The morning mist hung over an eerily-silent Misano. Another familiarly grey February launch, another new bike to test. This one was a little more exotic than most, granted – the staccato line-up of red bikes against the cinder block pitlane confirmed that. But no-one was particularly excited or expectant. Back in 1993 Ducati didn’t build game-changers. We weren’t even planning to put our 916 ride on the cover.
Ducati didn’t really do press launches, either. If today, its media junkets are as glamorous as its bikes – four days in Qatar or CoTA hob-nobbing with Hayden – 20 years ago we paid our own way to an off-season Adriatic hotel.
The first hint something was different awaited on my bed. Launch ‘gifts’ were fairly routine back then: T-shirts or gear bags emblazoned with the new model moniker. But this odd, velvet presentation box containing some kind of polished and inscribed metal paperweight was definitely leftfield. I didn’t have a clue what it was for.
The next came in pitlane when I swung my leg over the new Ducati for the first time. After bulbous and baggy 888s, the 916 was small (15lb lighter and 20mm shorter than the 888) and sharp. But it wasn’t just its focus and confident aggression, everything about the 916 seemed to have moved to the next level: new switchgear, new clocks, new neatness, new refinement. It might have said ‘Ducati’ on the tank but the initials ‘CRC’ (for Tamburini’s Centro Ricerche Cagiva) stood out just as strongly.
The booming V-twin at first sounded out of place among that almost Honda-style refinement, but by third gear out of pitlane before the right that five months earlier had put Rainey in a wheelchair, I didn’t care – the 916 was already mind-blowing. It’d taken just a squirt on the gas to realise its lightness, its tightness. By the exit of ‘old’ Misano’s first left-hander, gob-smacked by the 916’s awesome steering yet steadfast tracking, I was blown away. The next 20 or so laps are some of the best I can remember.
That afternoon I interviewed the great man himself – Tamburini: immaculate and profound, and I began to understand. Then I was taken to nearby San Marino for a tour of CRC where the 916 was designed, something that further emphasised how this Ducati was different. Finally I wrote, ‘Nothing prepares you for the 916… Carl Fogarty WILL win the World Superbike title this year… I present the Bike of 1994…’ - I was right on all counts.
Virtually overnight the 916 was added to every superbike shortlist. Foggy won first time out then went on to confirm my prophecy. In a group test we ambitiously pitted it against Honda’s new wunderbike, the nearly twice as expensive RC45, around the TT course with the help of Honda contracted rider Steve Hislop. The Honda, by comparison, seemed bloated and leaden. Hizzy, contractual ties or no, couldn’t resist a quick go and got himself into all sorts of trouble by declaring of the Ducati, “Now that’s what I call a REAL race bike!”
A legend was born.
In all of my 25 years of road testing, two bikes stand head and shoulders above the rest for truly transforming motorcycling, for upsetting the status quo, for redefining what we thought was possible. The original FireBlade is one, the 916 is the other. Pure gold, all 195kg of it. That ‘paperweight’, meanwhile, was 1kg of pure silver.
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