The shape of Ducati’s 996 seems to have been around for ever – just like that other curvy design icon it’s often compared to, the Coca-Cola bottle.
Now there’s another Ducati packaged in those classic lines – the 998. Like the Coke bottle, the only changes seem to be a different sticker or two – but in the same way that the fizzy beverage sadly no longer contains cocaine, the 998’s ingredients have changed a lot more than you’d think.
This isn’t the best-ever Ducati – that honour is bestowed upon the 996R and its replacement, the 998R, which comes with more power than the standard bike’s 123bhp and better suspension. But it is fair to say this is the best Ducati so far for the people, for us – the ones who have always dreamed about owning a blood-red Ducati.
The base-model 998, which was first seen only three weeks ago at the Milan Show, is very different, but, yes, it looks pretty much the same.
There’s a new frame. There’s a new 123bhp engine, based on the " narrow head " Testastretta motor, which makes the same power as the old Desmoquattro engine in last year’s middle-range 996S. The Testastretta is the engine which Ducati put in the 996R last year and used to take the World Superbike championship with Troy Bayliss, as well as clinching numerous podiums with Ben Bostrom and Ruben Xaus.
This is the first time any of us have really had the chance to get near the motor. Until now, the engine was only available in the limited-run homologation special 996R, but this is the mass-produced version.
Eight years after the 916, the latest stage in the evolutionary process still looks absolutely stunning. We’re in the pit lane of Vallelunga, the Italian track 20 miles outside Rome, where Ducati is launching the bike. The 998 leans away from me on its sidestand in the blazing October heat (yes, really) and looks like a race bike as much as a road bike.
The new, bigger-bore 45mm silencers tucked under the seat and the now ventless fairing give it a slightly porkier look from the front, but make the tail unit look even more dramatic as the line breaks the flow from the fairing to the racy seat. Those two square tail lights are still faired into the seat unit and the distinctive, dopey-eye headlights stay the same.
The bikes Ducati is using at the launch are only in biposto versions, but you can buy the new 998 with a single seat if you prefer. A great idea by the Italian factory, which is aware that plenty of 916/996 owners fit aftermarket seats once they’ve bought their bikes. And it’s the same deal whether you buy a 998 in yellow or red.
The only real differences in terms of looks are the new 998 logo on the side of the fairing, a decal with the words Ducati Superbike on the tailpiece and a tank sticker with the number " 1 " encircled in a laurel wreath on top of the tank. Wheels are still Marchesini five-spokes and, like the frame, come in metallic dark grey. The Showa front suspension is the same as on the 996, as is the Ohlins rear shock.
But you can spend as much time as you like poring over the pictures on these pages to see what it looks like. What I’m here to tell you is what difference the 998’s new engine, fuel injection and updated brakes make to how it rides.
I’ve only ever seen Vallelunga in a photo before and, after studying a track map, I can’t say I’m that keen to be one of the first out on new tyres. It looks like a go-kart track, with more squiggles than a child’s colouring book. So I’m pleasantly surprised to find it has an international race licence and has been used in the past for Italian superbike rounds.
Any new track needs a good session before you can really start to feel what the bike’s telling you, so I use the first few laps to scrub in the new Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsa tyres and learn the layout, which includes banked corners, off-camber third-gear bends, a blind chicane and a left-hand hairpin where first gear just isn’t low enough.
With the map just about clear in my head, I take the bike for its second run. Or try to, anyway. I make the mistake of twisting the throttle as I push the starter button. The fuel injection doesn’t like it so I have to turn the key off and reset it before pushing the starter again. That’s better. The motor pops into life and the familiar sound of the Ducati motor…
Hang on a minute. It’s not that familiar. This engine is much quieter and less rattly than the Desmoquattro lump it replaces. The standard cans are also a bit disappointing – though Ducati offers a set of noisier Termignoni pipes which, as a bonus, unleash five per cent more power.
Apart from the absence of the usual aural accompaniment, the bike feels like a 996 as I sit waiting to head down pit lane. However, as soon as I’m given the all-clear and blast down on to the track, I can immediately feel it has a lot more guts. Below 3000rpm it doesn’t do an awful lot – the fuel injection is clean and there are no shakes or rattles from the chain, so it should be much easier to ride around town. But at three thousand the bike is making tons more power and torque and it takes me by surprise.
I wind it up through the box into third gear, then snick down one gear and brake for the blindest chicane I’ve ever come across. The braking markers are there, but the track isn’t, so I scrub off speed and finally turn into the chicane.
Even though Ducati has chosen to put this bike on road-biased tyres, they’ve been specially made with a slightly stiffer front carcass and increased elasticity at the rear. That makes for improved grip and control when on the power out of bumpy corners. This is the road 998 after all. The real track Ducati is the 998R.
Not that anyone has bothered to mention it to this 998. Plenty of bikes turn quicker, but not many turn more accurately than this one. It flicks left to right beautifully and it’s only a split second before I’m winding it up through a right-hand corner, letting it drift out to the middle of the track before hooking fourth gear and holding it left briefly for the next bend, a long sweeper with the camber in your favour. You enter it in fourth gear, then it’s down to third or even second to turn the two apexes into one long corner. Through this bend the bike is totally settled and the road-based tyres are the only things stopping me from pitching it over on its side any harder.
