More of the same - much more!
2002 Ducati 998
Unbelievably the 916 has been around since 1994. When released the 916 didn't revolutionise the sports bike sector, Honda had already done that with their Fireblade, but it did put that new definition into perhaps the prettiest package of the decade. The 916 is still with us and it looks much the same as it did back in '94. Most people generally agree that, almost ten years later, it looks up to date. The Ducati has enjoyed gradual updates year by year, and is still arguably at the top of its class. That's the history lesson, so what's it like to ride?
In a word, brilliant!
Yes, that's it - BRILLIANT!
At this point I could save this word file and end my report - anything I say from now on is simply a variation of 'brilliant'. But, ok, you probably haven't ridden the bike so I'll be sensible and run through this test from beginning to end, starting with the engine.
This year the entire 916, sorry, it's now the 998 range, benefits from the new Testastretta, or narrow head, engine. This is the motor Troy Bayliss used to win the World Superbike title this year.
It comes in three states of tune, 123 bhp for the 998 ridden here, 136 for the 998S and a claimed 139 bhp for the limited edition customer racer, the 998R. The engine actually displaces 998ccs- hence the name!
On the track it's immediately apparent that in its latest guise the engine is much more responsive low down than in previous incarnations. The standard 998 is still a little short of puff on top, a GSX-R1000 would laugh at it's flat-out straight-line performance, but I'd guess that the stronger 139bhp 998R might silence the Suzuki's chuckles. Torrents of torque make the bike very easy to ride, even if you ham up the gears and exit a corner too far up the six speed box, the bike will rescue you by pulling strongly from as low as 2,000 rpm. It'll pull from way below that, but the power pulses from the two 500cc pistons swinging up and down the 90 degree V create too much snatch at the drive-train for anyone with mechanical sensitivities to try it for long. The build up is linear, there's no sudden power band to catch you out, but there is enough low down grunt to break the rear tyre's traction in the damp or cold conditions that were prevalent during my track test in Silverstone. Early in the morning, when damp patches still littered many of the corners, I lit up the rear tyre causing it to sliding full sideways as I exited a tight turn. It was a progressive slide and the bike kept itself in order as I rolled off the throttle gently. The rear hooked up again without drama when I got back on the power. There wasn't even a hint of high side.
Here Glenn tests the excellent Showa forks and Ohlins rear shock. Initial reports show that Ducati technicians did good work setting the bikes up for these lucky journalists.
The relative lack of top end, and the fact that I had recently ridden a four-cylinder race bike with a cut out set at something above 15,000rpm, meant I was hitting the rather severe rev limiter all too much. It cuts the engine so efficiently that the faster riders on the track started to use it as an impromptu quick-shifter!
The gearbox is smooth and precise and the clutch light and accurate - the bite point stayed in exactly the same place for the entire session. The engine seems much refined over early models, it's far quieter than the original 916, the engine, gearbox, clutch and exhaust - they all produce less clatter and bellow this year. A refined Ducati? Hmmm.
A powerful engine is all very well, but it needs a capable chassis to help get the power promised by that glorious V-Twin onto the ground and to keep it there. This is an area that the 916 series has always excelled in and this year is no different. While the standard 998 isn't as exotically equipped as its 998R stablemate, it's nonetheless plenty well equipped to cope with the 123 bhp on tap.
The Brembo brakes are also a notch down from the trick race parts fitted to the R, but again, the bike stops without drama and without a great deal of finger effort either! Entering the turns at the end of both the fast front and back straights at Silverstone gave them a good test, which they passed with flying colours by providing consistent and dependable braking time and time again. There was no fade, no excess lever travel, no hint of sponginess - just plenty of progressive two-fingered braking power all day. Compare that to the disappointing feel of the early 916 brakes, more evidence that the 916 is evolving well.
Suspension duties on the 998 are taken care of by a pair of Showa front forks, which are TiN treated even on the 998. TiN (Titanium Nitride) is a super-slick coating that ensures the fork tubes don't 'stick' to the sliders under heavy use. The rear end is well controlled by an excellent Ohlins shock with the usual full range of adjustability. The front brake discs are thinner this year, lowering the weight hanging on the front wheel and thus making turn-in even quicker. Indeed, the little 998 (for it is a physically tiny motorcycle) turns in fast and holds a line with amazing tenacity. Neither the bumps nor Tarmac ridges at Silverstone could shake the bike, even on full throttle at full lean.
