VYRUS 986 M2 STRADA Road Test: Gone Viral

World exclusive first road test by any journalist of the first Vyrus hub-centre Moto 2 racer-with-lights

 

Sticking the ‘racer with lights’ label on a refugee from the racetrack isn’t always a passport to streetlegal satisfaction. But when you’ve had six long years to figure out how to go about it, the chances are pretty good that you might get it right.

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For that’s how long it’s taken Vyrus virtuoso Ascanio Rodorigo to do just that with the Moto 2 racer he first unveiled in January 2011, with the promise that he’d produce a homologated street version in due course – and now at last he has. For Rodorigo is the proprietor of Italian boutique bike builder Vyrus Divisione Motori, the so-called Clinica Moto [aka bike clinic] located just a stone’s throw from the Bimota factory on the outskirts of Rimini. There, for the past 14 years, he and his like-minded quartet of fellow craftsmen have patiently created a succession of two-wheeled works of art represented by the over 150 examples of the high-priced hub-centre Vyrus sportbike they’ve constructed there during that period under the pura follia tecnologica banner – and it is indeed a fact that they represent two-wheeled technology truly gone mad! 

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But works of art? Really? Look, if the late Massimo Tamburini was the Michelangelo of motorcycles, then his 54-year old disciple Ascanio Rodorigo is the Picasso of bikes, as confirmed by just one look at any of the deconstructed examples of two-wheeled cubist sculpture that the Italian engineer has produced under the Vyrus name since founding the company in 2003 [see History]. Like the Richard Rogers-designed Pompidou Art Centre in Paris, which displays its pipes, drains, conduits and aircon ducts on the exterior of its walls for all to see, the series of surreal-looking hub-centre Vyrus models exclusively powered until now by Ducati desmo V-twin motors in various configurations and capacities, all seem to wear their technology on the outside, in plain view. As the 21st century evoluzione of the avantgarde Tesi 1D hub-centre streetbike, of which Bimota built just 417 customer examples during five short years from 1991 to 1995, including 51 fitted with the 400cc air-cooled desmodue motor for sale in Japan, each Ducati-engined Vyrus variant represents a technological tour de force that’s even more minimalist and certainly more aesthetically appealing than the slab-sided Tesi 1D, whose all-enveloping styling covered up the trick tech its design embodied.

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But as its designation indicates, the new Vyrus 986 M2 represents a sideways step in a completely different direction by Rodorigo. For as the first Vyrus model to be powered by a four-cylinder engine (and a Japanese one, too), it’s also the first in the firm’s 15 years of existence to feature anything other than a Ducati desmo V-twin motor. That’s because it was designed to compete in the Moto 2 class inaugurated back in 2010 as a replacement for 250GP’s two-strokes, complete with a 600cc four-cylinder Honda four-stroke control engine derived from the CBR600RR streetbike. Seizing the opportunity to demonstrate the worth of his design in what was promoted as being a chassis builders’ class, Ascanio created the 986 M2 racer to demonstrate in head-to-head racetrack competition the validity of his design concepts on the level playing field represented by the control engine formula, meaning engine performance is theoretically equal amongst all contenders.

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But while like many others Rodorigo initially hoped the Moto2 series would provide a showcase for alternative frame designs, that’s not the way it’s turned out. In launching the 986 M2 as a pure Moto 2 racebike in 2011 he’d hoped to forge a partnership with one or more Moto 2 race teams – but such alliances proved hard to come by. For race team directors are the most pragmatic and conservative of people, given that any team’s sheer existence is dependent on sponsorship generated by results which allow them to survive and prosper. This means that what works well today for another team in turn becomes must-have material for the others (how else to explain the fact that Moto 2 is now a Kalex monomarca class?) leading to a general reluctance to experiment with anything out of the ordinary, and a preference to stick with tried-and-tested designs, rather than risk being left behind by using something novel, but unproven like the Vyrus.

