Ducati’s 916 series has grown in size and stature as the years have paled away. World and domestic Superbike titles have been, come and gone during the past eight years of the Tamburini design, but the champagne hasn’t gone flat on the potent Ducati.
For 2002, the 998 looks set to ensure the Italian manufacturer remains at the head of the pack.
With 123bhp instantly available and a styling package which still produces lust at first sight, the 998 is the zenith of Ducati sportsbike production – and you get three models to choose from including the 136bhp 998S, and a limited-edition 998R kicking out a phenomenal 139bhp.
Okay, so the new Ducati 998 isn’t the all-new Italian sportsbike we were expecting, but under its familiar skin the latest incarnation of Massimo Tamburini’s 916 heralds a new era for the factory.
With the adoption of the Testastretta engine, Ducati have upped the ante in the power struggle against the Japanese factories, and with a healthy 123bhp on tap for the ’base’ model, Ducati look set to compete on equal terms both on the track and on the road.
It’s early October and autumn rain has arrived across much of Europe. But here at the Vallelunga racetrack outside Rome there’s still a hot sun burning down from an unbroken blue sky. Weather included, this is one of those near-perfect days on which the job of a motorcycle journalist is every bit as good as it sounds. My task for the day is to thrash Ducati’s new 998 around this excellent and nearly empty circuit, pausing only to make a few notes, rest my aching limbs and replenish spent energy at the lunchtime buffet.
Like the Roman summer, Ducati’s eight-valve sportster seems to go on forever. It’s almost eight years now since the original 916 captivated the motorcycling world with its blend of stunning scarlet style, thunderous V-twin performance and impeccable handling. Since then, the 916 and its derivatives have sold in huge numbers worldwide, sparked a host of V-twin challengers and won a string of Superbike world titles, most recently via Troy Bayliss just a few weeks ago.
So, it hardly seems possible that a new Ducati with essentially the same looks and engine format could make a remotely similar impact on a group of cynical journalists. Yet the Vallelunga pit garages are full of leather-clad riders with sweat on their brows and large smiles on their faces. Words such as “brilliant” and “fantastic” are on everyone’s lips. One guy catches sight of a 998, sunlight bouncing off its curves in the pit lane, and remarks that it is utterly gorgeous, almost as though he’s seeing that familiar shape for the first time.
He’s right, though. The new 998 is a sensational bike, to look at as well as to ride, no matter how many of its eight-valve Ducati relations you’ve experienced in the last eight years. Massimo Tamburini’s styling liquid-cooled desmo engine and the chassis have been updated several times. But in producing this latest ’standard’ eight-valve model, powered by the new generation 998cc Testastretta (narrow head) V-twin motor introduced on this year’s limited-edition 996R, the Bologna firm has taken the biggest step since the 916 hit the streets in 1994.
Evidence for that claim comes with the simple statistic of the new bike’s peak power figure of 123bhp at 9,750rpm. This base model of the new three-bike 998 range produces a substantial 11bhp more than last year’s equivalent 996, and delivers notably more torque at most engine revs. Its output matches that of the exotic, limited edition 916 SPS model of just four years ago. (This year’s line-up also includes a hotted-up, 136bhp 998S, plus a limited-edition 998R flagship that produces 139bhp.)
The advantages of the Testastretta engine begin with the narrow valve angle – 25 degrees from the previous 996cc unit’s 40mm – that gives the motor its name. In conjunction with the flatter combustion chamber and larger valves (inlets from 36 to 40mm, exhausts 30 to 33mm) that this allows, the result is greatly improved airflow, especially above 6,000rpm. The new motor also has steeper and shorter intake valve timing, as well as more oversquare dimensions of 100 x 63.5mm (from 98 x 66mm).
Other Testastretta changes include a larger airbox, plus a new fuel-injection system that has larger, 54mm (from 50mm) throttle bodies, and which positions each cylinder’s single injector centrally, instead of to the side of the intake tract as before. The injection computer is a much smaller and lighter unit, as introduced on the 996R. Other mods include an improved cam-belt tensioner system.
Chassis changes are less noteworthy, but even this basic 998 model gets seriously good equipment, while lacking a few of the more exotic components that help its siblings justify their higher prices. All three 2002 models employ the 996R-style frame whose wide-spaced top tubes allow the bigger airbox.
They also all get a multi-adjustable Ohlins rear shock, though the standard and S model 998s make do with 43mm upside-down Showa front forks instead of the R model’s Ohlins legs. That is not much of a hardship, and nor is this base-model Duke’s uprated front brake spec of 320mm, 4.5mm thick Brembo discs (thinner than those of last year’s 996) gripped by four-piston calipers, even if this bike doesn’t follow the ’S’ and ’R’ models by getting the redesigned master cylinder from the 996R.
The standard bike’s bodywork and airbox are made from plastic rather than carbon-fibre too, but all three models have the subtly reshaped fairing introduced with the 996R.
Almost immediately after firing up the 998 and heading down the pit lane, this promised to be one of those memorable days, like that of the 916 launch in Misano in early 1994. The circuit itself was one reason. Vallelunga’s first chicane is one of the most wickedly challenging pieces of tarmac I’ve come across on any racetrack. It’s approached blind, as it’s over the brow of a slight hill at the end of the pit straight.
