Launch report: 2019 BMW S 1000 RR at Estoril, Portugal
Mat Durrans pops across the Mediterranean to the Estoril Raceway in Portugal for the most eagerly awaited new sports bike of 2019, the BMW S 1000 RR.
THE STORY SO FAR
It is a full decade since BMW released the S 1000 RR on an unsuspecting motorcycling public. The response was universally positive, and justifiably so; BMW’s first foray into the modern superbike class was hugely impressive in terms of power, electronics and to a lesser degree handling.
The R 1200 (now 1250) GS may have been the most important bike for BMW overall, but a case can be made that the arrival of the double-R was even more significant. It established the marque as a purveyor of serious sporting weaponry and in the one fell swoop shattered BMW’s previously rather staid and stuffy image.
In addition to reinventing BMW’s perceived character the S 1000 RR led to the single ‘R’ naked sport bike and the do-it-all ‘crossover’ S 1000 XR, resulting in more than 80,000 sales of the combined models. That’s a lot of bikes and a lot of revenue.
The superbike scene has become even more competitive since that original S 1000 RR rewrote many of the parameters of what constituted a competitive superbike, and so for this third generation of the model the pressure was really on to make a convincing update.
First thing to note is that BMW has not gone down what some regard as the ‘cheating’ route. Aprilia and Ducati have swollen their sport bike capacities to 1100cc rather than the usual race-ready 1000cc, and to go racing they simply make spacial homologation compliant models with the lower capacity.
I think it’s clever rather than ‘cheating’, taking advantage as it does of the technology that allows larger capacity engines to take up no greater physical space within the chassis than the previously smaller bikes.
But, for whatever reason, BMW decided not to follow this nascent trend and instead has opted to work within the existing boundaries.
A TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT
Targets exist in every walk of life, and it’s no different in the world of motorcycles. Sometimes those targets can be hard to define, but when you’re dealing with a bike whose main purpose in life is to go racing the task is a little easier.
As BMW says, the new model had to be faster, lighter and easier to control. The first two are easy to measure, the last one a little bit less so, though it is perhaps the most important factor – both for professional racers and road riders.
The new RR had to be one second faster around a (short) circuit, be at least 10kg lighter and take less effort achieving that lap time. The benefits of this latter target are a racer who expends less energy getting the lap time meaning he or she will be able to keep the pace up more consistently and over a longer period and the average rider will be more comfortable and ultimately safer on the road.
THE FIRST RIDE
After a refreshingly brief presentation the night before our day’s riding and a genuinely moderate amount of red wine (I must be getting old) the next morning arrives sunny and dry, in marked contrast to the previous week’s launch test.
Our first, brief session involves circulating behind one of the BMW riders as we reacquaint ourselves with Lisbon’s Estoril circuit. Fortunately I’ve been here a couple of times before so I can already start getting to grips with first impressions of the bike while my colleagues wonder which way the track is going.
The first shock comes at the tight right-hander at the end of pit lane. I’m thinking about turning in when the bike suddenly finds itself leant over ready for the exit. I’m taken by surprise, as I am at the second corner – the first turn proper of these exploratory laps.
Bloody hell, this thing turns for nothing, only a barely perceptible nudge on the clip-ons has the RR diving for the apex. As the speeds increase the required effort doesn’t.
The reworked engine also wastes no time letting me know it has midrange to spare and a howling top end. I can’t get any rhythm going because of the reduced pace of these early sighting laps, but I learn enough to realise that this is an S 1000 RR, but not as we know it.
ROAD RIDING ON TRACK
The S 1000 RR will arrive in two versions, a ‘standard’ model and the M Package version we’re riding on the launch. Our first full session sees the bike fitted with Bridgestone’s sporty road tyres on the carbon rims, and the bike’s electronics are set up accordingly.
I’ve got plenty to say about the impressive updates to the engine, but first I have to mention the handling because that’s what really strikes me first about this new generation of the RR.
The changes are noticeable the first time you swing a leg over the seat because the bike now feels significantly narrower. The out-going version always felt like a sizeable lump of a thing, splaying your legs wide around a meaty tank. Now the impression is of being sat more ‘in’ the bike with the tank rising higher in front of you, and crucially it feels much more slim where your knees grip the bike.
Combined with the chassis changes this makes the S 1000 RR feel significantly smaller, and a lot more nimble. Comparing a litre-class bike to a 600cc supersport model is undoubtedly a cliché, but it’s one that is accurate in this instance. A huge weight reduction (14.5kg on the M Sport version) is a major factor in this feeling, aided by the new chassis developments.
Allied to the bike feeling smaller is the way the new chassis responds to inputs. Significantly less effort is required to initiate a change of direction and nowhere is this more apparent than in Estoril’s devilishly tight chicane towards the end of the lap. Bombing through a third gear right-hander you start mashing the brakes while still leant over, before you haul it onto its left-hand side for the entry to the chicane.
