The Rise and Fall of Twins: Prelude to a Test

July 14, 2004
By Brian Korfhage

Tired of getting stuffed  Don sets up on the inside of Korf.
The street portion of our 2004 V-Twin shootout drops on Friday, with the track portion arriving one week later.

Competition inspired V-Twins have been a part of racing since the days of banked wood ovals some 100 years ago. However, the modern high-performance Twin’s rise to popularity was expedited in 1988 when the World Superbike championship was founded. Four-cylinder machines were the dominant force at the time, revving higher and quicker than any other engine configuration.

However, at the time the rules were written for the zygotian racing series, the founders hoped to include one of Europe’s most popular and exotic brands, Ducati. The Italian manufacturer embraced the V-Twin engine configuration but would have difficulty competing with the Japanese bikes boasting four cylinders. The founding fathers of WSB made provisions to allow Ducati to enter their Twins in the series and would give them a 250cc displacement advantage. Therefore 750cc Fours would line up against Twins that boasted up to 1000cc of displacement.

The results of the rule weren’t felt immediately as Fred Merkel won the first two championships on the V-4 Honda RC30. However, the tides would change dramatically beginning in 1990 when Raymond Roche secured Ducati’s first world title aboard the Ducati 851. Over the course of the next 11 years Ducati would go on to win eight championships, with Honda taking two and Kawasaki just one.

During Ducati’s dominance the Italian manufacturer went through numerous displacement upgrades until they found a significant performance advantage with the advent of the 916, later enlarged to 955cc. Ducati would go on to create the 996 and 998 and all won titles.

Despite deep pockets and the best engineers, Honda had difficulty overcoming the displacement advantage of the Twin configuration so they decided if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Honda eventually emerged with the VTR1000SP1, or RC51, which boasted a 998cc liquid-cooled V-Twin engine. The results were nothing short of spectacular as Colin Edwards piloted Honda’s new race bike to a championship in its first year of competition. Ducati would regain the title one year later, but the RC51 was a mechanical tour de force boasting reliability, speed, and plenty of power.

Sorry  no inline fours allowed.
No inline fours allowed in this test.

One year after losing the WSB title to Troy Bayliss, Colin Edwards put in what is likely the most impressive comeback in the history of motorcycle racing and put the RC51 back on top in its final year of factory-supported racing in World Superbike in 2002.

Other manufacturers decided to follow Honda’s initial lead and built V-Twins that would compete for the WSB title. Aprilia eventually put former WSB champion Troy Corser and ultra-talented rider Noriyuki Haga on its RSV1000 SP. The special homologation Mille was instantly competitive with a strong powerplant and balanced chassis. It was clear as long as WSB rules gave Twins a displacement advantage the configuration would rule the Superbike world.

That displacement benefit ended in 2003 when the FIM changed the WSB rules to allow 1000cc four-cylinder machines to race against the 1000cc Twins. Limited factory involvement by the Japanese manufacturers left Ducati’s new 999R to take yet another world title in the hands of Neil Hodgson. But with little competition other than older generation Ducati machines like the 998F02, the 2003 championship seemed a bit empty.

This season, the promise of four-cylinder domination is at its advent, with Chris Vermeulen riding the Honda CBR1000RR to several race wins against the factory Ducatis. So, before the Twins lose their place in the sun, we decided to bring the best of the V-Twins together to see how they stacked up in a formal shootout on the street and around the high-speed tarmac of Thunderhill raceway.

Tomorrow we drop the first installment of our 2004 V-Twin shootout, taking the Twins to the street to see which will emerge as the best machine for roads with signs, lines, and time. In another week we’ll post the track portion of our test, which is where these bikes were designed to run.

Can one bike take both portions, or will it be a split decision? Tune in on Friday and then one week later to see which will emerge as the king of the V-Twin superbikes.