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Which explains why the Vyrus 986 M2 ended up making its racetrack debut not at a MotoGP race, but in the opening round of the 2012 Trofeo Italiano Amatori club racing series at Misano, ridden by Ascanio’s son Davide Rodorigo, who finished 33rd in the 600cc class, one place behind his teammate Marco Chiancianesi, the Swiss-Italian property developer who’d shortly acquire Bimota the following year. Rodorigo did a couple more rounds on Dad’s racer, which was then parked up for a year while Ascanio kept searching for anyone to team up with. He found an ally in the shape of Stefano Caracchi, the son of the co-founder of NCR and a former works Ducati rider and 250GP racer.

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He’d been running his own race team in the Italian Superbike series, and became fascinated by the technical innovation of the Vyrus. Caracchi arranged to run the bike in the six-round 2015 Spanish CEV Moto 2 series, Dorna’s feeder class for the MotoGP support series, and recruited 17-year old Brit Bradley Ray – today a regular top ten finisher in BSB on a privateer Suzuki GSX-R1000 – to race the bike. Though he’d never before ridden anything without tele forks, Ray took to the Vyrus immediately, finishing 23rd out of 40 starters in the opening round of the series in Portimao, improving to 16th in the next race. But the pressures of trying to go racing competitively while also earning a living building customer bikes began to tell, and by mid-season Ray had returned to England, while Ascanio finally began working on what he’d had so many requests from customers to make – a street version of the Moto 2 Vyrus.

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“Our customers had seen that our M2 motorcycle is easy to ride, and steers fast and easily with great turn speed – but they all wanted to have an example with mirrors and lights that they could ride on the street, not a racer,” says Ascanio. “So we understood we must obtain homologation, but the process for this is very long, so it wasn’t until the end of November 2016 that we achieved this. But now we can sell the 986 M2 Strada anywhere in Europe as a fully homologated streetbike, and this makes it easier to register the bike overseas, too.” The price for a complete Strada model with a brand-new stock CBR600RR donor engine is Euro 37,930 on the road not including tax, fully built up with the key in your hand, and full EU homologation, while Euro 27,930 + tax gets you a complete bike minus engine, but in kit form. In Corsa race guise but without a motor the cost rises to Euro 54,000 upwards, depending on specification. “There’s a huge list of options, so these are only guide prices,” says Ascanio. “No two Vyrus motorcycles have ever been the same as one another, so the list price is just a starting point, leaving each customer to individualise his bike.” 

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So these are indeed truly bespoke motorcycles, each one built to suit the desires and financial means of its owner. Vyrus has already constructed and delivered 28 streetlegal examples of the 986 M2, is currently working on another six under deposit, but will cap production at just 50 bikes, meaning there are just 16 still available. Hurry, hurry….. “The problem is that Honda is going to stop making this 600cc motor quite soon,” says Ascanio. “But we are already investigating other engines to form the basis of the next evolution of this model.” Which would presumably account for the MV Agusta 800 triple motor sitting on top of a workbench in Vyrus HQ with measuring equipment all around it…. “No comment!” said Ascanio, when asked if the next new Vyrus model will be a triple – rather than a twin or four. Perhaps he should speak to Triumph, which after all will be the supplier of the three-cylinder 765cc Moto 2 control engine from 2019 onwards!

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Besides the avantgarde hub-centre technology which essentially represents a Tesi done right, the dramatic, angular, modernist Vyrus styling entirely executed in carbon fibre is also the work of Ascanio himself, with close help from young Japanese female designer Yutaka Igarashi www.id-performance.com and ex-Ducati stylist Sam Matthews, formerly Pierre Terblanche’s right hand at the Bologna factory, who later worked for Citroën in Paris. “We finalised the design at long distance, with Sam making CAD drawings in France, and me interpreting them into a full-size clay model, then e-mailing him photos of the result!” says Rodorigo. 

