Don’t judge this Duke by its cover

Published: 11 March 2001

YOU can hardly see the Valencia pit wall because there are people in red Ducati shirts swarming all over it. But these aren’t fans. These are people who actually work for Ducati. And they’re all waiting to get a glimpse of the bike that’s about to break the still, humid air on the race track beyond that wall.

Ducati staff are not easily impressed – you don’t make some of the best bikes in the world and salivate over any old two-wheeler. So the machine they’re falling over each other to see must be pretty damn special.

As I try to elbow my way through the throng, I can hear the familiar sound of two Ducatis with Termignoni cans in the distance as the revs are blipped and the clutches take up the strain of the engine braking into the last corner.

I crane past the huddle of expectant faces and two bikes come into view in the distance, picking up speed as they enter the straight. They’re too far away to make out their shape, but the trademark boom from the pipes means they can’t be anything other than 996s.

The sound rises to a howl as the bikes gather speed. I can see the riders now, tucked behind the screens as they hurtle towards us nose-to-tail. Both are totally focused on the start-finish line. For a fraction of a second they’re a blur in front of my eyes. And then they’re past.

The rider in front sits up, his leathers flapping as the wind hits his shoulders and his brake lights flash. On the back of his leathers is the name Bayliss. On the other one’s suit is Bostrom.

This isn’t World Superbikes (you can find out what happened at the first round of WSB on page 44). What you have here are two of the world’s most famous racers – Troy Bayliss and Ben Bostrom – out to play on the new 996R, the road-going homologation special with the new Testastretta engine. Even Ducati’s staff are open-mouthed.

The 996R is the most powerful Ducati road bike yet, with 136bhp and a new engine, frame and brakes. It’s not a race bike, regardless of who’s riding it. In fact, to Bayliss and Bostrom, this is just a toy. It’s down on power by a good 50bhp compared to their outrageous WSB bikes and even though it’s the lightest 996 yet at 185kg (407lb), it’s 23kg (46lb) heavier than the pukka race version.

But according to the second hand on my watch, Bayliss put in a 1:45s lap. OK, so that’s nowhere near the 1:36s race time he managed last year, but this is a bike running on road tyres with road brakes. and with Bayliss titting around wheelieing round the back of the circuit and riding on the kerbs. Oh yeah, and at the back of his mind is the fact that he’s actually really at Valencia to try and win the WSB race for the team, so this isn’t exactly a priority. Not too shoddy, then? I think not.

Though it may be a plaything for those raised from an early age to be professional racers, for us mere mortals the 996R is an awe-inspiring experience.

Unfortunately, unless you’re one of the 500 people who are expecting delivery of one of these bikes, all you’ll have a chance to be in awe of is its fatter, squatter looks and lashings of carbon fibre. At 9am on September 12 last year, Ducati launched its second Internet-only bike (after the MH900e). Within eight hours, all 500 of the £17,000 996Rs were sold. If you’re one of those lucky few, expect delivery in the next month. If you’re not, weep, wipe away the tears and experience it with us.

There’s a fair chance you’ll never even see an 996R on the road as most have been bought by collectors. So seeing 10 lined up in the Valencia sun is a very special sight, let me tell you. This is one bike that is definitely near the very top of the dribble pile.

Though the bike has the same iconic shape that has been around since the launch of the 916, there are plenty of subtle changes to the cosmetic, not to mention the all-new engine (see separate box) to make it look a bit fresher. Incidentally, Ducati design chief Pierre Terblanche is right now working on a replacement for what many still regard as the sexiest shape in motorcycling.

The fairing is made from carbon-fibre. There’s a hint of this on the " Ducati 996R " graphics, which are cut out of the paintwork to let the carbon underneath show through. There’s more unpainted carbon on the side panels where your knees rest, as well as on the front mudguard. Why Ducati doesn’t just go the whole hog and bring out an all-carbon bike like the ones race teams test with until their new paintschemes are ready beats me. But then, what’s a Ducati if it’s not red?

The main fairing panels have changed profile slightly and sit a bit wider than on the old bike. The lack of cutaways in the side gives the bike a sleeker look as well as helping it achieve a more aerodynamic shape.

