Motor Sport hasn’t run a motorcycle test for some time, but when BMW decided to join the supersport bike race with the standard-setting S1000RR, we had to find out more

About 15 years ago, that professional wild man and occasional motorcyclist Hunter S Thompson tested a Ducati 900 superbike for an American motorcycle magazine. The infamous author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas found the bike’s performance mind-boggling. “This motorcycle is simply too goddam fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic,” he wrote. “Unless you’re ready to go straight down the centreline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat.”

Thompson’s Ducati made less than 100 horsepower. This year’s cutting-edge superbike is the BMW S1000RR, which turns out 193 horsepower at the rear wheel. It’s worth attempting to put that into perspective so that you can fully understand what we’re dealing with here. The S1000RR’s power-to-weight ratio (rider included) is about 700bhp per tonne, which compares to a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano at 362bhp per tonne. We’re talking 0-60mph in 2.9 seconds and a top speed exceeding 190mph. It’s the kind of performance that 10 years ago was winning Grand Prix races.

The RR is so astonishingly powerful that it must surely be some kind of drag bike, a motorcycle whose design has been sacrificed and compromised on the altar of the engine, with little attention to the requirements of going anywhere but straight down the centreline.

In motorcycling, horsepower isn’t everything. The way a motorcycle engine produces power has an enormous effect on chassis behaviour. A high BMEP engine is no good if it delivers power in such a way that it twists the suspension into a panic. A fine-handling motorcycle requires linear power delivery that allows the rider to load the suspension in a controllable, predictable manner. Remarkably – considering that it makes 20 horsepower more than its closest competitor from Japan – the RR’s 999cc inline four is that kind of engine. The power curve doesn’t hide any nasty little surprises that might catch you unawares; it’s a smooth, brain-curdling rush towards the 14,000rpm red line, which in first gear equates to 93mph.

Ironically, BMW has made the Japanese manufacturers look silly in the same way the Japanese made the European industry look silly several decades ago. The RR’s secret is simple: more revs. BMW’s engineers created an over-square engine (80mm x 49.7mm) that produces peak power at 13,000rpm, roughly a thousand rpm more than any rival inline four.

You’re never in any doubt of the RR’s explosive potential. After all, this is a motorcycle, so you pretty much sit on top of the engine, fully enveloped by the blast of induction roar, mechanical machinations and exhaust noise. At full throttle it’s a demonic racket, like someone has flung open the Gates of Hades.

It may sound horribly frantic, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Torque is everywhere, so you can ride the curve all the way down to a few hundred rpm above tick-over. You can short-shift through the gears (no need to feather the throttle or dip the clutch thanks to the electronic quick-shifter), gently exploring only the first half of the rev range, and you’re still bulleting past everyday traffic. The higher rpm is there for the race track (onboard lap-timer included) and for occasional indulgence on Her Majesty’s Highway – exorcising your demons, or exercising your demons, depending on your psyche.

Of course, here lies the problem: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The dizzying thrill of full-throttle acceleration is far too good to be experienced only occasionally. Speed cameras and gormless road users are a constant concern; you have to choose your moments of madness carefully.

Riding the S1000RR is like existing in another dimension to other road users. The rest of the world appears to be stuck in slow-mo. You need to keep your wits about you and be fully aware that with power (however corrupting) comes responsibility.

The RR would be a fearsomely impressive motorcycle if it had nothing else going for it than that engine. In fact the most amazing thing about the bike is that the engine isn’t the most amazing thing about the bike.

Most impressive of all is the purity of purpose. So-called ‘supersport’ bikes like the RR exist because of the World Superbike championship, motorcycling’s own version of the World Touring Car Championship. Inevitably, the will to win in WSB pushes manufacturers into producing street-legal race bikes. The best WSB machines are not far short of a MotoGP bike in terms of sheer performance, and a showroom-spec S1000RR isn’t far short of BMW’s factory-prepared WSB bike.

Out of the crate, the RR can cut faster lap times than any of the opposition and the bike is already scoring top-three finishes in World Superbike. On the road this translates into a machine that is perfectly primed and poised to get from A to B like a destination-seeking missile. Once you have sated the need to set your synapses on fire with the engine’s full-bore blast, you can relax a little, settle into a groove and ride with a confidence that only a motorcycle as capable as this can provide.

The BMW isn’t only the fastest motorcycle on the road, it may also be the safest, because its track-ready chassis and state-of-the-art electronics provide the rider with hitherto impossible levels of control.

There are many reasons why the bike is so controllable. It is light, slender and compact, weighing 183kg dry, only 21kg above the World Superbike minimum weight limit. The chassis is remarkably neutral and balanced, with geometry that works however you’re riding – fast or slow – so you always feel comfortably in control. The suspension is superbly refined, with spot-on damping for amazingly precise feedback from the road, so the motorcycle never feels like it’s getting away from you. Even at full throttle in the lower gears, front wheel hovering several inches above the asphalt as the horizon is sucked towards you, the RR always tracks straight and true. It is quite remarkable that a motorcycle of such vicious potential does not feel intimidating.

