It’s twice the price of an SP-1. It’s six grand dearer than the RSV-R… It can’t be that much better, can it? I mean, how can you need more than the Honda or Aprilia? On the road, or anywhere?
The fact that we even had a chance to find out is amazing enough since all of the limited edition 996Rs have been sold. Finding someone willing to lend us one, to ride in Welsh rain, is worthy of a party in its own right. John Blackborow was that someone.
" Do you want us to bung the R back in the van and wait until it stops? " we asked.
" No, give it a run, get a feel for it. It’s only water, " he said.
I was more concerned about the icy ball bearings falling from the sky and settling on the road actually, John.
Riding the R was effortless. But it began to goad its pilots into Liberty City and, in the interests of staying upright, we voted to stop, wait for the clouds to shift, the sun to come out and the roads to dry.
It’s blatantly obvious the Ducati walks it in a war of looks. For all its ability in handling and performance terms, the Honda lacks individuality when it comes to appearance and is simply too bland to set too many crotches a-tingling.
The Aprilia’s bold, masculine and " fight ready " from any angle. But it still looks as big and tall as it really is and, coupled with its massive end can, could almost pass for a four-cylinder machine at first glance (until the owner fires it up, that is).
Soon the roads are dry and we head off in search of the kind of sweepers, blind bends and hairpins riders in urban areas can only ever dream about. It takes less than two minutes and, in that time, the pecking order of this tantalising trio is already determined.
You’d be more than happy, ecstatic even, with any of these. But the Ducati is in a league of its own.
It’s not that much more powerful. It doesn’t pull out a million yards in a straight line. But it’s packed with finesse, particularly in the power delivery and handling departments. The others feel fettled, but this feels like it has been professionally prepped by Ducati’s own race arm.
The SP-1 is clearly down on power in such formidable company but you’d never it know if you rode it on its own. Take it for a run through the glorious Welsh countryside and there’s too much power and handling potential for the roads.
But place it against the Aprilia and the 996R and a shortfall manifests. Over the space of a 20 or 30 mile run, its slightly lesser bottom end grunt, which leads to the loss of maybe a fifth of a second out of each slow, torturous bend, mounts up.
The 996R has a lot to live up to already. But that’s compounded by the fact it’s £6,000 dearer than the Mille. It doesn’t just need to be amazing, it has to be out of this world.
And, it is.
Ever conscious of the fact dropping it doesn’t just mean a whopping repair bill, but an owner who could be without a replacement for ever more (the production run apparently stopped at number 511), the first few miles are tentative, to say the least.
Into corners slowly, then pick the bike up straight before gunning it to a near instantaneous 10,000rpm. It feels good. The tyres are talking to me through the seat, the suspension is chatting away through the pegs and bars and it’s not long before I think of upping the pace.
A glance at the speedo shows it’s not necessary. There’s plenty of power – about 136bhp’s worth – but that’s not the most impressive thing. I’m in an 80mph bend, already doing, dare I say it, about 95 and it’s clear the Ducati would be happy to extend this to 110, or more. The 996R is so capable it does your riding for you. All you need to do is sit on and enjoy the experience.
Its precision and capacity for fast road riding is such that normal rules simply don’t apply. Just when you think it’s cranked over to the maximum angle possible, it taps you on the bum and says five degrees more, please.
Surprisingly, the brakes are fierce. For years, road tests have talked of 916 and 996 brakes that work refreshingly well but lack that manic initial bite.
The new set-up clearly has sharpened teeth, out-grabbing even the SP-1 on the first fistful. Ultimately, they’re not as outright useable as the Aprilia’s though.
The Ducati is clearly the best bike here, out-performing the SP-1 by a considerable margin and the Aprilia by a less significant degree, but what could you have if you spent the difference in cash on either of its rivals?
Personally, if money were no object and I just fancied owning the epitome of V-twin performance, I’d opt for the 996R. But if I wanted a bike to tune the nuts off and look bloody mean, I’d go for the RSV-R. And if I simply accepted that 170mph and the kind of handling that’s reminiscent of a carefully prepared 400 was actually enough for everyday life, I’d go for the Honda.
There’s more from this test in MCN on sale Wednesday, April 25, 2001..
Ducatis, Hondas and Aprilias are all available at stunning prices through New Bikes Direct (follow the link at the top of the page to see just how affordable your dreams can be).