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2003 Ducati 999

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
2003 Ducati 999
2003 Ducati 999
Triple-Nine!

Had Ducati's 999 been the follow-up to, say, the Honda RC51, we have no doubt it would've been an instant smash hit. But instead it replaces the much loved and revered 916-998 series, bikes widely considered to be the most beautiful of the past several decades.

But as lovely as that series of bikes is to look at, the legend wouldn't have been created if not for its high level of performance on both the track and the street.

That performance is upped with the 999, so there should be much rejoicing. Instead, Ducati has been faced by many who consider its new shape to be a mistake and won't take the bike seriously because of it.

Well, all we can tell you is that the 999 is probably the best streetbike Ducati has ever produced, and the whiny poseurs who poo-poo the new design are missing out on a thrilling Italian thoroughbred, cutting off their collective noses to spite their face.

I must admit that I, too, was among that crowd of naysayers who judged the 999 on the basis of its appearance. After all, Italy is the epicenter of design, and the Triple-Nine, while delivering a stunning styling statement, is a radical departure from the clean, flowing lines of its predecessors.

But as we found our during the press introduction at Willow Springs racetrack, the new Ducati superbike has nothing to fear, functionally, from the old 998. Several days riding on the street (not to mention more track work at a DP Safety School at Infineon Raceway and a bit of amateur drag racing) have solidified our early impressions and even increased them in some ways.

First off, let's address some of the styling points of this controversial design of South African Pierre Terblanche. Its lines aren't as sublimely harmonious as the previous bike, but there are many trick elements that please the eye. The tiny fuel tank has an aggressive, multi-faceted look that is mimicked by the minimal and sleek tailsection. Also, many positive comments were made about how the rear cylinder can clearly be seen from the left side underneath the rear of the fuel tank, giving the bike more of a mechanical presence.

The area above the rear is gloriously unobstructed thanks to the continued use of silencers set under the rear seat, except this time the single muffler looks like a big toaster. The single-sided swingarm that we all loved from the old bike has been replaced by a one-piece cast double-arm device that weighs the same but is 8% more rigid torsionally. It is also 15mm longer for better stability under braking plus better traction from the rear tire. Its design also has the added benefits of not altering the rear ride height when adjusting chain tension and it keeps the wheel spacers in the same spot when changing tires so it bolts back on with no fuss.

2003 Ducati 999
Much time was spent in the wind tunnel to hone the aerodynamics of the Ducati 999. The large muffler is designed to fill the entire underseat area to be even more slippery.
Functionally, these are all improvements. But there are certain styling points that have little to do with better performance, which can be seen most clearly in the 999's aerodynamic features.

Ducati spent considerable time wind-tunnel testing the new bike – including at Ferrari, Agusta and England's MIRA (Motor Industrial Research Association). This expensive R&D process resulted in finding out just how good the old bike is aerodynamically.

"Aerodynamics was a big mess for us (because the old bike was so good)," said Ducati's chief testing engineer, Andrea Forni, at the press intro.

The most obvious devotion to slipping through the wind are the "side air conveyors" that owe their genesis to the winglets on the front corners of big-rig trucks. Mounted on top of the leading edge of the side fairings, this wing is claimed to reduce drag by capturing the flow of air from the front wheel turbulence and keeping it tighter to the side fairing. This laminar airflow/boundary layer continues along the extended lower side fairings with the kickstand aerodynamically integrated into its position. (The air conveyors on the 999R, the race version, are actually shaped like little airfoils, wider at the front, making them even more effective. The production bikes have wings that are flat for cost effectiveness.) 

The 998 was already a very narrow motorcycle, so Ducati knew they couldn't get much of an aero advantage by reducing the 999's cross-section. Instead, much time was spent developing the optimum position for the rider. The lower tank gets a rider's belly down further for a sleeker position despite the slightly lower windscreen, and the frame is made narrower in the middle so legs can get tucked in tighter even with the slimmer fairing.

The result of all this airflow management is a paltry 1% reduction in drag with a rider on board, according to Ducati. Why such a minimal improvement? Well, the dual headlights in the nose of the fairing aren't flush-mounted, so they create lots of drag. Ducati acknowledges they are less aerodynamic, but they give the nose of the bike an original and distinctive appearance. Granted, the racebikes won't be subjected to DOT-approved lighting and will thus have a flush nose and better aerodynamics.

