Attending a superbike race is all well and fun, but riding to one, especially one like Imola, is a bucket-list category adventure
Words: Tim McIntyre
Photos: Motul Italy, Motorcycle Diaries
Turin to Imola, Italy –
The bikes are ready. And the good news is that we don’t have far to go: Just 280-odd kilometers till we break for the day, all on picturesque country roads. The bad news is that it’s raining and cold.
Honestly, I could not care less. The excitement and anticipation of riding a new bike in a different country never wears thin. Enthusiasm has triumphed over hypothermia before. It will prevail again.
It’s late springtime in Italy and I’m here in Turin as a guest of Motul Italia to participate in a very special ride to attend the World Superbike (WSBK) round at the legendary Imola circuit. All this, under the fine hospitality of the world’s coolest lubricants manufacturer – Motul.
The name itself is already enough to evoke good memories. Although it was originally founded in 1853, Motul has been heavily involved in motorsport for the past few decades, and a peek at its competition roster, which includes tens of racing series from MotoGP to LeMans on four-wheels, two-wheels and even boats, proves it’s likely one of the most motorsport-heavy lubricants manufacturers around.
As a young man learning to ride and care for high-performance two stroke motorcycles, the smell of burnt Motul 300V two stroke oil – when I could afford to buy a bottle – would be enough to calm frayed nerves and make the world a better place. 30 years on, that moniker ‘300V’ still sets the standard on which all other oils are measured.
That’s not just a personal opinion but pretty much reflects the views of most motorcycle race teams, as well – in CarBuyer’s October 2016 issue, we sat in with Motul’s experts and the MotoGP Yamaha Tech3 team to find out that the 300V sold on shelves really isn’t that far off from what the race team itself uses.
But back to WSBK. Motul has raised its racing profile even more, having signed on to become the title sponsor for SBK. So in many respects, the invitation to the races was an opportunity for us to see this partnership in action. But rather than fly in journos and send them straight to the racetrack, Motul threw in a two-day bike ride, just for our small band of three journalists representing Singapore, Russia and Italy.
For this road trip, Motul engaged the services of Motorcycle Diaries (www.motorcycle-diaries.com), a company experienced in planning and organizing motorcycle road trips across Europe. The ride would start in Turin and end at Imola, where the Italian round of the World Superbike Race would take place. Turin, in the industrial north of Italy, is where Motul’s headquarters in Italy is located.
For the ride, Motul also roped in their long-time motorcycle partners Suzuki, who supplied us with new Suzuki V-Stroms, in both 650cc and 1000cc variants. Sure, it would have been nice to be on Ducatis or Guzzis, this being Italy and all. But I’ve always been a fan of Suzuki V-twins, especially the 650 V-twin engine, having owned a Suzuki Gladius for a while. These bikes are light, responsive, have ample power yet frugal with petrol. The Suzuki Gladius would still be my preferred bike to ride down unfamiliar roads in less than ideal conditions and while Suzuki will likely disagree, a V-Strom is basically a taller Gladius, thanks to a bigger 19-inch front wheel and longer travel suspension for that adventure bike touch.
With all the officialities and introductions out of the way, we strap our luggage onto the bikes and head off in the rain. We leave Turin and head southeast, in the general direction of Florence, which lies approximately 400 highway kilometers away.
The route that our Motorcycle Diaries guide Peter-Jan, or PJ as he prefers, has chosen for us has us meandering across the Italian countryside, avoiding the highway completely. For the most part, the country roads are lightly trafficked and the on-off drizzle means there is ample opportunity for brisk riding. The roads are a mixture of rolling hills, flat country lanes and, towards the end of the day, tight switchbacks and steep climbs.
Countless hours, kilometers and photo-stops later, we eventually reach our hotel – a restored castle in the middle of nowhere. That’s the official name but unofficially, it’s known as Castello Malaspina in Gambaro (www.castellodigambaro.it). We’re supposed to complete one last photo shoot upon arrival at the hotel but everyone’s shagged. The elderly but fit couple that own and run the property prepare a huge spread of cooked food in the style of the region. I can’t remember what we ate, just that it was delicious.
Day two goes by a lot like day one. We do more riding and more photography. To spice things up, I swap the V-Strom 650 for the V-Storm 1000. The bikes look so alike, it’s hard to tell them apart. The visual giveaways are the inverted forks and the wavy top screen of the bigger bike. I swing a leg over and even the ergonomics feel similar. I only notice the difference when it’s photo-taking time. This typically involves riding to-and-fro past our stationary photographer and subsequent U-turns on narrow, steep roads and excursions onto the gravel or grass.
Ridden this way, the difference between the six-fifty and the thousand is significant. Apart from requiring a wider turning radius, the bigger bike is almost 20 kilos heavier (232 kg vs 213 kg wet weight) and has a taller seat (850 mm vs 835 mm). Now tall is okay. And heavy is okay. Tall and heavy is a combination I generally steer clear of. The weight and price penalty of the bigger bike is not worth the added power or torque, personally speaking. But if you’re a big guy, frequently travel two-up, fully loaded, that’s different. On paper, the 1,037cc 90-degree V-twin generates 101Nm at 4,000 rpm compared to the 650’s 66.4Nm at 6,500 rpm while max power is 100hp at 8,000 rpm versus 70hp at 8,800 rpm.
The faster we go, the more I like the 1000. It is every bit as agile and easy to ride as the 650. On tight, winding roads, there’s plenty of sportbike-humbling potential in this torque monster. Still, I swap the 1000 for the 650 at the next stop. For the roads we are on, and the speeds we are riding, this bike is perfect. It is just so effortless. For 2017, the big news is that the 650 gets three-stage traction control. The system is so non-intrusive, I didn’t even it was working. Until I glanced down at the instrument panel while exiting a corner and saw the TC light flickering.
We arrive in Imola tired but with plenty of time left to catch the weekend’s festivities. It is a carnival of food and drink, motorcycle stunt shows, circuits drives, pit walks, new bike displays and test rides. Everyone may be here for the racing but there are a lot of things to see and do besides race. The weather Gods smiled on us for the first time as well, providing full-strength sunshine for the entire weekend.
Even the track is a destination onto itself. Known colloquially as Imola, its official name is the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari. Located 40 kilometers east of Bologna, the home of Ducati, and 80 kilometers east of Maranello, the home of Ferrari, Imola is widely regarded as the home track for Ferrari and infamous for being the circuit where Ayrton Senna lost his life in 1994. There’s clearly a lot of history and heritage at the circuit and it even has its own auto museum.
This weekend though, it’s all about two wheels with Imola hosting the Italian round of the world superbike races. Motul have always been involved in racing but have recently up their involvement a few notches having signed a contract to be the title sponsor for SBK for five years, from 2016 to 2020. As title sponsors, the company (and its lucky guests) enjoys numerous privileges, including very close access to the race teams. Thanks to the tireless work of Fabrizio D’ottavi, Associate Motorsport Manager at Motul, we were able to get access to race control, visit the garages of race teams, interview engineers and crew chiefs, and get a bird’s eye view of what exactly goes on during a race weekend. One thing’s for sure, it may be fun and games for visitors but it is very serious, stressful business for the participants, especially the racers.
With interview and other work obligations out of the way, I head to the media centre to watch the superbike race. Or rather, to listen to it. The sound of race-tuned 1,000cc superbikes tearing past you at full throttle is pure aural sex. The noise is intoxicating and unlike MotoGP, not painfully loud although what’s missing most is the smell. In this age, there might no longer be the perfume of burnt, aerosolized 300V in the air at a motorcycle racing event, but the presence of Motul and its deep involvement in motorsports, is still everywhere.