10 Best WSBK Bikes Ever
Jul 09, 2023
Homologated from their road-going versions, WSBK motorcycles are at a different level altogether
Established in 1988, Dorna Sports has been the driving force behind the FIM Road Racing World Championship Grand Prix (MotoGP) since 1991. Over time, Dorna has expanded its focus to include other prestigious motorcycle racing championships, including the MOTUL FIM Superbike World Championship (WorldSBK).
World Superbike (WSBK) motorcycles are closely related to the ones you find in dealership showrooms. The rules of WSBK lie in homologating these machines, making it essential for manufacturers to produce a minimum number of units for them to be eligible for racing. While based on its road-going counterparts, WSBK regulations do allow modifications that take their performance to the next level, but within reason. Factory machines have advanced components that extend to suspension, fuel injection, exhaust systems, engine management, and electronics. Stock motorcycles are not that far behind in engine performance and top speed, but the WSBK machines have an edge when it comes to adjusting power, thanks to factory electronics that are better than their mildly primitive counterparts.
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Honda’s RC30, also known as the VFR750R was specifically homologated in 1987 in Japan with an initial production run of 1000 machines as a limited-edition motorcycle to race in competition. Like all Hondas, it handled well, with a chassis almost similar to its endurance racers making over 130 horsepower close to its terminal redline of 12,500rpm
The 90°, liquid-cooled, V4, RC30 featured a 360° crank where both the front and rear cylinders pistons moved between the top and the bottom of the bore together as compared to the Honda VFR750F’s 180° version, giving it better acceleration out of corners. The iron sleeves that housed the pistons were pressed into the upper half of a horizontally-split crankcase, while the camshafts ran in needle-roller and roller bearings and the cylinder head’s 16-titanium valves were operated by lightweight hardened alloy shim buckets instead of rocker arms – fewer parts for wear, no more valve bounce or popped-out shims at high-revs. Given its impressive tech for its time, Fred Merkel would go on to win consecutive World Superbike championships in 1988 and 1989.
Launched in 1987, the Ducati 851 development was based on Massimo Bordi’s 4V Desmo thesis and was a successor to the air-cooled two-valve Ducati 750 F1. It was based on the Pantah motor but with water-cooling, fuel injection, and desmodromic, two four-valve heads. The Ducati 851 dual overhead cams were belt-driven for each four-valved cylinder using Ducati’s desmodromic valve actuation system, where the valves are opened by cam lobes and L-shaped rocker arms with forked tips that rest underneath a collar on the valve stem mechanically pull the valves shut. It also utilized a Weber fuel-injection system instead of carburetion in conjunction with a Marelli Control Unit, similar to what is used on a Ferrari Formula One race car.
The turning point arrived in 1990 when Ducati secured its first world championship with French rider, Raymond Roche. The next year, Ducati continued its victorious streak by boring out the 851 which weighed 309 lbs (140 kg) The 888 made 136 horsepower at 10,500 rpm, maxing out at 275 Km/hr. In the same year and next, Ducati won the WSBK Championship with American rider, Doug Polen.
The iconic Ducati 916 was a development of the liquid-cooled, desmodromic 8-valve 851 V-twin line of 1988 designed by Massimo Taburini and his team at the Cagiva Research Center in San Marino. The Desmoquattro engine was an over-bored version of the Ducati 888 which was accomplished by increasing the crankshaft stroke from 64mm to 66mm while retaining the 94 mm bore size of its predecessor.
The chassis design consisted of a chrome-moly steel trellis frame and an aluminum sub-frame with a second rear engine mount added for strength and rigidity, unlike previous Ducati frames that were one piece. The WSBK 916 made 150 horsepower at 11,000rpm and featured a Weber-Fuel Injection system, 37mm and 31mm intake and exhaust valves, and an Öhlins-based suspension setup. The 916 won a row of World Superbike Championships from 1994 to 1996 and 1998 with Carl Fogarty and Troy Corser (1996).
