Exactlyone year ago, mere weeks after the unveiling at the Milan show, I was riding Ducati's new 998 on this very road and wondering what the fuss was all about? I'd decided to take Ducati's new baby to the famous Della Futta pass -- a mental road that begins only miles from the Borgo Panigale factory gates -- and after less than half an hour of up-and-down twisties my wrists were killing me, my neck was in need of TLC and the obligatory tight crouch had me cursing out loud. Never mind that later, on the superfast autostrada, the bike's supreme high-speed manners brought to my eyes tears of joy. After four intensive days with the 998, the red devil would remain forever embedded in my mind as the most beautiful and rewarding torture rack ever devised, even for those who aren't necessarily into S&M.
Here I am again exactly one year later, passing the same spot on the 999 and not even thinking about stopping at the roadside cafe where I nursed my aching wrists last year. I feel like gassing it some more for another hour or two. This 999 intruduces a new concept into sport bikes--riding position adjustabality. After experiencing the unbelievable change in feel, comfort and handling that the new Duc allows via its adjustable saddle/fuel tank unit and footpegs--the fixed riding position imposed by all other sport mounts feels plain dumb. Period. In my book, this is a mini-revolution.
Which leads us directly to the man who had to carry the hefty task of replacing an icon of motorcycling, Pierre Terblanche. For most people the connotation of a designer is of a guy drafting beautiful sketches across huge white boards, but a little-known fact is that designers are also the ones that have to resolve the so called MMI -- man-machine-interface -- and first and foremost Terblanche did just that.
When you produce a motorcycle that in (heavily) modified form can lap a track less than a second off MOTO GP pace (check out SBK vs. MOTO GP times at Assen this year), then there isn't much wrong mechanically speaking in the first place. And in various interviews Terblanche acknowledged the fact that in the remaking of Ducati's flagship, his main target was to improve upon "rideability," or even more precisely, that of allowing anybody between 6' and 5'4 to find his perfect riding position. This has been achieved by leaving the trusty tubular frame--the front portion at least--alone, and redesigning the rear part. By narrowing the rear subframe mounting tubes, lowering the rear shock mounting point by 1-1/4", and having part of the fuel tank under the seat, Terblanche transformed the early nineties arse-in-the-air ergoes of the 916 into something much more up-to-date and humane.
With frame tubes well out of the way, making the fuel tank and seat slide back and forth was a child's game. Two long telescoping pins keep the front of the tank in place and all that is needed to change the seat-to-bars distance between three available positions is to take off two bolts and loosen another two. The footpegs are adjustable via numerous mounting holes drilled in brackets welded to the frame, five positions in all, just like in aftermarket kit but from the factory.
What about those new curvy bits? My first impression upon seeing the 999 in early photos, like so many critics, was one of total unbalance between the huge surfaces of the front fairing and the vast emptiness under the seat. But the 999 is one of those cases where perfect side views don't do the real thing any favors. As I pull into the Ducati factory parking lot, the red and glistening 999 awaiting me does not fail to induce compulsive smiling. First there's the sheer compactness. Think of the narrowness of a two-stroke 250 roadracer in the critical tank/saddle junction and you're there. The rear part of the tank, next to your crotch, can be grasped between thumb and middle finger; try that on your CBR/GSXR/what have you. More important in the face of the design masterpiece the 999 replaces, is the fact that from standing height, the whole plot starts to make sense, quite a lot of sense. The lack of side panels lets you peer deep into the most intimate parts lurking inside, and the naked rear cylinder head becomes a beautiful, mechanical focal point. The huge fairing lowers somehow become a much less imposing, while the aggressively sculpted tank and tail urge you to get physical with the thing, right here right now. Then there's that face.
There was something feline about the 916's front end, with its narrow, horizontal lights; I guess Tamburini had a thing about cats. As I bend over the new bike, I read the 999 sticker upside down, 666, and find the inspiration for the 999's front end. It's positively devilish, highly distinctive--and it definitely kept growing on me. The tail unit/ integral silencer are sculpted with bold, sharp cuts and have an air of stealth bomber about them, a theme that continues in the aerodynamic foils outside the fairing's lower edges. If there is a single item that's a bit out of place here it's the integrated electronic speedo/rev counter, which has a Nintendo Gameboy look about it
Life stinks: I'm sitting behind a desk, so are you, and Yossef's out galavanting around Modena on a 2003 999. Collective hatred for Yossef!
Mechanically speaking a lot has also changed--or not--depending on who you ask. Underneath the new clothes there's the Testastretta engine with new mapping for friendlier, meatier power delivery. Other changes are notable to the naked eye: New wheels with a busy five-doublespoke (sorry Mr. Orwell) pattern retain the same width dimensions, a titanium-nitride coated fork comes as standard even in the plain 999 version (previously only in the "S" and "R"), and the trademark twin underseat cans have made way for a single futuristic unit containing the inevitable emissions catalyser.
Page 2The biggest mechanical departure from the tested and proven 916 family is the departure of the 916's lovely single-sided swingarm. It's no secret now that for the same weight, a single sided swingarm will never be as stiff as a normal one. The trademark arm was one of the 916's focal centers, but it had to go. (And no one will ever miss the change in ride height that accompanied chain tension adjustment with the old set-up.) And here's a little anecdote too: Not many know that pretty soon after the 916 launch, the SBK race team reached the conclusion that the swingarm would have to be elongated. Race SBK Ducs have forever worn 10mm-longer arms, and so now do Ducati's street machines (causing an unfashionable increase in wheelbase).