First gear would probably work well here but there’s so much torque that I leave it in second even though it feels like I’ve almost come to a complete stop and hoik it over to knee-down on the right almost immediately. I rode the carbon-framed HP4 Race through this same chicane not much more than a year or so ago and this bike feels every bit as easy, perhaps more so, than that.
BMW calls its new frame the Flex Frame and it is now much lighter than before and also makes more use of the engine as a load-bearing part of the package. Geometry has also been tweaked and BMW claims greater rear wheel control, helped by the underslung swing-arm.
It’s not just in the slow stuff where this is so apparent, because shortly after the chicane comes Estoril’s final turn, the Parabolica. A long, long right-hander that unwinds onto the start/finish straight and tests your patience as you wait to give it full gas, always aware that if you start twisting the throttle too early you’re likely to run out of room as you hook fourth gear and tuck in for the dash down to turn one.
Being impatient, and also just a bit cowardly, I often find myself needing to adjust my line mid-turn with serious lean angle in play. Whether I adjust the throttle or lean angle the RR responds perfectly and predictably, allowing me to fine tune my exit such that I can cover for my occasionally ham-fisted approach without giving myself a fright in the process.
It’s this level of adjustability that is part of the reason you feel confident enough to explore your own limits; let’s be honest here – the RR’s own limits are considerably higher than my own. Unless you’re a professional racer, there’s simply no way you will be able to ask the bike’s handling questions that it cannot easily answer.
RUBBER AND POWER
When my first session is over I’m aware and pleased that I’m nowhere near as tired as I anticipated. Yes, I’ve been making a feeble attempt to improve my fitness levels the last few months for just such occasions, but there’s no denying this bike is much less exhausting to ride than its previous incarnation.
Part of that may be down to the road oriented rubber we’ve been using, since BMW has set the electronics accordingly. That means you feel the traction control working, reigning in the available power until you’ve reduced lean angle considerably on the corner exit.
Our second session solves much of this hindrance with the use of Bridgestone slicks, the profile of which sharpens up the steering even more while generating considerably more grip.
It’s now possible to release more of the engine’s power earlier in the arc of a corner exit, meaning that overall speeds climb and force you to explore even more of the RR’s handling and braking package.
It’s at this point that I really begin to appreciate how large are the improvements in the engine. There is, of course, more power – up to 207hp from a claimed 199hp – but it’s in the torque department that the more relevant changes can be found.
The peak torque number of 113Nm at 10,500rpm isn’t so different, but it’s in the seriously swollen midrange where the real benefits can be felt. Between 4,500rpm and 8,000rpm it feels very much like this in-line four-cylinder mill has gained some extra capacity because the instant, grunty response to throttle inputs destroys the already sorted delivery of the out-going model.
This extra readiness through the midrange makes it easier to pick up the pace on the track, but perhaps the greatest benefit will be felt on the road where the vast majority of these bikes will spend their lives. There’s less need to worry about gear selection, because as long as you’re not using 6th gear in a hairpin, you can rest easy knowing there will be devastating acceleration available whatever ratio you happen to find yourself in.
So, with no upping of capacity, where has this intoxicating increase in thrust come from?
BMW ShiftCam black magic is the answer. I first encountered this on the new R 1250 GS launch last year, and now the technology has been transferred to the S 1000 RR and its four cylinders. I’m no engineer, so please forgive the possibly too-simple explanation that follows.
I may not fully understand the engineering behind the increased performance, but having experienced it I can surely attest to its effectiveness.
The system basically adjusts the timing and stroke of the inlet valves via the use of two cams per activated valves. There’s one cam for partial load situations, and another to cope with full load demands, and the swap between the two happens at 9,000rpm. Full valve stroke is for higher rev scenarios, while the partial load cam reduces valve stroke.
It’s an imperceptible change, and unless you were told it was there you’d simply never realise what was going on in the engine underneath you. This has helped reduce the quite sudden increase in torque at about 7,500rpm of the previous engine, which could introduce unwanted wheelies (hard to think there is such a thing, but racers would rather have forward progress than vertical) and provoke the rear tyre into a slide.
It also has – and I know you’re not interested in this little nugget of information – the added benefit of improving fuel consumption by 4%.
Lunging out of corners at Estoril was huge fun, riding a surge of torque-laden drive that means you had to resist the urge to short-shift through the gears just for the fun of it. To do so, though, would deprive you of the RR’s other pleasure, a shrieking top-end that is now 400rpm higher at 14,600rpm.
Exploiting this extra rev range down the main straight meant even a dodgy old bugger like me could hook 6th gear and get some use out it as I approached my own V-max of somewhere in the 285km/h range. I don’t know the speed exactly because fear kept my eyes pinned to my braking marker, which I never actually managed to hit before self-preservation took over.
If you’re younger, faster and not as long retired from racing – like my South African colleague Rob Portman from Ride Fast magazine – then you will see 299km/h on the speedo. A hugely impressive number which may actually have been slightly higher, given it (I think) stops counting at this point.