In 1999, Carl Fogarty would go on to secure yet another World Superbike Championship aboard the factory Ducati 996, while Troy Bayliss followed suit in 2001.
Fogarty’s championship-winning 257 lb Factory bike made 158 horsepower at 11,200 rpm which may appear modest by today’s standards, but it marked a substantial 41 horsepower increase over the stock 996. Its chassis featured adjustable steering geometry, offering a 25 mm - 31mm range of fork offset adjustment via magnesium triple trees, that provided an increase or decrease in trail from 98 – 109mm, and a rake adjustment between 23.5° and 24.5°. The 996 also boasted the latest Öhlins GP type forks and an Öhlins TT4 rear shock absorber.
From 1990, Ducati dominated the World Superbike Championships untill 2001 with nine championship wins. Honda would go on to win in 2002 on the RC51, but in 2003, Ducati introduced the homologated Ducati 999 as the successor to the 998. It fundamentally shared the same components in terms of engineering as that of the 998 – the Testastretta engine, tubular frame, and under-seat exhaust.
The bike may have been a bit unwieldy at first, but Ducati improved the chassis by using a removable frame spar that acted as a tuning tool – for smooth tracks it was fitted for better precision while on bumpy tracks it was removed for better comfort in addition to the Michelins being the equalizer in the equation. Neil Hodgson’s 2003 WSBK Championship win on the Fila-sponsored F03 (999) had electronic intake manifold injection, desmodromic valve actuation, a bore and stroke of 104mm x 58.8mm, weighed just 364 lbs (165 kg), generated 194 horsepower at 12,500rpm, and had a top speed of 312km/hr. James Toseland’s 999 bike faced a major change the next year with WorldSBK becoming the first championship to switch tires from Michelin to Pirelli, not something Toseland would get used to in a hurry, having ridden the 998s on Michelins while with the British GSE Team. Once the Factory team found the correct setup for his bike with the Pirellis (using a 28mm offset, 24.5° head angle), Toseland would go on to win the 2004 WSBK championship having won only 4 races of the 11 rounds and Troy Bayliss would win in 2006.
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When Honda made the decision to forego the V4 configuration in favor of a V-Twin, the 999cc SP1 twin (also known as the VTR1000R and RC51 in the United States) was not specifically homologated just for superbike races, though Honda had been struggling against Ducati since Merkel’s and Kocinski’s last wins for Honda came in 1989 and 1990 respectively.
Weighing in at 356 lbs, Colin Edwards’s Castrol-backed works SP1 machine outputted 180 horsepower, featuring a relatively upright single crank with a pair of four-valve heads, each cylinder of which was fed by two fuel injectors. With a high compression ratio and gears operating the valves instead of a camchain, the SP1’s most notable feature was its intake system feeding the fuel injection via a central main duct from a fairing slot between the headlights, through a special aluminum steering head casting to the air-box. The SP1 competed in 2001 and 2002, while the SP2 version raced between 2002 and 2006, incorporating updated fuel injection and suspension. Colin Edwards would pilot both to victory in 2000 and 2002.
Troy Bayliss achieved a remarkable feat by doing what no other Ducati rider had done before - winning the WSBK Championship on three different generations of Ducati bikes - the 996 R in 2001, the 999 in 2006, and the 1098 (F08) in 2008.
The Ducati 1098 (F08) was derived from the 1098 R as a result of the WSBK's new regulations that allowed 1200cc two-cylinder bikes to compete against 1000cc four-cylinder counterparts. However, the extra 198cc would cause the twin to lose its current tuning advantage bringing the engine specifications closer to the road-going 1098 with standard internals and not to mention it starting at a higher weight limit and air-restrictors applied to the intake ports to control the size - all done to keep the 1198cc twin on an even keel with its 1000cc counterparts. The 370 lb (168 kg) 1098 generated an impressive 198 horsepower at 11,000 rpm and had a top speed of 310 km/hr. Nevertheless, Bayliss would win the title with Carlos Checa claiming the championship in 2011.
