It's only been a year since KTM finally took its long-awaited first step into tarmac territory with the RC8, the first fully-faired sportbike produced by the Austrian kings of the off-road world. Acclaimed for its real-world rideability and pinpoint-precise handling, in the eyes of some the RC8 still came up short in terms of its 1148cc 75-degree V-twin eight-valve motor. While quicker-revving and more than able to keep up with its desmodromic competition in the midrange, the KTM started to run out of breath when the rpms headed for the upper reaches of the tachometer.
"When we started out developing the RC8, the plan was to produce the perfect road bike, not the perfect racer," says KTM's Head of R&D Philipp Habsburg, one of the many youthful executives at the Austrian manufacturer. "This may sound as if it goes against our `Ready to Race' philosophy, but in seeking to establish KTM as an on-road manufacturer, we focused on producing the engine and the chassis characteristics for the RC8 that made it a great ride on the street, not so much the race track. We had to prove that we could make sporting streetbikes to a high quality level of manufacture and real-world performance. But it was always planned to do a race bike next, and this is the RC8R we launched last November at the Milan Show--which is indeed `Ready to Race'!" KTM plans to build just over 1,000 examples of the new model in 2009--by no coincidence, the minimum needed for Superbike homologation. And KTM will also offer the "Club Race Kit" which delivers an extra 10 horsepower and a 12 percent increase in torque over the already more powerful RC8R engine.
The chance to spend a day riding the RC8R on Portugal's challenging Portimao circuit certainly provided some answers as to how serious KTM was about challenging the established manufacturers as well. My numerous laps of track time included a tantalising 15 or so aboard the Austrian company's prototype Red Bull-sponsored factory RC8R Superbike, to be raced in the German IDM Superbike series this coming season as a possible prelude to joining the World Superbike Championship in 2010. After riding both bikes, I'm pretty certain that KTM is going to surprise quite a few of its rivals this coming season.
Hopping aboard the RC8R showcased the low 805mm seat that--like the now black-anodized footrests that can be raised by 20mm and fully adjustable hand controls and foot levers--was an immediate reminder of the KTM's well-thought-out design. Your knees tuck in so tight to the carefully shaped 16.5 litre fuel tank that you feel like you're riding a single-cylinder machine. The riding position is low and spacious with lots of room to move about the bike; instead of having your backside parked up in the breeze and your arms and shoulders feeling as if they've been doing push-ups all day, the RC8R represents a different approach to sportbike ergonomics that's less tiring to ride. The RC8R is a good bike for the long haul - KTM should think about going World Endurance racing with it!
The reduced gyroscopic effect of the lighter Marchesini forged aluminum wheels surely contribute to the stellar handling and agility of KTM's tubular steel frame package. And this is even with the decision to lengthen trail to 97mm from 91mm via reduced fork offset to improved stability. Weight was a key issue with the RC8R. "Our special Marchesini wheels are very light," says project leader Wolfgang Felber. "Plus we use Pirelli tires not only because they have good grip, and are the World Superbike control tire, but also because they are so light, about 2.7 pounds less than the competition. After extensive testing, we also found that they are also the best for durability and grip. And at the start of the RC8 project we were working with 48mm WP forks, but even on the RC8R we went back to the 43mm design we've launched the bike with, because it saves us 3.3 pounds of weight. Every little bit is important." Added up, the RC8R scales in at a claimed 401 pounds dry (all fluids except fuel), almost five pounds lighter than the RC8.
However, you can't help but notice the single biggest improvement on the new KTM, and that's the significant extra drive you get out of turns compared to the RC8. With one eye on the 1200cc twin-cylinder capacity ceiling for Superbike and Superstock racing, KTM enlarged the bore of the base model's 103mm Nikasil-lined cylinders by 2mm, using forged Mahle three-ring pistons with extensive ribbing and an incredibly short skirt to reduce friction and weight. This comes with no risk of piston slap, insists Habsburg. "With an unchanged 69mm stroke, we use the same crankshaft and crankcases as the RC8," says Habsburg, "but the new trapezoidal forged steel conrods are stronger, with wider contact areas for the small-end pins to support the bigger pistons, as well as accept the extra engine load from the higher 13.5:1 compression, one point more than the RC8." The 105mm pistons bring the RC8R's displacement to 1195cc from the RC8's 1148cc.