This thing has grown bigger than all of us

Published: 16 June 2000

IT’S official. Ducati is not just a motorcycle maker, it’s a cult brand, like Harley-Davidson or Caterpillar. They’ve reached a stage in their relatively short career where the name Ducati has become absolutely synonymous with Italian bikes.

If any proof was needed that the Bologna factory had arrived in brand heaven (the place where Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Heinz beans and Coca Cola live) it was there for all to see at World Ducati Weekend 2000 at the Misano circuit on June 10 and 11. Over 17,000 Ducatis of varying vintage and 23,000 hot and sweaty people congregated at the north Italian circuit for a weekend of celebration – a sort of mass Desmodromic frottering.

World Ducati Weekend is a mecca, not only for Ducati perverts but also for ardent Italiophiles. The whole bi-annual event is stereotypically Italian and for that reason alone should not be missed.

It is a huge operation for the factory and its worldwide network of importers, one that has taken two years of planning and organisation. But, charmingly, the final organisation and execution displayed everything we know and love about the Italian way of doing things - chaos. But with passion.

Enough organisation existed to flush thousands of people through the gates. Attendance, based on the amount of Ducatis entering the gates, made it a bigger event than the Isle of Man TT that preceded it by a matter of days.

The Isle of Man has undeniable charms, but given the choice between Douglas and Riccioni, faced with a similar bill from both trips, I know which wins it for me.

Held over three days (Friday to Sunday), using Misano as a base, the whole area was invaded by rumbling V-twins and thumping singles. Every local road, back street and motorway was swarming with Bologna’s finest. Think of a Ducati model, as obscure or rare as you like, and it was there. Everything from a mass gathering of single-cylinder Street Scramblers to bevel-drive Darmahs. From the early Cucciolo 50cc bikes that started Ducati’s ball bearings rolling, right through to the first public viewing of the MHR900, Ducati’s entire production was represented in one form or another.

Having spent all weekend among it, one thing we do miss out on in the UK is the Monster phenomenon. I picked a 900S version up from the factory when I arrived on Friday to get me to the circuit. All weekend I don’t think I saw another one the same. Virtually every Monster on the roads in Italy has been personalised to oblivion. To ride a stock Monster with its whispering exhaust system and stock paint is clearly not cool. The factory devotes an incredible 65-70 per cent of its total production to this no-frills classic which came to the designer, Michael Galuzzi, in a dream... allegedly. That’s devotion to your work if ever there was any.

For the purposes of comparison, the UK market for the Monster equates to about 20 per cent of Ducati’s sales - although that figure grows every year.

So wherever you look, or wherever you ride, there’s a Monster. They’re all loud enough to wake the dead and show evidence of much money being spent on them. My personal favourite was the 996 that had been Monstered, using M900 bodywork and handlebars – extravagant but seriously trick. Or perhaps it was the one with highly polished alloy tank and bodywork. Or perhaps the Mike Hailwood Replica one. Or...

Monster riders tend to be as individual and possibly cooler than their bikes. In a country where everyone dresses up to go down the shops, any Italian is capable of making us Brits feel like uncultured, scruffy oiks. Monster pilots are no different. The flavour is civilian rather than biker, with scant regard for skin protection. Designer labels, shorts and T-shirts make the most of the mid-30s temperature and sea-front pose factor. Sporting just the right degree of macho-stubble and wearing the most expensive pair of sunglasses, a lot of effort clearly goes into looking good on your Monster. It looks great along the Adriatic coast boulevards, but I can’t see it working so well in Blackpool. Who knows? But even if we can’t draw any practical cues from the riding gear, the bikes are true inspiration for what is effectively a Harley Sportster concept but with proper brakes, great handling and no vibration. Roll on the Monster cult in the UK.

As I went to return the Monster 900S to the Bologna factory, it was time to pick up an itinerary. Casually looking down the list revealed a couple using the event as a platform to renew their wedding vows. Come again?

