x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The smile factor

Slideshow David Booth and friends search for the most fun to be had on two wheels on a track day near Toronto

It was supposed to be just a casual affair. Just four guys, five bikes and an empty racetrack that beckoned on a sunny day. We'd spend the day grinding knee pucks into plastic dust, turn the tyres into molten goo, and then finish off with some refreshments. Overall, then, pretty much the agenda for a perfect day. Oh, and I'd write a story about it all.

The only problem is that this now-annual two-wheeled testfest has proven immensely popular. Motorcyclists, especially of a certain age, have tired of the standard 600-cubic-centimetre supersports comparison where the final conclusion is always "the Yamaguchi YZRF-600RRR is 0.1 second faster than its competition, so you need to dump your current ride and trade up right now." But finding which motorcycle is more fun sounds like a much more sensible comparison than lap times when success is not judged by a chequered flag, but the size of the smile at the end of the day. So, in keeping with the "which is more fun" motif, we collected a wide range of bikes - a Triumph 675, a Ducati 848, an Aprilia Tuono R, a BMW HP2 Megamoto and a Buell 1125R, representing the best in their respective classes.

But this year, not only did the various bike manufacturers deliver all manner of exotic goodies to the diabolically-twisty Shannonville Motorsport Park in Ontario, Canada, but one actually sent a race technician to fettle its charge. This caused all manner of consternation. What if he noticed our almost complete lack of hair follicles? And would he figure out that this is a giant lark and we're having way too much fun to call this work?

To make matters worse, one of our normal four-man crew was absent because of that pesky out-of-town-for-work thing, and his substitute was none other than Yuji Kikuchi. You may not know that name, but Yuji was Nicky Hayden's chassis tuner for the 2006 MotoGP champion's last two years with Team Repsol Honda. Yes, that Nicky Hayden. Surely, he would notice our lack of talent. Thankfully, it all worked out. Chris, Ducati tuner par excellence, turned out to be a true gentleman, never once commenting on my lack of hair. As for Yugi, he was so busy wobbling around the track on his own that he hardly had any time to notice our foibles.

Our choice of bikes this year sure helped disguise our creeping maturity. First, let me note that the Triumph and Ducati were something of ringers, as both had a bunch of aftermarket goodies - the Triumph some trick BST carbon fibre wheels and an Arrows exhaust; the Duke some Marchesini magnesium wheels and a complete Ohlins suspension redo. Triumph's mandate with the Daytona 675 is to combine the light handling of a middleweight with the torque of a bigger engine. For the most part, the metamorphosis is successful. The 675-cc inline three cylinder does indeed pump out more torque than comparable 600-cc four cylinders. Though it may not quite have the top-end horsepower of a Honda CBR600RR or rev to the moon like a Yamaha R6, that extra low-end grunt results in the 600-cc class' most flexible engine. Where its four-cylinder competition is typically lethargic until 10,000 rpm, the Triumph has significantly more mid-range torque and still manages to sprint out of corners, even if your gear selection isn't spot on. And, for Nicky Hayden wannabes, being able to concentrate on important things like cornering lines, apexes and braking points rather than gear selection is a huge advantage.

As well, the Triumph's chassis is nothing short of astounding. It turns as sharply as a Yamaha R6, feels as light as a feather and brakes like a demon. What's more, the Triumph's stock wheels are so light that the BST items are an unnecessary vanity. A stock 675 is more than enough bike for serious trackday hooligans and is more than a match for the traditional 600-cc fours. Ducati's 848 may feel completely different from the lithe Triumph, but it is hardly less adept. Its 849-cc double-overhead-camshaft V-twin is potent affair starting to growl authoritatively around 6,000 rpm. Although it revs quite high for a twin, it has all of Ducati's legendary torque, meaning the engine's powerband is very wide indeed. Where Ducati's previous middleweight racer, the 749, needed lots of revving for maximum performance, the 848 feels more like the 916 or 998 of old. Even its 135 claimed maximum horsepower is more than a match for those old Ducati legends. It really is a gem of a motor and, for most mere mortals looking for a trackday Ducati, makes a more sensible choice than the mega-motored 1198.