Many such chicanes are too slow and fiddly to be fun, but not this second-gear complex, which is fast enough that it would be exciting even if it were not invisible until you were almost upon it.
Every lap it’s much the same. Flashing across the start-finish line with my head held low behind the 998’s short screen, I flick into fourth gear and wait, wait, wait before sitting up and squeezing the front brake lever at my marker to the left of the track. The Ducati’s Brembos bite off speed fiercely as I flick down two gears in the superbly slick gearbox (I won’t miss a change all day) and aim across the track from left to right, feeling the chassis twitch slightly as the tarmac drops away.
The 998 regains its poise rapidly, doubtless helped by the traditional transverse-mounted steering damper, as it regains some weight on its front wheel and the apex comes into view. My right knee-scraper brushes the ground just before I flick the bike left. I need no more than a gentle nudge of the handlebars to pick the 198kg twin from one side to the other.
Those super-responsive, titanium-nitride coated Showa forks are compressed by braking and a slight positive camber, which must be adding to the Ducati’s agility.
Despite this the 998 feels stunningly planted as it darts first left, then right as I tweak the ’bars yet again to send the bike carving its way out of the chicane. Ducati’s are not regarded as the quickest-steering superbikes but the 998 is effortless, even though its adjustable headstock is set to the less steep, 24.5-degree fork angle.
There is huge potential for chassis tuning here, but the 998 is so good straight out of the box that the only change I’ve made (and will make all day) is to firm the front slightly with a turn of preload plus a couple of clicks of rebound damping.
Although I have had to move my body weight about during those two quick changes of direction, the superbly controlled Ohlins shock not only helps keep the bike stable, but gives superb feedback as the redesigned, 190-section Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsa bites into the track with impressive soft-compound stickiness. The dual-seat Biposto model’s shock is perfect for my 14-stone weight on the track. But lighter riders, and those planning to ride only on the road, would probably be better off with the single-seat version, which has a slightly softer spring.
Now I’m hurtling out of the chicane, the Ducati’s throttle open and the big V-twin motor pulling hard with a fruity bark that’s as much intake as exhaust, as I pull my weight forward over the front wheel. The big V-twin has a distinct top-end edge on its 996 predecessor. Still cranked over in second gear, the bike builds revs so fast that it’s a struggle to get my left boot under the gearlever in time to flick into third before hitting the limiter at 10,750rpm (which, a couple of times, it does, rather abruptly).
This circuit has no long straight to test top speed (in fact the top two gears aren’t needed), but given enough space the 998 would surely be good for 170mph. What can be appreciated here is that the motor is magnificently torquey, too. The 998 rips forward from below 6,000rpm out of the chicane (and from much lower than that out of the horribly tight first-gear hairpin), its injection system delivering the flawlessly precise, linear throttle response that is so helpful to fast riding.
The years of road-going development and all those World Superbike titles are reflected in the way that the Ducati feels so refined and beautifully balanced, as well as fast. On top of all this the 998 is smooth, too, and there’s a good reason for that. “A V-twin’s secondary vibration is proportional to crankshaft radius divided by conrod length,” explains R&D chief Andrea Forni, back in the pits. “The Testastretta has a smaller crankshaft radius and its conrod length is the same as the 996cc engines, so vibration is reduced.”
That smoothness will be welcome on the street, but don’t think for one moment that the Ducati has gone soft. This is still a supremely focused, track-ready machine with an ultra-sporty riding position, a thin seat (especially for the Biposto’s pillion), firm suspension and very few concessions to comfort in general and urban riding in particular. All of which is of course just as it should be for this latest successor to the mighty 916.
One other thing that remains almost unchanged is the price, which will be very close to that of the current 996 Biposto, at around £11,000 on the road, in red or yellow and with one seat or two. The 998S, which produces 136bhp thanks mainly to hotter cam timing, will cost about £13,000. Whilst the limited-edition 998R, with oversquare engine dimensions (104 instead of 100mm bore) and higher compression, will be sold, probably via the Ducati.com web site in January for £17,000.
Those exotic models will be even faster on the track, but the standard eight-valver is now such a blinding motorbike that it’s the one I’d spend my money on every time. We are now surely well into the autumn of the original Tamburini styled eight-valver’s long life, with rumours growing stronger that it will finally be replaced by a more comprehensively redesigned flagship in a year’s time.
But just like that Roman sun, the Ducati continues to burn brighter than ever, matching its subtly improved chassis with the substantial power increase that makes the 998 a stunningly fast and rewarding machine.
Get Ducati motorcycle insurance for the ducati 998.
Engine liquid-cooled DOHC, eight valve, 90-degree V-twin
Claimed power (bhp) 123bhp @ 9,750rpm
Compression ratio 9.2:1
Transmission 6 speed chain final
Front suspension: 43mm inverted telescopic Showa, 127mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping Rear suspension: One Ohlins damper, 130mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake: 2 x four-piston Brembo calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake: Double-action Brembo caliper, 220mm disc
Front tyre: 120/70 x 17 Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsa
Rear tyre: 190/50 x 17 Pirelli Dragon Evo Corsa
Rake/trail: 23.5-24.5 degrees/91-97mm
Seat height: 790mm
198kg including battery, oil and coolant but no fuel
Top speed 175 mph (est)
Fuel capacity 17 litres
Current price £11,000 approx