The chassis looks like a standard 996 steel trellis, but there’s more to it than that. The grey frame tubes have been increased from 10mm to 12mm with a Fogarty-developed trestle design. There are also new 43mm Ohlins forks with an anti-friction coating, an adjustable Ohlins steering damper, five-spoke Marchesini wheels the same as the ones on the factory race bikes and a fully adjustable rear shock, also from Ohlins. This bike has optional carbon-fibre Termignoni cans, but the bike comes with oval aluminium cans as standard.

But that’s enough about what the bike looks like. I’m here because Ducati is letting me ride it and when I get the word to sling my leg over this thing of beauty, I don’t need to be told twice.

There’s a cosy single seat – carbon- fibre of course – and up front there’s clocks with the usual SPS-style Ducati Corse logos on them. The 500 buyers will get a limited run logo embossed on the top yoke, but the bikes on the test didn’t even have numbers. My machine for the day is 000G, and there’s everything from 000A to 000K. Make that 511 bikes then.

I turn the key and wait 15 seconds for the bike to prime itself – if you don’t, it won’t start. After that, you have to leave the throttle well alone and click the starter button. It’s always difficult trying to convey the whole sensory experience of riding a bike in mere words, but that’s what I’m here for. And the best word I can come up with for the extra deep booming noise the new engine emits when it starts up is " boff " .

Tentatively, I ease out on to the track. The first ride at a track as technical as Valencia is never easy. Remember how you felt on track days last year when you thought you knew where you were going, but suddenly found yourself a few yards away from where you should have been on that bend? Well, Valencia is very much like that, and soon you start to doubt yourself.

However, the 996R is good at this game and feels right at home on the track – unlike me. By the end of the first session it starts to make sense. Each corner flows into the next and the bike starts to feel welcoming.

The fact that you’re riding a prototype doesn’t make things any easier, though. I’m aware that a few bikes have already gone down, and mine obviously doesn’t want to feel left out. It goes pop as I come out of the last corner on to the straight, followed by a hasty pulling in of the clutch. There’s no evidence of oil on the tyre, but the engine is very dead. My bike is popped into the garage and the door pulled down. Ducati stresses that the bikes are merely prototypes and they are investigating the problem.

Putting that thought back to somewhere beyond the tail pipes, I get a replacement bike and go for a faster session with the aim of linking up some good laps. Leaving pit lane, the bike barks much stronger than the old bike at low revs and the engine is physically much quieter, too, without the trademark clutch rattle of the SPS.

What isn’t any quieter are the aftermarket Termignoni cans. Even at low revs on a wide open track, they boom like a kettledrum being battered by Animal out of The Muppets. God knows what they’d be like in the middle of town pulling away from the lights.

It takes a good lap to heat the tyres through and then I start to wind it up. Bayliss and Bostrom have stopped playing now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to decide when to brake.

The stoppers are new four-pot Brembos which are a step above any brake Brembo has built so far – for the road at least. The Italian manufacturer is renowned for the feel its brakes give the rider when panic starts to set in and you need to scrub off 50mph in a few seconds, but these do even that prestigious name proud.

With my head tucked down in the bubble the screen starts to shake and wobble around a little, just how I remembered Neil Hodgson’s INS Ducati doing, which makes me feel even more like I’m on a race bike. In fifth gear the bike hits 250kph on the speedo (around 150mph) and I haul on the brakes. The travel from the lever to the bars before they start biting is much less than the old Brembos and the power is right up there with the best.

The forks dive, putting the strain on the front tyre, then it’s down two gears before turning in hard for the left-hander. Later I give the front a couple more clicks of compression to take up a bit of the dive.

It’s a fast bend and the hairs on my back stand up as I wrench it in with inches to spare, but apart from a small wiggle under braking the Duke rails in to the turn as soon as I’m off the brakes.

Coming out with around 7000rpmon the clock, the bike hits harder everywhere than the old SPS. The only problem is Ducati’s odd choice of tyres. The way the bike goes, turns, handles and stops all points to a very capable track bike, but the Michelin Pilot Sports tyres are more road-biased. The higher spec Michelin Pilot Races or the almost cut-slick Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsas would be a better choice. The tyres can cope, but they always feel like they’re the limiting factor. Not me, of course.

