Motorcycle USA sampled the fiesty 2011 Ducati 1198SP around the bends of the Imola cricuit while trying to keep up with World Superbike’s Carlos Checa.
Hard on the gas and descending downhill, the rear end is stepped out and spinning. A fat black line of Pirelli rubber paints the pavement while a faint mist of tire smoke follows. The snaking section of decades-old Italian pavement bends slightly left as it drops multiple stories in a very short space; throttle open as far as bravado will dare. Promptly rolling out of the throttle, one aggressively switches direction into a two-part right-hander – a quick dab of the front Brembos to settle the chassis. Weight transfers forward with haste, putting heavy stress on the bike’s front end initially, then both ends as the suspension G’s-out at the base of the hill for the second, tighter right-hander. All this mere moments before shooting back uphill just as quickly, throttle pinned to the stop, feathering the rear brake to keep the front wheel from getting too skyward – when executed perfectly the front tire will dance gracefully a few inches above the asphalt as you speedshift wide-open through multiple gears while accelerating.
One of the most demanding, and satisfying, sections of racing circuit in the world. To truly tackle Imola’s famous Acque Minerali section with race-like gusto one must have complete confidence in both man and machine. Man being me. Machine being the new 2011 Ducati 1198SP.
After following World Superbike star and all-around good ol’ chap Carlos Checa through this daunting section of racetrack for several laps, it was then I truly realized the speed at which riders could attack the famously demanding series of corners. To do such a feat on most of today’s stock liter-class sportbike would be next to impossible (much of this due to their far less grippy street-based OE tires). Not so with the newly updated Ducati. The feisty Italian devoured this section, as well as the rest of the highly technical track with absolute precision and near World Superbike-levels of
The 2011 Ducati 1198SP may appear as a replica of the 2010 1198S, but closer inspection reveals numerous racing updates including Ducati’s race-bred slipper clutch and a lighter aluminum tank.
speed, while continually displaying its amazing handling abilities and extremely potent toque-laden engine.
It also must be added that there really is something magical about riding a Ducati around such a famous Italian circuit. The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari sits a mere stone’s throw from the Borgo Panigale-based manufacturer’s backyard, the utterly amazing, historic racetrack snaking directly through the center of a quaint Italian village. Many of the town’s homes, public roadways and apartments literally overhang or cross directly over the racing surface, giving Imola a real-road-course vibe in places, an almost Isle of Man TT-like feel. It’s the stuff of legends. Italian passion and racing heritage at its finest.
From The Inside Out
While very similar to the 2010 1198S, especially to the untrained eye, the SP now gets a host of go-fast goodies from last year’s 1198R. It’s for this reason an R edition will not be offered in 2011, Ducati deciding to condense its Superbike model range down to three for this coming year: The base 1198, 1198SP, and 848EVO (be sure to checkout our recent 2011 Ducati 848 EVO First Ride review for more information on the Italian middleweight).
The new SP’s chassis and engine remain almost exactly the same as last year’s S model, though Ducati Performance’s race-bred slipper clutch from the R finds its way onto the new model, as does the R’s lighter aluminum tank, saving nearly three pounds in the process. Suspension-wise, it retains the S-model’s current Ohlins Road & Track fork up front, while getting an updated Ohlins TTX rear shock, the latest and greatest from the Swedish suspension giant.
Rounding out the updates is the Ducati Quick-Shifter (DQS), which uses engine rpm, vehicle speed and throttle position to cut out the engine in the quickest and most efficient way possible for clutch-less up-shifting without needing to lift off the throttle. The unit is housed within the new shift-linkage and is always on unless deactivated by the rider through the control menu on the instrument cluster. Note it only works in the standard one-down, five-up shift pattern. For a reverse-pattern race-shift set-up a Ducati Performance accessory kit is needed.
Available in dealers in the coming month, here’s the best part of the new and updated 1198SP: It costs not a penny more than the previous, less-equipped S model, retailing for $21,995.
From The Outside In
Turn the key, thumb the red, right-hand starter button and the SP barks to life with a Superbike-like growl; the dual, underseat exhausts serenade with an intoxicating rumble. If you don’t like the way this Ducati sounds you may need to get your ears checked, as it’s not only a sweetly melodic tune, but also a quite loud one at that (the good kind of loud though).
Click the regular-pattern shift lever into gear and chug your way out of the pits, the only possible flaw to the Ducati’s engine being its slow-speed lurch, which requires 2500-3000 rpm on the dash before it begins to smooth out. But once up to speed the fuel injection is spot on, providing a constant push of uninterrupted acceleration through every gear of its six-speed transmission. The SP pulls hard through the mid-range via its claimed 97 lb-ft or torque, while still providing the over-rev needed to not wear out one’s left foot with constant shifting to be in the perfect gear. One can roll certain sections of the track a gear higher than normal as the loads of torque it produces is always a mere twist of the grip away. The SP also still has surprisingly high levels of top-end power at revs above 10,000 rpm – high for such a large-displacement Twin.