And true to Ducati legend, the 848 corners as if it is on rails. More stable at full lean than anything else on the track, the Ducati feels as if nothing short of a 7.2 on the Richter scale could perturb it when scraping footpegs. If there is such a thing as feeling completely comfortable while cornering at racing speed, the Duke inspires it. That does mean it steers a little slower than the Triumph. That's not a problem in most corners, even tricky double apexes that sometimes requires a change of line. But, in "S" turns, where you literally have to flop the motorcycle first to one side and then immediately the other, the Duke is slower on the uptake than the Triumph. Or even the Buell for that matter. But then, both are lighter than the Duke.

Though it has not been universally praised, Buell's new(ish) 1125R is the American manufacturer's first indication that it is willing to compete head-on with world-class sportbikes. Essentially a mating of a 1125-cc Rotax-designed V-twin (basically a next-generation version of the venerable V-twin that powers the Aprilia) with one of Buell's already acclaimed chassis, the 1125 is a far cry from the shambling, Sportster-powerd Buells of old. The 1125-cc, 72-degree V-twin makes excellent power all the way from 4,000rpm to beyond 9,000 with a peak of 146 ponies at 9,800rpm. Thanks to its relatively light (for a V-twin) dry weight of just 375 pounds, the Buell also steers phenomenally quickly, yet it remains quite stable at speed, even under heavy braking. And though the 1125R sports but a single disc brake up front, its unique large-diameter, perimeter-style rotor and six-piston caliper never faded despite a day of continual abuse.

To compete on an even footing with the Triumph and Ducati, what the 1125R needs is a little work in the suspension department. Buell would be well-advised to offer a premium version of the 1125 - á la Ducati and Aprilia - with some Ohlins or other premium suspenders. So equipped, the 1125R would be a serious track weapon, especially now that the company has finessed its initial electronic fuel injection woes that made low-opening throttle response a hit-or-miss proposition.

The Aprilia Tuono R, though it shares an engine lineage with the Buell, is quite another kettle of fish. One of the leading proponent of motorcycling's newest trend - "naked" bikes with an entire complement of racing hardware - the Tuono R marries trick mechanical bits (the adjustable, eccentrically-mounted gearshift nobbin is just one of many) with the sit-up-and-beg riding position of a pure road bike. This last doesn't work for everyone. The seating position does make even fast riding more comfortable, but it makes hanging off more awkward and there's no wind protection at speed.

The motor, however - a 60-degree (as opposed to the Ducati's 90-degree included cylinder angle) 998-cc V-twin with a claimed 139 horsepower - is a stonker and the Tuono steers with precision, albeit not as quickly as either the Triumph or the Buell. It all makes for an excellent street bike with sporting tendencies. And remember that Aprilia does offer the more track-oriented RSV 1000 R with essentially the same engine.

BMW HP2 Megamoto was a bit of a duck-out-of-water in this racetrack environment. Of course, BMW's HP2 Sport would have been a better choice, but it wasn't available in time for our test. The Megamoto's natural competition is Ducati's Hypermotard, not the 848. The Beemer would have been perfectly at home at a tight supermoto track, but fast corners play havoc with its high centre of gravity (the BMW's seat height is almost 900 millimetres). That said, all admired what it did with what it had. The suspension and brakes are excellent and the 1170-cc Boxer engine, in this tune at least, is powerful, almost able to keep up with the Aprilia.

As with previous testfests, the 600-cc supersport machine (the 600-cc class has been expanded to accept 675-cc triples) once again triumphed over its more powerful competition. All but one of our testers placed the Triumph ahead of the rest and even he had it a close second. Also unsurprising, the 848 was breathing up the Daytona's tailpipe for second place. Indeed, had we tested at a higher-speed venue the Duke may well have triumphed such is its incredible cornering-on-rails stability and the V-twin's top-end rush.

The Aprilia and the Buell ended up splitting third and fourth place. Neither should be discounted as both found favour with some of our riders and both race around far beyond initial expectations (the Aprilia's sights set low because of its high-bar, naked-bike status; the Buell because motorcyclists are still getting used to the concept of fully-capable sportbike from Milwaukee). I actually had the Buell tied for second with the Ducati, though two of my cohorts, including former Isle of Man racer, Pat Barnes, much preferred the Aprilia (I think he was just seduced by all the Tuono's milled and forged aluminum bits).

The BMW, meanwhile, needed a different venue to show its stuff. A supermoto or go-kart track would have suited its quick-steering, dirt bike roots and, it must be said, the Beemer, with its incredibly tall seat, would make an ideal naked sportbike for the Jolly Green Giants amongst us. But, if you're looking for a BMW track bike, the HP2 Sport or the upcoming S1000RR would be better. motoring@thenational.ae