Steve Bond takes one for the team and spends a day at Shannonville race track checking out BMW’s current stock of Canadian Thunder race bikes.
I was the caboose in a four-bike, BMW Canadian Thunder train. Mike Ferreira was leading with John Sharrard and Oliver Jervis snapping at his heels. Sharrard is a former Nationally-ranked Superbike rider, Jervis makes his living in Pro roadraces on the left coast, while Ferreira is one of BMW’s hired guns contesting the Canadian Thunder class in the Parts Canada Superbike Championship.
Truthfully, I was only in their exalted company for two or three corners because trying to keep those guys in sight is a recipe for a double axle with a triple lutz and the big BMW would stick me with the landing. So I backed it down and went off looking for someone my own age and skill level – where is that Larry Tate, anyway?
BMW isn’t a name you usually associate with racing but lately they’ve been making some pretty serious inroads into the knee-dragging scene. In 2006, the aforementioned Mr. Jervis placed second overall in the Canadian Thunder Championship (including three victories) on an R1200S and in 07, Mike Taylor won the whole enchilada on a similar bike.
With the separation of the class into two new sub-classes for 2008, the surprising dominance of the Ducati 848 in the premier class caught everyone with their Alpinestars down this season.
Ferreira still scored several podiums for BMW as the team worked hard developing the new HP2 Sport-based motorcycles, but the issue was obvious on the Parts Canada official dyno and weigh scales over the course of the season – the HP2 bikes averaged 410 pounds and 113 horsepower.
By contrast, the Ducati 848s weighed in at 390 pounds and had 117 horsepower to boot. Not much of a difference, but more than enough in this competitive class [see CMG news item on rule changes - Ed].
Shortly after the Shannonville National final, BMW invited the Canadian motorcycling press to ride a collection of their racebikes from the last few years. I decided to limit my riding to the Official Thunderbikes from this year and last (R1200S and HP2 Sport) – probably the most relevant of the breed and a good way to see the progress between the two models.
First up, the R1200S
With the number of journalists invited, there was no time to set preload or damping to each rider’s (ahem) weight and physical characteristics so the first thing I did was adjust the brake lever and push down on the front end. Um, push on the front end and … it’s not moving. At all.
That’s a function of the Telelever front end – there’s no dive when braking hard into the turns, but the suspension will still absorb bumps. After a few familiarization laps (I hadn’t ridden the Fabi circuit since placing second in the RACE SV Cup event there in 2002), I started going a bit quicker and noticed a few things about “my” R1200S.
I like to apply a bit of front brake on corner entry to compress the forks, which quickens the steering and initiates the turn – which of course, doesn’t work with a Telelever front end. Instead, after you’ve eased off the brakes and turned in, the front shock compresses a bit and the wheelbase actually lengthens.
Coming into the far hairpin, where there’s a right/left/right, I thought the 1200S felt overly soft and wallowy on the back but, it had an Ohlins shock, so what did I know?
Actually, I do know something – the shock was pooched and had no damping left.
I loved the smallish tach front and center with a plainly visible redline. The ABS was disconnected for racing and the little red “ABS” light sat there glowing, mocking me the entire time. If it were mine I’d pull the bulb or tape it over. Cheeky bastard. The tach was actually a bit superfluous as the 1200S pulled like a train no matter what gear I was in, or where in the rev range I was.
I tried a different 1200S and liked it a lot. No denying it was heavy but the brakes were fantastic and it was really easy to ride at a good pace. It was rock solid over the Fabi circuit’s famous bumps and even though the front end felt a bit wooden when trailbraking, the tactic didn’t overly upset the chassis.
Next, the HP2 Sport
On to the HP2 then. To be blunt, after the first session I didn’t like it much, but the inadequacies were mine and not the motorcycle’s. For starters, the HP2 has a boy-wonder, video game electronic dash rather than simple gauges. The tach is a sweeping LCD display on the left side plus a digital rpm readout – neither one shows redline and both were equally difficult for me to fathom at speed.
The noticeably lighter HP2 was much easier to fling around the tight corners but after coming off the torquey 1200S, it felt weak and flat. “Wouldn’t pull a Boy Scout off yer grandma,” is how one acquaintance of mine would describe it.
After a short discussion with Ferreira, the second session went much better.
So Mike – do you use the shift light?
“Nope. If you hit the light, you’re past the power peak.”
So where do you shift?
Works for me. Once I heard what the motor sounded like at 8,400 rpm, I could shift without seeing the tach or the shift light. But really, what’s wrong with a simple white-faced tach and plainly denoted redline?
The brakes were phenomenal, as you’d expect from radial Brembos, with really good feel and feedback, especially on the bumpy corner entrances. Usually I like to adjust the brake lever way out, but I soon adjusted it so it was about halfway back before I got the initial bite.
The chassis felt extremely composed and the front end well and truly planted, no matter how deep I pushed the entrance or how hamfisted I was on braking.
The HP2 models are equipped with an electronic quick-shift, which I didn’t care for. When blasting up through the gears, I’m sure I got cleaner, quicker and more positive upshifts when I preloaded the shifter, rolled the throttle off slightly and snicked it into gear – the same type of clutchless upshifts I’ve been doing for 30 years.
When you’re at full left lean and apply throttle, the Boxer engine’s natural torque reaction will actually pick the bike up a smidge. Conversely, if you’re leaned to the right, it will lean more, decreasing ground clearance. Not really an issue to me, but if you’re a fast guy like Mike Taylor, who can drag the cylinder head, it might come into play at some point.
The trick with the HP2 is to ride it more like a GP motorcycle than a warmed-over street bike and, once I managed to keep the HP2 on the boil in the upper reaches of the powerband, I quickly accepted it as my Personal Savior. The harder you ride it, the better it works – it’s a huge improvement on the 1200S. Except for that damned ABS light that kept mocking me.
With improvement comes added cost and the HP2 has some pretty pricey hardware (Ohlins shocks not withstanding). Mike noted, “See that little black carbon-fiber section on the fairing upper? That’s $5,500. And the tail section? Seven grand.” The Akrapovic exhaust, likewise, is a work of art. Titanium, with two crossovers at the front of the engine, before snaking underneath and exiting under the tailpiece. Um, how much?
The reply? A terse, “Don’t ask.”
Speaking of exhausts, the HP2 has an incredible bark to it when you’re on full song. Kind of raspy, kind of growly with lots of amusing banging and popping on the overrun.
A HARD DAY AT THE OFFICE
Flogging big, heavy motorcycles around a racetrack all day is quite tiring and by about three o’clock, I was starting to get a bit sloppy, missing my turn-ins and apexes by just a few inches. I knew the warning signs and it’s better to pack it in than to get packed in, as one Quebec journalist unfortunately found out (with one of the biggest highsides you’d ever want to see).
Tons of fun but time to call it a day.
Huge thanks to BMW Canada for the opportunity to try out their racebikes – here’s hoping other manufacturers might consider offering similar days in the future.
Just call my people …