More Animal than Machine

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Taming Ducati’s monstorous 1198SP is impossible. Our advice? Don’t fight it. Just go with the cacophnonous torrent…

Like Lord Byron, Ducati’s 1198SP is mad, bad and dangerous to know. It will have you doing things — not only willingly but eagerly — that you know you really shouldn’t. The 1198SP is the wildest product of the renowned Bologna factory and has a domineering character that growls at you to get the hell out of town and head for the hills.

This is a machine that is lumpy and grumpy below 4000rpm and would rather not bother with sixth gear until you are a good 10mph the other side of the motorway speed limit. Yes, the 1198SP is what you might call uncompromising.

And therein, of course, lies its beauty. The world is full of easy-going motorcycles that will do pretty much whatever you want them to do — commute, tour, race down back roads —without a word of protest, but here is a motorcycle that knows exactly what it wants to do and has its way of making you go along with it.

The SP is built purely for performance, nothing else. It is a hotter version of the standard 1198 and the base model for Ducatis competing in the World Superbike championship (WSB), the race series for tuned-up production bikes, motorcycle racing’s version of touring cars.

World Superbike helped save Ducati from collapse. A renowned marque in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the marque almost succumbed to increasingly impressive competition from Japan during the ’80s, when it fell into state ownership. The Italian government decreed that Ducati should stop making motorcycles and start doing something useful, like producing diesel truck engines. Two things saved Ducati from that demise: a completely new eight-valve desmodromic 851cc v-twin and a race series that allowed Ducati to show off that mad thing of an engine.

The 851 beat Japan’s fastest superbikes to win the very first WSB race at Donington Park in 1988, and from that day on the once threatened marque had a future. The 1198 can trace its lineage directly back to the first 851 ridden by errant Italian Marco Lucchinelli. The 851 begat the 888, winner of Ducati’s first WSB crown in 1990, which was followed by the 916, 996, 998, 999, 1098 and 1198 (and next year the 1199). Ducati has enjoyed a blessed renaissance via WSB, along the way winning more than 300 races and 14 world titles, including this year’s crown with 1198 rider Carlos Checa.

It is hard to argue with results like that: if the bike doesn’t work for you, then surely there’s something wrong with you, not with the bike. That was my thinking on meeting the 1198, which made quite a first impression.

My mistake was travelling to the pick-up point aboard a perfectly civilised Japanese motorcycle. Parking the Honda and riding away on the blood-red Duke was one hell of a shock. Thumb the starter button and the big v-twin explodes into life, throbbing and shuddering like a monster awoken from deep slumber. The cacophony of engine, induction and exhaust noise is the kind of racket with which Lawrence of Arabia would have been familiar on his beloved Brough Superior.

Like an ancient motorcycle, the Ducati seems more animal than machine, with two pistons for a wild beating heart. Modern motorcycles aren’t meant to be like this, they are meant to be quiet and well mannered, which is why during my three weeks with the bike two people asked me if there wasn’t something wrong with it.

At the very beginning the deafening racket is slightly intimidating, but then you get used to it, and then you fall in love with it. The 1198 is uncivilised and proud of it, and its animal magic is in fact one of its great attractions. Once you get beyond the low-rpm lumpiness and gear-train snatch the 1198 finds its legs and pounds out its power in hammer blows that are wondrous to the car.

Ducati power isn’t creamy smooth four-cylinder power, it’s big and bold v-twin power, adored by real motorcyclists the world over (many of whom suggest, possibly quite rightly, that two cylinders is the correct number for a motorcycle). The 11985P isn’t an iron fist in a silk glove, like most Japanese superbikes — it’s an iron fist in a chainmail glove. Open the throttle and it leaps forward, with a growl and then a bark, sucking the world towards you like a video game, though quite often all you see is the sky. All that v-twin torque lifts the front wheel in the first few gears even when you’re not really trying. The engine is motorcycling’s version of a turbo diesel — there’s so much mid-range that you never need chase the red line. If you do use all the 170 horses at your disposal, 0-60mph happens in 3.2 seconds and the 1198 won’t stop accelerating until it nudges 180mph.

