You know things are going to get serious when the email invitation to an exclusive press event reads: “NO SPARE RACE BIKES AVAILABLE — so crashing is strictly prohibited!”
It continues: “Experts will be on site… for technical support, rider briefings, interviews, and maybe partly to make sure that their bikes don’t get annihilated!”
Then you read that upon arrival at the track you’ll be handed a brand-new BMW S1000RR equipped with race tires and set up with a GP shift pattern (first up), but that it will simply be your “practice” bike.
The event in question is the BMW Motorrad Motorsport track test, where media hacks get to ride a handful of top-level BMW S1000RR race bikes from various international racing series.
BMW brought five race bikes: the Graphicbikes Easyrace Team superstock bike from the CEV European Superbike championship, the Penz13.com Team superbike from the FIM Endurance World Championship, the Tyco/Tas Racing Team superstock bike from the 2016 Isle of Man TT, and two bikes from the Althea BMW Race Team: one from the FIM Superstock 1000 championship and one from the FIM World Superbike championship. Also on hand were a pair of stock S1000RRs to be used for a warm-up session.
CMG’s Costa Mouzouris got a rare opportunity as the only journalist from North America to be invited to Jerez, Spain, to ride these machines.
Racing for everyone
When you’re a motorcycle manufacturer, there are several ways you can approach racing. You can go all out and finance a fully-backed factory race team, though this approach includes investing huge amounts of cash and manpower with only a slender chance of winning a championship, since most of your resources are exhausted on a couple of riders, and probably in a single series.
You can also choose to support private teams, which involves less cash and less manpower, mostly because the teams provide their own financial support and crew. This also increases your chances of winning a championship since your budget can be spread among several teams competing in several different championships.
Or you can avoid racing altogether, saving boatloads of dough, and keeping your engineering staff focused on improving current products and developing new ones. But you’ll have to forfeit the accolades and exposure that come with race victories, and you get nothing in return in terms of hands-on development under extreme conditions.
Fortunately, BMW chose the middle ground and supports private teams with its BMW Motorrad Motorsport customer racing strategy. This maximises the company’s exposure to racing while lowering the costs involved at a factory level.
The programme provides technical support and race parts to riders and teams, from amateurs on a regional level, all the way up to top pros in international competition. Riders can get support and parts, straight from the factory, whether they’re amateurs competing in the CSBK series or top teams in the FIM World Superbike Championship. Of course, as the level of racing increases, so do costs and the level of available support.
According to Berthold Hauser, BMW Motorrad Motorsport’s technical director, 30 per cent of all S1000RRs sold worldwide are dedicated to racetrack use. BMW currently provides support to more than 200 race teams around the world, and that support can vary from the availability of, say, a set of camshafts, to re-flashing the bike’s ECU via a live internet connection.
Jordan Szoke experienced this type of support firsthand last season, when his bike had a traction control issue he couldn’t resolve. According to Hauser, Szoke’s bike was connected via the internet to a technician’s computer in Berlin, where the problem was identified. The tech uploaded revised traction control mapping within minutes. And, according to Hauser, factory support isn’t preferential: all race teams have access to the same support, though the higher the racing level, the more that support is going to cost.
IKEA race bikes
I was surprised to learn that any racer can buy a fully kitted superbike engine from BMW. In fact, the company has three race engines available, identified by their product codes. A 5.2 product code represents the base race engine (approx. 10,000 euros), similar to one in a production bike but blueprinted with hand-selected parts. This is the engine you’d find in a superstock bike racing in lower-level competition where rules limit engine mods. A 6.2 engine (€17,000) is that same engine but with a modified cylinder head for increased output. This is the engine homologated for FIM superstock competition, as well as other international race series. And finally, a 7.2 engine (€23,000) is a full race-spec engine like the one in the Althea WSBK superbike. As you can see, the higher the level of racing, the higher the cost, and that doesn’t include extras like alternate gearbox ratios and such.
Each race engine is hand-built in a special section of BMW’s Berlin factory, and each one gets a break-in run and three dyno runs to verify its performance, with performance printouts handed to the buyer. If an engine isn’t up to spec it gets torn down and rebuilt. Output at the sprocket is between 201 and 221 horsepower. BMW has sold 103 race engines around the world to date.
Now, BMW won’t sell any engine to any racer; part of the support the company provides is keeping track of various sanctioning bodies and their respective rules, making sure the engine they do sell you complies with those rules. The main reason for this is, of course, self preservation: the folks at BMW don’t want to get blamed if you’re caught cheating, so they make sure they deliver an appropriately-built engine.
And if you find that the 18,000-km maintenance interval of your street bike isn’t cutting it, these race engines must be looked at every 2,500 km, at which point they get more than just an oil change – they are torn apart and receive new pistons and valve springs, and any bearings that they may need. The cost of this service? It starts at about €6,000. BMW also offers training to technicians worldwide to maintain these engines.
Of course, if you’re on a budget, you can modify the production engine in your bike (which is what Szoke prefers), using race parts available through BMW. These include cams, pistons, gearboxes, clutches, crankshafts, and numerous other components, including electronics. What you can’t buy is a complete race bike or chassis parts; chassis components are abundantly available, so BMW leaves selecting those up to the individual builder.
Before heading out to Jerez, there were a few things I did to prepare for my time aboard these racing machines. First, since I was unfamiliar with the racetrack in Jerez, I turned countless virtual laps on my XBOX 360 MotoGP video game to learn the layout — don’t knock it, it works.