What could have happened in their relationship to demand such drastic and public measures? Was it a forfeit or was their Ducati about to become part of some bizarre love triangle? There’s nowt so queer as folk.

The temperatures were in sharp contrast to the Isle of Man I’d left the day before. People with pink heads and lobster-like limbs were everywhere - and it was the first day of the event. Day two, Saturday, was just as roasting.

When we arrived at Misano, pandemonium was breaking out at the British marquee. All the countries had their own marquees in the paddock area serving their traditional foods. While Germany served up sauerkraut and stool-like sausages, the UK was supposed to be whipping up fish and chips. But the truck towing the fish and chip trailer burned its clutch out in the Alps. Eventually, a day late, Britain would provide the world with cod and chips and complimentary Valerio beer.

The Belgians had bigger problems with their chips and mayonnaise. A Calor-gas bottle exploded, the incident conjuring up images of hot fountains of mayo and startled customers. Despite pretty drastic looking dressings, the two caterers were OK bar a couple of fairly impressive, watery scabs. Needless to say, I stuck to fish and chips.

All this was performed to a sound track of cover bands and DJs on the massive central stage. With our own Gary Rothwell doing his best to destroy the world supply of rear Michelins on Friday and AC Farias on Saturday, there was always plenty going on. Multi-lingual announcements over the PA kept everyone informed (when you were close enough to a speaker) and punters from the world over took to the slippery, polished Tarmac of the track in groups of 30.

Misano is a place steeped in history. Nestling beneath the hills of San Marino, Italy’s only principality, and just a conrod’s throw from the beautiful Adriatic coastline, it’s certainly no Darley Moor.

The five left-handers leading on to the back straight, the first taken in third, the last in top, are the ultimate bottle-tester. The tight and nadgery back section demands absolute precision and accuracy. For everyone it was a chance to ride a famous piece of Tarmac the week before the WSB round, allowing a bit of pre-event insight. " No Colin, you’ve turned in too early " and " bloody hell, Pier-Francesco, call yourself a late braker? "

Ducati invited their top riders to do some " demonstration " laps. Troy Bayliss punted round at close to lap record speed while the always spectacular Ruben Xaus must have misheard demonstration for demolition. He lobbed a factory bike (again).

After they had swept up the pieces, Sotheby’s auction ground into action. Should you have felt so inclined, you could bid for a variety of knackered bits. Paul Smart’s old pixie-style black and battered Lewis Leathers race boots (displayed in a glass box, they looked like they would smell pretty bad.) Giancarlo Falappa’s bent 888 frame in chipped and scuffed white paint finish. Or how about a lifed conrod, allegedly from Fogarty’s 996 motor. There were a couple of signed books, a battered tailpiece and other odds and sods. I ate some WDW2000 cake (very nice) and left in search of entertainment.

It was found in the form of the Pasta Party which, as its name suggests, was just that.

It appeared to be one of those rare beasts, a free lunch with no strings. So I joined those tucking into some penne and pesto.

To aid digestion, the evening then degenerated into one of beer and more beer. While a succession of bands thumped out some truly appalling ’70s flops, we talked bollocks and watched endless processions of bikes come and go. The climate for this al-fresco activity was perfect: Warm, nil-humidity and comfortable. Proper holiday weather.

Over a beer, Alan Holland, from Merlin Ducati in Swansea, told us about his ride down.

He’d gone to considerable efforts to bring as many of his customers as possible. Thirty of them left some appalling English weather behind them and did the trip in style. They took a ferry from Dover to Calais with an overnight stay at the French port. Then there was a quick blast into Belgium to pick up an overnight cargo train to Frejus in the South of France. After a blat along the French Riviera to Monaco (couple of laps of the circuit and some pics) a never-forgotten ride to Genoa and through the Alps to Misano. What did it cost? £130 for the return ferry and overnight stay in Calais, £350 for the return train journey and a very reasonable £30 a night for the Holiday Inn in Rimini. Add on the fuel money for a 2000-mile ride and that’s your budget. To compare, I had just paid £250 to get to the Isle of Man on a Seacat ferry and stumped up the thick end of £500 on hotel fees.