There’s an irony in the way the 1198 makes its power, however. It feels bold, brutal even, but v-twins have something very important over their four-cylinder rivals. On a motorcycle it’s not so much the quantity of power that counts, not even the quantity of torque, but the quality and character of torque. V-twins lay down their performance in a better way than fours. They are more friendly, not only to the rider but also to the rear tyre, allowing the bike to find traction where fours can struggle, which is why Ducati has enjoyed so much race track success. Ten years ago Honda proved the point by building its own v-twin and winning two WSB titles. But twins are not the Japanese way, so more recently the Japanese have timed their fours to fire like twins.

Checa, an affable 39-year-old Spaniard who has ridden v-twins, conventional fours and so-called big-bang fours, is well placed to pass judgement.

“My 1198 makes maybe 15 per cent less power than the four-cylinder bikes, but with a v-twin you have power everywhere and it is linear power so it’s easier to control,” says Checa, who knows how to ride — he twice beat the legendary Mick Doohan on 500 two-strokes during the 1990s. “When Yamaha changed its four-cylinder MotoGP bike to fire like a v-twin — two cylinders together and then the next two together — it made a big difference, the power felt much smoother, so it was easier to control. The Ducati has the same very good throttle connection, so you can really feel the power and the grip. When Traced Honda’s [nonbig-bang] four-cylinder CBR1000 it was OK on fast tracks with lots of grip, but otherwise you could not manage the power in the turns.”

Like every other Ducati street-bike engine, the 1198 engine is a 90 degree v-twin with the rear cylinder standing up and the front cylinder lying down, pointing towards the front wheel axle. Its great-grandfather, the 851, was designed by Massimo Bordi, understudy to Fabio Taglioni, the engineer who designed the first desmodromic Ducatis in the 1950s. Bordi took Taglioni’s perfectly refined desmo system and (with a little help from Cosworth) developed an over-square, four-valve desmo engine that made Ducati what it is today. The latest incarnation of the Desmoquattro measures a very over-square 107 x 67.9mm, compared to the 851’s 92 x 64mm.

Ducati hasn’t seen fit to equip the 1198 with a range of engine maps — perhaps that would be too wimpy on such a beast — but there is traction control with eight different settings, the mildest of which can be triggered by greedy throttle use in the dry. There is also a quick-shifter — which does away with the need to dab the clutch and feather the throttle on high-rpm upshifts — and a data-acquisition system, both aimed firmly at those taking their bikes to the race track.

Like any configuration, Ducati’s 90-degree v-twin has pros and cons. The upside is perfect balance, so the engine’s purring vibrations (beneath its beastly bellowing) make it friendlier on long rides than any four. The downside is an engine that’s longer than most, which makes Ducati’s chassis engineers work hard to build a motorcycle that doesn’t steer like a supertanker.

Their answer is a minimal tubular steel trellis frame that’s been a company trademark since the 1980s. The engine plays its part as a stressed member of the chassis, which saves crucial inches by hanging the swinging arm and suspension off the rear of the crankcases. The 1198 features a single-sided swingarm design originally developed on the Elf endurance racers of the early 1980s to save vital time in pitstops; now its main function is simply to look beautiful.

The 1198 is a big motorcycle, covered in a lot of red paint. It’s the kind of machine that runs a shiver down your spine as you lift the garage door. And it’s the kind of machine that demands to be ridden with gusto.

Despite the efforts of Ducati’s chassis designers the 1198 isn’t the world’s most agile superbike, but it knows how to get a move on through the turns if you put in the physical effort. Like any race bike, the chassis works better the more you push on. Use a firm hand and commit yourself and the 1198 rewards with its stunningly good front end (with the ubiquitous Ohlins forks) and a rock-steady rear that encourages you to get on the throttle early, if only for the delight of hearing the engine boom and feeling the front end getting pleasantly lightheaded.