The Aprilia RSV4 stood out as the only V4 in its 2010 WSBK class that proved to be the eventual winner with Max Biaggi at the helm. Not only did the RSV4 have stunning aesthetics, a lot of the improvements carried over from the 2009 model, thanks to Luigi Dall’lgna’s engineering team, proved instrumental. It featured gear-driven camshafts, ride-by-wire technology, variable intake stacks, Aprilia’s famed FI and ECU Management System, and inertial bank angle measurement to name a few.
With its exclusive 65° motor featuring a bore and stroke of 78mm x 52.3mm and a high compression ratio of 14.5:1, though exact figures are not available, the WSBK RSV4 made between 215 at 15,000rpm. Additionally, its cassette-style gearbox allowed seamless swapping and alteration of gear ratios. The RSV4 at 357 lbs (162 kg) was easily the most track-focused weapon for that year. Later WSBK models would gain an extra 15 - 25 horsepower with Aprilia going on to win again with Max Biaggi in 2012 and Sylvain Guintoli in 2014.
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Kawasaki has come a long way since Scott Russell’s WSBK championship win aboard the ZXR-750 back in 1993. It would take Kawasaki two decades to win their next Championship with Tom “No.66” Sykes on the ZX-10R and then in 2015 to 2020 with Jonathan Rea piloting the ZX-10RR.
Jonathan Rea’s six-time championship-winning bike is based on the ZX-10R that you’d find at a Kawasaki dealership, but things get a little different with KRT’s ZX-10RR. The 998cc, water-cooled, inline-four has a compression ratio of 15.0:1, which is 2 points up on the street going ZX-10R, and outputs 220 horsepower at 15,000rpm. The motorcycle has a list of technological features that are huge and the electronics are managed by a Magneti Marelli ECU. The ZX-10RR has some interesting buttons on both the left and right handlebars that manage performance maps, pitlane limiter, traction control, and power modes. The Kawasaki ZX-10RR may not have won the championship in the last couple of years, but the fact that it remains competitive today and is utilized by racing teams all over the world is a testament to its reliability.
Ducati has finally come into its own with the Ducati V4 R. Back in 2019, Jonathan Rea commented in the ninth round at Laguna Seca that the Ducati V4 R was a “MotoGP bike in Superbike clothing” which Alvaro Bautista disagreed with. Both the GP and Superbike may share the same 81mm bore spec, but the Ducati GP makes over 250 horsepower and can hit 218 mph plus (350 km/hr). That may not seem a far cry away for the WSBK V4 R considering it makes 235 horsepower (at 16,000 rpm) at the counter-rotating crank, hitting a terminal velocity of 195.7mph. And if the regulations allowed the Aruba team to go berserk, changing an already established motor is a painstaking effort and then fine-tuning electronics and fueling. Speaking of fueling, the 998cc V4 R championship-winning bike features an electronic ignition Magneti Marelli ML ECU and an electronic injection system with independent motorized elliptical throttle bodies with aerodynamic butterflies running dual Continental injectors for each cylinder.
The V4 R may have had a starting base for its production (the GP15), but comparisons wouldn’t be fair considering it is a homologated version while the Desmosedici GP bike, well, it is a prototype, though Ducati did produce a limited run of the world's first MotoGP street replica, the Desmosedici RR.
Tarun is a gearhead that has been riding and working on motorcycles for over 25 years. A certified Kawasaki and Ducati mechanic, he loves working on motorcycles and is happy to have quit the software and gaming industry when he did. He has held the position of Manager for Service / Senior Manager for Sales & Marketing at India Kawasaki Motors Pvt. Ltd. and Manager for Service at Ducati India Pvt. Ltd. Born and raised in Rugby, England, he is now based in New Delhi, India spending his time consulting on setting up workshops when he can, working on motorcycles and all stuff that is cool. He considers himself fortunate to have ridden a lot of different motorcycles, thanks to a group (G.O.D.S) that he was once associated with and currently owns a Kawasaki ZX-11 and ZX-12R. He regrets not being able to keep a stable of motorcycles.