This Throwback Thursday featured article is from the June, 1999 edition of Roadracing World & Motorcycle Technology, when Editor John Ulrich traveled to Italy for the press introduction of the MV Agusta F4-750 Serie Oro, a new limited-edition, series-of-300, $36,995 sportbike built by Cagiva.To read more articles like this please subscribe to Roadracing World.
By John Ulrich
I was in Italy for the press introduction of the MV Agusta F4-750 Serie Oro, the new limited-edition, series-of-300, $36,995 sportbike built by Cagiva.
I’ll admit that I’d never had dinner at the home of the President of a motorcycle manufacturing company before, so maybe my viewpoint was distorted.
But sitting at the dinner table in Cagiva President Claudio Castiglioni’s expansive villa in the hills above Varese, it struck me that this man did not have the easiest of jobs, and that one of the difficulties he faced was having to deal with “experts” who did not have the slightest idea what the hell they were talking about.
There were 10 of us at the table, including five U.S. and British journalists, one of whom was now explaining to Castiglioni that the key to success in the U.S. market was to build a line of sporting Singles. The way the writer explained it, many people in his part of America installed 500cc single-cylinder four-stroke engines in TZ250 frames, and the demand for such a machine would be immense.
Earlier in the day, a German journalist had charged that the speedometer on the MV Agusta he rode at Monza had been rigged, because the bike felt slow and couldn’t possibly have reached the 265 kph (165 mph) indicated on the front straight. A radar gun retrieved from Cagiva headquarters proved the scribe wrong, and he spent the last part of the afternoon bowing and scraping as he apologized to everybody from Castiglioni down to the go-fers who had brought the timing equipment out to the racetrack.
And then there was the Italian writer who flicked away one of four sample F4s on his first run into the first of Monza’s infamous chicanes, becoming the first man to grind paint off the carbon-fiber bodywork of a running MV Agusta.
Hey, crashes happen, and the MV Agusta’s fat, linear powerband is deceptive on a power-sucking track like Monza. But nobody’s been able to sell 500cc Singles in any real numbers to Americans, and the total population of TZ-framed Singles in the U.S. would have been 12 if racer Franz Volpi hadn’t re-installed the original TZ250 engine in his bike this winter.
Castiglioni’s encounters with bullshit had not begun on this night in Varese, nor are they likely to ever end. Some writers had already declared the F4 dead, printing reports that the machine would never be produced, that Cagiva was out of money, out of time, out of expertise. One editor ran hot on the brakes into a chicane on a cold and green track during the test rides at Monza, tucked the front and placed immediately blame on the special-for-the-MV Pirelli front tire, much to the alarm and horror of Pirelli’s Salvo Pennisi, a rare tire company manager who can actually ride a motorcycle around a racetrack at a decent clip.
On the business front, Castiglioni has been criticized for his management of Cagiva and Ducati. Critics tend to forget that Castiglioni and his brother, Gianfranco, had already built Cagiva into a major force in the Italian market when they were urged by the Italian government to buy bankrupt Ducati in 1985.
The Castiglionis, industrialists involved in a range of non-motorcycling businesses in addition to Cagiva, rejuvenated Ducati, pouring in resources and attention, often at the expense of Cagiva. For example, the Ducati Paso was originally meant to be a Cagiva model, but was rebadged and sold as a Ducati when the Castiglionis decided to quickly modernize the Ducati line. Cagiva’s Massimo Tamburini designed the revolutionary look of the Ducati 996, and the Castiglionis took Ducati to dominance in the Superbike World Championship.
The way U.S. Cagiva importer Larry Ferracci tells the tale, Cagiva’s government-orchestrated purchase of Ducati was financed by certain special-rate, government-guaranteed loans. More money was spent acquiring Husqvarna and nearly-defunct Moto Morini and MV Agusta, as well as financing Cagiva’s foray into the 500cc World Championship. Production of Husqvarna off-road bikes was moved to Italy with Ducati and Cagiva, while the Moto Morini and MV Agusta brands lay dormant.