STOPPING AND CHANGING
The brakes are pretty much as you would expect in terms of technology with twin 320mm discs up front worked on by four-piston radial calipers. The most striking difference to the usual superbike fayre is the lack of a renowned label.
The calipers are not branded with Nissin, or Tokico or the more usual Brembo, they simply say BMW. This system was the only item about which I heard the other journalists offer anything other than a glowing endorsement.
My only complaint was a touch too much lever travel, and what felt like a bit of fade at times. You could also feel a slight push-back through the lever, I presume when the ABS system was intervening.
The biggest gripes from the racier types centred on a lack of initial bite, but I have to say I actually enjoyed the way the power built in the system progressively and, I felt, allowed a greater sense of control and fine adjustment.
Did I ever feel like the brakes let me down in any way? No, not even close; once you adapt to the way they do things they were nothing short of outstanding. With some strong winds during our final session, my one fright of the day came during braking at the end of the back straight when the tailwind had upped my entry speed. I just squeezed a bit harder than usual and I still made my entry point. Sure, I wasn’t on the ragged edge like a pro-racer, but I was still, momentarily, out of my comfort zone; but without any drama I was immediately back on course and thinking about the next turn.
ABS Pro allows the system to operate even when you’ve got a load of lean angle in play, and once you realise that it is there to intervene in only the most extreme of cases and won’t intrude on your track riding pleasure, then you simply forget about it.
Knowing that it’s there when you’re out on a cold or wet Sunday morning will be hugely reassuring for us mere riding mortals, and like the adjustable traction control, will be a safety tool you’ll love having in your back pocket; just in case.
BMW brought us the full auto-blipper gearbox when the S 1000 RR originally arrived, and of course it’s still here. I can’t remember how we used to manage without this now nearly ubiquitous piece of equipment, but I never want to have to try, especially around a track.
Taking away the need to work with the clutch on downshifts may not sound like much, but it really, really is. Freeing up that bit of the brain that is concentrating on matching revs and gears and blipping the throttle while using the front brake makes a huge difference to your ability to focus both on the track and how the bike is behaving beneath you. It’s here once again, and it operated faultlessly.
When the S 1000 RR appeared ten years ago it obviously had a monster engine, but what really set the new bar so high for its competitors were the electronics. Different ride modes, traction control and ABS were standard, and so they are with this new version, but now acting in a more sophisticated manner, mated as they are to a six-axis sensor.
The whole suite of electronics on the new model is quite literally mind-boggling. If you want a full run-down on the options then I suggest you visit a BMW dealership and put aside an hour or two to have the almost limitless permutations explained. Be prepared to go for a lie down afterwards.
Suffice it to say that you will be able to find a combination of the riding aids to suit every situation, whether that be a qualifying lap, a track day, a country back-roads blast or a long cruise down the highway.
Adjusting your traction control, or ABS, or limiting your wheelies, or executing the perfect launch, or helping you get going on an incline or decline, or limiting your speed in the pit (pub) lane, or easily reversing your gear change (to race pattern), or even altering the level of engine braking; it’s all possible.
All of this is accessed by a beautiful new addition to the RR that comes in the 6.5-inch shape of a colour TFT screen. Various displays can be chosen according to which mode you wish you use, and it looks great whatever the ambient lighting conditions.
THAT’S JUST SILLY
I haven’t delved too deeply into the electronics simply because to do so would make me dizzy and I’d fall off my chair, incurring an S 1000 RR related injury days after I actually rode the bike.
And I haven’t even mentioned the really useful electronic stuff that makes living with this superbike in the real world so much easier than its competitors. There are heated grips and cruise control, items more at home on a touring motorcycle but equally welcome on a bike that has to cover distance between track days.
EVOLUTION WITH A CAPITAL ‘R’
Yes, this is unmistakably an S 1000 RR, but it has moved on so significantly from what it was to what it now is that I hesitate to call it a simple evolution. The riding experience around Estoril is so improved from what went before that I’m tempted to add an ‘r’ and call this third generation of the model a revolution.
That might be taking things a touch too far because it is after all still an in-line four-cylinder superbike with massive horsepower and a dazzling suite of electronics, and yet; the riding experience is so improved that describing the improvement as a revolution doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch.
It looks amazing with its new face and slimmer dimensions and it rides in a way that excites but doesn’t frighten. Knowing the extensive electronics are always on hand to help you correct your own mistakes provides a huge level of reassurance as you force yourself out of your own comfort zone – knowing that its own comfort zone is well beyond your own capabilities.
BMW met all its targets for the model in terms of power, weight and lap times, but the most important target it has achieved, at least for me, is the ease with which you can exploit that performance. It’s a savage tiger of a bike that is as approachable and cuddly as a domestic pussy cat if that’s what you want.
Pricing has yet to be announced for the South African market, but I’m prepared to say that whatever the final number might be, it’s undoubtedly going to be well worth it.