Church of MO: 2002 Ducati 999 Comes To America

John Burns
by John Burns

Looking back upon it through 20-year thick vino rosso-colored glasses, I remember really liking the 2002 Ducati 999. Probably because so many others did not; following that 916 shape was never going to be easy. But reading the old road test, the faint praise is palpable. Oh well, at least there’s a gratuitous crash pic of our new intern, Sean Alexander, on some other motorcycle. The look of Terblanche’s design has only grown on me over the years, but that could be because I haven’t seen a 999 in probably a decade. I do still have the t-shirt.

What more is there to say at this point really? By now you’ve read your eyeballs out on the matter of the new 999 — including Yossef’s quite inclusvie road test from Italy — and know everything about it.

Now that we’ve had our actual paws on the bike for the last couple of weeks, and have ridden it at speed at the Willow Springs North American debut and upon actual U.S. soil, we have a few thoughts of our own.

Why not begin with the beginning then? As luck would have it, Ducati decided to use Pirelli’s excellent Supercorsa tires for the Willow Springs launch, which was wise on their part if the goal was to show what the bike is capable of, I mean of what the bike is capable. The Michelin Pilot Sports the bike will be delivered with

Envy also the new Suomy Xaus replica helmet-o… Ah yes, your sister too would often wrap herself in Saran Wrap… cara mia.

are excellent tires, but Willow earns its reputation as Fastest Road in the West; street tires, no matter how good, are not optimized for constant 100 mph-plus speeds mostly on their right edges. For us, the use of these tires was particularly beneficial, as we had just ridden the 999’s competition–in the form of the $17K Aprilia Mille R and a tricked-out Honda RC51–less than two weeks before, in identical conditions, on the very same dang tires, which makes things nearly scientific…Around Willow, with my 160-pound mass, the bike feels not so different from its 998 predecessor, which is to say extremely capable — stable and often, as somebody mentioned — leaving you with the DUH! feeling that you could’ve rolled through that last corner about 20 mph faster. The base 999 outfitted with performance chips and exhausts — but even if it were making ten more horses via its own engine mods, it seems doubtful the Ducati would pick up three seconds.

As with the Mille R, there didn’t seem much need to me to mess with suspension settings at all — everything felt fine right out of the box. Jerry the Pirelli man did suggest the front tire looked like it might benefit from raising the rear end of the bike a bit, as it didn’t appear to be carrying its usual load. Doubtless, dialling in ride height and things on a bike of your own is the way to go — but things have a way of not getting done at press launches where there are more riders than bikes. And again, the bike’s suspension and attitude didn’t feel at all out of the ballpark to begin with. It was a different day. Could’ve just been me. Naaaaah…Great bike. Easy to ride. Not quite so rapid out of the crate it seems, though, as Mille R and RC51.

On the road, in the actual world of cars and buses and trucks and things — I personally am on the confused side as to why everything I’ve read says the 999 is much more comfy than the old bike? The rear of the gas tank is a friendlier shape now, but beyond that it is still a loooong way to the still-really-low clip-ons. We took delivery of a Biposto bike, which as it turns out, does NOT have the adjustable seat/tank unit of the Mono 999, for reasons which seemed obvious when explained to me but escape me now. The Biposto supposedly carries its rider in what would be the middle position on the adjustable version — and while being able to slide 10mm

US orders for the 999R can be placed beginning in December, 2002. For the stately price of 30,000 euros, no less, but you get a racekit gratis.

forward would be nice, it doesn’t seem as though that would be enough difference to much modify the infamous “first-day-in-prison” ergoes of the bike. The Biposto does have adjustable footpegs, but even set low, they remain pretty high (they also don’t drag at Willow).

Quite a bit of heat exits the engine bay via the rider’s legs and butt, too — nice when it’s chilly, probably a real drag in the summer in Florida.

But the one thing that would preclude me, for one, from riding the 999 much on the street, is the fact that the miserable mirrors of the 916 have been made even more useless on the 999. Maybe that seems like a minor thing, but in truth it feels like a huge safety issue in L.A. traffic to me. I for one like to know if there’s a Mercedes up my ass, and on the 999 you have to crane around or lift your left arm in the air to check your six. I also tend to ride slightly faster than the posted speed limit, and doing that consistently while retaining a mostly clean license requires eternal vigilance out the rear for fast-closing pursuit vehicles. In Italy, maybe that doesn’t matter. In America, it’s critical. You could find yourself on COPS before you know there’s one behind you. Now that the 999’s mirrors are an

You looking at me? YOU LOOKING AT ME?

integral part of the bike and even carry the front turn signals — I don’t foresee an easy inexpensive fix. If you’re an investment banker and only ride track days, your manservant will have an easy time popping them off, at least.

And on another positive note, man this is a nice motor for tooling along; it beats the Aprilia and the Honda when it comes to smooth running. The Showa suspenders don’t give quite the sharp-bump smothering of the Mille R’s Ohlins units, and they don’t let the 999 tear up backroads like the quicker-reacting Mille or Honda either — but I’d sport-tour on the 999 any old day. If I didn’t have to work all the time that is.