A Italian economic crisis and change in government led to the loans being called in, causing a severe cash-flow crisis, delays in payments to suppliers and the near-idling of Ducati production for want of outsourced parts. Ferracci was involved in the search for a financial solution,which came with the Texas-Pacific Group’s purchase of 49 percent of Ducati in 1996, followed by TPG’s purchase of the remaining 51 percent last year and the listing of Ducati on the New York Stock Exchange in March. The sale of once-bankrupt Ducati netted a healthy return for the Castiglionis, and Claudio, who manages the motorcycle businesses while Gianfranco handles the Cagiva Group’s other businesses, is investing large sums in the MV Agusta brand and the rest of the company.
“Many people thought we wouldn’t be able to design the F4, let alone build it,” Castiglioni had told assembled reporters in a press conference the day before the test sessions at Monza. Castiglioni spoke in Italian, his words simultaneously translated into English beamed into headsets worn by journalists not fluent in Italian.
Castiglioni lavished praise on design chief Tamburini, and pointed out that Cagiva’s R&D operations in Varese and San Marino employ 150 people. Castiglioni said his company was investing $50 million U.S. in MV Agusta alone, with another $350 million earmarked for refurbishing existing production plants as well as building new production facilities and hiring additional workers over the next year. “We’re not just assemblers,” Castiglioni said in what may have been a jab at rival Aprilia, the closest thing to a virtual motorcycle company. “We try to conceive and produce motorcycles. We have a passion, we have a resolve, to create something.
“As a man,” Castiglioni continued, “I have realized a dream. When I was a little boy, 8, I would come to Monza with my father and see MV Agusta win. Now that I am Chairman of MV Agusta I can say that I have reached my dream. We want to make MV known worldwide.” The F4, Castiglioni said, would be the first in an entire range of MV motorcycles.
Photo by Kel Edge.
He had selected Monza, Castiglioni told the reporters, because Monza was an important part of MV history, and Giacomo Agostini won for the first time on an MV at Monza. “I hope soon we can see this motorcycle racing at tracks worldwide,” Castiglioni said at the press conference.
It wasn’t until the dinner at his home the next night that we learned how much of a gamble the press intro at Monza really was. The tracks at Imola and Misano weren’t available for months, but Castiglioni didn’t want to wait. Production of the Serie Oro machines had already begun in March and the press reports of impending doom were interfering with marketing plans, so he decided to hold the press intro at Monza, without delay.
His advisers had counseled against using Monza. The journalists would tumble end-over-end in the tight chicanes punctuating Monza’s wide-open sections. The constant, wide-open running in the hands of ham-fisted writers would be too hard on the bikes. Something might go wrong. Castiglioni rolled the dice, concocted the historic-link cover story, and charged ahead. Each of the four test bikes covered between 1,100 and 1,250 miles on the day, mostly wide-open, with no mechanical failures or serious problems.
We also learned that Castiglioni figured he’d spend the next two years getting MV Agusta production and commercial operations in order, then look at going racing. On a personal level, Castiglioni said, he’d prefer to take MV Agusta back into Grand Prix racing, although running in World Superbike may prove more feasible. (Castiglioni’s dream includes signing racer Max Biaggi to ride for MV, one insider told me.) The problem, of course, is that MV used to dominate Grand Prix racing. Which means, as Castiglioni is painfully aware, that merely racing would not do.
Only winning with the reborn MV Agusta brand would be good enough.
Original plans called for building 200 machines in the MV Agusta F4-750 Serie Oro, or Gold Series. But due to worldwide demand, the plans were changed to produce 300 of the bikes, and each of the 15-25 machines likely to reach the U.S. will sell for $36,995. Production began in March, the limited-edition machines hand-assembled on a short line at the rate of three per day. Over 50 engines have already been built.
Production of the Serie S, or Standard Series, will begin in July with shipments beginning in September. The price will be $18,900 in the U.S., with aluminum and plastic replacing the magnesium and carbon-fiber parts used on the Serie Oro. While the crankcases, cylinders and cylinder heads for the Serie Oro are sand-cast, the same parts will be die-cast for the Serie S, making the standard bike’s engine 1.5 to 2.0 kilograms (3.3 to 4.4 pounds) lighter. Internal engine parts and specifications will be identical, and the overall machine weight difference will be about 10 kilograms,or 22 pounds. Serie S machines should start showing up in the U.S. in January, 2000, and Larry Ferracci hopes to import about 200 of the machines then and another 200 by June of next year. Total Series S production will be about 1,000 in 1999 and about 4,000 in 2000.
