When BMW engineers set out to build a World Superbike challenger, they knew it was an elite group they were facing. Starting from scratch, BMW had to present a litre-class bike that could hit the ground running against the GSX-Rs and YZF-R1s of the category. They had to do it fast, they had to do it right and, more to the point, they had to do it for the right price. Is the S1000RR a success in these regards? More than that, says Bertrand Gahel, BMW’s Superbike may well redefine the class.
In the super exclusive world of 1000cc Superbikes, hype is the ultimate double-edge sword. Live up to it and “they” shall bow down at the mere sight of your machine. But fall short on your promises and it will be left for dead. A year ago, BMW put itself in that exact position when it announced it wouldn’t just enter the seemly impenetrable club of litre-class race-replicas, but claimed it would do so with a spanking of the usual suspects. The Bavarian brand obviously couldn’t use those exact words, but anyway you spin it, announcing plans to build a lighter, more powerful and more advanced thousand than Suzuki’s, Yamaha’s, Honda’s and Kawasaki’s means just that. Especially when said claim comes from BMW, maker of “quirky but functional” motorcycles.
An underdog story in the making, this was.
And so the world press was gathered a year later in Portimão, in the south of Portugal, at the brand new Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, the very facility that hosted the last round of the WSBK series days before, to find out if BMW had lived up to the hype surrounding its all-new S1000RR. Or not.
Although the event itself had a very posh feel to it, the attitude of the BMW personnel seemed, on the contrary, quite humble. Not a single mention of a specific competing product was made, and the technical presentation was kept to a strict minimum. Almost as if the manufacturer wished no big deal be made about the incredible challenge involved in creating a motorcycle of this calibre. As if the S1000RR was business as usual for the Munich brand. But it’s not.
The S1000RR belongs to a genre of motorcycle BMW has never even been close to. What about the HP2 Sport, you ask? Oh please. And while the new RR uses similar technology as the rest of its class, the technology isn’t common by any stretch of the imagination. We’re talking almost 200 horsepower per litre, 14,000 rpm redline for 1000cc and unimaginable chassis stress in a package weighing about 200 kilos in running order. All feats of engineering BMW Motorrad never had to achieve before. Super aggressive styling goes without saying, as does competitive pricing, bee-em-dubya or not. Miss just one of those marks and you’ll be stuck with a nice, big white elephant of a project, along with a serious dent in both your reputation and corporate wallet. One last thing: if you intend to stay in the game, you’ll have to start it all over and begin work on the next S1000RR, oh, right about now.
Willkommen to the wonderful world of the Japanese Thousand. As if the challenge of producing a litre Superbike wasn’t big enough, BMW upped the ante one serious notch and decided to equip the S1000RR with both race ABS and traction control, an industry first.
The table was basically set for the biggest challenge BMW’s motorcycle division ever had to face, a challenge with win-all, lose-all consequences as the S1000RR had the potential to generate a priceless hallow effect on the rest of the lineup if it was successful. Or it could be an embarrassment to the brand if it failed.
After one full day lapping around the Autódromo, I can confirm BMW didn’t just pull it off but, stunningly, made the accomplishment look easy. It is absolutely incredible to say, but the Japanese Thousands aren’t alone in their little world anymore. The truth is they actually have some catching up before them. The S1000RR is that good.
THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO describe the initial impression left by the S1000RR when you first ride it:
the bike feels Japanese. Now, to some, this will no doubt seem like an insult, but it’s actually the biggest compliment such a motorcycle could possibly receive. First, because it equates to saying a Formula 1 feels like a Formula 1, and second because that’s exactly what BMW was aiming for. For this project, the signature quirkiness inherent to BMW’s two-wheel division had to be pushed aside. The only aspect showing any tie to the often eccentric culture of the brand can be seen in the asymmetric face of the S1000RR. Even there, though, the Bavarian company somewhat restrained itself as it fully understood the difference between the positive effect of a “distinct” look and the possibly dangerous consequences of “odd” styling. As it is, the RR’s face has an “endurance” look about it that will probably be well-received, especially when it becomes clear to the very particular clientele it’s aimed at that the S1000RR is the real deal, and then some.
On a track, there are bikes which make you feel instantly comfortable and confident—like most 600 supersports—and others that require some degree of adaptation. The S1000RR is absolutely the first kind. Nothing about it interfered with the task at hand which, during this launch, consisted of picking up speed as quickly as possible on a completely new track. Adding to the level of difficulty was the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve’s roller coaster-like layout which
features an essentially unique
combination of blind turns, high speeds and stomach-lightning elevation changes.
From the first laps around the 4.5-kilometre circuit, it became very clear the hard part would be to adapt to the super technical track, not to the bike. The rider-friendly nature of the S1000RR actually helped a great deal in that regard and by only the second session out, the 18 corners Autódromo puzzle began to take shape, and speed started to get interesting.
Interesting would also be the right way to begin describing all the electronics involved in every facet of the S1000RR experience. BMW suggested we start the day on this unfamiliar track by selecting the “Rain” mode. There are three more to choose from: Sport, Race and Slick. Set by a switch on the right handlebar and displayed on the centre LCD screen (which has an amazing array of functions), they can be changed with the motorcycle stopped or moving.
