Here we are with the ultimate showdown of yin versus yang, good versus evil, dogs versus cats, two-cylinder versus multi-cylinder sportbikes. The contenders in this moto-madness, hack-and-slash duel for supremacy: None other than Ducati's already legendary 916SPS (the full race version, which measures in at 996cc) and Yamaha's ground-breaking YZF-R1.
Just as the NFC held sway over the AFC for over a decade, winning every Superbowl for 14 years in a row, Japanese inline fours were uncontested for decades until Ducati released the original 851.
While other bikes produced more power, Ducati has since dominated all comers with its incredibly precise handling at all speeds. Light weight, built for speed, replete with Ohlins shock (for the "race" version only) and stellar Brembo brakes, Ducati was so confident they'd whup ass again this year, they actually shipped us one from Italy in August, 1998. So we felt, well, not so nerdy for a while.
While it didn't take long for the Japanese to meet this challenge with their own twins, they ultimately came up short. In-line fours, after all, are their bread-and-butter, and while Honda and Suzuki worked on twins, Yamaha wisely developed the YZF-R1.
Lighter and torquier than other open-classers, yet stable and comfortable as well, the R1 was a watershed bike that declared to the motorcycle universe that inline fours weren't ready for the dust bin just yet.
"Like the Ducati, the R1 is a looker. While it isn't quite the fashion statement that the Ducati is, it is not the slab-sided, no-frills yawner we've come to expect from Japan."
It's refreshing to see Japanese engineers take a break from squeezing every last ounce of power possible and put some styling into a bike. Ducati, on the other hand, has made great looking motorcycles for years, and they finally got the engine right in '94. Since then, the race SPS has grown from 916cc to 955cc, eventually topping out at a racing-limited 996cc titanium-rodded, dual-injected hot rod. It may only make 113 horsepower, but it spins. Hard.
As the ultimate expressions for their respective configurations, the R1 and SPS will not make V-twin fans love an inline four or vice versa. They're just here for the pure spectacle, for those of you who can appreciate the charms of both. In the end, we were all torn between the two and the choice came down to which had the least niggles. The Ducati was master of track and canyon, turning lap times about a second faster for racers and journalists, but it stalled at idle and slow-roasted your ass at any speed.
The R1 was the hooligan's choice, easy to ride and ride fast, with untold power from the basement to redline, and few niggles of which to speak. In the end it was lack of quirks and a really high worry-free fun-factor that made Yamaha's YZF-R1 triumphant.
What's that we said? You read it correctly -- the R1 is the king of kings, at least for 1998. On The Track We ran BotB3 in conjunction with Part Two and we fitted Michelin Race 3 tires to the bikes for extreme stick
"The Ducati 916SPS has the edge at the track."
The SPS circled the track an average of 0.8 seconds faster with the racers aboard. Whomever was on the Duck would pull ahead and stay there. There were some notable exceptions: Small-bore two-stroke racer Aaron "Elmo" Hammel didn't click with the 916.
He found it took too much effort to ride, with one big problem being the narrowness of the handlebars, which require a lot of muscle to flick. AMA 250 Grand Prix Champion Roland Sands also found the bike difficult to ride, but extremely rewarding: "I got to admit, I never got a good lap on this bike," said Sands, "I always felt as if I were f$%#ing up and it didn't have anything to do with the bike."
We had a lively debate over the Ducati. Some dubbed it the ultimate track weapon, while others bemoaned the tightness of the package. The detractors found themselves beat up and tired from riding the aggressive and precise SPS -- not to mention the mental fatigue from worrying about spilling a $26,000 bike -- while the proponents enjoyed its absolute precision and unshakable handling.
Loved by all, though not as fast on the track, the Yamaha YZF-R1 was a joy to ride but not as tight a package as the SPS; e.g., the front end shimmied while aggressively powering out of corners.
While very good, this bike didn't hit its marks as consistently as the SPS. The big advantages enjoyed by the R1 were its effortless steering and awesome motor.
Street and Strip
The conditions were less than ideal at the Los Angeles County Raceway -- 112 degrees, in the shade! Our first time out with the R1, Chuck Graves was able to squeeze a 10.25 quarter mile out of the R1. Next time, the Yamaha could only muster a 10:39 with Editor-in-Chief Plummer aboard. That was enough to best the Ducati's best time of 10:70 (the Duck overheated on its first run, so we never got to better that). Regardless of the poor desert conditions, the R1 clearly prevailed.