The other curious design feature is the slots in the nose fairing above the intakes for the airbox. Forni said they are there purely for cosmetic reasons, but a different story was presented to journalists at the unveiling of the identical-looking 749 a few months later. This time the theory says the slots are there to reduce turbulence on a rider's shoulders and helmet. Hmmmm… Aero efficiency is also lost by using a split front fender that allows air to hit the oil cooler behind it, whereas the 998 (and 999R) has a more streamlined, wrap-around unit.

2003 Ducati 999
The slots parallel to the lower light ram air into the new, larger pressurized airbox, while the upper slots are either cosmetic or smooth air on a rider's shoulders, depending who you talk to at Ducati.
One of the most clever features of the 999 is the integrated tank-seat-tailsection that comes pre-assembled from the supplier. The monoposto (single-seat) version has provisions for moving the entire component fore and aft by 10mm each way by removing just four bolts. At just over one inch of adjustability this distance may not sound significant, but a rider can make up almost half the weight of the bike itself so an inch can make a considerable difference. Weight distribution with the rider aboard (at the seat's middle position) is now claimed to be 50/50 instead of the rearward 52% bias of the old bike.

Ease of production was another goal of Ducati for the 999/749 series. The aforementioned pre-assembled bit is one reason why Ducati says it can produce 90 of the new bikes a day rather than the 70-bike maximum of the old series. Another key reason for quicker assembly time is the new two-wire CAN (Computer Area Network). Running from the ECU to the instrument panel, CAN radically simplifies wiring. Overall weight of electrical system has been reduced by an incredible 6.5 pounds, according to Ducati.

All 999s receive five-position footpegs, a telescopic rod on the shifter, plus fine adjustment of both the toe pads for a more customized fit to each rider.

Ducati says it has also been working on incorporating adjustable handlebars, so we might expect even more personal customization in the future.

The seat is wider, longer, closer to the bars and, at 10mm lower, reduces the rider/bike center of gravity. Calling the seat foam "padding" is a bit generous. The wide saddle is way more comfortable than it appears, keeping in mind it looks like a seat from a 17th-century slave ship. And despite comfier ergos than the 916-998 series, there's no mistaking the 999 for a sport-tourer.

Providing sporting squirt is the responsibility of the proven 998cc injected V-Twin that debuted last year (Only the 999R gets the full-zoot 999cc engine used in last year's Superbikes). The only changes are a larger, pressurized airbox, revised fuel-injection mapping and a different exhaust system. While the exhaust on the old bike had identical lengths to yield the same backpressure, the 999's rear cylinder has a shorter pipe. A larger bore pipe fools the engine into thinking that it's the same length as the forward cylinder's. Spent gases are routed through two catalytic converters. While the catalyst for the rear cylinder resides in the muffler as you'd expect, the cat for the forward cylinder is in the lower exhaust pipe prior to entering the muffler.

2003 Ducati 999
A 15mm longer swingarm supposedly makes the 999 less wheelie-prone, but the front end won't stay down in first gear with 998cc of V-Twin torque.
These changes result is an inspiring midrange punch that is synonymous with Ducatis. Cranking the throttle on when exiting a corner, the rider can feel the rear tire dig in with the meaty power pulses. It may not have the absolute lunge of a Gixxer Thou, but it has generous levels of torque at engine speeds that are common during street riding.

We took the 999 to our friends at White Brothers for a few runs on their Dynojet dyno. Low-end grunt is present, but power only begins its big surge around 5500 rpm, after which the torque level doesn't dip below 60 ft.-lbs. until the rev limiter cuts in. Torque peaks just below 8000 rpm, at which nearly 70 ft.-lbs. of twist are available. Also at eight grand, horsepower is crossing the 100 mark, continuing to its 116.5-hp peak at 9700 rpm.

Perhaps the tuning still needs some work, though. Our test bike would sometimes cough at low rpm, causing the engine to stall embarrassingly.

A new battery and a check-up with a Ducati tech did nothing to solve this annoyance, and this isn't the first report we've heard about this condition. Otherwise, the V-Twin is stellar, with just a hint of a flat spot at 7000 rpm.