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This latest Vyrus follows the broad technical twin-swingarm hub-centre format of the Ducati-engined bikes which the firm has exclusively built until now, but is quite different in detail thanks to the more compact architecture of the in-line Honda engine, compared to the rangier 90º desmo V-twin. This results in a shorter and more compact bike, with a minuscule 1350mm wheelbase compared to the Testastretta-engined 985 C3 4V’s already remarkable 1385mm stride – compare that to the stock Ducati 1098 models’ 1460mm with the same Testastretta engine to see just one of the dramatic benefits of not carrying tele forks, whose deflection under heavy braking must be taken into consideration when designing a frame, with attendant compromises. The 986 M2’s skeletal CNC-machined Ergal aluminium frame spars represent an inverted Omega structure – as in ʊ rather than Ω – with the stress paths carefully plotted by finite element analysis, then the metal around them removed to save crucial grams in allowing the street version of the Moto 2 Vyrus to weigh in at an impressive 151kg with oil/water but no fuel, set at a 53/47% static weight distribution, or 50/50% with a 75kg rider aboard. Compare that to the 156.5kg dry weight of the Honda CBR600RR its engine is sourced from, even with the Vyrus already carrying all liquids except for fuel.

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Ascanio had originally intended to fit hydraulic steering to his M2 model, but that ploy was abandoned when it was ruled inacceptable for Moto 2 racing, and while he still intends to develop such a design in future, all versions of the 986 Strada have essentially the same system as the Ducati-engined models, with anodised track rods operating the car-type steering, and the kingpin centered in the front hub on which the wheel rotates. However, unlike the twin longitudinally mounted Öhlins shocks on the V-twin models, with the rear one operated directly cantilever-style, and the front via a progressive-rate link, the 986 M2 has mirror-image suspension front and rear, each employing a YSS shock made in Thailand with input from Dutch WP engineers left behind in Holland when KTM acquired the company, and moved it to Austria. This means both front and rear shocks on the M2 are purpose-developed for their Vyrus application in each delivering 95mm of wheel travel, and are horizontally-mounted thanks to the more compact build of the four-cylinder motor. This in turn saves on space, as well as compacting the mass of the Vyrus machine’s overall structure, in the interests of enhanced handling.

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Each shock is fully adjustable for both high–speed and low-velocity damping on both compression and rebound, and is operated via a Formula 1-derived pushrod system constituting a progressive-rate link, that’s cleverly designed to be both compact and effective. The smaller extruded front swingarm is made from 7020 aircraft aluminium, while the fatter rear is fabricated by hand from another aircraft alloy – Peraluman 5744 with a 1.5mm wall thickness, resulting in an ultra-stiff structure that’s TIG-welded, like everything else on the Vyrus. The Strada’s 11-litre fuel tank (17-litres on the racer).is featherlight when you hold it, and is also made from Peraluman, but with just 1mm wall thickness.

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Yet the 986 M2’s build could have been even tighter, had Ascanio not decided to purposely lengthen the front swingarm, as he explains: “In building the bike for Moto2, we knew the rules made it compulsory to use the same airbox and so on off the original engine,” he says. “Then, after putting all these things together, we designed the frame around the Honda engine. When I start a project, I first decide where I want to have the centre of gravity, and then I design the structure around that. All the knowledge I had before with the 984 and 985 was based on competition experience, because we won so many races in the ProTwin and BEARS classes down the years. But that was with the Ducati engines, and on the Honda everything changed because the gyroscopic movement of the engine and its physical mass are totally different.

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That’s why we’ve placed the pivot points of the two swingarms so close together on the 986 M2 compared to with a Ducati-engined Vyrus, and we’ve also made the swingarm longer, because we had too much weight in the front – really too much, no less than 62% forward weight bias! I wanted to put the crankshaft as far forward as I could to maximise turn speed, but this was exaggerated so I lengthened the front swingarm to compensate.”

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To good effect, with an unexpected bonus, “We have discovered with this motorcycle that we do not have to make any adjustment to the suspension settings,” says Ascanio, “even with different fuel loads, or from one track to another. We have found a base setting, and we never make any clicks to change it. We went one entire racing season without one click! Just change the spring ratio, and the motorcycle changes its behaviour. That’s strange – it’s a new frontier that’s also very good for a road bike, where you have to deal with different conditions one after the other on even a short ride.”

