Fifteen years ago, brothers and sisters, Ducati inverted the number of the beast and loosed upon us the 999, and its latest superbike got very little love. It was a style thing, really. You either loved its Raymond Loewy-inspired design, like me and a few other highly evolved aesthetes, or hated it. And so we must ask, Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in the 999’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly that the 999 is swell AF. And the price is right, now, too.
By now you’ve read the race-track reports from the bike’s Misano press launch in the print magazines–the infamous launch to which MO was somehow not invited (and for which Ducati will pay through the nose but let’s not go into that now). Here now for your perusal, the first real road test of the new 999 (far as we know), by our own Despondent Correspondent, the one, the only, ladies and gentlemen we give you YOSSEF SCHVETZ LIVE FROM ITALY! Take it away Yossef… –JohnnyB
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 itLife 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.