– Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Honda 2002 RC51: MD Ride Review

I have been road racing motorcycles for more than two decades, off and on, and working as a technical writer in the military. When Dirck asked me to help him with testing bikes for MotorcycleDaily, I was, shall we say, ecstatic. Still am.

The fact that my first assignment was Honda’s RC51, World Superbike mount of former champ, Colin Edwards, and the bike Nicky Hayden rides (and frequently wins on, including, this year’s Daytona 200) here in the U.S., made me all the more pleased.

I have long coveted swinging a leg over this motorcycle. A good friend of mine in upstate N.Y. bought one of the first units in his area after my wholly unselfish (really, hehehe) urgings to buy one (he owned a ’95 Honda VFR 750 at the time). He bought one and liked it, but by this time I had been moved from the East Coast to the West by my company, the U.S. Marine Corps. Upon my return to the “real” Sunshine State (sorry Florida, too much rain), while making new friends, and reconnecting with friends made during previous stays in SoCal, I got close to my goal, but never quite into the seat.

As time passed, my lusting and longing for a “fling” with Honda’s now World Superbike Championship winning RC51 had waned. Like winning the office football pool, or getting a date with that hottie you have lived next door to for the past six months, it happens when you aren’t trying. As luck would have it, Dirck had a 2002 RC51, also known as the SP-2, in his stable that needed riding.

Looking at its profile, images of Nicky Hayden dragging his elbow at Mid Ohio, Kurtis Roberts dirt tracking his Erion Racing RC51 through the infield turns at Daytona, and the duo of Colin Edwards/Valentino Rossi putting everyone else on the trailer at the Suzuka 8 Hours race flash through the mind. The silver/red/black livery that Honda sprays on the U.S. model is a handsome combination, but is the only choice available.

Sitting on this bike tells you a couple things right away. It isn’t particularly light, and it isn’t about comfort. Fortunately, for Honda, this describes the competition in the 1000cc street-legal superbike category, as well. A review of its spec sheet brings back my memories of its predecessor, the RC45, which won the Superbike World Championship in ’97 with the aid of John Kocinski’s considerable talent.

Compared to its competition in the showroom, i.e., the Ducati 998 and Aprilia RSV1000R, the RC51 has a dry weight in the ballpark (it is roughly 8 pounds lighter for 2002). It has a bit less low-end/midrange power, but a seriously strong pull above 7,000 rpm (more about this below). Coupled with a ridiculously tall first (and the next five, actually) gear ratio and stiff, race track inspired suspension, you have a bike that would seem not so friendly to the masses of the less than world-caliber riders who would own it. But that is on paper, and numbers printed on a glossy brochure sometimes fall woefully short of communicating the character of a bike and the excitement of riding it – fast or otherwise.

Handling should be a strong suit of any motorcycle that owes its existence to the purpose of competition. Power without control is a liability, not an asset. The RC51 chassis ensures that every bhp and lb.ft. of torque can be used to full effect. Last year’s SP-1 was criticized for a harsh street ride. For 2002, Honda has changed the chassis and suspension. The 43mm forks receive new internals and valving, as does the shock, to smooth the ride a bit and give greater control. A larger diameter steering stem and greater bearing area in the steering head combine with the forks for a better connection between rider and tire contact patch. The swingarm is all new and much stiffer, along with being 16mm longer (not to mention being eye candy). New engine hangers (now forged, rather than cast) hold the motor more firmly, Lighter wheels mean less unsprung weight for the suspension to look after.

The 2002’s fuel system also got a good going over. Much larger throttle bodies (now 62mm vs. last year’s 54mm) work in conjunction with injectors that have 12 laser-drilled holes, rather than the SP-1’s injectors which have only four holes. Better atomization results, and better throttle response that doesn’t emulate an on/off switch follows. More carburetor-like is a good way to put it, and the friendlier transitions from closed to open throttle come in handy at high lean angles and in low traction situations (like in the rain, or on cold racetracks). Fuel mileage (if you care) remains dismal, however. Riding normally — not loony normal, but not DMV test normal either — will yield mileage figures in the low 30s. Expect mid-to-low 20s at the inevitable track day, so bring lots of fuel, or a fat(ish) wallet for $3 a gallon 100 octane.

Let’s ride, shall we?

Pulling away from a stop drives home the need for a stout clutch. The tall first gear demands above average rpms (at least 3500) for clean acceleration, along with good throttle/clutch modulation to avoid bogging. Hard launches do not raise fears of the front wheel lofting, the tall gearing sees to that (more teeth on the rear sprocket, please). Gear driven cams emit a pleasing, mechanical whine that any gear head (no pun intended) would appreciate.

Once fully underway, the motor feels rather soft down low and makes each of its power pulses felt. The motor does not pull hard until the LCD bar graph tachometer sweeps to 5500 rpm. Once there, the motor wipes its eyes and begins clearing its throat. At 6500 rpm the bike’s urgency increases rapidly and the power pulses melt into a heavy machine gun rapid fire. Under full throttle the intake noise through the massive, centered, ram air intake is invigorating and at 7000 rpm the bike practically explodes in a fury of acceleration. I caught myself revving out first gear just to hear the intake and feel the rush to redline. This is a very cammy v-twin, and not the sort of power delivery I was expecting, given the tales about v-twins and massive low-end torque for meaty drives out of corners. Very exciting, though!