After a brief moment where the back wheel decided it wanted to try and overtake the front coming out of the first corner, the bike sings to its natural power peak of 10,500rpm before I blip the throttle and snick down a gear into the left-hand hairpin.

It turns in with almost race bike accuracy and reacts well to a sudden change of line with the throttle. This corner’s horrible at the best of times as it’s an uphill off-camber left-hander, but the Ducati puts you right there in the confidence zone.

The revs climb harder than any Ducati before it and I hook another gear, run out to the kerb, then clip the apex of the fast-flowing bend.

The next part is a case of dabbing the brakes and getting on the power for a right-hander that opens out for a brief straight, before another right which tightens up (like most corners here).

If you hadn’t had much experience on Ducatis, it would be hard to notice the differences between the new and old chassis. I’ve ridden a few in my time and the biggest change seems to be the way the bike holds an even tighter line than before. On the long right-hander it’s well cranked over, yet feels totally comfortable. And when you get on the power on the way out the suspension moves a little and sends signals back to the grey matter upstairs.

The old 996 SPS used to be the king of mid-corner speed and exit, but this bike takes its crown away and stamps on it. Play at being a WSB racer and you’ll be rewarded with a bike that’s way beyond the abilities of most road riders, even the fast boys on a track day. The chassis really is that good.

After the long right there’s a short straight where’s it’s just about flat-out in fourth, then a tight right-hander. The key to this corner is turning in while you’re on the brakes. The R will take this – in fact, on this track it has to – but like any modern sports bike I know, it’s better off the brakes.

Again, I’m impressed by how much more accurate it is than the old bike. And that means it’s about as accurate as they come without a transporter and a team of 10 mechanics. The left-hander runs out to the right-hand kerb and even coming out in third gear the front wheel goes light and makes the bars wobble slightly. One click on the Ohlins damper the next time I’m in the pits sorts that out and so does being a bit easier on the throttle.

The motor is really quite potent even at a track like this which tends to eat power a little. When it hits, it hits hard, and it hits everywhere. I haven’t seen a power curve for this bike, but it must be pretty bloody fat because not only is there grunt from way down, but real meat from 6000rpm to 10,500rpm.

Keeping on the power and shutting down the part of my brain that deals with fear, I hang in on the apex of the fast left-hander, running the tyres close to the kerb, which naturally puts me out to the right on the way out. Then it’s back on the brakes and into a tightening right hander, staying gentle on the gas on the way out.

All day I try different ways of getting through the next left-right section and find the best way through is to keep it in third gear and hold the throttle just shy of the rev-limiter at 10,800rpm. The engine braking means I can scrub off speed using the immense power of the pistons when the throttle’s shut.

Out of the corner I toe it up to fourth and then hold it there for a fast right apex over the bumps in the middle. I’m only cranked in for a split second, but it’s enough to make the bumps become worrying – though the Duke never once went off line unless it was my fault, not the bike’s.

The next increasing radius left-hander is held in fourth gear and climbs over a crest. The track disappears for a moment before the orange and yellow kerb comes into view on the right-hand side. It’s probably the biggest test of the chassis here as you brake while still fully cranked over, run to the edge of the track and then pull it back into the last corner. It takes some time to get the measure of it, but eventually you can hit this corner faster than you ever thought possible on your first attempt.

Coming out in third gear the bike runs to the kerb and it’s time to play at being a racer again as the front comes up a little under power. Click into fourth and the improved gearbox takes it better than any other Duke gearbox before, then it’s into fifth with my head down on the gas.

There’s quite a lot of vibration through the right footrest, which makes my foot move around on the peg. But we are talking about 150mph and nearly flat-out in fifth gear. Whether the vibes are due to the stiff wind we won’t know until we can get one on the road in the UK – if we can persuade one of the few people in Britain to let us have a go on theirs.

Running this bike through the gears is an experience everyone should have. Unfortunately, not many of us will. But it doesn’t matter because I’m sure it won’t be long before the standard 996 is replaced with a lower-spec 998cc motor. Then you’ll get the chance to hear and feel how the best-sounding motor in the business got even better.

For now, you’ll have to dream and keep your eyes peeled. And anyway, who wants the most exclusive Ducati in the world when you can only buy it in red?