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Time to find out for myself, by taking the cobby, cheeky-looking, streetlegal Vyrus 986 M2 racer-with-lights for a ride down memory lane on the demanding roads leading through the hills and valleys outside Rimini where I’ve practically worn a groove down the years testing various Bimota models. What memories? Well, I raced a pair of works Tesi 1D Superbikes for the Bimota factory in 1991-93, one of which is today on display in the Barber Museum in Alabama, USA, and enjoyed some success on them in winning a pair of Supertwins races at Daytona, plus others in Europe, and even claimed a fourth place on the Bimota in Japan against the best of the local twin-cylinder Superbike hotshots. So, the chance to ride the Tesi’s modern-day successor was too good a chance to miss, especially as this was the first time I’d ever ridden a Vyrus on the street, rather than a racetrack – and particularly since this Honda-engined 600cc streetbike is the smallest-capacity Vyrus model that Ascanio Rodorigo has yet built. Can less truly be more?

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Apparently so. For hopping aboard the Vyrus 986 M2 brought the memories flooding back, even if it felt much smaller and definitely more purposeful than the bigger, more boat-like Tesi 1D that I raced 25 years ago. Its riding position felt improbably comfortable and comparatively normal, without your hands being too close together as on some other hub-centre bikes, thanks to the absence of a ‘proper’ set of forks and the triple clamps they’re harnessed in. The vestigial painted bodywork helped add to the sense of minimalism, but not at the expense of wind protection – speeds of up to 190kmh/120mph, as indicated on the digital speedo on the stock Honda dash, didn’t deliver excessive windblast, thanks to the small but effective screen. Yet in spite of having such a short wheelbase the Honda-engined Vyrus has a surprisingly spacious riding position that’s really welcoming for people of any stature – it turns out Ascanio gets both taller and shorter riders to sample any of his designs, and each must be comfy on the bike before he signs it off. Moreover, the seat is deliberately narrowed where it meets the fuel tank-cum-airbox shroud, and in spite of its tall 820mm height, this allowed the 1.80m/5’10” me to place both feet flat on the ground at traffic lights.

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Everything about the Vyrus seems refined, delicate even, in its design and function, although to begin with I struggled to remap my mind processes to suit, and adjust to doing things differently aboard such a bike, as you must. Low-speed manoeuvrability in the several tight turns along the Strada Panoramica looking out over the Adriatic Sea was good, with none of the ungainliness of most other such hub-centre bikes that I’ve tried, including the Tesi which I vividly remember was not at all at home in slow corners – or bumpy ones. By contrast, the steering of the Vyrus seems light but deft, without being over-sensitive, just controllable, and indeed the whole bike seems less remote, more direct-steering and predictable than ‘my’ Tesi did 25 years ago. You feel much more involved with it, and yet there’s no sense of instability in spite of the light steering.

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For after a few kilometres gradually picking up speed, my mental computer was rebooted, and I recalled the mindset you must adopt to get the best out of any hub-centre motorcycle. Which is, hold the ‘bars lightly, be delicate with steering inputs, and don’t be afraid to stay off the brakes until what seems suicidally late. Then, when you do finally decide to stop, don’t be reticent in grabbing a big handful of front brake, then just keep squeezing the lever hard as you tip into the apex of a turn, while still scrubbing off speed. The separation of steering from suspension functions is the biggest asset of hub-centre front ends – only that you must first convince yourself that you can, indeed MUST trail-brake deep into turns, then do it! Yesterday once more….

 

The twin Brembo 320mm front discs and their Monoblock calipers gave phenomenal bite in slowing what is a pretty light bike down very hard from very late, and single-digit operation of the lever tucked right down below the handlebar on this racetrack refugee became a matter of norm. But I needed two digits – the forefinger of each hand, in fact – to reach down into the carbon recesses to turn the ignition key on or off that’s hidden beneath the carbon lid behind the steering head. But braking hard brought more Bimota memories, of the way the Tesi would stay flat and balanced whenever I braked deep into a turn. Once you come to terms with the fact there’s essentially no front end dive, you realise that the suspension keeps on working even though you’re braking so hard, because the Vyrus is almost oblivious to the weight transfer this delivers, especially your own. And once you do get dialled in to the reduced braking distances on offer, your increased confidence will allow the Vyrus to carry huge amounts of turn speed, while still eating up any bumps encountered on the angle, either on or off the brakes. That’s why Ascanio has fitted a wide 3.75-inch forged aluminium front wheel to the bike, rather than a more commonplace 3.50-inch one, in order to try to increase the contact patch area for better grip in turns. “I’d fit a five-inch front wheel if I could get one!” he declares.

