I really enjoyed watching the Isle of Man on TV last week (and reading Andrew Capone’s coverage on MO); so did my GF, who’s only recently been aware of motorcycle roadracing and is rapidly turning into a fan. She asked a question that hadn’t ever occurred to me: Why are there Ducatis all over MotoGP, World Superbike, and everywhere else – but none at the Isle of Man TT?
Not Seeing Red
Good question. Certainly Ducati has had its share of glory at the Island. Codgers older than I still recount Mike Hailwood’s out-of-retirement win in 1978 aboard the very special 900SS in the lead photo. Few of them remember that was actually the Formula 1 race, and that Mike the Bike’s last win at the Isle occurred the following year, in the premier-class Senior TT aboard an RG500 Suzuki.
According to the Isle’s official, somewhat confusing database, there’ve been 10 Ducati wins over the years. Compared to 38 for BMW, 43 for Kawasaki, 94 for Norton, 111 for Suzuki, 233 for Yamaha – and 256 for Honda, the most. (Those numbers must include the Junior and Lightweight TTs as well as the Senior, and even a few others.) Number of finishes is also listed: Ducati has 704 to Yamaha’s record of 9,745.
Michael Rutter looks like the last rider to have made a serious effort on a Ducati at the Island, finishing 10th in the 2011 Senior TT with an average speed of 123.632 on a 1200 Ducati. (2011 was also the last year Ducati won the WSBK championship, with Carlos Checa.)
Before Rutter, the great John McGuinness ran a 998 Ducati in 2003, finishing 2nd in the Senior TT (123.93 mph) and 3rd in the Formula 1 race. Two years later, in 2005, McGuinness began his Senior TT tear, winning on a Yamaha R1 before moving to Honda in 2006 and winning three more in a row in from 2006 to 2008. In 2009, McGuiness and his Honda pushed their average speed to 131.578…. if anybody was going to win on a Ducati, it would’ve been a young McGuiness.
It seems like Twins, not just Ducatis, don’t go quite so well at the Island for the same reason, only moreso, that there are no Twins left in MotoGP: IoM calls for maximum high-rpm horsepower and sustained periods of Wide Open Throttle, a thing that’s more reliably achieved by splitting the work among four smaller pistons rather than two big ones. The extra torque Twins produce by being allowed 200cc more displacement isn’t enough of an advantage to outdo the 1000cc Honda, BMW and now Suzuki four-cylinders that are lately ascendant, and being able to produce over 200 horses for six laps of the Island course – 226.5 miles – seems to be advantageous for Fours also. Even if all things mechanical were equal, it seems like there are cultural reasons, too, that favor the Fours.
Let’s ask MOrespondent Andrew Capone, who’s been to every TT since 1903:
“There are any number of Italian jokes one could deploy here and fuggeddaboutit, but this deserves a reasoned response. In the absence of one, here’s mine:
“I think the reasons can be split into three buckets of Chianti grapes; regulations, competitiveness, and cost. For the first point, the TT follows ACU regulations that limit twins to 1200cc, save for ‘other machines admitted at the discretion of the organizers.’ So the 1299 Panigale doesn’t conform, but the 1198cc Panigale R would work. By work, I mean they would qualify, which leads to point number two. Would it win?
“Not likely, IMHO. There are always random Italian machines that show up and turn in respectable performances on the IOM, but the TT is really a brutal endurance race, with the Senior TT being 227 miles long, much of it at sustained WOT. And while we Italians might be known for endurance in the game of love, the thundering V-Twin motorcycle engines of my paisani, with piston bores that can accommodate a plate of Olive Garden Veal Parmigiana, may not be ideal for the particular job that is the TT. At the Isle of Man, grunt, acceleration and idiosyncratic manners are not rewarded as highly as top-end power, durability and ease of riding.
“Which leads to the third point, cost. Other than a handful of top riders with factory-sponsored or -supported teams, typical TT racers are regular working blokes, masons and mechanics, who bootstrap their racing lives. With stock Japanese and BMW inline-Four literbikes affordable, reliable, modifiable, and fast in all the right ways for the Mountain Course, it’s just not economical to choose a Ducati for a privateer TT endeavor. Unless you¹ve got an uncle who knows a guy.
“Aprilia’s V-Four platform may not fit into all of the above rationale, but the cost and convenience issues do. However that amazing sound you¹ve heard around the TT course for the last few years is Aprilia with a beard: the Aprilia V-Four CRT-motored Norton. Aussie duo Josh Brookes and David Johnson rode the 2017 SG6 for the beautifully turned out and well-funded Norton factory team, so Aprilia was there in spirit. Norton will unveil their own V-Four engine in 2018.
“Interestingly, while riding around the IOM and walking along the promenade at night, my buds and I noted that Aprilia had a massive share of the bikes on the island for the TT fortnight, far exceeding what we see in the US. Ducati, as well. So there¹s a built-in fan base for the brands should they ever desire to fund and take on this unique challenge. Mike Hailwood and Tony Rutter would abide.”
Finally, why not ask the man who rode one? Not a Ducati, but a couple other booming Twins. Mark Miller says he’s retired from racing; we’ll see how that works out. He’s raced all sorts of motorcycles around the Island. Why no Ducatis, MM?
“I think it’s mostly because the high-speed, bumpy nature of the circuit destroys modern Twins, be they KTM, Ducati or EBR. Now that the average lap record is 133.9 mph, BMWs are good. The event is a fortnight, with two Superbike races at six laps each and one Superstock 1000cc race of four laps. It’s the sustained top rpm, the weight and velocity of the pistons – plus the rear wheel is often airborne, which kills crankshaft bearings. Taken all together, it’s just the most abuse you can give a motorcycle.
“Our EBR 1190cc Rotax broke constantly or rattled much-needed parts and oil-retaining bolts off its engines. New-tech oils like Miller’s became a 100% necessity for any chance to finish a race, oil with little synthetic ball bearings of molecules, a must-have for Twins and Lightweights. Once we hit the smoother bits over the mountain, at the end of the lap, there were few bikes out there that could match the EBR’s cornering speeds – unfortunately, there are more long straights than corners.
“The Aprilia RSV Mille Factory was also a Rotax Twin, but it never failed. We rode Aprilia RSV-4s Four-cylinders for two or three years, and they’d often let go. They were also a bit heavy and slow-turning, without enough top speed. A brand new V-Four Aprilia might work well around there with its evolved pistons, higher horsepower, and engine lubrication upgrades.”
Whatever’s responsible for the dearth of Twins, the only sure thing is that things change, and Ducati’s already said there’s a new V-Four coming down the pipeline that’s supposed to not be prohibitively expensive. If it’s anything like near as fast as the factory MotoGP bikes, we wouldn’t be surprised to see one turn up at the Island in a year or two.
Send your moto-related questions to AskMOAnything@motorcycle.com. If we can’t answer them, well, ahhh, hey, nobody’s perfect.