The tachometer reaches redline in the blink of an eye once it gets above 7,000 rpm, and the rev limiter that cuts fuel delivery well into redline puts a temporary end to the party until revs fall back below 10,000 rpm. Fingers on the clutch lever (optional in this case), a toe under the shifter and quick throttle hand reflexes will get you from first to sixth gear in slick, positive and precise fashion. This is one of the best Honda transmissions I’ve experienced, despite the low mileage of the motor.

Throttle response is excellent – immediate, but not snatchy – and with smooth transitions. Tall gearing means that in sixth gear, with 4500 rpm showing on the tach you’re traveling an indicated 87 mph. Despite settings for preload and damping at the soft end of adjustment, it remains a taught, and slightly harsh ride, although experimenting with the preload and damping reveals a workable street setting that does not beat you up (as badly). I weigh in at 190 with gear on the body, and *ahem* (this means you, Dirck), heavier riders seem to like the suspension better.

Steering is not light, and not heavy, either. Somewhere in between is the best way to describe it. Transitions in chicanes at a racetrack are hard work if you mean to maintain speed. The plus side of this is the steering masks unintended rider inputs, allowing the suspension to remain focused on absorbing bumps. Also, the bike absolutely refuses to budge when encountering mid-corner bumps, even larger ones. Let’s just say that decisive inputs to the bars, weight shift with the pegs and follow-through yields quick, accurate changes of direction. Stability on the fantastic fade-free brakes is extremely good, and inspires confidence while trail braking deep into fast corners. The Dunlop DOT 208 tires are a good part of this as well. The downside of this is that you’ll need to visit the gym a little more often, and work out a little harder to fully exploit the bike’s new chassis in this respect.

Riding the bike hard during a track day at Fontana’s awesome California Speedway brought out only a couple negatives for me. Adjusting the suspension from street settings to stiffer, track oriented settings after the first exploratory session made the bike feel much more precise, but the adjustments could not mask the abundant weight. I understand that the bike is over-engineered in stock form (so it can be hammered by World and National Championship Superbike racers), but as mentioned before, it’s a lot of work through the tighter stuff lap after lap, flicking the bike through the many chicanes sprinkled around the course.

The valving that felt harsh on the street felt better at the track, but I think that valving with less high speed compression damping coupled with stiffer springs would be better. More so here than on the street, stability on the brakes is exemplary. Working the brakes hard enough to bottom the forks (on nearly maxed out preload) failed to upset the bike, and there seemed little tendency for the bike to stand up while trail braking to the apex.

Rear ride height is adjustable by inserting different thickness shims above the shock/below the frame mount. This bike could use a fair bit more rear ride height, but the difficulty in adjusting it made it less of an issue. A threaded adjuster would make adjustments quicker and easier and reduce the toll of lost seat time on the track.

The other gripe is that the gearing kills the drive out of slower corners; so at least 3 more teeth on the back sprocket would be a good starting point to cure that problem. The throttle requires quite a bit of rotation from closed to fully open, and causes the rider to have to adjust their grip half way through a gear to get to WFO. A quarter turn unit would be an appropriate addition to this bike.

Power is very controllable. This became clear during the first session. Wheel spin came often and early. The revised fuel injection system, strengthened chassis and the ever predictable rear Dunlop all worked together to give me a bike that would give clear and early warning that traction limits are near. Throttle modulation kept things in check and made for entertaining corner exits! Dial a slide. . .

Ground clearance is limited by the extra long peg feelers, but they are easily removable. I used the feelers as a performance limiter, and it happened to work out that the rear tire would give its warning not long after they touched down, due in part to the cold and “green” track surface that didn’t have much rubber laid on it.

Notice that front end traction was never addressed. It was never an issue. The front Dunlop stuck well and communicated every pavement ripple through the revalved and resprung forks. Howling in protest to heavy braking into turns 5 and 12, the tire let me know that the limit was near (and that a crash truck could be in my future), but it never folded. Very confidence inspiring.

Under hard acceleration out of the infield portion of the course onto the banked, Daytona-style front straight, the handlebars would wag a little at the pavement transition if I held the handlebars too tightly, or did not have my weight forward and up against the gas tank. The bars would also wag slightly during the left-right-left transition through the chicane coming off of the front straight, but it never got out of hand and never caused any worry.

As far as creature comforts go, there really aren’t many in the V-twin superbike class. The RC51 probably splits the difference between the notoriously uncomfortable Ducati 998 and the eminently streetable Aprilia Mille. Low clip-on bars, high, rear-set pegs fold you up into a position that makes sense on the track, less so on the street, but it is not unbearable. The fairing (significantly taller for 2002) provides good wind protection only in a full racer crouch, but this works to your advantage, with the wind blast taking the weight off of your wrists at highway speeds.

Just sail into a corner on the brakes, plant your well-worn knee slider on the tarmac, open the throttle just before the apex, start standing the bike up just after the apex, feed in more throttle and feel the rear tire dig in and claw at the pavement for the drive forward . . . and you won’t notice the aching wrists, knees or butt, because now you’re chasing Nicky Hayden, Miguel Duhamel, Kenny Roberts, et al. . . . The V-twin superbike class is for the fully committed (to sport riding, not to an institution) rider, and the updated 2002 RC51 fills the bill quite nicely.

U.S. MSRP is $10,999. Visit Honda’s web site for further details and specifications.

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