Further adding to the engine’s abilities is the addition of a slipper clutch, which has been handed down from its former big brother, the now-obsolete R model. Whereas before the lower end 1198 models required some serious finessing of the clutch lever to obtain proper corner-entry at high speeds, the slipper clutch allows for much easier corner entry due to the precision of its back-torque limiting abilities, keeping the thumper’s rear wheel in line no matter the rpm.
Another addition to the SP for 2011 is an OE speed-shifter, something I personally believe all sportbikes will have off the showroom floor in the coming years – at least I hope so… This came in quite handy when bending downhill at speed through Turns 17 and 18 into the Curva Rivazza area. It’s here where riders are wide-open on the throttle, first leaning left and then back to the right, houses and apartments literally lining either side. This is where the quick-shifter’s advantage quickly became apparent, allowing the rider to shift up through the gearbox without needing to chop the throttle and potentially upsetting the chassis in what is a very high-speed and dangerous section of track.
Since the inception of the 1098 in 2007, the Italian Superbike’s basic chassis architecture has remained the same across the entire model lineup, the only real differences being upgraded Ohlins suspension on the higher-end S and R models. This trends stays with the new model as well, though for 2011 Ducati goes one small step further and gives the SP Ohlins’ latest TTX rear shock, which features added adjustability as well as improved racetrack performance.
Once acclimated to the Italian Raceway’s technical layout, with a very helpful tow from one Mr. Checa, I was able to really push the 1198SP hard through a variety of different situations. The Imola circuit has everything from smooth, third-gear-pinned off-camber corners, to bumpy first-gear chicanes, to twisting uphill rises – this varying combination of challenges quickly show any machine’s flaws and capabilities. And Ducati’s latest flagship Superbike displays far more capabilities than flaws, that’s for sure…
The aforementioned chassis and Ohlins suspension setup makes for a very stable and planted machine though mid-corner onto corner-exit, especially in the high-speed turns. The new SP also flicks from side-to-side in low-speed chicanes with relative ease. While it may not change direction as quickly as some of its Japanese counterparts, the Ducati more than makes up the difference in the faster sections of track, as there are few bikes in the world which rival the confidence-inspiring prowess of this Italian machine’s abilities when one’s knee is one the deck. In fact, words like “confidence inspiring” hardly do it justice.
Big power and high speed can be both a blessing and a curse. What goes up must come down and what goes fast must also be able to stop – and quickly. Thankfully Ducati has left its tried and true Brembo monobloc calipers and 330mm disc set-up on the front of the SP, a combination that won our hearts from the day the original 1098 was launched back in ‘07. Not only one of the most outright powerful combinations on the market today, they also provide loads of feel and feedback, allowing the rider worry-free trail braking.
While all of this technology equates to one amazing motorcycle, without the proper tires to keep the Ducati glued to the track. Ducati has remedied this by equipping its full line of Superbikes with Pirelli’s latest Diablo Supercorsa SP rubber, one of our highest-ranking tires in the latest MotoUSA Street/Trackday Tire Comparison. So it came as little surprise they performed almost flawlessly throughout our day of testing at Imola, providing loads of grip when new, lasting relatively well and sliding predictably as wear levels increased. They may not be the best for getting stuck out in the rain (very limited tread pattern), but otherwise these are some of the best all-round trackday and high-performance street tires on the market today.
But the question remains: Does a slightly updated shock, slipper clutch and quick-shifter really equate to that much better of an overall motorcycle? Yes and no. Because the previous Ohlins suspension set-up was already one of the best on the market, the addition of the TTX shock is only a fractional improvement. And while both the back-torque-limiting clutch and speed shifter are noticeable improvements, in the grand scheme of things they are relatively minor. But when considering the new machine retails for not a penny more than last year’s S at $21,995, any improvement, small as it may be, is still a bargain. Turns out sometimes there is a such thing as a free lunch. But we all know they don’t come around often, just like the 1198SP won’t sit on dealership floors for long with a deal like this.
We’ve loved Ducati’s 1098/1198 lines of motorcycles for nearly five years ago now, especially some of the higher-end S and R models, the only downside being price-point. But this all changes with the new SP, combining R-level goodies at S-level prices. This is why riding the latest and greatest Ducati 1198SP Superbike around Imola’s majestic hillside raceway really was the stuff of legends. An epic bike for an epic track. Couldn’t have been more fitting…