The 998 comes in any color you ever dreamed of - as long as you only dream in red or yellow.
There was quite a difference in the way the various test bikes felt. The eight bikes available at the test had all been individually tweaked at a previous track session, so all the settings were different. On the softer setups there was quite a bit of wobble at the rear when changing direction hard, something that was completely absent on the bikes with a firmer set up. Set up is very much an individual thing, but if you are serious about riding a bike like this hard, you'll be well advised to get it properly set up to match your riding style and location. I preferred the harder set up, at least for the track. Out on the road, where (if we are honest with ourselves) outright performance isn't that crucial, the softer settings might well be a better compromise between comfort and performance.
Talking of which, while I am sure the 998 will make a stunning road bike, there's no denying that a machine like this is most at home on a track, where its capabilities can be exploited to the full in relative safety. There are not many roads where you can lean the bike over onto its foot pegs and then power out of the turn with the rear end smoking and sliding. On the contrary, Silverstone has many places where such behaviour is encouraged and, thankfully, unlikely to be interrupted by myopic Volvo pilots or highway patrol cars.
The front end on the Ducati is extraordinary. The level of grip and control from the front end is faultless, the front Pirelli gripped at the tarmac with amazing force. Even a ham-fisted handful of brakes mid-turn when I realised I had gotten way off line failed to push the front. The bike does stand a little when braked mid-turn, but a little extra pressure on the relevant stubby clip-on handlebar corrected this immediately. In the final turn before the front straight, a long constant radius corner that really loads the front as you wind the throttle back to get drive for the main straight, you could actually feel the grip - as if the tyre was in fact your hands. Superb. The OEM Pirelli Dragon's really compliment the Ducati set up.
Despite a hard day's riding at Silverstone, I failed to reveal any significant faults on the 998. OK, the more capable riders could get the rear to break grip and get very sideways mid-turn, although none of them fell off as a result, confirming that this is a bike that's controllable even at, or beyond, the limits. What it also revealed was that the new 998 is a real riders' bike, a motorcycle meant to be used hard and used purely for fun.
For those who dare to be different (and have spare change lying around) you can pick up one of two replicas built by Ducati for 2002. Here is the Ben Bostrom Replica 998 S, priced to sell at $22,695. There is also a Troy Bayliss replica of his Infostrada sponsored machine for around the same price.
This isn't a get-to-work ride, although no doubt some owners will commute on theirs, possibly because they just have to ride it again and again! But the 998 is also far from being a banzai, balls-out motorcycle - it's actually very refined. This all-round user friendly feel is relatively new on a Ducati, leading one of the testers to comment on how it was getting like a Honda VFR800, a comment that didn't actually go down too well with the Ducati factory guys present! It's true though, this is the smoothest and most civilised version of the 916 ever released. But don't worry, they haven't washed the soul out of the machine, no way, this is still every bit a Ducati eight valve Desmo twin. It can still make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck in time honoured Ducati style.
There's not a lot to run through as far as equipment is concerned, this is a road bike made from a race bike, so 'accessories' are restricted to stuff like a steering damper and a dual seat. But, if it ain't needed, it ain't fitted. There's the usual array of add-on parts, both from Ducati and from a host of companies that have grown up to serve the increasingly popular machines. They vary from performance to pretty parts, and a trip to any Italian motorcycle show will find plenty of illustrations of just how far you can take 'personalising' a Ducati.
Who would buy the 998? The seriously rich are probably going to want the more expensive (and more importantly to them, exclusive) 998R or S versions. Owning an R isn't an easy feat, apart from the cost there won't be many about and most of them will end up in the hands of privateer racers. Those on a tight budget are likely to decide that the 998 is too dear, and settle for an, arguably, equally capable Japanese four. The 998S isn't that much further up the price scale than the standard 998, and it produces a useful amount of extra ponies from its higher tuned motor.
Then there's the cheaper Aprilia V-Twins or even a Triumph triple to further muddy the water of decision. But the answer is simple, the 998 is going to be purchased by riders who want to experience the credibility, the exceptional thrill and the soulful experience of Ducati ownership - probably by those who have already owned a 916. Those who can't or won't stretch the extra few thousand for the S model will get all of vital Ducati ingredients with the 998. And whoever buys the 998, if my impressions are anything to go by then one thing is for certain, they won't be disappointed.