But did they all enjoy it? " It was brilliant, the roads, the event, the people. A few of our customers did Hockenheim the week before and rode down from there. On the way back, some went off to Le Mans for the 24-hour car race. It’s this kind of event that makes ownership more worthwhile. "

To cap off Saturday night, the Ducati people laid on one of the most impressive firework displays most of us had ever witnessed. With explosions loud enough to make small children cry, it was the perfect finale. Everyone left feeling that nothing could top the awesome display of pyrotechnics.

But, for me, Sunday held two world firsts in store. I got the chance to meet and interview Andrea Forni, Ducati’s head of R&D. Forni, a man who people at the factory talk about in hushed tones, has been responsible for the large chunks of the development of every new model since 1988. It’s an impressive list. Are you sitting comfortably? 750SS and all variants of 900SS, Cagiva Elefant, 851, 888, 916, 996, 748, ST2 and ST4 and all the Monsters. Oh, ahem, and the 906 and 907 Paso, but we’ll steer clear of them.

Forni is an analytical and extremely talented engineer - he’s also a demon rider. I was supposed to go for a ride with him on the road but, thankfully, (for me, not for him) he binned a 996 on the track on Saturday and had to have his right ankle strapped up. Big relief. Forni explained in excellent English how each bike had reached its final stage, from the designer’s drawing board to final production. His passion for the Ducati brand is obvious, but it lurks behind a clear-cut and purely practical ethic of engineering functionality.

Was he responsible for the Ducati self-retracting sidestand? Was it just a way of selling more indicators and fairing panels? Forni takes a wry sideways glance, realising we’re taking the piss, and says: " It’s the best for Le Mans start " . Ask a silly question.

But then he puts his practical head on and explains that for years Ducati have struggled to find reliable switchgear. To do the job properly, without a self-retracting system, regulations determine a sidestand switch, a clutch switch and a gearbox switch to prevent the bike being ridden away with the stand down. The self-retracting mechanism was just Forni’s way of engineering his way out of a problematic situation. Now Ducati uses the same switch manufacturer as Honda so the problem no longer exists.

Two hours with Forni whizz by like they were 20 minutes, he’s a fascinating guy and a gentleman. But the other world first is on the pit lane – three world firsts to be precise. Three gleaming MHR900s are being warmed up by factory mechanics. You’ve seen the pictures from all the shows, it’s the one with the indicators shoved up the ends of the exhaust and half the seat missing.

I saw it a year ago and thought it just looked silly. In the flesh, though, it is gorgeous and the more you look, the more you notice and the more you like. The details are astonishing. The indicators may no longer be up the exhausts on the final production versions, but the swinging arm, footrests and screen mounts are exquisite. It’s only the two-valve 900SS motor, but it is a thing of beauty.

The three lucky owners, one Italian, one American and one Japanese, then take to the track to exhibit their luck and break a lap record in the process. The slowest ever laps of Misano. Well, you wouldn’t want to be the first to crash an MHR900 would you?

The MHR was Ducati’s and the industry’s first e-tailed bike. The whole batch (2000 of them) was sold exclusively, within a matter of hours, via ducati.com, the factory’s web site. The three at the circuit were the first three to be produced and the rest will be produced at the rate of 1000 a year for two years. With this kind of sales success, it’s obviously an area that they’re keen to expand upon.

Before we return home on Monday we do a lightning factory tour and have a quick peek in the excellent Ducati museum.

The museum is awe-inspiring, but the collection is far from definitive with several crucial and historic models missing, like the four-cylinder racers from the ’60s.

You can check it out for yourself at Ducati’s website

So what of the next bash? The two event-old WDW has more than doubled in size so it’s logical it will continue to grow. Ask anyone at Ducati if it will become annual, though, and you’re likely to get a poke in the eye.