2005 MV Agusta F4 vs. Ducati 999R |
Superbike Motorcycle Comparison
Two of the very finest, highly pedigreed superbikes bred carefully by two very different Italian manufacturers take the term “exotica” to another level. These two machines are very much alike—though clearly very different. Varied interpretations on a theme, these storied Italian factories steeped in racing heritage arrive at almost exactly the same point, yet via very different routes. The lucky rider who gets to experience both machines will be absolutely spoiled for choice.
MV Agusta Agostini F4
MV Agusta dabbled in commercial motorcycle manufacturing from the ’50s into the ’80s, but the company’s passion was always its road-racing machines. It was the dominant force in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s world championships, and in that time MV Agusta motorcycles won an unprecedented 270 Grands Prix that resulted in 37 individual riders’ championship titles. During its dominant reign, Count Domenico Agusta’s factory machines carried some of the finest riders that ever lived, including Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Carlo Ubbiali, Phil Read and Giacomo Agostini. “Ago” was especially successful, alone amassing an astounding total of 14 world championship titles for MV.
With the second coming of the MV Agusta marque in 1997, the motorcycle world immediately became a more beautiful place. That year, Massimo Tamburini artfully designed the most significant motorcycle for the firm since his departure from Ducati: The new 750cc F4 Serie Oro was a stunning study of motorcycle both as machine and art form. But for 2004, the famed designer upped the ante with the long awaited 1,000cc F4, bringing more horsepower and flexibility to an already legendary engine.
MV Agusta has recognized Agostini’s considerable achievements with a namesake limited edition. Only 300 of these signature “AGO” models have been built, and only 60 imported into the United States.
Easily distinguishable from the standard versions, each side of the silver lower fairing has a yellow racing-type plate emblazoned with the number 1. Each machine carries an 18-karat gold identification plate on its upper triple clamp and is delivered resting on a racing stand and protected by a matching red cover bearing large MV Agusta insignias. The package also includes a red MV mechanic’s jumpsuit should the buyer decide to roll up his or her sleeves and dig deeper into the spares kit. At the heart of that is a special box containing a less restrictive exhaust and a re-tuned EPROM chip. Validating the AGO F4 as a true collector’s piece is an accompanying framed certificate of authenticity, hand-signed by Giacomo Agostini himself.
Keeping the AGO as an investor’s static trophy, however, is definitely out of the question. Starting at the F4 logo-embossed red suede seat, the cockpit invites anyone with an imagination to hop aboard, grab the bars and dream the MV dream. The bike’s stunning appearance comes from the visual impact of its exquisite proportions and scale of the individual pieces. MV Agusta’s fit, finish and attention to detail is breathtaking, and in a realm beyond the best of most production-line motorcycles.
The hand-assembled four-cylinder 1,000cc engine generates 166 hp at 11,700 rpm. Equally impressive is the peak torque output of 80 ft lbs at 10,200 rpm. The new motor uses single-stage fuel injectors, each controlled by a Weber Marelli management system that feeds 46mm throttle bodies.Distinct from its peers, MV Agusta remains the only manufacturer to use a Ferrari-designed radial valve layout in its cylinder head design. Positioning the valves in a radial pattern increases mixture turbulence and improves the combustion process. The impressive 13:1 compression ratio sets a lofty standard, and while high compression has obvious power benefits, conversely it can produce wheel hop during deceleration. Generally, fitting a slipper clutch remedies this problem, but MV approached the problem electronically. In essence, an ECU-controlled system senses rpm, throttle opening and rate of engine deceleration, and then activates an electronic air-valve circuit located in the intake tract of the number two cylinder. The valves on this cylinder then remain open, serving as a form of combustion-chamber compression release.
The choice of rolling chassis and running gear exemplify the classic trademarks of Tamburini: flowing bodywork, tasteful carbon-fiber elements, trellis frame, under-seat exhaust, single-sided swingarm and forged aluminum Marchesini wheels. Both front and rear suspensions are striking pieces, too. The front of the F4 carries a fully adjustable inverted Marzocchi fork with titanium nitride–coated 50mm diameter stanchions. Retaining this seriously stiff fork is a massive alloy lower triple clamp, its design shaped to reduce air turbulence around the twin radiators.