Also, although I used to race using a GP shift pattern, it’s been several years since I’ve shifted up for first gear. To get my left foot re-accustomed to this setup, I altered the shift pattern on my girlfriend’s SV650S and rode it around for a couple of days. The last thing I wanted was to litter the racetrack with gear cogs and engine oil after a missed upshift on the long, fast front straight, right in front of the pits, no less.
Riding time was very limited; we were allowed to cycle through each machine only once, with one out lap, one flying lap and one cool-down lap per bike, including the stock “practice” bike. This is where my video game skills paid off because although I had to get accustomed to the speed and learn braking points, the track layout was immediately familiar. The bikes would be ridden successively, so when we were done with one, we’d hop immediately onto the next.
The chassis setups were vastly different between the machines, dictated by both the race classes they compete in, and the personal preferences of the riders and their mechanics.
The two superbikes were equipped with Ohlins racing forks, while the superstock machines had modified production Ohlins units; all bikes used Ohlins shocks. The three superstock machines used factory-issued front Brembo calipers; the superbikes had race Brembos.
Two of the bikes — the Spanish superstock bike and the Tyco IOMTT bike — had no brake pedal; both were equipped with thumb-operated rear brakes but for different reasons. CEV competitor Max Scheib just prefers it that way, while IOMTT rider Ian Hutchinson brakes with his thumb due to injury. Because Hutchinson can’t use his left foot properly, his bike is set up with the shifter on the right (which our hosts wisely moved to its proper position on the left), and the rear brake is by the left-hand switch assembly. All of the bikes were equipped with a quick shifter for clutchless gear changes.
Finally, the superstock machines were on treaded race tires, while the superbikes were on slicks. All of the bikes were on Pirellis except the Tyco machine, which was on Metzelers.
Since I was learning the track, and getting force-fed a different bike about every eight minutes, I refrained from using the thumb brake “just to see what it’s like.” I also stayed away from the various switches (the endurance bike has heated grips!), none of which bore a resemblance to anything I’ve seen on a street bike.
With such limited time on each bike, it’s only the biggest differences that I really noticed between the bikes — and they were big.
The first race bike I rode following the street bike was the CEV Euro series bike, which had won the FIM Superstock 1000 race with Max Scheib aboard the previous weekend here in Jerez. It turned out to be the most radical machine of the bunch in terms of handling. Compared to the stocker it had a severe nose-down attitude and a very wide, straight handlebar setup that placed you far forward. Since the clutch lever was to be used only to launch the bike, Scheib has it adjusted high and out of reach. This bike required very aggressive trail braking to turn in, otherwise it would resist turning. It also had a very stiff suspension setup and felt the most nervous of the bunch.
Next came the Tyco superstock machine on which Hutchinson had won this year’s Isle of Man TT Superstock class. Although the riding position was less aggressive than on the CEV bike, its ride height was set adventure-bike tall. This initially felt odd in corners, as turning transitions were a tad laborious and caused you to arc a long way up. The suspension was softer than on the CEV bike, which makes sense since the bike races mostly on a road course (Hutchinson also competes in the British Superbike series), so it was tuned to handle the various road conditions. But it wasn’t the softest of the bunch.
Pulling into the pits, I then swung a leg over the Althea superstock bike. There was nothing really remarkable about this bike, other than it probably felt closest to the stock machine, but stiffer. It was the last superstock machine in the line-up; next came the two superbikes.
The first was the Penz13 endurance bike. Like the IOMTT bike, it had a very tall seat. It also had the softest suspension setup and was the only bike that wallowed around a bit at corner exit. Its front brake, supported by the gripping power of Brembo race calipers, had a very strong initial bite with very light effort. It’s probably the one thing on this bike that took the longest time for me to get accustomed to.
Up to now, I haven’t really commented on the different bikes’ power delivery, mostly because up to now, they all felt similar. BMW provided the race engines for all of the bikes except the CEV Easyrace machine, which had a team-built engine. Only the Althea superbike had the 7.2 engine. The stock bike is exceptionally strong for a production machine, claiming 199 hp, so the “more than 200 hp” of the Althea superstock machine isn’t that far off. It’s the power delivery that was different, which is mostly controlled by the electronics.
The one bike that stood apart from the others was the Althea superbike. It was the only bike using that 220-hp 7.2 engine, and it was the only bike using split throttles. This system (which has been outlawed in FIM WSBK next year) allows two of the throttle butterflies to operate normally, and two to operate partially up to a preset throttle opening, causing the engine to burble and sound off kilter at lower throttle settings. This smoothes power delivery to make corner exits more manageable.
Surprisingly, it was the easiest bike to ride, despite its tenacious tendency to wheelie. Of course, each bike had traction and wheelie control, but this doesn’t prevent the front wheel from lifting, it just limits how much it will lift.
When the engine cleared its throat and ran on all four cylinders equally, the bike rocketed forward with the front wheel lifting and dropping steadily as it accelerated. It accelerated so hard that on one run along the front straight the front wheel shot up as I shifted into fourth gear, at more than 220 km/h.
As I took my cool-down lap on this bike (which like on the other bikes was more of a flying lap except for the last corner before the pit entrance), I let my heart settle down, sad it was over so soon. I had cycled through six bikes in about 25 minutes.
The BMW Motorrad Motorsport track test was very revealing and informative, but what I took home more than anything else is how involved the company is with racing on all levels (well, except for MotoGP), which is something from which all racers can benefit.