Gordon Murray reveals: "The new 916 Ducati asked me to design"

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Ducati could have had an ultralight, carbon-framed roadgoing superbike years before its GP9 debuted the technology in MotoGP – and a sexier successor to the 998 than the unloved 999. Gordon Murray, designer of the 240mph McLaren F1, was secretly approached by the firm’s then-American owners with a brief to design a bike to replace the legendary 916 bloodline in the late 90s. It’s revealed by MCN for the first time.

Carbon chassis
Murray’s 898 gets its structural rigidity from a combined carbon-composite tank, airbox and headstock forming the whole front section of the chassis, bolted to a triangulated carbon subframe and a stressed-member engine. Murray estimates that doing away with the steel trellis spaceframe would have helped the bike achieve a 165-170kg dry weight – 20+kg down on the 999.

“Every bike in the MotoGP field should have a carbon mainframe and swingarm” says Murray. “The problem is when people decide to build something in carbonfibre they build what is essentially a metal part in a material ten times stronger than aluminium and then complain that’s it’s too stiff. These days if you understand the material and you have the computer modelling capability carbon offers much more tuneability than metal in terms of the strength and flexibility at a fraction of the weight.”
Downsized engine
Unimpressed by spiralling bhp figures in cars and bikes, Murray envisaged a greater benefit in continuing the weight-loss plan to the engine. Murray’s superbike boasts a downsized 898cc L-twin, gaining in power-to-weight and responsiveness what it would give away today’s 1200s in peak power. Says Murray: “If you’ve taken 15kg out of the frame, and lose maybe another 8kg by using a smaller engine, suddenly you’ve got a completely different feeling motorcycle.”
Would we have bought it?

Ducati-fan Murray is the first to acknowledge the emotional tug the firm’s traditional design cues, some of which the 898 abandons, exert. “It wouldn’t have the same appeal for die-hard Ducati followers like me at first because the spaceframe is such a part of the look. But perhaps it would bring in a new generation for whom the spaceframe is less evocative. Either way, once carbon monocoques starts becoming widespread in MotoGP, road bikes will follow.”
Ducati’s carbon-frame future
Murray’s vision was vindicated when Ducati unveiled its all-carbon GP9, designed by friend of Murray’s, Alan Jenkins. The GP9 uses carbon composite comprising airbox and headstock to form the chassis’ entire front section. Ducati says the monocoque is cheap to manufacture, easy to tune for strength and flex and is explicit in its intention to use the MotoGP bike as a testbed for a post-trellis superbike future.
How confident are they? Late last year the company filed a patent relating to the carbon-monocoque entitled ‘The motorcycle simplified and perfected’. That’s confidence.

Murray says he will never now do a bike on the scale of the 898. “I would have loved to” he says. “But I was always too busy. I had three weeks’ holiday in eleven years just with the day job. It would have killed me”.

• The full version of this story appeared in MCN’s 16/09/09 edition. Don’t miss out on the latest news and exclusive content – subscribe to MCN for £1.15 a week: www.greatmagazines.co.uk/mcn

Guy Procter

By Guy Procter