An Öhlins steering damper helps control stability, and a fully adjustable Sachs rear shock controls the swingarm and wheel travel. Suspension and ride-height tuning is facilitated by a hydraulically operated spring preload, separate high and low speed compression rates, and single-stage rebound damping. For rear geometry changes, the F4 has an adjuster that with a minimum of tools, alterations to ride height can be accomplished literally in seconds. (Click image to enlarge)
The AGO stops beautifully thanks to its gorgeous braking components. Six-piston Nissin calipers match up with 310mm stainless rotors mounted to aluminum carriers. You might expect to see radially mounted calipers fit to the Marzocchi lowers, but MV’s use of the side-mounted Japanese billet pieces further demonstrates the company’s determination to follow its own rules. The use of billet components is just something other manufacturers would not even consider fitting to a line-production machine.
Both front and rear brakes performed exceptionally well, but the MV’s front brake has an interesting characteristic: The brake pads have a surprisingly low amount of initial bite. This is quite different from the high-performance brakes of Japanese bikes, which have a high initial bite—something that can make the front brake feel “touchy” or intimidating to some riders. The MV engineers clearly made an intentional choice here to avoid too much initial braking force on public roads where road conditions and traction often vary, and braking feel is a critical factor.
The F4 pilot can adjust almost every aspect of the machine, tailoring the AGO to the rider’s physical comfort and machine performance. The 1,000 improved upon the 750 in the rider-comfort department, with a slightly raised and pulled back bar set and reshaped windscreen with higher centerline. Footpegs and pedals are adjustable via simple eccentrics.
Beyond history, legend and pedigree, beyond blueprints, specifications and hardware, beyond glamour, style and exclusivity, beyond all this, there lies the MV’s greatest strength and its pilot’s greatest reward: riding this machine. Hugely powerful and immensely sophisticated, the AGO F4 occupies some universe far distant from every machine most motorcyclists have ever experienced. The engine revs with an almost two-stroke-like response and generates abundant, seamless and vibration-free power from as low as 3,000 rpm; at the high end it is good for a claimed top speed of 187 mph.
During on-road testing, I was quite content up-shifting at 8,000 rpm on the street; little more was needed for fast, real-world riding. If you can stand this much reality, the MV can reduce your surroundings to a fleeting blur—this kind of spellbinding power holds your eyes wide open, concentrates your attention and leaves even seasoned testers wondering whether they should giggle or scream for joy. This serious machine will appeal to many, but be exploited fully by precious few.
With the MV Agusta F4 AGO, of course, you’re buying into more than legend, a signature model and a famous nameplate. You’re buying into a modern combination of power, beauty and glory: an incredible road-going motorcycle that can stand on its own merits as a high-performance machine, without qualifications, provisos or excuses.
Ducati’s Testastretta 999R
For 2005, Ducati decided to make its most concerted racing effort on American soil since Texan Doug Polen and Australian Troy Corser each took the top spots in 1993 and 1994 respectively. This year, England’s Neil Hodgson will join American Eric Bostrom in a program committed to regaining the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Superbike Championship aboard the proven Ducati Corse 999R factory racers.
However, a rule book proviso requires that any manufacturer wishing to compete in AMA-sanctioned Superbike events must make at least 300 machines—of a similar specification to those racing—available to the general buying public. This homologation requirement prevents factories from campaigning exotic “one-off” machines that would hopelessly outclass the other runners in the series. Consequently, the potent, limited-production R version joins the standard Ducati 999 and the updated S-models on showroom floors this year.
The connoisseur/consumer is now provided an opportunity to purchase a racing-spec, road-legal motorcycle that otherwise would simply be unobtainable. The Ducati 999R is the closest thing a mere mortal will come to owning and riding the machines about to be proffered on the starting line by Ducati Corse. Thanks to the AMA National Series and Ducati’s uncompromising commitment to racing, every 999R buyer is arguably a winner by proxy.