There it is then. If I had $17K to drop on a motorcycle, I want the Aprilia Mille R personally. I find it comfier, faster, and gnarlier than the Ducati — and certainly no uglier than the 999 — in fact I like its Stealth design quite a bit. (Apparently a lot of MO readers think the Mille suffers from an appearance problem.) I was willing to give the 999 a chance until I accidentally parked it next to a 916 last weekend. Oh dear…

999 things you didn’t know about


  • This is the first Ducati to have been entirely designed by computer–every part.
  • Alias Studio Paint, Alias Studio, and Unigraphics software


  • Three wind tunnels were used, and drag reduced from the 998’s 0.298, to 0.295–a difference of one percent.
  • those flaps at the leading edge of the fairing catch and recombine the dirty air coming off of the front wheel
  • the underseat muffler is an active aerodynamic component 4. she looks a little heavy because the bellypan goes much farther rearward than the 916’s


  • There are 30 percent fewer components–230 fewer pieces.
  • less time required for maintenance
  • there are LONGER maintenance intervals


  • The FRAME is 20mm narrower but just as stiff as before. It is ALS450 steel.
  • The SWINGARM is a single casting, 15mm longer than before and 8 percent stiffer.
  • Low-speed maneuvering is easier now that the bars can turn 28.5 degrees off center.
  • A RADIAL MASTER CYLINDER controllig the four-pad Brembo calipers, gives maybe even better braking feel than the Mille R.
  • 320mm DISCS are thinner–4.5mm–lighter, and located further outboard for better cooling.


  • Different-length header pipes work in this application, because the front pipe increases from 45 to 55mm ID at the same distance from the port as the rear pipe enters the big muffler–thus making the engine think they’re equal lengths.
  • With the new bigger-capacity underseat muffler comes an increase in midrange torque.
  • A bigger airbox, with Helmholtz resonators, sucks in more air while keeping noise acceptable.
  • We are clean and green, catalyzed to pass Euro 1 and probaly Euro 2, depending upon what the hell it winds up being.
  • 5.9M CPU


  • CAN — Controller Area Network — system is used for the first time on a motorcycle.
  • two nodes — one in the instrument panel, one on the engine — have all wires routed to them and are connected to each other by only two wires relaying digital information. End result is a reduction of 13 pounds.
  • LAP TIMER is activated by pushing the starter button or by optional trackside sensor–and the instrument panel stores top speed, top rpm, overrev occurrences and elapsed time.
  • Instrument panel luminosity, luminescence, whatever, is automatically controlled according to ambient light.
  • LIGHTS turn off automatically when starter motor’s running or when engine has been stopped for one minute.
  • Immobilizer KEY contains a transponder which must be recognized by the bike or she will-a not start.

Second Opinions

And I think we only wadded one of `em. The US press corps is aging rapidly.

1. Sean Alexander Ok, I have to admit to riding that “new 999 isn’t as pretty as the 916” bandwagon. The styling is more functional trickness than beautiful sculpture, but once I took the bike for a ride and saw it lit by the glow of natural sunlight in real live 3-D, its undeniable Italian redness and exotic looks grew on me. The view from the saddle is downright beautiful, with that large white-faced Magneti Marelli tachometer and those open-yoke triple clamps. The view of following vehicles is nonexistent due to the narrow mirrors, which give a great view of your forearms. Yeah I’m a large human, but even svelte beings found the view blocked. Our test bike is a biposto (much to the delight of my girlfriend) which means that the seating position is not adjustable. But Ducati seems to have found a good compromise, between racetrack effectiveness and general-use comfort. The saddle has about the same padding as vinyl covered plywood, but is actually quite comfortable due to its size and shape. My Corbin equipped 916 used to have me squirming after about 20 minutes on a freeway, but the 999’s stock seat remains comfortable for over

The Illustrious Intern Sean “Skidpad” Alexander’s foot. (Yup, he broke the other, non-aerial one.)

60 miles of interstate droning. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, this bike is no VFR for comfort, but it is every bit as comfortable as many other supersport bikes. Aside from the clutch, the bike’s extremely quiet at low rpm. Under load, there is enough of that magical Ducati intake honk to make the hairs on your neck stand up. As a prior 916 series owner and recent tester of an RC51 and Mille-R, I can tell you that our test bike feels faster than all of them (probably cause you rode the other two at Willow Springs you girafee-Ed.). I would enjoy a chance to test this, but will most likely have to wait until the 2003 open twins shootout.

Throttle response anywhere above 3000 rpm is phenomenal, and I never felt like the engine was doing anything to unsettle the interface between contact patch and tarmac. Excellent rear traction, good suspension and front-end feel contribute to an overall feeling of confidence. And it sure seems like you can get on the power earlier and harder than you could on the old bike. Though better than the 916 series in quick right-left transitions, the bike still feels like you have to overcome significant inertia to rapidly roll over the center — which is never a problem. Overall, the 999 gives me a warm glow.

Oh wait, the warm glow is from the bed of coals you straddle when you ride it. Heat shielding took a back seat to weight savings; after about 30 minutes the entire aft-section of the bike becomes quite warm to the touch. This would be the perfect bike for Siberia. Siberian chicks would swoon. Siberian motorcyclists would covet your 999’s built in bun warmer, warp-speed, reliability, and low maintenance — compared to their 900Lb/40HP Urals and Dneprs. For those of us not residing in Siberia, the heat bathing your inner thighs, butt and lower abdomen is problematic when ambient temperature exceeds 65F. Also, while checking out all of the 999’s trickness, the intrepid Hackfu noticed it is possible to release the seat lock without the key, by reaching behind the lock and tugging the cable. Not good for helmet security if you plan to use the helmet locks. Overall I have to say the bike works beautifully, looks super trick and by virtue of its increased performance and comfort, offers increased practicality over the 916 series. If I had a spare $17K in mypocket, it would be a tough choice between the 999 and a Mille-R.

John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 10 comments
  • Meaty Midrange Meaty Midrange on Aug 30, 2022

    I didn't know Ducati was 1st to use a CAN bus on a bike. I thought it was BMW.

  • MikeD MikeD on Sep 03, 2022

    Call me a blind heretic and burn me at the stake . . . I love BOTH the 749 and 999.😍
    From time to time I find myself staring at the R models of both.