If you’re seeking a motorcycle with the most racing DNA built into it, look no further than the 2011 Ducati 1198
Superbike. From the clatter of its dry clutch to the thunderous boom of its liquid-cooled 1198cc L-Twin engine, not to mention the elastic feel from its tubular steel chassis, the Ducati
is the closest thing to a World Superbike off the showroom floor.
After a solid third-place showing in the 2010 Superbike Smackdown VII Track
shootout, Ducati’s flagship Superbike struggled this time around. The principal problem revolved around lack of chassis set-up time as it encountered a mechanical problem that sidelined it for a good portion of our test day.
Despite having less than 500 miles on the odometer the screws that secure the cam timing belt backed out causing the engine not to start. After an hour or of troubleshooting engineers discovered the problem and re-aligned the timing belt getting it back up and running just in time for the timed Superpole session. Kudos to our on-site support from former AMA Pro Thunder champion Jeff Nash for getting it dialed in such a short amount of time. However, the problem was neither Rapp nor I had much if any seat time prior to having to put in our flying laps. It is worth noting, however, that this mechanical issue is covered completely under warranty.
Ducati has gone to great lengths to making its bike feel “conventional” as compared to its Japanese counterparts. It did seem slightly easier to hop on and go-fast than, say, the KTM’s RC8R
as evident by the Superpole times that were right there with the Orange bike despite having minimal time prior to the timed session.
The Ducati feels clumsy at first with its narrow, top-heavy and stretched out seating position, ranking dead last in the ergonomics category. But the faster you go the more the riding position starts to make sens
e. Due to less than optimum chassis geometry, however, none of our testers was ever truly comfortable at the controls of it until we lowered and softened the back end while lifting and adding damping to the front later on that weekend after our official test day.
“Everything about it felt awkward,” says Rapp, who has considerable experience racing Ducatis in the Daytona
SportBike and AMA Superbike
series of yesteryear. “The whole thing felt strange. The handlebars were too wide and the seating position felt really stretched out. Plus the chassis geometry made it feel even worse. It definitely felt out of balance. So I couldn’t ride it anywhere near the max.”
With the fitment of Michelin’s more aggressively contoured V-spec Power One front race tire (read about it in the Michelin Power One Race Tire Review
) the 1198 steered with much less effort than in past years. Still it required the most amount of body language as evident by its low side-to-side flick rate of 45.8 (speed at which the bike was leaned from one side to the other measured in degrees/second) as recorded through the right-left-right sequence of Turn 8, 9 and 10, which is surprising because it’s not a very heavy motorcycle as evident by its curb weight of 445 pounds (same as Honda).
The Ducati felt much better when leaned over through turns with its chassis delivering an elevated level of feedback from either end which ultimately gives the rider more confidence. Accordingly, average corner speeds as measured through Turn 4, 13 and 16 were fourth highest in spite of the set-up woes. Once back on the center of the tire its uneven geometry would again come into play with the handlebars shaking violently at times resulting in a low score in the corner-exit drivability category.
Although it cranks out the lowest peak horsepower number (151.02 @ 9800 rpm) it’s within a horsepower or two of the Yamaha, KTM and Honda
. What the Ducati lacks in top-end, it certainly makes up for it in its bottom-end and all conquering mid-range engine performance. With almost 89 lb-ft of peak torque available at 8000 rpm the Ducati has the ability to leap off corners despite what its modest 0.72g maximum acceleration force reading off the exit of Turn 10 leads you to believe — T10 a slow right-hander taken in second gear that leads to the slightly uphill back straightaway.
“While the Ducati doesn’t have the snap of the Inlines it has an awesome amount of torque off the corners,’ says Hutchison. “The engine revs out fast—just like the KTM but it runs out of steam just a little bit more. I really like the powerband of this bike and its potential is deceiving.”
If we had more time sorting out the rear suspension there’s no doubt that we would have measured a higher reading. As a consequence top speed entering Turn 11 was the lowest of the group (128.9 mph). Even still the thunderous roar generated by two coffee can-sized pistons slapping up and down is so downright addictive that if this test was scored
solely on the sheer riding experience the Duc would win hands down.
“The Ducati has a very fine window of perfection and when in it, things can be heavenly, but drift only a small bit outside and one can get turned around quickly,” muses Steve-O. “This is a bike with loads of potential, as the looks are stunning and the arm-pulling toque utterly addictive – not to mention that nearly perfect sound.”
For ’11 an electronic quick-shifter is now standard as is traction control and while it helps reduce shift time it doesn’t work as well as the BMW
’s unit. The 1198 gearbox also still has a long shifter throw and a lot of slop. In fact, the only bike with an even more underperforming gearbox was the KTM. Despite not having a slipper clutch we could never push it hard enough to notice it was missing. We’re also not sold on the TC system with it coming in intrusively through the slightly off-camber Turn 9.
Braking has always been a strong point of the 1198 and as usual the monobloc Brembos rated right up there on the scoring chart. Although they deliver a high amount of power and feel the set-up of the bike made them difficult to use aggressively which resulted in the lowest max braking force reading of -0.81g.
“Its brakes are awesome,” comments Garcia. “Perhaps too awesome for the bike they are fitted on. With the back end of the bike being so rigid and the brakes so strong, the rear end would lift off the ground when braking into the corners.”
The Ducati’s back of the pack result in no way shape or form represents the true capabilities of this motorcycle. But our annual Superbike test is about results on the track and because of the mechanical snafu we didn’t get enough set-up time to get the bike to perform to its potential. And in a hotly contested shootout like this if you don’t come prepared you’re going to get left in the dust…