It should be noted that the tractable Ducati did that with only 113 horsepower, meaning the light weight, predictable clutch and all the intangibles that make it the racers' bike of choice still pay off -- novice and intermediate riders will be faster light-to-light on the Duck since it simply hooks up and goes off the line, whereas the R1 is a devilish wheelie monster. Out in the real world, while the precision and power of the Ducati were appreciated, we still preferred the R1. Complaints about the Ducati stemmed from the amount of work it took to ride and the absolute pain it was in traffic.
Heat from the rear cylinder was also a problem, cutting into the fun factor considerably. Pitting both of these featherweight fastbikes down your local twisty road, who comes out ahead is decided by which bike fits the rider's style better.
If you're a late-braking, flick-her-in sort of fella the R1 wants you. If you hold a tight line and concentrate on awesome drives out of turns, the Duck is your bird. Note that the latter method is superior, hence, if the squid factor is the same, the guy on the Duck will emerge victorious.
Smooth and svelte, with excellent heat control and street manners, the the crowning jewel in the YZF-R1's victory is its aptitude for hooliganism. You can pop power wheelies in almost any of the lower gears, roll stoppies with the awesome brakes, lay down big smokey burnouts, and do other things the high-brow Ducati seems to frown upon. Aloof and arrogant, the Ducati says "just ride me you ninny, I dare you."
Any bike that the AMA 250 GP champ doesn't feel he's good enough to ride is a bit extreme. Still, aloof or no, the 916 SPS missed winning this shootout by just one vote, the R1's extreme fun-factor being the deciding pull.
|Termingoni pipes sweeping tastefully underneath the seat. The pipes were cool-loud, frightening small animals and children setting off car alarms and pissing off the local police. The only drawback was the heat.|
|The stiff, chrome-moly chassis and Ohlins rear shock made the Ducati 996 the most taut, most precise bike most members of the staff have ever ridden. The downside is that on the street, this combination becomes your spine's nightmare and a chiropracter's dream.|
|Brakes, one more time.|
|The new Ducati logo needs some time to get used to.|
|On the track, the 916 SPS was superb, boasting the top lap times of the day for both Chuck Graves and Roland Sands.|
|A view of the single-sided swingarm.|
|With Honda, Suzuki and now Aprilia closing in, Ducati will feel some competition, but to this day the Ducati 916SPS is the best out of the box twin-cylinder motorcycle you can buy.|
|Sure, the headlights won't win awards for illumination and the mirrors are essentially worthless, but who cares.|
|Nothing looks cooler than the rear wheel of a single-sided swingarm motorcycle when the pipes sweep up and underneath the seat.|
|Roland Sands working out.|
|The Ducati posted the best 60-ft times, which we expected, and quicker quarter-mile times and higher top speeds than the TL1000R, which we didn't.|
Manufacturer: Ducati Model: 916SPS Price: $23,885USD Engine: 90-degree V-twin, DOHC, 4 valves/cylinder, desmodromic controlled Bore and Stroke: 98 x 66 mm Displacement: 996cc Carburetion: Electronic Fuel-injection Transmission: 6 speed, constant mesh Wheelbase: 55.5 (1410mm) Seat Height: 31.1 in (790mm) Fuel Capacity: 4.6 gal (17L) w/1 gal (4L) reserve Claimed Dry Weight: 429lbs (195kg) Measured Wet Weight: N/A Peak Horsepower: 113.0 bhp @ 9000 rpm Peak Torque: 68.6 ft-lbs (9.5 kg-m) @ 7750 rpm Quarter Mile: 10.720 seconds @ 131.951 mph (212.310 km/hr)
|Upside-down forks, magnesium parts, and the coolest Japanimation-inspired front-end ever... Oops, gotta change the sheets.|
|Most everyone set their fastest time on the R1, including CEO Brent Plummer.|
|A large digital speedometer lets you know when you break the sound barrier. The electronic tachometer houses a digital water temp gauge.|
|Yamaha carries on their recent tradition of killer brakes, and the bike weighs 60 or so pounds less.|