And then we come to the BMW’s crowning glory: its ABS, engine mapping and traction control technology. But before we get into 21st-century wizardry, some history…

Incredibly, the RR is BMW’s first-ever supersport bike. The last time BMW was at the cutting edge of motorcycle performance was in the 1930s, when the company’s supercharged boxer twin won the 1939 Senior TT. In the post-war years BMW slowly but surely became a purveyor of sensible motorcycles to sensible motorcyclists. It quietly stood aside while the Japanese and Italian manufacturers became embroiled in an apparently never-ending performance war. During all those years BMW’s best and most popular motorcycles continued to be powered by the air-cooled boxer twin. Nothing wrong with that – the boxer is a lovely little engine, its soft burble the perfect friend on a long-distance tour – but the world moves on. The big money in today’s bike market is in high-performance machinery.

A few years ago a change of management at BMW Motorrad declared the company wanted a slice of that action, so it had to build a supersport bike. Thanks to some clever, committed designers who knew just what they were trying to achieve, BMW has come into this class from several decades behind the opposition and immediately finds itself several years ahead.

The engine is more powerful and the chassis more poised than the opposition, yet it is the RR’s electronics systems that really put it ahead of its rivals. Many motorcycles have ABS and quite a few have adjustable engine mapping, but the BMW is the first mass-market supersport bike to feature traction control. The BMW system is also unique in featuring lean-sensing gyroscopes. It is a revelation, an extra line of defence that makes you feel different every time you climb aboard, especially in the rain. Of course, the RR is no more impossible to crash than the Titanic was to sink, but its ABS and anti-spin technology boost confidence; and when you are confident you ride better, so long as you don’t let that confidence breed cockiness.

The ABS and traction control are very discreet in operation, so the electronics never seem like they are trying to ride the bike for you. In the dry, you can trigger the anti-spin dash light if you’re pushing on, though 30 years of relying upon my own brain/right wrist interface prevented me from attempting full throttle at full lean. Anyway, it is in the wet that most riders will relish this technology. It consigns to extinction that lip-biting moment when you gingerly twist the throttle accelerating away from a greasy roundabout; though personally, I’ve always enjoyed that razor-edge feeling (and, more importantly, that occasional sensation of getting it just right, all by myself).

S1000RR riders don’t even need to ride the edge to get something out of the bike’s electronics package. At the prod of a button you can switch between four different riding modes: rain, sport, race and slick. Each tailors the integrated engine mapping, ABS and traction control to suit. In rain mode, peak power is cut to 150 horsepower, with a smoother, friendlier torque curve and a little slack in throttle response. In sport mode the engine delivers full power with more direct throttle response. In race and slick modes the RR transmogrifies into a snarling beast with hair-trigger throttle, just like a race bike. Although BMW would rather you didn’t use these modes on the road it’s hard to resist, though you wouldn’t want to ride like that all day; too tiring.

Not that supersport bikes are made to be relaxing. To ride a motorcycle like this you need to match its purity of purpose with your own focus, commitment and something of a Spartan ethic. The RR is comfortable enough for a supersport bike, but that doesn’t make it comfortable. It is built for speed and everything else can go hang; as Thompson wrote of that Ducati: “Mid-size Italian pimps who like to race from one cafe to another on the boulevards of Rome in a flat-line prone position might like this, but I do not.”

Thompson had a point, but some motorcyclists do Europe on their summer holidays aboard supersport bikes, travelling very light, carrying only a small rucksack and presumably spending half their budget on laundry bills. It is simply a matter of what you are used to – once your body is accustomed to the praying mantis position, you’ll be just fine. In the meantime you will be glad that the RR can only do 140 or so miles on a tank. And don’t even think about taking someone on the miniscule passenger seat – unless you really dislike them.

Critics of motorcycles like the RR prefer not to see the purity of purpose or the dedication to a cause; they see blinkered focus, a monomaniacal approach to an engineering conundrum. They’re right, but so what? The RR and its Japanese and Italian cousins were primarily developed to win races and thus appeal to performance-obsessed motorcyclists. They’re not practical motorcycles.

They look great though, because in this sector of the market there is no real choice but for the engineers to follow that first commandment of good design: that form should follow function. From a hundred paces you would be hard-pressed to tell the BMW from a MotoGP bike. The bodywork and ergonomics are pretty much identical, because both machines were built with the same aim in mind.

In the motorcycle market, BMW is renowned for quality of finish, which is why its bikes hold their value better than most. The company may have made a major change of direction with the S1000RR, but the bike seems to be made of the same stuff. Detail design and packaging are first rate. For example, the stainless steel exhaust system tucks the catalyser neatly out of sight.

There is a lot of plastic, which won’t please some purists. It cheapens the look, which isn’t good (after all, perception is nine-tenths of the law), but well-heeled owners will be pleased to hear that the accessory line includes replacement carbon-fibre panels.

The money – that must surely be the catch. In fact, no. With race-spec ABS, traction control and quick-shifter, the BMW costs £280 more than a standard Yamaha R1 and two grand less than an Aprilia RSV4, the Italian machine that looks most likely to win this year’s WSB crown.

I like to think that BMW’s older generation of engineers stood there tut-tutting as the prototype S1000RR left the R&D department for its first shakedown test. I also like to think that right now, somewhere in Hamamatsu, a group of Honda engineers are taking an RR to pieces, sucking their teeth as they wonder how they’re going to match this with their next Fireblade.

The BMW S1000RR is a giant leap forward in supersport design. It’s going to take the rest a while to catch up.


ENGINE: 999cc, four-valve DOHC inline four

TOP SPEED: 190mph+

PRICE: £12,850

POWER: 193bhp @ 13,000rpm

FRAME: twin beam aluminium, with aluminium swinging arm