Maneuvering around the cages on city streets proves to be easier than on the old bike, as some clever engineering has gone into providing much greater range of steering-lock. This may seem such a small thing that is hardly worthy of note, but anyone who has ridden the old series knows the hassle of the five-point turn necessary to turn the bike around on a two-lane road. The shape of the fluid reservoirs for the front brake and hydraulic clutch mounted to the handlebars are angled so the bars can turn over a greater sweep, and that same shape can be seen in the jeweled and angular rear turn signals and brake light. Nicely done.

As with the 998, the 999 is geared almost ridiculously tall. Turning just 4500 rpm in sixth gear on the highway equals 80 mph. In freeway traffic at the same speed, it's actually preferable to use fifth gear so the engine's spinning at a punchier 5000 rpm for added jump with a negligible vibration penalty. The gearbox shifts with smoothness, although throws are a bit long.

The upper fairing sweeps back surprisingly close to the rider, offering better wind protection than it may appear, and the narrow tank allows tucked-in legs to be protected from the elements by the side fairing. The fuel cell is so skinny that you can almost touch your knees under it. The 1% aerodynamic improvement Ducati says it has built into this new bike doesn't explain the much better wind protection than the 998.

2003 Ducati 999
Instruments have loads of features, but it's the hollowed-out triple clamp that bystanders always want to talk about. Steering rake can be reduced from 24.5 degrees to 23.5 degrees by changing the steering head insert.
One thing that hasn't changed for the better are the slick-looking mirrors. Attractive they are, but also virtually useless for seeing rearward, as the entire reflector is filled with a rider's arms. As lensman Putter noted, they at least make a perfect place to mount the nicely integrated turn signals.

Instruments are contained in a tidy little panel with the usual analog tach/digital speedo, plus a host of other gadgets, including a lap timer and a gauge for measuring current fuel consumption, which is fun to look at until you rear-end that semi ahead of you.

Suspension compliance from the fully-adjustable inverted Showa fork is remarkably good over pavement imperfections, in part due to the gold-colored titanium-nitride coating on its sliders; TiN is less porous than chrome, so it has less inherent stiction and greater sensitivity. Rear suspension is also by Showa, and we're not talking about some of the price-point suspenders used on some Japanese bikes. This damper is plush and has responsive damping adjusters.

After the introduction to the bike at Willow Springs, we also had a chance to ride the 999 at Infineon Raceway, the track formerly known as Sears Point located north of San Francisco. This is a much twistier environment than Willow, and running the bike there underlined how much more nimble the 999 is over its predecessor. Even with the same steering geometry as the old bike (24.5-degree rake, 97mm trail), the 999 proves to have a much more nimble feel. The reason behind the quicker steering is the 15mm lower riding position. It not only moves the rider's weight closer to the machine's roll axis, but it also allows arms a more direct attack on the clip-ons, giving a rider more leverage.

An RC51 we had along on the same day felt like a heavy pig in comparison to the 999. It was much slower turning even though it was fitted with a 180-series rear tire rather than the wider 190 on the 999. Incidentally, the Duc doesn't steer as neutral with the stock 190-series rear tire as it did on the 180s we rode at Willow. It requires a varying amount of bar pressure is required through the roll axis so, as with the old series, I'd recommend fitting a 180-series rear bun to your 999 once the OEM rubber is shagged.

Even with its newfound nimbleness, the 999 doesn't give up any of its legendary stability. This is quite a feat, as pushing on one end of the equation usually pulls on the other. Regardless, the 999 remains as stable as a train, with an unwavering tenacity at holding its selected line - even when leaned over on pock-marked corners. And when it does get twisty, the sloped tank offers lots of room to move around on top of the bike that is appreciated during backroad gymnastics.

2003 Ducati 999
Power flows from the V-Twin in a smooth, accessible fashion, giving a rider a wide rpm range in which to lunch on lesser sportbikes. At 116 peak hp, the 999 isn't going to pull an open-class four-cylinder, but it's still a satisfying motor.
The front brakes that impressed on the racetrack are just as stellar on the street, offering eyeball-bulging power with brilliant modulation from the new 4-piston, 4-pad Nissan calipers. They make a satisfying Sssshhhhh! sound when applied, reminding the rider of the power it takes to scrub off the kind of speeds this bike is easily capable of attaining. Meanwhile, the rear brake is wooden and lacks feel, but with front binders this good we didn't mind much.