The 998 really lets you increase power gently through the bend and the fuel injection is bang-on. There’s no snatchiness, no hesitation, just brilliantly accurate fuelling that could teach the Japanese a thing or two.
Near the exit you can get on the power hard. I can feel the rear tyre moving around a little as I make sure I don’t hit the rev limiter, set at 10,750rpm.
As well as being more gutsy all the way from the bottom end to the rev limiter, the new engine also revs much, much faster than the old motor. That will make it easy to ride on the track, but will also make the most difference where those of us who aren’t called Bayliss ride most – on the road. If this bike isn’t one of the fastest twins to ride point-to-point with the least hassle, I’ll eat my Arai.
It punches out of corners so hard it’s very easy to find yourself up against the rev limiter if you’re not paying attention. Some of that may be down to the lack of noise – once you’re at a certain speed, all you get is wind noise rather than the Ducati boom, but most of it is down to the engine.
Once back into third gear there’s not much time before I’m hard on the brakes into a tricky little chicane, where the bike feels more settled.
As I exit, the adverse camber pulls me around to the right before I swing into the opposite direction for a 100mph downhill left-hander.
I let the bike drift out towards what looks like part of the track – but quickly change my mind when I notice it’s covered in stones and the remains of tyres. Then I give it a quick squirt while still cranked over before braking hard down to second gear for a right-hand hairpin.
The bike is well settled on the brakes. Though they’re basically the same as the stoppers on the old 996, except with lighter front discs, they seem stronger.
The hairpin is a brave man’s corner. Though it’s taken slowly in second gear, you have to enter it wide and pull the bike in towards the bend, which means you need maximum faith in the front end. I do trust the suspension, but it feels a little soft on the track and I don’t believe the front tyre is telling me what I needed to know to feel fully comfortable around this corner.
It’s the same for the left-hand hairpin which follows. I’m down to first gear, but stab my left foot in a vain attempt to find a lower ratio. The corner is so slow I probably wouldn’t even graze my leathers if I fell off.
The track is quite worn and a couple of times it feels like the bike is running wide on me, which could be down to the front tyre or the surface. It’s probably a bit of both.
Out of the hairpin there’s a quick blast up to the next, faster, second-gear chicane. The 998 boots it out of this hairpin faster than most other bikes could, as it lets you get on the throttle so hard mid-corner and still feel totally confident in what the rear tyre is doing.
Once again I bounce off the rev limiter before banging it hard over on the left, making sure I don’t hit my knee on the high kerb before flicking it hard right, easing on the power gently into the last bend.
The last corner is kind of a miniature, slower version of Mallory Park’s Gerrards, where you’re cranked over for a long time, doing about 70mph and increasing the power. In this bend, the chassis is totally on the money. You could maybe increase ride height slightly to make it turn a bit faster in the chicanes and add some pre-load in the front end to make it feel marginally more planted. But what you have is a road bike that feels more suited to going ballistic than ever before.
The suspension is exactly the same as on the 996, but the whole bike feels better balanced thanks to the smoother power delivery and excellent fuel injection.
It’s easy to overpower the tyre coming out on to the straight if you’re not easy on the throttle, but that’s after an hour-and-a-half of continuous use, with the bike coming in then going out again straight away with another rider.
And once I’m on the straight, which is fairly short and soon cuts left into the nasty blind hairpin, it reaches speeds of 130mph-plus without moving around underneath me at all. Next is a fourth to second gear flick-flack. The gearbox engages every time and stability under braking is exemplary.
After staying out on track as long as I can before the heat of the day gets too much, I pull back into the pits, gulp a litre of much-needed H2O and think about the bike some more.
Problems? Well, it’s difficult to get into neutral. It’s running a temperature, too, but that’s hardly surprising due to the 30° conditions and constant thrashing. Oh, and the clutch squealed a little once when I pulled out of the pits, but that can also be attributed to the heat and it’s unlikely it would happen in the UK unless you only ever ride a 998 in town. And if you do it’s a waste because the 998 is one of the best sports bikes on the open road.
Plenty of bikes make more power and fours are much easier to ride for most people, but this is a very accomplished bike that takes a massive leap from the 996, even if the stickers don’t show it – at a price likely to be only a couple of hundred pounds more than the 996.
By mid-afternoon my time with the 998 is over and Xaus and Bostrom show up to make a publicity video for Ducati. Unfortunately, Bayliss isn’t there as he broke his collarbone at Imola and is getting some much-needed rest after winning the world championship.
I don’t get a chance to chat to them, as once they’ve posed for pictures with their race bikes and the 998 we’re ushered off back to the airport. Probably not a bad thing as people paid to ride Ducatis generally like Ducatis when you ask them what they’re like to ride…
As the coach leaves, I can see Xaus and Bostrom hustling down the straight and into the chicane. They’re obviously having just as much of a laugh on the 998 as they do on their factory bikes. And that’s what makes the 998 so good. It will let you get away with a lot for what is essentially Ducati’s road bike, but still let you know when you’ve overstepped the mark – whether you’re a WSB star or a road and track day rider.