March 20, 2008 World Superbike racing is about to get a serious shake-up in 2009, as new heavyweight contenders step into the ring from BMW, Aprilia and KTM. MV Agusta is ramping up its superbike racing in domestic competitions worldwide, and you'd have to suspect Triumph is cooking a three-cylinder litrebike up as well, after the runaway success of the 675 triple. In WSBK 2008, it seems the Ducati 1098S, the fastest Ducati ever with Australia's Troy Bayliss on board, is already standing out the bike to beat - and that's exactly the way KTM have approached the development of their 1148cc v-twin RC8 superbike, which weighs in, on both the scales and the dyno, as an absolute equal to the slippery Ducati.
Things are looking up for World Superbike competition - as MotoGP grids shrink due to the extreme expense of prototype competition, SBK is receiving an injection of top-name ex-GP riders like Max Biaggi, Carlos Checa and Ruben Xaus, as well as a very exciting influx of jaw-dropping new machinery from well-established racing dynasties like BMW and Aprilia. But young Austrian upstart KTM has got its superbike built and launched well in advance of the other companies, and it looks extremely promising.
KTM stood with Ducati to lobby for WSBK rule changes to allow 1200cc twins to compete with 1000cc fours - and the resulting situation seems to have worked out in favour of the oversize twins, with Ducati 1098s sitting at first and third on the championship table after round two of the 2008 series, and Bayliss widely backed to take out his swansong championship before retiring at the end of the season.
KTM has proven its roadracing mettle and hunger in the 125 and 250GP classes, and while its initial attempt to build a MotoGP engine may have been ill-fated, the company's roadbikes have gone from strength to strength in recent years. Still, the exceptional performance of the RC8 superbike has taken many by surprise upon its recent launch.
The 1148cc v-twin engine matches the 1098S on the dyno with an impressive 150-odd horsepower at the rear wheel. It's also very light, at 188kg ready to race, but without fuel, which should put it right on par with the Ducati as well. The motor is both powerful and extremely smooth and refined, according to initial tests.
A heavy slipper clutch has been avoided in favour of a smart software-based system that calculates when the rear wheel is dealing with excessive downshifting or compression braking forces, and then adds a trickle of fuel to stop the wheel from sliding. By all reports, this MotoGP-derived technology works very well on the track.
Road riders will appreciate the surprisingly comfortable riding position, which some testers have claimed will make the RC8 as good a tourer as it is a fire-breathing superbike - but the 16.5 litre tank, combined with the big twin tendency to gobble fuel, will probably only get you 200km between fuel stops - and that's if you're behaving yourself.
WP provide quality suspension at either end, with all the adjustability you'd expect, and there's also an adjustable steering damper - although the bike's excellent front-end stability and well-balanced weight would seem to render it irrelevant. The Brembo brakes are superb as always. This bike, fresh off the drawing board in its first incarnation, has made a big impression both on road and track launches.
While the roadbike looks like it's more than a match for the table-topping Ducati, KTM won't be able to draw on the decades of top-level racing development that the Italian factory has lavished on its incredibly successful race program. Still, the prospect of a second oversize twin in SBK, against the japanese inline fours, the 207-horsepower Aprilia V-4 and whatever BMW brings to the table, is fantastic news for racing fans - let alone road riders. Bring it on!