The Serie Oro is meant to be made of precious materials with precision manufacturing, Centro Ricerche Cagiva (CRC) Technical Director Massimo Parenti told reporters. The chassis is easy to assemble and disassemble, the fairing is easy to remove, he said.
It is an interesting design. The main frame is a trellis constructed of a micro-cast chrome-moly steel steering head and chrome-moly steel tubing, bolted to the cylinder head on each side and cast magnesium alloy swingarm pivot plates at the rear. The single-sided swingarm is also cast magnesium alloy, and an aluminum-alloy rear subframe attaches with four bolts and supports the seat, tailsection and mufflers. The lower triple clamp is a hollow magnesium alloy casting (the bottom is shaped to direct air into the radiator), with a large-diameter aluminum alloy steering stem and a forged aluminum alloy upper triple clamp. Steering head and swingarm pivot inserts allow geometry adjustments, and an adjustable Ohlins steering damper is transversely mounted behind the upper triple clamp, both ends of the damper shaft attached to the frame rails while the damper body is attached to the triple clamp itself.
Fully-adjustable Showa inverted forks have short axle/caliper-mount bodies, quick-release axle clamps and long upper tubes with widely-spaced bushings supporting the 49mm stanchion tubes.
The design and construction of the swingarm, the swingarm pivot plates, the steering head bearing installation and adjustment system (a collar threaded into the steering head holds the bearings in place), the steering damper mounting system and various other details are patented. The process used to design the swingarm is the subject of scientific papers; the trick was to make the swingarm as light as possible while also making it strong enough for every possible scenario with a look compatible with the overall design of the F4, and it is the styling of the swingarm which is actually patented.
The fully-adjustable Sachs rear shock is connected to the swingarm plates and the swingarm through a progressive link.
The wheels are Marvic cast magnesium with a star-shaped spoke layout, a 3.50 x 17-inch front carried by a thin-wall 35mm O.D. (32mm I.D.) axle and a 6.00 x 17-inch rear carried by a 50mm O.D. (45mm I.D.) forged spindle mounted in an eccentric hub; the rear sprocket is carried by a cush drive.
Nissin brakes include 310mm floating front discs and six-piston calipers with internal passageways designed for easy bleeding with no troublesome air pockets; the caliper piston sizes are staggered front to rear, 22.65mm, 25.4mm and 30.23mm (0.89, 1.0, 1.19-inch). The rear brake disc is 210mm with a four-piston caliper, all four pistons measuring 25.4mm, or 1.0 inch, in diameter.
The Nissin master cylinders developed for the MV’s front brakes and hydraulic clutch actuating system are also patented; according to Parenti, the position of the master cylinder piston relative to the lever itself allowed the integral reservoir to be lowered, making the entire assembly more compact, allowing the fairing to be pulled in tighter, and improving the rider’s view of the instruments and out the windscreen. The adjustable aluminum alloy handlebars have quick-release hinged clamps, each secured by a single bolt, and the aluminum-alloy footpegs and shift and brake pedals have built-in adjustment eccentrics. And the rear brake master cylinder, while conventional in design, is positioned horizontally underneath the engine instead of vertically or angled upright on a frame tube or swingarm pivot mount plate.
The stacked projector headlights improve aerodynamics and meet homologation requirements worldwide, Parenti said; the front turn signals are built into the rearview mirrors.
A compact instrument package includes an analog tach and a digital speedometer, along with a shift light, clock, odometer, dual trip and water temperature gauges, along with the usual warning lights.
The fuel tank and airbox are carbon-fiber, as are the body parts; carbon-fiber ram-air intakes are mounted underneath the nose of the fairing. The curved radiator carries two fans, one conventionally mounted, and another, larger fan mounted in a curved carbon-fiber scoop attached to the rear of the radiator and designed to suck hot air down, expelling it underneath the engine. The idea is to reduce the amount of hot air reaching the rider.
The engine management system is by Magneti-Marelli, with four 46mm single-injector throttle bodies. The bank of throttle bodies and the airbox are positioned ahead of the 5.3-gallon carbon-fiber fuel tank, which drops down vertically to use the space behind the cylinders. There’s a circle of small holes drilled in each velocity stack; the holes suck in condensed fuel seeping down through the outside stack seal, before it can run onto the outside of the throttle body.
