…And The Rockets Red Glare…

by Kent Larson

Let’s start out by admitting that I’m a big Ducati fan. I would say I’ve owned a 916 since December of 1994 but there was a separation period for a few years. Owning my 916 has always felt like dating a high-strung, disloyal, supermodel who expects to be pampered and lavished with expensive gifts. (We’ll just pretend here that I know what the supermodel dating game is like.) It takes a lot of money and effort to keep her happy, but when she’s happy, the sex is great. Unfortunately, the few periods of great sex are separated by frequent visits to the shop for expensive maintenance or repairs. Every time she refuses to start, or just stops running half way to wherever, it’s like catching her cheating on me with my mechanic.review48b

So I sold her to a friend that wanted to take the time to diagnose the crappy electrics and fix things once and for all. After a few years in his care, I ended up buying her back; hoping for more loyalty this time. She’s still a high-maintenance ride but there is nothing better than flogging a 916 around a race track. No other bike I’ve been on comes stock from the factory set up as well for hard riding. Even despite the problems with my 916, I’m still a big fan of the bike.

Is owning a 916 worth the expense and trouble? Well, maybe. If it’s a dedicated track bike that you don’t count on for your daily commute, then yes. Back in 1995, the attitude from the factory seemed to be that this bike is made for racing. If it doesn’t make it go faster around the track, then leave it off. Who cares about maintenance periods or charging systems or rocker arm life, the bike only needs to last about 100 kilometers between rebuilds, right?

But now it’s 2002, Texas Pacific Group has owned Ducati for a few years and we are evaluating their latest offering for the average elitist, the 998. The rumors have this a more reliable bike. New electrics with multiple stage charging, the rocker arm delimitation problem fixed through a production change, maintenance intervals extended; everything designed to make us believe that buying a Ducati isn’t an act of stupidity. A half hour ride isn’t going to tell us a thing about reliability but it did revel a lot about personality.

Insert the key, turn, hit the starter–nothing. The 998 will not start or run when the kick stand is down. Straddle the bike, stand it up, lift the kick stand manually (they changed the auto-retract a few models ago), put it in neutral, pull in the clutch and hit the starter again to be rewarded with the deep throated rumble, clank and clatter of a sweet running desmodromic engine. The review 998 came with a set of LeoVinci pipes which I’d expect to be a bit louder and deeper than stock but even with the pipes, the motor music was a bit disappointing. It seemed a bit too, um, polite.

review48aMy 916 roars to life with a demonic, slobbering, maniacal panting that brings up an image of the Tasmanian Devil from the Bugs Bunny cartoons. The 916 sounds like it’s full on nuts and ready to go find trouble. The 998 sounds like it’s been put on prosac and molded into a productive member of society. You can see a big rubber seal under the dry clutch cover muting the shaking-a-bag-of-pennies rattle of the clutch plates. There also seems to be more sound insulation on the intake and exhaust. It’s still a unique and interesting sound, just not as wild and extreme as past models.

Out on the road, the V-twin grunts us up to speed. This engine is said to have 11 more ponies than the 916 and it is noticeable. Acceleration is strong, steady and stealthy. Crack the throttle in 3rd gear and you get a strong shove that has the speedometer needle quickly passing triple digits. There’s no top end hit like on a big in-line four. You get to speed just as quickly but it’s deceptive. On a R1 or 929 or GSXR1000 a twist to wide open makes the bike feel like it’s gathering energy as the RPMs rise until it’s ready to leap ahead in a wild rush of power. When it hits, you feel like you are moving (with an enthusiastic shout). On the 998 the power is there from the second it is asked for and speed is always building but without any top end rush. You’ll keep pace with your buddy whacking his R1 but it takes a glance at the speedometer to cue the “Hey! We are moving!” reaction.

I frequently say that all I need for power is enough to flip the bike over in first and second gear and that comes with the 998. In fact, I’ve never been on a bike easier to wheelie. It’s like the front wheel is tied to a string you can reel in and out with the throttle. Run the RPMs up to about 5000 and snap it open a bit and up comes the wheel. You want it higher? Just roll on a bit more. Getting too high? Just close off a bit. Want it back up a bit? Just turn that tube a fraction. It’s unbelievably easy.

Boy, if I had this bike, I’d show my Grandma…

OK, a quick explanation. A few years back I showed up at Grandma’s house on a CBR900RR. When I was ready to leave, I gave Grandma a “Hey, watch this!” and ripped up the street trying to pull a wheelie. Nothing. So I turned around (acting like that was just me getting out here where I wanted to start the show) and started back with the goal of really honking a mean one. Despite the full open twist and heavy bar tug I got maybe a foot of air.

