It had been two years since I last rode the factory Aprilia RSV4 superbike back in Max Biaggi’s half-point title-winning season, and the difference in setup and architecture between his, and 2014 World Superbike Champion Sylvain Guintoli’s bike, was immediately noticeable once I hopped aboard at Autodromo Internazionale del Mugello in Tuscany, Italy.
Compared to Biaggi’s very-1990s stance, with a thick rear seat pad to push himself forward to load up the front wheel with his body weight by putting his chin over the upper triple clamp, the French world champion’s title-winner has a much more rational riding position. I could feel I was sitting lower in the Aprilia, which also felt longer but still pretty slim, plus it didn’t feel quite as nervous as the Biaggi bike.
Best of all, it had a race-pattern gear change, rather than the street-pattern shift that Biaggi never persuaded himself to stop using. But that impression wasn’t just down to the riding position, as I discovered in my post-ride debrief with Romano Albesiano, who was the man responsible for overseeing the creation of the RSV4 when development began back in 2005.
“For 2014 we altered the chassis geometry to get better race pace, at the expense of qualifying times,” said Aprilia Racing Manager Romano Albesiano, who stepped in to replace Gigi Dall’Igna who left for Ducati after the 2013 season.
“So, the bike is indeed lower and has a longer wheelbase [up from 56.9 to 57.6 inches], with more conservative steering geometry [24.8-degree head angle with 4.2 inches of trail] aimed at increasing rear tire life.”
Aprilia also found more top end horsepower, with over 240 horses at the gearbox at 15,000 rpm according to Romano — 10 horsepower more than before, but at the expense of a little less down low. But, with that many revs to play with, it’s hardly a problem. Guintoli told me that he lets the bike run as low as 5000 rpm in slow turns like Strubben at Assen, or Turn One at Sepang. At Mugello, I was using 7000 rpm as a baseline to exit a tight turn like the Correntaio right-hander.
At the other end of the rev scale, the soft rev limiter kicks in at 15,500 rpm; this year, for the first time, there’s an extra 300 rpm over-rev available for a last lap dash, if needed. However, the biggest advance in 2014 was in the team’s electronic package, according to Albesiano: “Things changed a lot in just one year,” he says. “We developed new strategies which we kept building on all through the season. I think that was why we were able to mount such a serious challenge for the World title in the final races; we were increasingly better able to use the performance that we had built into the bike.”
Having been given the keys to all the factory Superbikes year on year means that I’m able to compare and contrast the latest and greatest with each other, as well as with what came before. Very honestly, the 2014 Aprilia is the best such motorcycle I’ve yet rid- den, as an infinitely refined version of what was already a brilliant bike. It is phenomenally fast, yet, if not exactly easy to ride, it’s at least improbably controllable and super confidence inspiring, with a linear but explosive build of power from way low to way high.
The RSV4 is so refined — that word again — in the way it delivers such serious horsepower. The transition point at which the variable length intake system operates was raised this year to 12,000 rpm from 10,500 rpm, yet it is completely undetectable when the throttle body trumpets lift off them at those revs. It’s just seamless as it does so, and I was indeed looking to try to spot it, but couldn’t.
Whereas in the past the payoff for the Aprilia’s amazing acceleration and blinding top speed was a fierce pickup from a closed throttle that was just the controllable side of aggressive thanks to electronics, the 2014 Manufacturers World Championship Superbike has a softer, but no less effective, low down throttle response.
While revised valve timing, altered cylinder head porting and other detail engine mods have delivered that significant step up in horsepower, it’s not been at the expense of rideability – quite the reverse, in fact. You can understand why Aprilia decided to keep its software in house and just use Magneti Marelli hardware, rather than risk the fruits of their work being shared out among Marelli’s other customers — as in most of the rest of the SBK paddock!
