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2008 KTM RC8 1190: MD First Road and Track Test

With Jeremy McWilliams

Our effort at the 2008 KTM RC8 1190 press intro was a tag team of Tor Sagen (focused on the road) and Jeremy McWilliams (focused on the Ascari track). Let’s start with Tor’s report.

KTM showed us the very first concept of the RC8 at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2003. The Austrians are aggressive in their marketing strategy and choosing Tokyo was a nice little statement aimed at the Japanese big four. KTM wants to make a big splash with the RC8. It says in big bold orange letters that if we can beat you offroad, we can beat you on the road too.

The RC8 started out as a 999cc V-twin, and then it became a 990cc V4. KTM then scrapped everything done before and developed a brand new V75 1148cc twin from scratch in 30 months. In the last two years KTM have lobbied with Ducati to get the current WSB regulation changes through to allow the 1200cc super twins to compete.

The real competition right now is on the road, where the RC8 1190 is aimed directly at the mid-level Ducati 1098S, at a lower price than the standard 1098. As a matter of fact, Mattighofen engineers have aimed very precisely and the RC8 1190 purportedly makes exactly the same rear wheel horsepower as the 1098S. A source also told me exclusively that KTM have purchased not one, but two brand new Ducati 1098R’s for study (this is not unusual as every manufacturer study their competition). But both a BMW and an Aprilia 4-cylinder superbike will soon be playing in this arena, as well. World superbike racing will be extremely interesting in 2009.

Arriving at Ascari I can see around 50 spanking new RC8’s lined up waiting for the world press. Half of the bikes have got license plates and mirrors, while the other half are primed for the track test.

Following Jeremy McWilliams advice, I opt to do the road ride first thing in the morning to allow the sun to warm up the very long Ascari race circuit. It’s February and the weather conditions are not always very warm or dry in this part of Spain. Ronda is high up in the mountains and it was cold this morning.

Twisting the ignition key for the first time the orange instrument panel fires up very fast. I push the starter button and cherish the moment which will go into motorcycle history. The RC8 with its extremely distinct styling is already iconic. The 1148cc V-twin fires up straight away despite the cold air and . . . it sounds great!!

My first impression of the seat and riding position is that of a sportbike slightly less extreme. I have a feeling that I am sitting more in the middle of the bike rather than on top of the front wheel. I adjust the mirrors that also house the front blinkers. The mirrors are easily adjusted and fairly big for a sportbike.

I do my first few miles up into the mountains where the roads are fast at first before more and more corners keep me entertained. The power delivery feels completely civilised and the RC8 is easy to ride on the roads. The Pirelli Diablo Super Corsas provide plenty of grip and feedback through WP’s top notch suspension. WP have just been outsourced from KTM to allow the firm to develop further and also to offer both Ohlins, Marzocchi and Showa some more competition in the wider market. Our onsite WP technician recommended three different settings on the fully adjustable suspension, which were referenced as standard, medium and sport. All the road bikes were set up as standard.

This worked great for me on the road as even the standard setting allowed me to extract all the feedback I needed on the day. I can imagine that the bike will feel quite firm on the road for a rider lighter than me. Austrians are typically of fairly solid build just like us Scandinavians, and for a 6 foot something weighing around 90 kilos (198 lbs.) the RC8 is an absolutely lovely superbike on the roads. Not only is the WP rear mono shock very good, the layout and look from behind is as tidy as I have ever seen on any bike.

Snaking around the engine is a beefy looking, but light, steel tubular frame. The V75 heart is shorter than a V90, and this also allows for a shorter chassis and more space for efficient cooling up front. The trellis frame feels livelier than on a lazier steering Ducati without compromising stability. Mass centralisation is key here and a Buell style under-engine stainless steel exhaust is in place. This contributes to a low center of gravity and a very flickable motorcycle. The steering lock is so wide that my gloves kept touching the mirrors when turning around for the photographers on the road. The RC8 steers in a positive and accurate manner. A double-sided aluminium swingarm takes care of the power put down by the cast aluminium rear wheel.

