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Motorcycle Review

Honda RC51 (2001)

By Nicholas Frankl
Contributing Editor

The RC51 (SP-1 in Europe) and I nearly didn’t get off to a start at all. After filling in all the forms, and signing my life away at the Honda Press garage in LA, I got on, fired up the big V-twin and moved off (ever so slowly). It was a good job I did, as the floor of the facility is gray non-stick paint (that allows the bike to be easily wheeled around) but has the same effect on fresh tires (which is what I was on) as a mild oil slick. The bike weaved and waved all over the place and I very nearly ended up in the front door post. Ouch! That would have been the most uncomfortable 2.5 mph fall ever. Fortunately the Honda and I made it out of the garage and off we went to the nearest empty car park so that I could light up the rear tire and burn off some of that mildew.

I’ll be honest- I had approached the bike with some trepidation. The last Honda V-Twin I had rode was the Firestorm - VTR in London. I expected much and was sorely disappointed by the package. The new race/road machine promised much and had already received praise in the press and at the pub. The engine was over 90% new with aluminum/ceramic cylinders, a redesigned crankshaft with a central oil galley feeding the big ends, allowing a more efficient lower pressure oil pump and weight reduction. The PGM-F1 injection system has large 54mm throttle bodies with two injectors each with a four-jet nozzle. An electronically operated flap closes off the ram-air at low revs for better low and mid-range urge - a system that in LA traffic worked beautifully. In fact compared to the 929, the RC51 proved a much more willing and enjoyable companion when off the racetrack and on the “real world” highway. The inverted forks and responsive steering combined with the torquey V-twin allowing easy slow speed maneuvers. Once I was clear of the traffic, the open roads gave me chance to open up the throttle bodies, activate the ram -air, and let the red devil work in hills. With racing in mind Honda clearly spent a large amount of time stripping down the competition, IE the Ducati 996 SPS and Aprilia RSV-R. The resulting chassis development has been an incredible success both on the racetracks of the world and on the streets.

The aluminum frame features a hollow headstock to allow straight access for the ram-air inlet in the nose. You won’t find a pivot-less frame here either; Honda reckoned it wasn’t up to the pressures of racing. Instead you get a conventional, triple box-section, twin-spar job with a swingarm spindle. For the rear shock, the engineers have fitted a beefed up cast ally cross member under the swing arm pivot to reinforce the frame. With all this you get fully adjustable front and rear shocks with 130mm and 120mm of travel respectively.

What does this all mean in riding terms? Well combined with some of the best brakes to ever grace a motorbike the RC-51 is simply awesome! It’s not that it excels so much in one specific area, it isn’t the fasted bike by any means, nor the most nimble, nor in fact the most comfortable. But, in overall terms the Honda is just right. The engine is relaxed and extremely flexible, under 4,000 revs it feels as if you are cuddling a Doberman. It’ll play dumb and go fetch the ball, but don’t kid yourself - you know there’s a big bad dog in there somewhere. Sure enough, over 4,000 revs the teeth come out and bike comes alive. The power is never whoooa! strong, instead you get deceptive urge right up to the red line at 9,800rpm and the ability to stay with, and most likely embarrass, any machine on the mountain. On the track is another matter and although I never got the bike near one I have heard reports of flat-spots on the injection systems and the bikes inability to track a desired line through a curve without serious set-up adjustments.

The riding position is good and although the bike very narrow, the tank does a good job in making you feel you are on a more substantial machine. The front fairing design isn’t quite up to tall riders. I couldn’t quite get the right position on the freeways, arms bent leaning on the tank - or arms bent sitting up prone. Neither was that bad, but both were a compromise. Getting around the saddle and switching weight balance was easy, the rear end always telling me what I wanted to know and where I was going. I tried, but found it difficult for the bike to take over, the smooth power delivery from low speed corners working well with the stable suspension and chassis dynamics. Certainly my rider pals were impressed. Swapping from an R1 Yamaha and 929 both riders enjoyed their stint. Both wanted more and both, despite initially thinking the bike was underpowered, found that they could keep up with the rest with no trouble at all. This despite the RC-51 giving nearly 20 kg away to the Yamaha. The digital dash got a resounding thumbs up, despite being difficult to read in some light and riding positions.

The heritage of the RC-51 is not something to be taken lightly. Remember the RC30 and RC45. These are still great bikes and have bridged the time/performance line that so often relegates “old” sport bikes to the scrap heap. The RC-51 has already trounced the competition in race trim around the globe and sales are strong both in Europe and the USA. With one of the freshest looks and designs on the road (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen one in the flesh) the new V-twin is set to become a bench mark on the sports bike market. It won’t beat a Hayabusha in straight line in no matter what the prevailing wind conditions, nor out accelerate an R1or ZX-12R. But come rain or shine the Honda will prove a willing and very able sports companion with a track heritage that is sure to grow. I certainly don’t have a problem with that, and nor should you.


Motor:           999cc liquid-cooled 8v 90º V-twin
BHP              122
Top Speed        156mph
0-100mph         7.21
Dry Weight       199kg / 441 pounds (221kg wet)
Fuel Capacity    18 litres / 4.8 gallons
Price            $9,999

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