This has led to still better drive out of a slow turn, as well as a broader spread of midrange torque, such as when exiting the Casanova right-hander at Mugello and plunging downhill through the Savelli sweeper before shifting up a gear. Your signal to do so is the row of five green shifter lights on the dash which light up all together at 15,200 revs, telling you emphatically to change gear.
The ultra-distinctive flat drone from the Aprilia’s carbon-wrap Akrapovič exhaust alters an octave in pitch as you shift-up wide-open without touching the clutch lever, as per normal with the slick powershifter.
When the time comes to stand on the so-effective Brembo Monoblock brakes for the second-gear Scarperia chicane, you just keep your hand clamped to the left handlebar and resist any temptation to touch the clutch lever. Just tap the race-pattern gearshift with your toe as the V-4 engine gives a melodic little blip, and let the Aprilia’s brilliantly programmed auto-blipper do its job in downshifting while you just focus on getting your line right. Magic!
Indeed, the whole Aprilia engine package is so strong, providing outstanding drive out of a turn practically irrespective of how many revs you throw at it. I tried lapping Mugello in predominantly third gear first of all, and then used fourth in a couple of places, but without going any faster.
It was better to hold a gear for several corners in succession, to surf that mile-wide ocean of power and torque from the droning V-4 motor, and to focus on hitting my braking marks and getting my line right, before getting an early drive out of the turn, trusting in the finely tuned electronics to help hook up the rear Pirelli for a slingshot exit.
Then, come the kilometer-long pit straight, I was ready for the sixth-gear power wheelie I’d expected to get each lap when cresting the little rise towards the end of the straight, soon after hitting top gear close to maximum torque.
Last time I rode the RSV4 at Mugello, that happened to me for the first time at over 180 mph, according to the telemetry. I nearly crashed because I did everything wrong, including backing off the gas. This time, I was ready for it with my foot hovering over the rear brake lever to stifle the lift in its infancy — except, I was going even faster, and it still didn’t happen!
It turns out that Aprilia now has a much-enhanced anti- wheelie program in its electronics package, precisely to stop stuff like that from happening. That’s not to say the front wheel still doesn’t lift slightly off the ground as you wind the throttle hard open in third gear when exiting the Poggio Secco chicane. But, it is totally controlled, and the handlebars just wiggle slightly in your hand without affecting your forward drive in any way.
As ever, this is a very, very fast motorcycle, and it’s smooth with it, thanks to the balance weights in the handlebar ends and the single gear-driven counterbalancer. There’s no undue vibration from the V-4 Superbike motor, just a sense of genuine performance from this ultra-individual powerplant.
The RSV4 has one of the most distinctive-sounding Superbike engines yet made, issuing a unique meaty burble at low revs from the Akrapovič carbon can, which transforms itself into a gruff howl at high rpm; as always, it sounds like a high- pitched twin low down, but a deep-voiced four up high.
You don’t even need to make sure you heavy-up the footrests and push your body weight forward to load up the front wheel like before. The electronics have taken care of it, and you have power and torque to spare to afford the luxury of their doing so. Pity, as I was looking forward to getting just a little bit frightened by pulling sixth-gear power wheelies this time around!
Instead, I got seriously impressed by how much performance Aprilia’s engineers have managed to deliver so controllably, in a bike which is that rare best of both worlds — one that steers with more than acceptable agility through the quartet of Mugello chicanes, yet is ultra-stable on the power. Well, okay, I admit I was feathering it through Arrabbiata Uno, ’round fast sweepers like Savelli, and the long, long Bucine final turn.
I wouldn’t call the Aprilia exactly nimble, as I was riding Chaz Davies’ Ducati Panigale the same day, and that did indeed flick from side to side better than the Aprilia. But, the V-4 took no prisoners once you switched on the power and hooked up the rear Pirelli, to the point I got taught a lesson in how to ride the bike properly by wearing out the soft-compound SCO rear tire I’d been given, in just a handful of laps.