Wheelies require clutch ups in second gear. The RC8 has more than enough power to wheelie from here to the moon, but inexperienced riders don’t have to worry about involuntary monos. Doing some wheelies, I also found out that the speed sensor sits at the front wheel.

The radial Brembo monoblocks are pure overkill on the road and fantastic on Ascari. Brushing off 200km/h + speeds (124 mph +) into vicious hair bend corners is child’s play and only the 43mm USD WP fork offers any limit to modulation and feel.

Someone might want to murder me for saying this, but one of my thoughts was that the RC8 is the perfect merger of a Triumph Sprint ST and Ducati 1098. Much more 1098 than ST of course, but to illustrate the point that the new 1190 is ergonomically pretty much the perfect road racer. The distance from the foot pegs to my knees hugging that orange matt fuel tank, and from the roomy seat to the not-so-extreme handlebar position suited me perfectly.

All motorcycles are different and they all vibrate more or less depending on engine characteristics and chassis. Sometimes I ride a new bike and hardly notice any vibration at all. Then I stop for the first time and my hands can shake violently from exposure to high frequency vibrations. The RC8 1190 hardly transmits any vibration at all to the handlebar, but some fairly noticeable vibration reached my boots through the footpegs. Later in the afternoon, I rode the RC8 on Ascari without noticing any vibration worth mentioning. The likely reason for this is that KTM had a different set-up on the track bike. The adjustable foot pegs were mounted higher and on a race track a motorcycle generally moves around a lot more than on the road. There’s a thousand things happening at the same time and even if there had been some vibration I wouldn’t have bothered to notice.

That brings me over to the cause of those vibrations, the mighty 1148cc V75 twin engine. If there was one thing about the RC8 1190 project that gave me doubts, it was the engine. I expected a rather “raw” and “metallic” engine feel and sound. Nothing like the smooth-running, hearty rumble I was greeted with. I had expected less from KTM’s first ever high performance superbike! The engine is a stonker and so fabulously useable with generous reserves. The engine produces more than a claimed 160 horsepower at the crank and KTM engineers told me that the RC8 1190 produces the same amount of rear wheel horsepower as the benchmark Ducati 1098S. Peak power is reached at 10,000 rpm and a healthy 120Nm of torque is swirling through the machine at exactly 8 grand. The fuel injection obeys the throttle as it should, but drop down to 3,000 rpm in town and it gets a bit argumentative.

The gear box seems to be a heavy-duty indestructible one . . . but also a bit crude as the whole bike shook the first time I engaged first from neutral. These test bikes of ours were still tight with only about 150 miles on the odos, but I can safely state that the tranny is not of Japanese finesse just yet. Slightly more positive usage of my toe-tips was required. You can compare it to slicing through butter with a cold knife rather than a hot knife. The transmission otherwise worked perfectly, and with such a powerful engine you can use high gears with excellent drive.

KTM boldly claims that their RC8 1190 is the lightest in its class with 188 kilo (413 lbs.) ready-to-race weight. That’s a claimed weight without the 16.5 litres of fuel, but with all other fluids and battery included. Ducati’s standard 1098 has a claimed 173 kilo (381 lbs.) dry weight. Add about 10 kilos to that for the battery, oil and coolant and the 1098 should still be slightly lighter on paper, at least. The difference should be small, and the feel of the KTM RC8 1190 is of a light enough bike anyway, so the comparison is rather academic.

No manufacturer can afford to launch such a product to the market and get it wrong. Still, that has happened before and will happen again. But by the looks of it, it will not happen to KTM. In 2005 Stefan Pierer gave the green light, two-and-a-half years later this bike that I am riding today is ready in every sense! That’s astonishing considering all the development effort I can appreciate while riding. I can’t fault the RC8 on one single major element, and the design is so thoughtful. All the road livery has been designed to be removed easily for track days. Not only are the mirrors and number plate holder easy to remove (both house blinkers) the bike also looks very tidy when ready to race. KTM really have worked overtime on this one!

