The tragedy of Harley-Davidson‘s enforced fire-fighting sale of MV Agusta is underlined by a few short minutes riding the new F4: the bike has been transformed under the Americans‘ stewardship.
The old F4 was utterly beautiful and so searingly fast and sure-footed it was still capable of lapping some circuits more rapidly than any other superbike. Even in 2007 it won the Master Bikes competition at Jerez, a collaboration between many European and American magazines to find the best sports bike, involving top class riders such as Randy Mamola, Jurgen Fuchs and Stefan Chambon.
It was also deeply unpleasant to ride with its torturous riding position and harsh, stuttery fuelling, meaning MV riders really did have to suffer for their art. Now, after receiving the same Harley-led refining treatment as the new Brutales, the F4 with some small reservations is as easy and friendly to jump on and ride as a Honda Fireblade. Yet it‘s still knockout to look at and thanks to more power, a broader spread of torque and a 22lb (10kg) weight reduction, it‘s even quicker than before.
At first glance the new bike looks little different to the old, a deliberate policy by English designer Adrian Morton to gently evolve the look, Porsche 911 style, rather than make any dramatic changes to the Tamburini original, thereby risking a Ducati 999 kind of mistake. You might argue that merely breathing on the look is the easy option, but for a designer with his own ideas - especially someone responsible for the dramatic and original Benelli Tornado - using another designer‘s template was if anything more difficult.
Pragmatism triumphed over ego however, and Morton successfully modernised the look by moving the visual mass forward while sharpening and simplifying the angles, while retaining the classic appeal of the old model. In fact every single component has been revised, and the bike is now more compact, while the fairing also flows air more efficiently and now reveals the cylinder head for a leaner appearance.
The ergonomics have been improved - MV openly admits they weren‘t good before - with a larger seat, better wind protection, and better angled bars. Even the mirrors were designed to show the road behind the rider, something of a novelty on many Italian bikes.
There are some major changes inside the engine, including the deletion of the previous counterbalance shaft and a 2kg increase in crankshaft weight, a move MV claims improves mid-corner feel and drive where the bike is especially sensitive to throttle movement. By making the crankshaft symmetrical the potential for high frequency vibration was reduced, compared with the asymmetric crank webs of the old bike.
The cylinder head is based on the F4 312 but developed from that, with higher lift cams, while as with the Brutale models, the gearshift mechanism is new, the gear lever has a longer stroke, and items such as the water pump, oil pump and alternator are new, reducing weight while improving efficiency. The whole cooling system is new and now features one water radiator and one water-cooled oil radiator, where the old had two water radiators.
Much of this is the same as the Brutale, but in addition to that the F4 has eight fuel injectors - four pointing straight down the inlet throats and four angled in the sides in the usual way - with variable intake lengths. At 10,500-10,700rpm, depending on the gear selected, the intakes are shortened to improve high rev horsepower. The transition from low to high rev injectors is more complex, depending on throttle opening and revs, and can happen anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000rpm.
The chassis looks the same but is new, with sharper geometry, a longer swingarm which is stiffer and 1.2kg lighter, new side-plate castings and a different subframe. Other components are new, such as the headlight and its mounting, saving 3.3lb (1.5kg), the wheels which are 2.6lb (1.2kg) lighter, and the dash, which is all-electronic and neatly inverts to white on black at night for improved clarity and heightened cool factor.
Overall the new version is some 22lb (10kg) lighter than the old bike. The dry weight is still high compared with the main rivals at 423lb (192kg), but it‘s an honest number (some rivals‘ aren‘t, nor was the old MV‘s) and in the right ballpark.
Once riding though, what you notice and appreciate more than any of this is the massively improved engine mapping. The old bike had a sharp, jerky transition from closed to open throttle, it surged, hunted, everything bad that fuel injection could do. Now the F4 starts cleanly, rustles evenly in idle then responds crisply and obediently to the twistgrip, with as benign a nature as any 184bhp (137kW) motorcycle could have. It is a pleasure rather than a pain to use, and that‘s with all performance considerations aside. Factor those in and this bike is wildly exciting and immensely capable. I rode it on the road as well as the track - Almeria in Spain - and there‘s sufficient low rev thrust for everyday road use, backed up with a muscular mid-range and topped off by a howling, rocketship top end that‘s a match for any Japanese superbike.
It doesn‘t quite have the legs of that pesky BMW S1000RR, but that‘s only the power at the very top of the rev range, otherwise the MV feels stronger. There‘s impressive support too from the traction control system, the same as fitted to the Brutale, which lets you crack open the throttle irresponsibly wide at the apex of a turn, then deals with wheelspin, driving you out of the turn with ferocious speed. It‘s not as smooth as BMW‘s or Ducati‘s, in its fastest mode at least, letting the bike writhe and wriggle as it powers away. But it works, and it‘s more than any Japanese bike has got.
The motor is also creamy smooth, despite the loss of the balance shaft, with vibration staying below the rider‘s awareness threshold right across the rev range. Makes you wonder why anyone bothers with a balance shaft when it can be made this smooth without. On the track this doesn‘t matter too much, but on the road it adds to the bike‘s sophistication and usability.
The chassis is a gem too. Even on stock road settings it copes peerlessly with track use, although it does feel heavy to steer and an effort to turn at first. So add some rear preload - just 3mm did the trick for me - and the bike sharpens up substantially, turning eagerly and holding a tight line even when driving out and working the traction control, while offering plenty of feedback. Maybe it‘s not quite as telepathic as an 1198, but it certainly lets you know how it‘s doing. I didn‘t even bother altering the damping settings, the Sachs rear shock and Marzocchi forks coped just fine with the circuit on their road settings, despite offering a surprisingly high ride quality even on Spanish back roads.
Braking is pretty much as you‘d expect from the de rigueur Brembo Monobloc/Nissin master cylinder combination, although without the ferocity of Ducati‘s Brembo stoppers, which is a good thing by the way. What you get is vernier accurate modulation with no hint of fade, and as much stopping power as even the hyper-grippy Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa rubber can offer. And that‘s a hell of a lot.
Ergonomically the bike impresses too ,with a riding position designed for humans and much better shoulder protection from the wind pressure, although tucking in behind the screen is difficult for taller riders, and the high seat is an issue for shorter ones. The footrests are too high too, making it difficult for medium to tall riders to move around on the bike, and sadly the old bike‘s adjustable footrests have been replaced by fixed ones. Enough riders were complaining about this for MV to suggest lower footrests might be fitted to 2011 models, but meanwhile it looks likely that lower footrests can be ordered as an option.
The mirrors might be better than before but they‘re still not great, lacking the adjustment range to suit taller riders and still showing more arm than road, but they are superior to their Italian rivals‘.
What the MV offers then is performance at the high end of the class, matched to heritage and looks which only Ducati really comes close to. In terms of style you‘d have to give it to the MV, in terms of heritage, that depends on your race history knowledge. If it goes back far enough, the MV wins again with its 37 world championships, though Ducati has been and still is doing it in modern times.
For me, these things matter more than the odd half a second in lap times, I‘ll leave those for real racers: as a machine to own and show off and appreciate as well as ride silly fast, the MV Agusta is right up at the top, vying with the S1000RR and the 1198S. Or I‘d save a fair wodge of cash and go for the GSX-R1000.
Kevin's funeral was held on Thursday 28th February 2013 and was well attended by family, friends and colleagues.
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