The initial understanding of these modes is that they are similar in function to the “power modes” found on Suzuki GSX-Rs and Yamaha YZF-R1s. But the S1000RR takes the interaction between rider and power delivery to a completely different level. In Rain, for example, power is reduced from the 193 hp available in all other modes to 150 horsepower. The ECU also limits power according to lean angle. Basically, the more lean, the fewer the ponies and vice-versa. In Sport, while maximum horsepower is back to 193, power is still limited when the bike is leaned over, although less so than in Rain. Race mode is even less restricted, allowing more power to get to the rear wheel with more lean angle, and Slick is essentially the full power mode.
These modes are also linked to the Dynamic Traction Control system, basically meaning the DTC will intervene much quicker in Rain than in Sport, than in Race. Slick is the “looser” mode. BMW explains it is designed for full-on, race-level track action with a motorcycle shod with extra-sticky slick tires.
Beginning to pick up speed, it rapidly became evident that these modes are intimately linked to the way the S1000R behaves and can be ridden. For example, during the first session, the relatively low output and high DTC intervention of the Rain mode resulted in an almost sedate power delivery, which in return allowed me to fully concentrate on lines, to figure out braking markers and basically to begin to get familiar with this completely new track.
Switching to Sport livened the power output significantly, and going up to Race felt like a true full-power mode. However, all of these modes had one major drawback, at least for me: they would bring the front tire back on the ground right after the S1000RR would begin to wheelie, something a 193-hp, 206.5-kilo (fully fueled) Thousand inherently wants to do, especially on a track with severe elevation changes like this one.
In the high power Sport and Race modes, the DTC would detect a difference between front and rear wheel speed as soon as the front wheel left the pavement, and then instantly cut power until the front came back down. Thing is, when this happened and front and rear wheel speed became equal again, any power restriction was canceled, which brought the front wheel up again … This cycle of wheelie, power cut, front wheel dropping to the ground and new wheelie could be avoided by understanding where it was going to happen, and trying to use less throttle in those situations.
This characteristic of the S1000RR, which behaves like an anti-wheelie function without being one, became a plus for riders who felt uncomfortable with the front wheel leaving the ground and the bike wanting to stand up under full throttle, which happened many times a lap. For example, a sharp rise just before the long straight had the bike wheeling at just over 200 kmh in fourth gear, sometimes violently enough to flip over if you didn’t put your weight forward enough.
The Race mode was the one to chose to maintain full throttle while going over the crest without any fear of flipping over. Which did seem to suit a few journalists. As for me, I just stuck with Slick from the second session on and never looked back. Fourth gear wheelies? Are you kidding me? No way was I going to waste those, and Slick was the only mode that would allow them. With Slick selected, at that spot, the S1000R would gracefully stand on its rear tire at about 200 kmh and, if I stuck my chest forward enough over the tank, the front tire would only come back down at about 240 kmh without the need to shut the throttle and lose acceleration. Delicious.
For my taste, at that track and in those dry and sunny conditions, Slick let me fully experience the S1000RR as the beast that it is in a straight line, but also allowed me to get on the gas at corner exits hard enough for the rear tire to leave long black strips every time without any fear of a highside. BMW’s Dynamic Traction Control plain and simple works.
The feeling is extremely subtle as all you notice is a very slight weave from the rear during full throttle corner exits, which is essentially the back tire being allowed to spin slightly, but not to the point of sliding.
Although Slick is apparently programmed to work with high grip slicks, the Metzeler Racetec fitted as stock equipment on the S1000RR performed brilliantly. They never lost grip even by the end of a full track day and even showed minimal wear. It should be noted that in Slick mode, the ECU will let the bike wheelie five seconds before letting the DTC intervene and bring the front down. Also, Slick deactivates the rear ABS in order to let the rear tire break loose in corner entries. That is, for the few talented enough to do so.
All that power and all those electronics would be of little use if the S1000R wasn’t as incredibly easy to ride as it is. The steering lightness, the precision of the trajectory choosing process, the ease of braking hard right until the apex, the high-speed stability are all absolutely superb. Aside from a very slightly agitated front end at the end of the above-mentioned high-speed wheelies, along with a smidge of brake fade at the very end of the day from the otherwise insanely powerful front brake, I truly cannot find a single thing to criticize about the S1000RR handling. It is exquisite, fantastic, almost magically light and accessible for a bike of this displacement.
WHILE THE S1000RR WILL BE offered in other markets as a standard model with options, it will only be available as a fully-equipped version in Canada, with the only option being a $265 alarm system. This means the $17,300 suggested retail price will include Race ABS, Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) and an electric shifter system called Shift Assistant (which works brilliantly) as standard. Which, if you do the math, isn’t only amazingly low per BMW tradition, but equates to extremely high value. In a year where all Japanese manufacturers will stick to their current 1000cc hardware, BMW finds itself in the almost unbelievable position of offering the most powerful, most advanced Thousand on the market. Actually, and it’s still difficult for me to completely grasp this, but the reality is Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha are now trailing behind the BMW, if only in terms of electronics. And mark my words, one after the other will have to step it up in that department. This being said, electronics or not, it of course remains to be seen how the S1000RR does when it goes head-to-head with its ferocious Japanese competition. So we’ll see. But I certainly won’t be surprised if it completely changes the pecking order of this so far untouchable class.
It definitely is that good.
By Bertrand Gahel, Canadian Biker #258