There's not a lot of feel from the hydraulic clutch, although as I found out during our trip to the , a keen rider can do a fine job modulating it to good effect. Clutch pull is a bit heavy, but it's lighter than the unit fitted to Aprilia's big Twin.

Thus far, I've painted a fairly rosy picture of the 999, but there are a few quibbles that are bothersome. First off is the tiny fuel capacity of that artfully sculpted tank. Claimed capacity is a small 4.1 gallons, but even that might be optimistic. On one street ride, we ran out of fuel after topping up the tank with the bike upright. How many miles did we get on the entire tank? Just 115. A quick calculation reveals what would be a 28.0-mpg figure! Either the tank is smaller than what Ducati says or our bike was running richer than Bill Gates. For the record, we usually got numbers in the mid-30-mpg realm so we may have been feeling especially frisky on that particular day.

Another gripe: When someone says you've got a hot bike, you'd logically think he's referring to the way it looks. Not necessarily so with the 999. Heat radiating from the exhaust pipes that curl under the seat can roast a rider's upper legs and buns if conditions are right. During a day riding in slow moving traffic I saw 214 degrees on the temperature gauge even though the ambient temperature was in the low 60s. Those in warmer climates will want to keep their 999s up to speed and out of parades. Which is where they should be with the 999, anyway. We all know who rides these bikes (wealthy, recreational, stylish) and who doesn't (Iron Butt, Shriners), and for the first group the 999 is a superb ride. It's clearly a better bike than the 998 in every dynamic respect.

So if you've always wanted an exotic Italian superbike like a 998 and can just now afford one, what does that say about you if you don't buy one? Poser, most likely. The kind of guy who wears the Foggy rep leathers with unscuffed knee pucks and/or has race-compound tires with a one-inch wide chicken strip at their edges.

And the 999, even if its styling may not be as evocative of rapturous comments as the previous generation, certainly isn't dog-ugly.

So, how shallow are you?
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Highs & Lows
Highs
  • Superb chassis and handling.
  • Legendary Italian heritage.
  • Nothing else like it.
Lows
  • Small tank makes for frequent gas station poses.
  • Exhaust/engine heat.
  • No longer the prettiest girl in school.

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Comments
Sonny Paire -999R 999S 999  March 17, 2010 10:05 PM
I had 3 of the kind, my first Duc was 749 and upgrade onto 999 I love
them so decided to collect all the basic 999 medium 999S and the ultimate one of a kind 999R. There is no comparission to it. I rode the 1098S and 1198. Those were much lighter in weight and the handling is different. It's all about the designer.
Franky -Ducati 999  November 28, 2009 01:41 PM
As I am reading up on the Triple 9 after just having acquired a Yellow 2004 version of it, I cannot agree more with the reviews and comments. I myself did not know if I liked it or not when it came out at the time I got my first Duc, a Yellow 748S, back in late 2002. This month I swiped one up and rode it home for a little over 200 miles. It handles like nothing I rode before, and I rode a lot models. The comfort is much better than on the previous generation the 748/998, as much as you can use the word comfort on a sports bike. The looks of the bike is timeless and somewhat futuristic among all the current 1000cc production bikes. Just love it...
sonu sharma -whooooooo  July 18, 2009 04:42 AM
I LOVE THIS LOVELY BIKE REALY THAT IS MY PASION AND I REALY LOVE BIKES AND FAST VICALS ALWAYS THIS LOOK IS VERY COOL AND TOUCH OF HEART I LIKE IT VERY MUCH
Carlos -999  June 15, 2009 04:38 PM
Why do so many people hate on the 999s look??? In my opinion, it is truly a work of art.
John Shutz -999 review  April 6, 2009 12:20 AM
interesting to read an evaluation going back 6 years. Especially when I have owned a 999S and now have an 03 999R. Good read and accurate in many details. The 999 was born then it died. It is now in the process of being reborn. All in all it is an amazing bike, especially the R model.
graham desmond -du 999  March 25, 2009 05:28 AM
i spotted the 999 in front of factory. its angelfire