Testing Hodgson’s WSB Ducati: Dreams CAN come true

Published: 14 October 2001

IT’S one of those rides that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Riding a race-winning World Superbike machine; the exact same bike that more than 100,000 of us cheered like hell at Donington and Brands earlier this year.

Below Marc Potter describes this unique experience, or you can follow the video link, below right, to get more of a seat-of-the-pants view of what it was like.

There are more details of the bike and more pics if you follow the link for " Specifications " .

RIDERS mill around with their road bikes in the Donington pit lane, talking about their close shaves and big slides coming out of Coppice.

In the distance there’s a whirr as a small engine attached to a rubber roller spins the rear tyre of Neil Hodgson’s GSE Racing Ducati up to 80mph in third gear. Bang. The clutch is dropped and the bike’s 56mm Termignoni cans shatter the peace of the paddock with their evil bark. Within seconds there’s a crowd round the bike as it’s brought up to its 70° operating temperature.

Standing behind a works Ducati superbike warming up is one of the purest forms of motorcycling satisfaction you can get. I can feel the force of the 98mm pistons shaking the ground as the revs climb.

But today I’ve also got that empty stomach feeling because the reason it’s being warmed up is so I can test it. Oh no, I’m not here to watch a World Superbike race. I’m here to take a genuine WSB racer on to Donington. Making me the only person apart from Hodgson who’s ridden his bike this year.

Plenty of people – you know who you are – sit in their cosy armchairs on a Sunday afternoon watching WSB and think: " I could do that with the right bike. " Wrong. There’s no way on earth most of us could get on the World Superbike grid, let alone be able to ride one within a few tenths of a second of the rest of the field.

You can run up at the front of a fast group on a track day, you might have even had some good results racing, but though you’ll probably ride faster than you ever have, given the chance to ride a bike like Hodgson’s you won’t be on the pace.

To prove just how amazing Hodgson’s bike is and how amazing a rider he is we datalogged a standard Ducati 996 –the starting point for Hodgson’s bike before it shed nearly 40kg (88lb), gained an extra 60bhp and got a chassis and brakes to die for. In reality, not one component on the race bike is the same as the 996, but as Hodgson’s mechanic Dave Parks says, if you had the urge, everything on Hodgson’s bike would fit a standard road bike. That includes the magnesium swingarm, crankshafts, the Ohlins forks, rear shock, carbon bodywork, race-size 24-litre tank, fully adjustable footrests and levers… the list is endless. Oh and the engine, which needs totally rebuilding – including gearbox, heads and valves – after 310 miles.

While the race bike is being warmed up and the tyre-warmers are bringing the Dunlop slicks up to temperature, I head out for a session on the standard 996. It’s everything that makes Ducatis great – a reasonable amount of power (around 112bhp), a tidy chassis and slow but accurate steering. It’s a package designed to let you ride the wheels off it.

After 15 minutes I pull in and the datalogging equipment fitted to the bike is downloaded. Best lap: 1:51s. That’s a respectable time on a standard bike, but I haven’t seen anything yet.

The purple and orange racer is restarted, the tyre warmers are ripped off and I’m about to set out on to Donington Park’s full circuit, where just months earlier Hodgson took this same bike to the podium, adding to his countless other victories at tracks throughout the world.

Just before I head out, Parks says: " 12,500rpm, race change and you’ll need to keep revving it as it doesn’t tick over very well because the new injectors flood too much fuel in. "

OK, got that. I pull in the clutch lever and snick the lever up to first. The big Magneti Marelli digital clocks are showing the engine temperature is at 71° and I’m off out towards Redgate, taking it steady at first because I want to check everything feels OK and get used to the thing.

I don’t know if you could ever get used to riding this unless you’re awesomely talented. It’s such a massive difference that it’s not even comparable to the road bike. The noise and the acceleration are the first things that get you. That and the way the engine tone never subsides thanks to the quickshifter, which means you always keep the throttle open. Just snick the lever down, let the electronics do the job you’d normally do with your right hand and boom! You’re in a different gear.

You can ride it in its mid-range and still accelerate at a ballistic rate, watching the revs on the display pulling cleanly from anywhere in any gear then going all explosive once it gets up to the top end. Though it feels strongest from 9000 to 12,000rpm, it will pull almost anywhere you ask it and you can see from Hodgson’s data that even mid-race he lets it drop to around 6000rpm at the start of Redgate and even 4500rpm for the Melbourne Loop hairpin. So do I, but you can see on the datalogging sheet that Hodgson gets on the gas much, much earlier.

I’m starting to feel fairly comfortable with the bike and the way you have to fight it under power. Or at least I think I am. But then I come across an R1 on the way up to Coppice, the blind double-apex right-hander. I sit behind it in the first apex, then go round the outside at the second apex, which means I run out on to a dirty part of the circuit. As I’m going past I increase the gas just a bit too much for the lean angle I’m carrying. The revs suddenly fly up the dial and the bike goes sideways, scaring the life out of me and the bloke I’m overtaking.

It might be easy to ride to a point, but try and push it like Hodgson does every corner of every lap and you’d better be on the money or it will hurt you in an instant. Hodgson often complains he hasn’t got enough power and next year’s bike will get around an extra 10bhp. But for the rest of us a bike making more than 1bhp per kilo is more than enough.