This is where the Lord Byron problem raises its ugly head. The combination of an engine that fires you down the road like a bullet from a gun and a chassis that urges you to shoot first and ask questions later is a dangerous one. I found myself in several situations where I felt obliged to apologise (telepathically) to my fellow road users for my misdemeanours.

The 1198 always knows how to make you do what it wants to do. It hates hanging around in town so much that it has its own special way of getting its own back on riders who parade around at slow speed, hoping for an admiring look or two. On a hot day those twin under-seat pipes will roast the rider’s rump a perfect shade of medium-rare. In other words, don’t dawdle, get a move on.

The more you ride the 1198 the more the method in its madness begins to make sense, never mind how ridiculously uncompromising it might be. The underseat backside cooker is just one of the detail issues that initially annoy and then gradually fade from your consciousness; another is the mirrors which are pretty much useless. Bit by bit, you accept these trivial failings and realise that there are more important things to worry about when riding a motorcycle.

I suppose I’ve known that ever since I first rode a Ducati — a beautiful air cooled two-valves-per-cylinder 900SS — back in 1981. At that time the bikes were revered by a small and committed cognoscente, most motorcyclists believing the Italians had had their day in the sun, that Japan was the future. The Ducatisti certainly worshipped their metal — Private Eye‘s Pseud’s Corner had one enthusiast declaring: `Ducati, Ducati, Ducati — the name alone is my mantra!’.

That 900SS had neither choke nor electric start, so starting was a ritual: tickle the carbs, find compression with the kick-start and swing your leg, with exactly the correct throttle opening. Get it wrong and you’d be limping for days. It began to dawn on me why Ducati owners were religious in their devotion. There was (and still is) a certain allure to riding a motorcycle that wasn’t designed to be moron-proof.

Back in the early 1980s the Japanese were starting to make (moron-proof) bikes that didn’t only go well in a straight line. Production racing, where once Ducatis, Moto Guzzis and Laverdas had ruled, was now dominated by Honda CB900s and Suzuki GS1000s. Some diehards hung onto their Ducatis, determined they El) could still make up in the corners what they lost on the straights. In fact they were onto a loser from the start. Dead-engine starts were easy for Japanese bikes: take first gear, hit the starter, dump the clutch and go. Nothing so simple for the Ducatisti. Not only did the 900SS lack an electric starter, it couldn’t be started in gear.

Thus the faithful few had to perform a bizarre dance as the Union Flag fell, which went a bit like this: while holding both handlebars, leap into the air, raising and bending both legs on the upward movement. On the downward move, operate the kick-start with the right foot and as soon as the engine fires immediately pull in the clutch lever and flick the gear shifter into first with the left foot. It was a very tricky manoeuvre, and even when it went well, the rest of the grid was already on its way. I became fascinated watching these diehard maniacs gallantly attempting to resist the march of progress.

In the end, they turned out not to be maniacs. Bordi and the 851 rescued Ducati from the brink and the marque is now the coolest bike brand of all. Dozens of celebrities ride Ducatis, all of them no doubt hoping that the motorcycle’s coolness will rub off on them, but there’s only one Ducati fan really worthy of note. Ayrton Senna loved his Ducatis — he owned an 851 and a Monster (which briefly features in the film, Senna). Ducati knew him well and after his death created a special Senna 916.

The Monster was Ducati’s first successful attempt at expanding its customer base beyond narrow-focused sports bikes. Now it also builds sensible and upright motorcycles like the Multistrada and poseur tools like the Diavel an old-school Duke. It is angry, it is fussy and it doesn’t suffer fools or novices. It is a motorcycle for the committed speed freak, for the rider who can happily live with its moods and its foibles in the knowledge that when the time and place are right, it will blow you away with its uncompromising performance. In other words it’s a proper Ducati.

Mat Oxley

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