Grandma turns to my wife and says “Well, it did come up a little bit.” Oh, the shame! I was dis’ed by my own Grandma for ineffective wheelie skills. It was the high humidity power loss! The tank bag was too heavy! The road didn’t give good grip! It wasn’t my fault, Grandma! I gathered up my wife, said goodbye and slinked off in shame.

I’ll come back with a 998 next time and show her. Even the lamest clod could be a wheelie king with this bike.

So power is on track but what about handling? That’s one of the things I love best about my 916 and the 998 continues the fine tradition. Corner carving is precise and balanced. You can run it in hard on the brakes, flick it over and feel the front end bite and track. Rolling on the power transfers the weight off the front and now the back wheel is biting hard but the trajectory hasn’t changed. The bike doesn’t try to tuck or run wide or go anywhere than where you told it when you started the turn. It really is beautifully balanced.

Turn-in is a bit heavy but that is typical of a big twin, especially when the stock 190 rear is on the bike. I’d put on a 180/55 to help with flickability but the stock 190 isn’t too much of a detriment on the street. At least when not running through Wildcat Mountain (Highway 33 in Wisconsin) or on “The Cut” (108 just North of La Crosse, WI). You’ll want it as flickable as possible on roads like those.

Overall, the 998 is still a great bike. I’m not happy about the politically correct personality change or the idiot-proofing additions (if you are too stupid to remember your kickstand is up than you deserve to have your bike fall over) but the power, handling and looks are still pulling me in. I’m still dumb enough to want a new 998, but then I’ve taken more than a few sharp blows to the head. Maybe they really have solved their reliability and part supply issues so the down side of owning a Ducati has been eliminated. Someone buy one and let me borrow it for a ride to Grandma’s house, ‘kay?

by Sev Pearman

I was not-at-all prepared for the all-new Ducati 998. Nothing you’ve read can convey the ass-in-the-air riding position; the waaay tall first gear; that it rewards you for riding smoothly and mocks you if you are timid; the fact that the faster you ride, the better it handles.

The Ducati 998 is new for 2002. While a cosmetic descendant of the legend-in-its-own-time 916, the motor is literally all new. Ducati calls it the Testastretta or compact-head motor in reference to its narrower included valve angle. Some Ducatisti curmudgeons are suspicious of the new plant, investing their faith in the proven 996 ‘old’ motor. With Thirteen Skillion World Superbike wins under their belt, Ducati has a proven record of carefully extracting more power and control out of a proven design. Do you think it is any small coincidence that both Honda and Suzuki ‘suddenly’ introduced 90-degree V- twins to WSB a few years ago?review48c

Editor Wanchena again saddled me with an Arctic road test. Temps floated into the low 40’s with sunny skies that revealed a winter’s accumulation of sand and yack on the roads. A sobering thought when riding someone else’s new five-digit motorcycle.

If you never have ridden a 916-derived Ducati, the seating position is ridiculous. The 31-inch seat height is familiar but the clip-ons are the real deal, forcing you to ‘assume the position.’. At parking lot speeds, control feel is restrained with the tight steering lock. With such an extreme crouch, your helmet is forced against your back in order to see ahead. The clip-ons are low enough on the fork tubes that you smash your thumbs against the tank when turning the bars lock-to-lock.

OK, so it’s not a cruiser. The second surprise is the very tall first gear, a legacy of the 998’s track ancestry. Unless you carefully build engine rpm’s with a slower clutch release, you can kill her. We stalled the 998 more than twice, even after 50 miles. Must have been the cold…Yeah, that’s it. These are simply idiot learning curves, one that an owner would quickly master.

All is forgiven past 40 miles per hour. The wind takes some weight from your wrists. The exhaust begins its bellissimo! song. The motorcycle strains to be released into its element. Suddenly, it all makes sense.

We were requested to keep the motor below 7,000 rpm, so were “stuck” in the 90 horsepower neighborhood. The pleasant surprise here is the amazing amount of torque available anywhere. Between 4,000 rpm and the 10,300 rpm rev limit there is a minimum of 62 foot-pounds (peak 71.5 ft-lbs @ 8,100 rpm.) Even at a Shriner parade 3,000 rpm, the new Testastretta engine churns out 55 foot-pounds, a staggering amount for such a short-stroke engine.

Yeah yeah yeah – there are bikes that make more horsepower, more torque, cost less, blah blah blah. The point here is how that power is delivered. First; there is almost no flywheel felt. However you twist the throttle, the engine is ahead of you. There is absolutely no lugging or delay as found on &endash;ahem- other twin cylinder motorcycles. We rode the 998 as zestfully as we were able within the castrated redline, and the bike simply yawns, waiting for the rider to get on with it. Second is that torque; there is always enough on hand to propel you through a corner, even when you place yourself in an incorrect gear.