The stainless steel exhaust system is a 4-into-2-into-1-into-2, each underseat muffler then split into two tuned exits for a four-pipe look. Perhaps stung by BMW’s copy of the 916’s underseat pipe look, this time CRC has patented the four-pipe style seen on the F4.
The tread pattern of the Pirelli Dragon EVO steel-belted radial tires was originally designed for the MV Agusta, Pirelli Testing Department Manager Pennisi said, and a new front tire size was developed to meet Tamburini’s demand that handling feel be as close as possible to a 500cc Grand Prix racebike. The size is 120/65-17, a compromise between the 120/60-17 size that reduces turn-in effort and the 120/70-17 size that is less agile but more stable at full lean, especially over bumps and during braking. The new size is 6.0 percent lighter than an equivalent 120/70-17 with a smaller tread radius and outside diameter but the same tangent lean angle. The rear tire is a 190/50-17.
Engine Project Leader Andrea Goggi, 35, explained the details of the engine design, and pointed out that the engine design team worked with the chassis design team to make the bike as compact as possible.
The four-cylinder, inline engine is Goggi’s design; Goggi previously designed the two-stroke C593 500cc Grand Prix racebike engine. Castiglioni had enlisted Ferrari design assistance for a new four-cylinder engine in 1992, but the design was unworkable for motorcycle use. In one version, the cylinder head was reversed, with throttle bodies forward, presenting packaging problems. In another, the cylinders were angled slightly apart, forming in essence two paired V-Twin engines. Neither design was built, Goggi said, declaring that there were no advantages to the design features and plenty of potential production problems, not only in packaging but also in maintaining precise bore machining at multiple angles. “It’s always difficult to have a balance between doing something different versus rational,” Goggi told me later in excellent English. “Sometimes different things are not very rational.” It sounded just like something a racing engineer would say—something that works is always better than something that’s trick for the sake of being trick.
In 1994, Cagiva left the 500cc World Championship and Goggi was reassigned to Ducati. In July, 1995 Castiglioni moved Goggi out of Ducati and put him to work designing what became the F4 engine; the Inline Four, DOHC, water-cooled design was completed and approved for production in October of 1998. Bore and stroke measure 73.8 x 43.8mm for 749cc.
Goggi freely admits that he used the current Suzuki GSX-R750 engine as his starting point, or benchmark, and sought to improve on the Suzuki engine in every way.
Much of Goggi’s work involved packaging, but he also analyzed air flow through the cylinder head and combustion chamber, a practice critical, he said, to modern two-stroke racebike design. And throughout the design process, Goggi kept in mind the demands of production, the need to design something that could be produced on an assembly line in a straightforward, repeatable manner, as easily as possible, and to build a motorcycle that not only made competitive power but was also easy to ride.
The plan was to use the engine as a structural member of the frame, linking the bottom of the swingarm pivot mount plates to the trellis frame. Which meant the frame had to bolt to the cylinder head, which meant the cylinders had to be strong enough to carry the loads from the head to the cases and onto the swingarm pivot plates. Current conventional design of Inline Fours has the cam drive located on one end of the crankshaft; the theoretical benefits include a shorter crankshaft with fewer main bearings. But that layout combined with the F4’s stressed-engine design would require a super-heavy-duty, thick casting wall outside the cam chain. The simpler solution was to position the cam drive in the center of the crankshaft.
The latest conventional design trend also incorporates the cylinder block into the upper crankcase casting, making for fewer parts and gaskets and less sources for oil weepage. But using a separate, beefy cylinder casting secured by large nuts on big studs not only gave Goggi the rigidity he needed but also builds in a certain amount of design flexibility for the future, as in, the possibility of building a 900 on the same cases. As is the usual practice, the cylinder bores are plated with a nickel-silicon-carbide composite, the same coating Goggi used on the C593 GP bike.
Despite the centrally-located cam drive, this F4 engine is not excessively wide. The Denso alternator and electric starter are positioned behind the cylinders, and the engine measures 17 inches (432mm) at its widest point (a GSX-R750 engine measures 19 inches, or 483mm, and a Ducati 996 engine measures 17.5 inches, or 445mm). To keep the cylinder head as compact as possible, the cams are driven by a combination of gears and roller chain; the system allows the use of smaller-diameter cam sprockets, because a set of gears handles the initial crank-to-cam speed reduction with a chain then running to the cams. The use of smaller cam sprockets not only allows the outside dimension of the cylinder head to be reduced, but also allows the use of smaller valve angles. And with the intake valves set at 9.5 degrees and the exhaust valves at 12.5 degrees for a 22-degree included angle, the F4 engine has very steep valve angles. (The system also means that the F4’s cams run opposite crankshaft rotation, and the cam chain tensioner system is on the front of the cylinder, not the rear.)
