Church of MO: The Best of the Best 1998, Part 3

John Burns
by John Burns

Last Sunday, we travelled back in time 20 years to shaketh down the Superbikes of the era. Today, brothers and sisters, we wondereth what happened to Part 2? The interwebs giveth and the interwebs taketh away. At least there remaineth Part 3, such as it is. Not so much a conclusion and a declaration of who would be King, but more a wandering off into Chuck Graves’ modified racing R1 compared to the stocker and the mighty Ducati 916 SPS. The MO works in mysterious ways…

The Best Of The Best: Part III

The Super Bowl

LOS ANGELES, September, 1998 –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.

View all PhotosPHOTOS & VIDEOS

John Burns
John Burns

More by John Burns

Join the conversation
  • Lewis Lewis on Jan 28, 2018

    I really like these flashbacks. Just wanted to add my perspective. The day I bought my 98 R1 (blue) I sold my 97 YZF 1000 R. I did not do track days back then, I found out of the way Appalachian tarmac to be my idea of nirvana. I regretted selling the 97 YZF 1000. I found the R1 flighty and twitchy. Not the confidence inspiring machine the 97 was. After the R1, I found myself on a Ducati 748 which I developed confidence in, but not to the level of the 97 YZF. Perhaps I would have appreciated the other bikes more if I had started riding on the track.

    • Spiff Spiff on Jan 28, 2018

      The real kicker was to drop the 1k (might as well go 1040) into the yzf750 chassis.

  • Mad4TheCrest Mad4TheCrest on Jan 29, 2018

    It's amazing how much things have remained the same. Ducati's are still harder to ride than others and still kick ass on the track when ridden by those who 'get' how they need to be ridden. And Ducatis still seldom win the overall comparison.