|The rear cowling is now a one-piece design. Racers commented on how cool the bike would look in race trim minus the license plate and passenger pegs.|
|The R1 likes to lean -- 56 degrees from vertical. Chuck liked sliding the R1 out of corners, admiring its ability to stand up on corner exits.|
|Launches were not the YZF's forte, but the 130+ horse motor took care of the rest, posting a best time of 10.25 @136.13 mph, just .05 slower than Honda's CBR1100XX.|
Manufacturer: Yamaha Model: 1998 YZF-R1 Price: $ 10,199 Engine: liquid-cooled inline DOHC Bore and Stroke: 74 x 58mm Displacement: 998cc Carburetion: Four 40mm Mikuni BSDR 40 CV Transmission: 6 speed, constant mesh Wheelbase: 54.9" (1395mm) Seat Height: 32.1" (815mm) Fuel Capacity: 4.7 gallons (18 L) Claimed Dry Weight: 390 lbs (177kg) Measured Wet Weight: 445 lbs (202kg) Peak Horsepower: 130.73 bhp at 10,250 rpm Peak Torque: 74.03 ft-lbs at 8,500 rpm Quarter Mile: 10.25 at 136.13 mph
|He wouldn't leave us alone so we let Chuck Graves flog around the Streets on a stock YZF-R1.|
|It was absurdly hot at the Los Angeles County Raceway. Here Elmo bogarts the shade in order to record quarter-mile times.|
|Chuck Graves on the Ducati SPS chasing Roland Sands on the YZF-R1.|
|This was the third and final run quarter-mile run for the SPS. With temperatures over 120°F on the dragstrip, the strain in the Ducati engine was apparent and we thought it wiser to halt testing than end up building a new 996 superbike engine for Ducati.|
|The bikes didn't perform well in the heat, particularly the twins. Here they crowd out Elmo for that most valuable piece of real estate in the desert -- shade|
|Liquid-cooled inline fours run better than twins in the extreme heat, probably due to maturity of design. The R1 completed nine launches before we called it a day. In comparison the VTR and the TL-R were good for only four launches while the Ducati threatened to pull a Kervorkian after three. The R1 posted top scores in all the categories: a 1.74 second 60-foot time, a 10.39 second quarter-mile, with a terminal speed of 136.95 mph.|
Longtime readers of MO will notice the absence of Chuck Graves from Part III of Best of the Best.
After he helped us pick the Yamaha YZF-R1 winner in Part I, he got sponsored to run a Yamaha Formula Extreme team using, you guessed it, a YZF-R1. As such, Chuck declined to vote in this test. (Since Part Two, Open Twins didn't have an R1, we allowed him to flog the twins a bit.)
However, when it came time to pick a winner between the R1 and the SPS, Chuck didn't stay idle, he had other plans.
While Roland Sands, Editor Plummer, and the rest headed out on the track without Chuckie, he rolled out his secret weapon: A fully-prepared, AMA Formula Extreme Graves Motorsports Yamaha R1. In racing there's something known as a "B" bike.
On the chance that an engine blows up or your rider wads (always a possibility), you need a backup. Chuck brought his fire-breathing, YZF-R1 back-up bike to play on the track.
At the time of this testing (August, 1998), the AMA season was in full swing, so we didn't get a change to throw a leg over the "A" bike.
It wasn't worth the risk for Graves, which was a shame and a blow to our collective "we don't crash" egos, but Chuck another reason for bringing the backup bike:
It was a lightly modified R1.
Outfitted with Chuck's eponymously-named exhaust system, larger carburetors, and the most attention to details spent on the chassis -- Ohlins shock and forks, AP Lockheed brakes, magnesium wheels, Graves' reverse-pattern shift linkage (a big help on the track.)
This bike represented what you could do with an R1 and the extra 13 grand or so you'd have otherwise spent on a 996.
Handling was flawless, without a wiggle or wobble -- the progressive steering dampener, like some aftermarket dirtbike units, was a welcome addition.
The Twins and the stock R1 were great, but on this day Chuck was King of the Streets on his YZF-R1 race bike.
Chuck set outright fastest lap of the day on his R1 racebike, though his fastest streetbike time was on the Ducati. Roland was a half second off, Editor Plummer putzed around two seconds off the pace.