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As with previous Vyruses – Vyri? – I’ve ridden, this bike is so confidence inspiring and well balanced, with seemingly no sensitivity to any kind of weight transfer, either under braking into the turn or accelerating hard out of it, that there seems no limit how hard you can push it in corners. Well, only one – which is that this kind of treatment will quickly wear out as grippy a tyre as the excellent Pirelli Diablo Supercorsas fitted to the Vyrus. The extra velocity entering turns you get from being able to brake so late gets scrubbed off hard, putting the front tyre under strife – I ended up racing the Tesi with a 125GP rear tyre on the front in longer races to try to get the tyre to last, so Vyrus owners should be prepared to have to fit new front rubber as often as the rear. For you can get hard on the gas really early while still leaned over – soon as you let off the brakes you should cane the throttle – and the Vyrus was very stable under power in spite of being so short. Ride quality was excellent, too – not only surprisingly good for a sportbike, but compliant and effective in smoothing out road rash, and for sure much more so than the stiffly sprung shocks we had to run to stop the Tesi weaving at speed, a problem I grappled with all the years I raced a hub-centre bike that was so hyper-sensitive to setup, with bump steer a constant issue that was sometimes impossible to dial out. Ask anyone who watched me race the Tesi at Mallory Park about how close to the pit lane Armco the bumps on the fast kink at Devil’s Elbow brought me, and you may get an idea of what I had to grapple with. Seems the Vyrus 986 M2 is quite the contrary, if it doesn’t need constant suspension settings adjustment, as Ascanio asserts.

 

Where the Vyrus also excels compared to its Bimota ancestor is the ease with which I could flick it from side to side along the Strada Panoramica. The Tesi was always hard work to lift from side to side at any sort of speed, whereas the smaller Vyrus felt much more agile and responsive. The quite radical geometry, with just an 18-degree effective head angle and 96mm of trail (adjustable up to six degrees wider from there, and from 80-105mm of trail), allowed it to change direction faster than most bikes of comparable size, thanks also to the ultra-short 1350mm wheelbase. Yet that steep head angle didn’t result in any significant instability as a tradeoff for that quick, agile handling, although to begin with I found myself over-steering into the apex of a turn, because I was subconsciously treating the Vyrus like a ‘normal’ Supersport Honda, which isn’t exactly heavy in changing direction but is slower-steering than the Vyrus. Mental adjustment did the job.

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OK – but what now? Where does the two-wheeled Vyrus – virus? – that’s transmitted when you ride the bike, and gets under your skin to attack your preconceptions, go from here? “It’s an important fact that Kevin Schwantz held the 500GP Assen lap record on the most demanding Grand Prix circuit for ten whole years,” says Ascanio with the fervour of a true believer. “This tells you that we’re standing still – even with better tyres and more horsepower, they still couldn’t beat his time. So in my opinion this just one more confirmation of what we already know, that the motorcycle industry has been running up and down in the same place for a long time. Although they continue to develop ordinary telescopic forks, from 32mm fifty years ago up to 50mm today, the fact is you can’t go faster unless you put on better tyres or develop a more powerful engine – the actual design of a motorcycle has stood still. It’s our objective to try to persuade people to take a fresh look at two-wheeled chassis design, and the Vyrus is the result. Questa e la mia sfida – this is my challenge.”

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The Vyrus 986 M2 is an exquisitely conceived, finely detailed and brilliantly executed motorcycling masterpiece, a genuine two-wheeled work of abstract modern art that Picasso himself would have been proud of. The fact that it proved to work as well dynamically as it looked aesthetically was almost an added bonus – so good luck, Ascanio, in your mission to change the two-wheeled world, and I’ll let you have John Bloor’s phone number to ask him about building a hub-centre Moto 2 Vyrus Triumph, if I can find it…..

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