The RC8 1190 has evidently been fitted with a very fast computer. The fire up routine is over and done with in about a second. If only my laptop were that quick! The RC8 instrument panel deserves mention and it features a host of functions. To mention only a few; clock, trip, digital rev counter and speedo, and an easy to use lap timer. The bikes are delivered with both a pillion seat and pillion pegs, but in a bag. If you are an egocentric track day fanatic, you could possibly get away with lying to your girlfriend about the bike being a monoposto.

Let me begin by congratulating KTM for producing what looks to be a very competitive package from day 1. This is no small accomplishment in this segment. The RC8 1190 is a true dream bike that you can stare at for hours. At the same time, it’s very composed and easy to ride despite big horsepower and low weight. I could easily live with the foot peg vibration and somewhat clunky (but positive) gear box since the rest is so good. KTM have passed the big test with an A+.

Neutral and solid handling with minimal muscle needed for directional change
The V75 engine layout with plenty of power and potential
Distinctive European design that shouts KTM

Vibrating foot pegs
Gear box could be smoother

Now, some thoughts from former MotoGP racer Jeremy McWilliams on his Ascari track test of the RC8 1190.

The KTM RC8 ride in Ascari was another good experience, and a great bike to ride in my view. I’ve ridden plenty of twins and all of them have their own special traits. This one has a character of it’s own in the new era of oversized (more than 1000cc twins).

I like the fact that I believe anyone could ride this bike, whether in anger or a jaunt through the back roads. It’s one of the most well behaved sports bikes of its generation and not in the typical sport bike fashion. Rather than ass-in-the-air full race prone position, the ergos seem to be between sports and sport tourer. The bars are level with the top yoke and not below.

To really understand the KTM RC8 1190 I believe a test should be approached a bit like you would a qualifying lap on the track and, in contrast, a Sunday run on the road. I got the qualifying lap end of the stick in Ascari and made the most of it. To begin with, this bike gives the impression that all the weight is low. It looks shorter than I’d expected, and the exhaust neatly hangs underneath giving the impression that much time has been spent making the whole package compact. When ridden the feeling is of a bike that has most of its mass centralized but not so low that direction changes are difficult.

When pushed, the RC8 feels like it’s stuck to the track like glue. The Pirelli Super Corsas seem to suit the geometry of this bike perfectly, but don’t compromise handling in any way. On corner entry this 1190 (actually 1148 and 188kg’s) is razor sharp . . . enough so that I find myself turning in a little early. Given that the bike turned so accurately on corner entry with minimal physical input, my expectations of stability weren’t high . . . how wrong. As hard as I pushed I couldn’t get a weave or a protest, and even jumping the not-so-flat kerbs in Ascari didn’t give any indication of impending disaster. I checked the neat WP steering damper to see what setting the tech’s had decided might help save the gaggle of mad journos. The damper was on zero and never needed adjustment all day — this chassis is very good. The suspension options (Standard, Medium and Sport) were nice,but it would take a very fast or fussy rider to feel that the standard or medium setting wasn’t for them. My preference was medium rear and sport front, just to help in the hard braking areas.

Another feature I appreciated was the anti-hop system derived from KTM’s MotoGP experience, where on hard downshifting the back doesn’t come around to greet the front. Handy if you’ve stepped into panic mode involuntarily and backed into first when third would’ve been adequate. The wheel speed differences are calculated super quick, and when the back wants to lock up a servo motor on one of the butterflies opens and adds just enough fuel to get you out of trouble. The digital dash is easy to get on with; the change light is there only to remind that the optimum change was probably 500rpm back. The motor does not need to be screwed to the red line in any gear. It worked best for me changing at approximately 9,750 as the spread of torque is best from about 7,000 all the way to 10,000 rpm. Transmission ratios are spot on, but with only about 150 miles on the bikes a positive effort is needed. Despite that, this box feels like its bullet proof.

As this RC8 1190 is KTM’s first venture into the sport bike market it would be fair to say this is a seriously good effort. The lines are very KTM . . . sharp, angular and aggressive. This bike rides and feels a lot like its looks . . .