“I had to consciously change my riding style when I came to ride the Aprilia after two seasons on a Ducatgi,” said Guintoli afterwards, “and you raced one for so long you need the same adjustment! On the Ducati, I used a lot of lean angle, and big sweeping lines to keep up turn speed, like on the 250GP bike I raced for 10 years. But, with the Aprilia, you must lift it up exiting a bend to use the fat part of the tire to preserve its life. That way you can maximize use of the true strength of the bike, which is its acceleration and power delivery, especially on used tires.”
As ever, where the ultra-compact RSV4 really scores in terms of handling compared to any other four-cylinder Superbike, is the way it steers and changes direction from side-to-side so easily, making this a less tiring bike to race. In spite of the rangy wheelbase, the Aprilia turns more easily than the inline fours, thanks to the compacted mass of its unique V-4 architecture. That in turn makes it a controllable-seeming, confidence inspiring motorcycle that’s a deserved three-time World champion.
The combination of the ECU’s variable idle-speed program and the mechanical slipper clutch work well together in harnessing engine braking from high-speed at the end of that kilometer-long straight, with no trace of rear wheel chatter.
I found quite a bit more engine braking than I expected, perhaps reflecting Sylvain’s immediate Ducati heritage compared to Biaggi’s 250GP ancestry, which also helped stop the bike so hard and late.
It’s no longer crucial to use the rear brake first, to load up the back, before braking all-out from high speed to try to counter any instability. This year, there was no trace of the Aprilia’s rear wheel lifting in the air and street-sweeping the tarmac, as has happened to me in the past when riding the RSV4 — it is a weakness that was addressed during the 2012 season, and has now been fixed for good.
So as Aprilia’s six-year factory participation in World Superbike racing comes to an end with its third Riders title, it is appropriate to assess this unique motorcycle in the rear view mirror of history. With seven World Championship titles (three Riders and four Manufacturers), a total of 41 race wins, another 89 podium finishes, and 10 pole positions, this remarkable bike has clearly been the class of the Superbike field at the highest level, ever since it was created with the intention of dominating first on the racetrack, and then the showroom.
Due to the introduction of the new more-restrictive SBK rules for 2015, it is certain the Aprilia will go down in history as the benchmark Superbike — the fastest, most powerful streetbike-derived racer ever built. It is an achievement that yields satisfaction, but also frustration for Aprilia and its supporters.
“Back in 2005 Piaggio decided to go Superbike racing with a four-cylinder motorcycle to replace the RSV1000 V-twin we used before,” says Albesiano, whose previous job as Piaggio’s Motorcycle Product Director gave him the overall responsibility for delivering all new Aprilia and Moto Guzzi street bikes. “So before beginning work on the RSV4, Gigi Dall’Igna and I sat down together to make a list of all the features we needed to include on the production streetbike that would help make the Superbike race version competitive.”
“We’d already decided on a narrow-angle V-4 engine, but we wanted a much bigger bore than was normal back then for more revs with a shorter stroke, as well as other things like a ride-by-wire throttle with two separate motors, a cassette gearbox, and an adjustable chas- sis in which the engine could be moved around and the swingarm pivot and steering geometry altered, all of which the street RSV4 model, giving rise to this Super- bike racer, indeed has,” Albesiano explains.
“The philosophy of the RSV4 is that it’s a racebike with lights that any customer can buy at a reasonable cost and ride to the shops on, but which has the basis to be turned into a cham- pionship-winning racebike in full compliance with SBK rules,” Albesiano says.
“It makes me very frustrated — angry, even — that Aprilia has this unjust image of a company that pulls unfair tricks to go Superbike racing with a MotoGP bike. No! We simply set out to produce a great streetbike, which gave birth to a Superbike racer which is fully compliant with the rules, and has now proved three times it’s the best Superbike money can buy.”
Can’t argue with that!
Note: Sylvain Guintoli switched to the Pata Honda Racing team for 2015 World SBK.
Photography by Kel Edge
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.
Sylvain Guintoli’s Aprilia RSV4 at Mugello Photo Gallery: