (and, let's admit it, who wouldn't expect it to be better in those terms), the true v-four afficiando knows that, no matter how many races it wins it still isn't part of that magical family of machines - the V4 range of Honda motorcycles.

Bike magazine featured these three in its December 2000 issue, and extracts will be posted in due course.

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