Time to hit the starter button now that all the little details and touches that abound on the 999 have pumped all the right juices into my blood. That hollowed-out top triple clamp is XXX-rated stuff. Less teasing is the sound coming out of the silencing unit. Ducatis have been getting more and more quiet, and this one is almost Japanese in its politically correct exhaust note--a minor complaint soon forgotten and easily remedied
Feel the love, baby: Ducati's have no redline painted on the tach, thus, get to know and love your bike (Shift by feel -- when the power dies or it shakes like a bastard, you shift)
While zigzagging through traffico d'Italia on my way to the highway, a new and quite surprising agility manifests itself. The spec sheet says it shouldn't be so, but the 999 is so much happier to change direction than the 998 there's really no comparison, and the first fast sweepers show this newfound quickness isn't accompanied by any loss of stability: 110, 120, 130 mph--the Bologna- Firenze Autostrada has sweepers to rival Monza's Parabolica any day, and the 999 soldiers on unfazed heeled well over, rewarding me with a broadband information broadcast from the front wheel. The new ergonomics allow me to tuck well in to dig that fighter pilot mood, baby, and with less weight on my wrists, my hands are much more sensitive to decoding all this welcome data. The engine might well be Bologna's best ever. It really is more sweet and lively down low, feels noticeably stronger than the 998 around five grand--while at the top end I was hard pressed to tell any difference. As always with Bologna twins, there isn't that much to look for near the redline, just beyond 10,000. Shifting at 8500 or 9000 max is a much better proposition, and lets the engine land back in the meaty portion of the torque curve.
With warm tires, I leave the Autostrada and head for the aforementioned twisties. So OK, the comfort level lets you ride for much longer stints without tiring, even at lower speeds without upper-body air assist easing the load. Much more important is the more-forward bias of the riding position. This makes the bike feel much smaller and flickable, and as it turns out I'm not even on the saddle's full-forward position yet; things got even better when I later shifted seat and pegs there. The sculpted, narrow fuel tank allows you to grip it strongly with your legs, and with the increased power of the four-pad Brembo calipers at work, you can use that extra something to hold onto. The 999 is equipped with radial master cylinders (not radial calipers)--and the available stopping power as well as the linear response to lever input are simply amazing.
Flung down the typical canyon road, the 999 is again much more agile than the 998, and at nine-tenths feels so natural and cooperative I think I am starting to fall in love. Things get a bit less rosy as I start to push the 999 even harder. When going for really serious lean angles, I find it harder and harder to make the 999 commit to reallyy tight arcs. Even after a lengthy session of knee dragging there's a good 3/8" strip of untouched rubber on both sides of the rear tire, a slightly unusual occurrence. Closer observation reveals that the 190-section rear Supercorsa might be on the large side and indeed, as a Ducati test rider I met outside the factory would tell me later, Ducs are usually fitted with 180 rears for track days and comparos. (My plan to alleviate the problem by playing with the easy-adjust rear suspension height evaporates when my 17mm wrench won't fit in the tight space around the bottom nut of the link rod.)
Said problem is of little consequence 99 percent of the time and does little to detract from the sheer idyll that is riding the 999 on a nice mountain road. The engine and its electronic fuel management are always ready to deliver those satisfying bursts of acceleration from 5000 rpm onward. As always happens with me, getting accustomed to playing less with the gear lever and letting the broad torque band do the work requires some time-- but the reward is sweet--flowing lines drawn through turns. You can devote all your attention to just riding instead of tap dancing with your left foot.
After a few hours play, I head north to Milan--a fast and boring 120-mile stretch. Top speed turns out to be about 170 indicated, and the wind-tunnel-tested aerodynamic protection is indeed better too; even a 6'4" hominid like me gets decent wind protection (by sportbike standars of course), and without the need for any unnatural contortions. The saddle even does a good job keeping my ass-cheeks alive--even after some six hours of riding--but the unbelievably small fuel tank stops me way before I get uncomfortable. At 4.1 gallons, this must be among the smallest tanks ever produced. Another sizeable item on my complaint list would be the heat blasting from the open area between the fuel tank and fairing: The total absence of side panels lets the engine and radiator roast the undersides of your thighs. It's bad in town and only reasonable at sub-60 mph speeds. So end the complaints.
It was time for the 916/996/998 to go and that's a fact. It's good, no it's great, to see that Ducati did not rest on its laurels in the design of the 999. Fitting new body panels would've been easy enough. The 999 manages the nearly impossible; keeping most of the old values that have made Ducati Superbikes the objects of desire of millions, while turning also to new customers perhaps less hardcore. Terblanche himself mentioned that some people in Ducati couldn't grasp the fact that the new 999 had also to be comfortable. A comfortable Supersport Ducati? Never!
Times change and the mission of creating a broader scope Ducati SS flagship has been achieved. Far as I'm concerned, the 999 is a better bike in every way than its predecessors. Last year's 998 was great, but there was no way I could ever picture myself owning one (money problems aside) because of the pain/joy balance involved. Not all canyon roads are 15 minutes away. But this one? Let's see, if I sell my old LeMans III in parts I guess I could maybe, ahhh.....
Why even compare it to the beloved 916? As an enthusiastic Italian biker said at a gas stop upon seeing the 999: "No need to compare, it's another bike! Viva Ducati!"