Any gear/any rev roll-ons are a farce. No matter what your engine or road speed, 60+ ft-lbs propelling 436 pounds of motorcycle gets the job done. Oh sure, some McGyver will write and tell us that the Typhoon 1600-XX has more torque between 5,250 and 5,300 rpm when run downhill from 7,500 feet on ‘race fuel,’ but that is missing the point: The 998 runs as a sum greater than its spec sheet.

One surprising quirk is the steering. Being used to the lethargic manners of the ST1100, I expected the steering to be effortless. The 998 has a ‘heavy’ feel to its steering at anything below 70 mph. At street speeds, the bike requires concentration and effort to ride smoothly.

At higher velocities, the 998 tips its hand. Second gear 5,000 rpm corners are joyous. In any corner, the bike feels solidly planted. If you need to change your line mid-corner, just press on the bar. If you cross a mid-corner bump while over on your side, not to worry. The stable suspension and taught steering join to digest road surface irregularities.

Our test bike came with a set of Leo Vinci slip-on carbon-fiber canisters. Delano’s dyno run showed a peak horsepower reading of 118.6 hp @ 9,800 rpm, (stock pipes 115.9 hp @ 9,700) and a peak torque of 71.5 foot-pounds @ 8,100 rpm (stock pipes 70.3 @ 8,200 rpm.) These figures jive with Ducati’s claimed 123 (crankshaft) hp @ 9,500 rpm and 101Nm @ 8,000 rpm. Hey – do the math if you feel the need. Bottom line? This thing simply honks!

The Leo Vinci’s supplied the required rumble without being obnoxious. The price of almost $900 (gulp) is frightening until you learn that Termignoni slip-ons for the 998 with the corresponding computer chip are, “$1,600 to you, sir.” If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford ’em…

For those of you with endless wallets and bigger stones, you can order the 998S, sold in the U.S. market as the Bostrom Replica. Tweaks to the motor increase the horsepower to 136. Weight is shaved to 412 lbs with judicious use of carbon-fiber goodies. Application of the inverse weight/price law raises the price to $22,695. Not to worry, as these are all spoken for.

For you dedicated Ducati-philes, there is the 998R. This is their limited-production track-only model and platform for their World Superbike effort. Engine displacement increases to 999cc, just under the 1,000cc WSB limit, with bore and stroke even more undersquare at 104mm x 58.8mm. Compression ratio is raised to 12.3:1. Power output climbs to 139 hp @ 10,000 rpm. Complete carbon fiber bodywork plus other weight-saving shenanigans melt the weight to 404 pounds.

Hardcore Ducati owners drool over the current 998R race bike. They know that engine mods usually trickle down to the street bike in one or two model years. Of course, by that time, there is another race bike on the track. Ah! Such an Italian metaphor for life itself…

One wrench in this pattern is the emergence of Ducati’s new V-4 race engine. Does this mean that hopped up V-4’s will power Ducati street bikes? Will the 998S/Bostrom be the pinnacle of L-twin evolution? Or will Ducati continue to improve both the V-4 GP motor as well as the existing quattrovalvole street motor? These are exciting times to love all things Desmo.

As I rode, other cliches appeared. My wrists began to ache at 40 miles. Both knees started to cramp in the leathers a little later. Even my left ankle packed it in after 100 miles. Who cares! I loved every minute and mile of our time together. This bike is made to be ridden with gusto, and all is forgiven.

To ride the 998 you need to be aware. You need to be focussed. You need to lose that winter beer weight. It is everything you’ve ever heard and read. An absolute no-compromise super-sport motorcycle that is not for the faint of heart. You will be held accountable for your riding by the 998 itself, your fellow riders and our hard working law enforcement friends. It is physically challenging to ride but oh-so-rewarding while moving. The sumptuous style and glorious paint will find you both envied and celebrated

Do yourself a favor and find out why so many riders have left all else behind once they own their first Ducati. The 2002 Ducati 998 is priced at $17,695 and is available at all area Ducati dealers. Thanks to Tim and Hal at Delano Sport Center for help with this article. Delano has proudly been with Ducati since 1987.

Encores:

  • All-new motor simply kicks ass
  • Dedicated riding position eliminates posers
  • Design still timeless

Boos:

  • Club membership comes with a price
  • Dedicated riding position eliminates old goats
  • “Good afternoon, officer.”

Wife’s First Reaction:
“Oh please, please! Don’t get any tickets!”

Selected Competition:
Aprilia Mille-R, Honda RC-51 and CBR 954-RR, Kawasaki ZX-9R, Suzuki GSX-R 1000, Triumph 955i, Yamaha R-1

M.M.M.

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