BMW's lighter bikes leave racers `Thunder'-struck

Canadian Thunder, the aptly named class for twin-cylinder racing motorcycles in Canada, features close racing and fan-friendly noise.

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Canadian Thunder, the aptly named class for twin-cylinder racing motorcycles in Canada, features close racing and fan-friendly noise. It’s the perfect showcase for smaller labels ” BMW, Buell, Ducati, KTM ” that don’t have the resources to attack the superbike class against the Japanese juggernauts.

BMW has been involved in Thunder since its inception, and when the chance came late last year to ride three generations of BMW Canada race machinery at Shannonville, I was in like a dirty shirt.

I’d already ridden several bikes involved in BMW’s program (or stock versions thereof). The initial BMW Thunder racer was the R1100S, and not only have I had tons of track time on that one while teaching at Wolf BMW track schools, I also raced one for Wolf at Shannonville in a wet and cold May Thunder race in 2005.

That was the first generation of BMW’s challenge. It was powerful and stable but heavy. In 2006, the factory entered the R1200S, which had dropped nearly 35 kilograms in weight, added some power, and had stars Oliver Jervis, Chris Duff and past Canadian superbike champion Mike Taylor riding.

Some wins and podiums resulted and in 2007, further engine and chassis improvements made the bikes competitive enough that Taylor took the series title while teammate Mike Ferreira carded sixth.

In 2008, BMW developed a totally new bike called the HP-2 Sport. While this third-generation racer retained the BMW flat-twin-engine layout, there’s not much else traditional about it – Formula One-level electronics, less weight, a new engine (although still a flat twin), carbon-fibre and other exotic materials everywhere. This bike is right on the edge.

At our track session after the last race of the season, I rode the 2007 factory R1200S that Ferreira took to sixth that year.

Compared to the earlier R1100S I’d raced, this one was stronger and lighter, but still felt heavy and long, albeit delightfully stable and easy to ride. The engine had a strong hit up high (due to the Canadian Hindle exhaust and Ferreira’s tuning preferences), although it still retained the traditional BMW strength of explosive off-corner power.

At one point, fellow Wheels contributor Steve Bond passed me on the newer HP-2 model, and I found myself catching up to him coming off the hairpin and down the long straight.

After lunch, I bumped Bond off the HP-2. I’d ridden the street version in Germany at the factory a month earlier and had loved the electronics. Other riders had been ambivalent at Shannonville: Bond said he wasn’t overly impressed with the quick-shifter or the complex dash display.

One gentle warm-up lap, a few more slow ones to display the bike for the photographer, and then Bond came by on the 2007 bike. Visions of our vintage race at Mosport back in August came to mind, I put my head down, and the HP-2 became pure magic. I can only imagine how good it must feel to a top-notch rider.

The motor had noticeably less mid-range than the ’07 bike, but there’s a killer top end. It suited my riding style more than the older motor, as I could open the throttle earlier in the corner without fear of overwhelming the rear tire, hitting the real power as I got the bike upright. I drag-raced Bond down the long main straight and found that, while the ’08 bike did give up a bit at the start, it was no contest in the last half.

The bike is only about six kilos lighter than the ’07 machine, but it’s smaller, tighter, more densely packaged and feels half the size. It turns more crisply with less effort, yet hasn’t sacrificed BMW’s legendary stability. I love the quick-shifter, which uses electronics to disengage the clutch and make instant shifts – you just touch the pedal with your foot and you’re in another gear at the right revs, going up or down.

It’s an unbelievable feeling to be charging through a corner at full lean under hard acceleration or braking, tapping the pedal, and having the gears change without a hint of unsettling the chassis. It’s magical, and is certainly going to translate into safer road bikes in the not-too-distant future.

I might also add that the Brembo monoblock brakes, using a wicked new DP pad compound, are perhaps the best I’ve experienced, maybe even better than those of the Yamaha superbike I rode last year. You can lift the rear wheel at almost any speed, yet feel and control are remarkable.

As a final treat for the day, I got a quick chance to ride what I’ll call Generation 4 of these BMW racers, a new F800S. Durham BMW employee Shane Poon raced this bike in 2008 and it was the only machine of this model on the track.

The suspension needs work, but it was as enjoyable to ride in its own way as the much edgier and faster HP-2. A linear engine response, good brakes and rigid chassis all have the makings of an excellent race or track-day machine and, with a relatively small amount of work, I believe it would give fits to many bigger bikes on Canada’s generally short and rough tracks.

Plus, the lower and flatter power delivery make it a better bike for most riders – whether they admit it or not – including older race track veterans like me. I love the HP-2, but it’s out of my league by, well … a league. The F800, on the other hand, I’d be willing to try giving a serious whipping – time and money and home management all falling in line (in my dreams).

Canadian Thunder will look quite different this year, since both Ducati and KTM will not field official squads in Canada. However, Buell and BMW will have official teams and be helping privateer efforts, so the class should still be great to watch.

Larry Tate covers motorcycle racing for Wheels. He can be reached at

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