Remember Goggi’s work at analyzing airflow through the cylinder head and combustion chamber? One result of that work is a radial valve layout—each valve is slightly tilted transversely outward, at 2.0 degrees from the cylinder centerline. That’s enough of a tilt to produce more room between the valve head and the cylinder wall, that room increasing with lift. The extra room reduces the shrouding effect that the cylinder wall has on a conventionally positioned valve, and increases the volume and improves the pattern of flow, especially at low valve lifts, which in turn helps smooth the power curve. The 2.0 degrees is enough to make a difference, yet small enough to not require a complicated rocker arm valve actuation system. Instead, the cam lobes are ground at a slight angle and operate directly on conventional bucket tappets. Another benefit of the radial valve layout is that the combustion chamber is entirely formed by the valve pockets, with no additional CNC work required, simplifying production.
Goggi’s analysis of gas flow also influenced the shape and finish of the ports. The intake ports are straight and oval, the exhaust ports oval, short and wide with a relatively high floor. Goggi found that port finishing had no influence on flow, so there isn’t any port cleanup or polishing. The only purpose of polishing ports is to make money, not power, Goggi said.
The cast slipper pistons made in Italy by Asso are slightly domed, and the valve cutouts are angled to accommodate the radial valve layout.
Continuing his quest for a smooth powerband with no peaks or dips, Goggi said he used a relatively heavy crankshaft and paid special attention to the electronic fuel injection system mapping, working to eliminate roughness in the off-on throttle transitions. Goggi is quick to point out that smooth power delivery also makes fewer demands on the chassis and suspension and thus aids handling.
With the transmission, Goggi managed to combine a trick feature with a practical production consideration. It’s a close-ratio six-speed, cassette style, which means the transmission shafts and shift mechanism attach to a plate which bolts to the cases as a single assembly. The production advantage is that the transmissions can be separately assembled and checked, brought to the engine line, and then installed into the cases. The same system will be used on other, future MV Agusta models, Goggi said, and an optional racing kit will include three or four alternate ratios for each transmission gear. (The kit will include inserts for the steering head and swingarm pivot as well.)
The most amazing thing about the F4 is that even normally hidden parts are all well-finished, with attention paid to every detail. Every weld is nearly perfect. “Even the bolts are special,” Goggi said. When they say that the MV Agusta F4 is Motorcycle Art, they aren’t kidding.
But the proof is in the riding.
Monza is an intimidating track, more so when the first day’s riding has been rained out and suddenly each journalist’s track time on the second day has been slashed to two sessions, 30 minutes the first time, 10 minutes the second. Especially when there are still wet patches in the blindingly fast curves and back-section turns.
Monza can be described this way: Wide open, slow chicane, wide open right curve, brake under bridge into chicane over bump that launches rear wheel into air, short straight, 90-right, 90-right, wide open, wide-open kink left, double-chicane, wide-open, fast sweeper, wide open.
Dying at Monza would be no trouble, and I had no intention of dying. I’m a slow learner at these press events, usually reaching a respectable clip around the fourth riding session. There are long-term advantages to such an approach, and, in reality, the real testing of any motorcycle isn’t at a supervised press launch anyway. At Monza, there were many people braver than me. I salute them.
My bike wouldn’t idle when I jumped on it for my first ride. Twice I started it, twice it died. The third time I held the throttle slightly open, dropped it into gear and rode away.
I decided immediately that Goggi has realized his goal of a strong, linear powerband without peaks or dips. The F4 has very smooth power delivery, although all the wide-open sections at Monza did little to showcase the bike’s strong points—Monza is a top-end type of place. Still, the MV was reaching 265 kph (165 mph) before I shut off for Turn One and headed into the chicane. The brakes are good and strong, with a linear feel and smooth action. And the bike is very stable, without a hint of head-shake through the back-straight kink.