With that in mind, I pull back in after a full session. Parks wants to know if I need anything moving on the controls to try and make it easier for me. I stretch out my hands as I’m sitting on the bike and consider moving the gearchange lever, but as Hodgson’s taller than most racers it all feels about right. Maybe if I was going out on a Superpole lap I’d move the levers a bit, but as all I’m here to do is tell you what the bike’s like I’ll leave them where they are, thanks all the same.

In fact, Hodgson’s preferred set-up is fairly sedate compared to some other race bikes I’ve ridden. There’s a fair bit of room to move around and the geometry is set up so the bike isn’t too unstable. Some race bikes shake their front end at the slightest hint of a bump. But even under the Dunlop bridge, where Hodgson’s bike lifts its front wheel, you get nothing more than a little waggle of the bars, and that’s soaked up by the Ohlins steering damper.

After a bit of rehydration, a few notes and plenty of Marlboro Lights, I’m ready to go out again – but this time I’m the only one on the track.

I contemplate what it must be like for Hodgson sat in pit lane waiting to go out for Superpole and decide I’m better off not worrying about it and concentrating on what’s coming up instead.

Even on this cool autumn day I can feel the tyres are doing what they’re meant to. They let you get all that power down and take you to new levels of braveness in the corners.

On a flying lap you enter the start/finish straight in first gear. I remember watching the World Superbike race at Donington Park from the inside of Goddards earlier in the year and being amazed at how it looked as they hit the kerb on the way out of the corner. It all seems so easy, but doing it for real is another story.

The datalogging graphs on the right show that Hodgson gets on the power far earlier and, while I’m fighting with the front wheel in the air, he’s already into second at 12,500rpm. Meanwhile, I’m bottling it, shifting to second at 11,000rpm and in to third and fourth at 12,000rpm.

The way the bike gets out of the turns is absolutely unbelievable and as the power never drops off thanks to the quickshifter it’s pulling hard right up to the braking point. The brakes, as you might imagine, are phenomenal and you barely need to squeeze the lever hard to get the thing stopping fast while changing down into second gear and turning in.

Which isn’t that hard on this bike. You can just flick it in on its side and you know it’s saying to you: " Is that all you’ve got. "

Hodgson brakes much earlier than me and uses up much more of the front fork travel. Our mid-corner speed is about the same, but I’m pulling fewer revs and he’s on the gas slightly later, but for much longer and harder coming down towards Craner Curves.

I get the power down out of Redgate and shortshift to third. Hodgson changes to fourth for Craner and while I’m pulling 108mph, he’s doing 135mph at the fastest point on the downhill section. Even at 108mph it doesn’t take much effort to turn the bike for the right-left flick, but at 135mph you’ve got to have some real confidence and strength to get the thing over.

It’s a short stab on the brakes into the Old Hairpin, where Hodgson changes down two gears. As I’m only in third, I change down one.

Coming out of the turn it would be really easy to get in trouble. The bike wheelies as you start to line it up for Schwantz curve. Hodgson’s in fourth whereas I hold the revs up high in third. He’s also carrying a good 20mph more than me through here into the next right-hander.

I hit Coppice in second gear, but Hodgson takes it in third as he’s carrying so much more corner speed. And for a second our speeds match coming out, but then his graph clears off into the distance. I always wondered how WSB riders got their bikes sideways coming out of Coppice and now I know why. They get on the gas so hard the thing just kicks out. I’ll leave that to the pros, I think.

Down the back straight I snick the lever into fourth just as the hump under the Dunlop bridge comes up, get my weight over the front and keep it pinned, but again Hodgson’s pulling max revs and I’m wussing out with 11,500rpm. The pros keep the throttle nailed over the bump and use a bit of back brake to keep the front wheel down. I just roll off a bit.

The braking forces as you change down from fourth gear into Foggy’s Esses are mental. You really do feel you could be flicked over the front wheel at any moment with just another squeeze of the lever. But it’s all so beautifully controlled that no matter how late you leave your braking, it just copes with it, has a little wiggle as the back end goes light and lets you flick it hard from side to side through the chicane.

On the way out you’re in first gear, before fighting up to third, and then braking hard for the Melbourne Loop. The lean angle here is so sheer it feels like you could just slide off the side of the bike. But the whole thing feels so well composed you swear it would go over even farther. Of course it would with Hodgson on, but there’s the small matter of getting out of the corner in one piece, as plenty of riders know to their highside peril here.

All the way up the hill, into third gear, the bike’s wheelieing and bucking around, but it’s so satisfying that it’s all too easy to miss the braking marker for Goddards. But even here the bike would take so much more than I could ever give it.

After 10 laps out on my own I pull back in and flick the big black switch to turn it off. I’m knackered, but I’ve only been going around in 1:47s compared to Hodgson’s race laps of 1:33s – and he does that for 25 laps. In fact, my first couple of laps were flashing up on the onboard display with the same time as the standard road bike, as that’s so much easier to ride. But once I got in the groove I took a good four seconds off that time.

You know you could go faster on the bike given a bit of time to work it all out, but there’s no way most of us could ever get near to what the WSB boys do.