But I was surprised with the off-on throttle action—it was not as perfect as I’d expected after Goggi told me about the extra effort that had gone into that area. It seemed about the same as a Hayabusa’s, although notably better than a GSX-R750’s. And I missed the fourth-fifth upshift several times, shifting without the clutch. Making that kind of shift—dipping the throttle for a brief instant while nudging the lever—is standard racetrack form, and easy to do with a smooth-shifting GSX-R750.
What really surprised me when my session was over was the discovery that my aging, bad wrists did not ache, my hands had not seized, and my fingers had not gone numb. For me, this is something new for the ergonomics of a 750cc sportbike.
Cycle World’s Brian Catterson ground through the heel of one boot—his foot had gotten against the rear wheel when he hung off. Several others melted plastic boot guards against the exhaust pipe after the small carbon-fiber heat shields fell off. I did not.
I was debriefed when I returned to the pits. Alarmed MV officials immediately sent out a test rider to check my bike—which idled perfectly before he pulled away. He returned, reporting no problem with the off-on throttle transition or the transmission, and I’m sure they all thought I was insane.
Maybe I was. The bike I rode in the next session idled perfectly at 1,500 rpm, the throttle transition seemed fine and I didn’t miss any shifts, although I purposely ran the thing right up below the 13,300 rpm rev limiter before making each shift. My last 10 minutes seemed much better, Monza a less foreign place. Another 60 minutes worth and I could have been really rolling. And then it was over.
There was the Singles-Are-The-Answer dinner that night, and a factory tour the next day. The factory tour was Claudio Castiglioni’s way of answering the reported fiction that the F4 would never be built. There were F4 engines in various stages of assembly as well as engine parts and complete bikes in evidence throughout the factory. A huge bin held camshaft blanks awaiting machining; crates carried un-machined cylinder head castings; a giant box was full of crankcase sets. A newly-installed Heller machining center stood ready to finish 20 F4 cylinder heads per shift, with six more of the massive machines on order, according to our tour guides.
The factory’s four lines can be configured to produce any model in Cagiva’s line, and, once Serie S production is geared up, one line will be devoted to the F4 alone. A nearby engine plant can produce a total of 500 engines per shift, and 100 to 120 complete motorcycles can leave the factory each day. A nearby spare parts warehouse uses a computer-guided robot vehicle system to find parts; a human rides on the robot to actually retrieve the part. This is a going concern, up and running and serious.
I flew back to LAX on Saturday, arriving in the afternoon, and on to Sears Point to see my kid race his TZ250 at an AMA Pro National event. The last time anybody I had anything to do with raced there was 1988, when Russ Paulk crashed one of my AMA 750 Supersport bikes, hit an embankment and died. Chris was 8 at the time and knew Russ well. The track is still a killer, the AMA having long ago failed in its responsibility to look out for the safety and welfare of its racing members, and I was worried about Chris.
I stayed as far away from him on raceday as I could stand, for as long as I could, lest my apprehension infect him. I watched mostly from a distance, and thought about the MV.
It looks to me like the MV Agusta F4 is a reality, is in production, and will be sold. Larry Ferracci is certain he’ll be able to sell all he can get in the U.S., and one of my better-off friends has already ordered a Serie S. As for the racing plans, we’ll see.
Chris did fine in his first race at Sears, getting the points and finishing seventh (on his way to finishing third in AMA 250cc GP points for the season).
The MV will do fine, too, I decided. If that’s not the story some writers have told their readers, so be it.
I’ll take reality over journalism any day.
This Throwback Thursday is from the June 1999 edition of Roadracing World and Motorcycle Technology. To read more articles like this please subscribe to Roadracing World.
Author’s Postscript: In the 20 years since this story was written, a lot has changed at Sears Point (now known as Sonoma Raceway), starting with the track being purchased by Speedway Motorsports in 1996. In 2000-2003, track President Steve Page actively sought rider feedback and the track began a series of modifications based on input from Mat Mladin, Ben and Eric Bostrom, Miguel Duhamel, Aaron Yates, and other professional racers. The changes–including significantly improving run-off room and installing a chicane in the fast esses section where runoff could not be improved very much–dramatically improved rider safety, as did a soft-barrier initiative in conjunction with AFM. The track has come a long way from where it was in 1999, and as a rider and team owner, I appreciate it…John Ulrich