The centerpiece of the 999R is Ducati’s fabulous eight-valve, 90-degree Testastretta twin with desmodromic valve operation. The 999 “desmo” system is a far cry from Dr. Fabio Taglioni’s original design in the ’50s and ’60s, but the desmo concept—now so closely identified with Ducati—remains a linchpin of Ducati technology. The R-model departs from its 999 stable mates with a radically over-square high-revving engine: 104mm high-compression pistons run up and down on a 58.8mm stroke. The connecting rods are titanium, as are the valves.
The engine breathes deeply courtesy of the remarkably efficient Marelli fuel-injection system and dual 54mm throttle bodies. A lofty 12.5:1 compression ratio aids the rapid engine response and similarly helps the engine to produce its claimed 150 hp with 80 ft/lbs of torque.
When experiencing the Testastretta’s potential, its engine fills the air with a mix of mechanical music. The roaring induction, whirring valve-train, clattering clutch and free-flowing exhaust note all engulf the rider. It’s just incredible, and not unlike being aboard a 185 mph soundstage. The robust powerplant responds to the slightest input and produces instantaneous revs and immediate power. Starting at 3,000 rpm, an on-demand power delivery comes with a seriously entertaining surge. The awesome mid-range of the L-twin powerplant rewards smooth riding with jet-like corner exits and minimal gear changes.
Typically, strong twins start their acceleration with a torque-rich thrust which progressively tapers down as the engine reaches its redline. With the 999R, the taper seemingly never occurs; the rider senses that the bike is accelerating at an ever-increasing rate—right up to 10,000 rpm, where the rev-limiter signs off the power. When exploring the upper powerband of the R-model, one thing is absolutely clear: The rider becomes the tested subject, not the machine.
Ducati continues to refine its traditional, and very effective, tubular steel trellis frame. Structurally, this layout allows the frame to encompass the slender engine very tightly while still affording accessibility. Compared to all its competitors, the 999R has by far the narrowest frame cross-section between the rider’s legs. This dimension, combined with the comfortably low seat height and a straight leg path to the ground, permits even those with short inseams to plant both feet while seated.
The riding position, though committed, is far from prone, and in this respect the Ducati seems more approachable and accessible than other high-performance sportbikes. A rider’s reach to the bar spans the low fuel tank and places the pilot in an aggressive, yet somewhat flat attitude. Therefore, the rider fits more “in” the 999R than atop it, and this positioning results in a lower combined center of gravity between man and machine, helping both to work as one.
This Ducati has full carbon-fiber bodywork and trim, and the bike carries fully adjustable production-grade Öhlins suspension, both front and rear, with the rear shock attached to a new lighter-yet-stronger swingarm that has been optimized from Ducati’s considerable experience in World Superbike racing. Up front, an Öhlins steering damper is mounted horizontally just above the front of the tank, and the full set of radially mounted cast Brembo brakes are reassuringly powerful. The calipers work on 320mm stainless rotors; this combination provides a tremendous amount of initial stopping bite that requires only a two-fingertip pull at the brake lever. The 999R runs on an exquisite set of Marchesini forged aluminum wheels that save nearly 7 pounds over the ones found on the standard 999 models. Beauty is more than skin-deep, as—although undoubtedly beautiful to look at—these lightweight wheels prove their worth when charging into and around corners, clearly contributing to the light and wonderfully neutral handling characteristics of the Ducati twin.
For instrumentation, the R-model has a complete array of programmable electronic displays, housed together with an analog tachometer and digital dashboard. Like the other 999 bikes, the R has an encoded ignition key and switch for anti-theft protection. Lose the key and you’ll have a long and expensive walk back to your dealer.
The 999R has enough adjustable features to entertain and challenge its owner for some time. The seat and tank position, fore and aft, can be adjusted and tailored to individual riders, and so can the footpeg and pedal placement. Furthermore, steering rake, rear ride height and wheelbase are all adjustable. Finally, the frame is designed to vary the positioning of the swing-arm pivot. The street-going geometry selected by the factory actually represents a solid starting point and has the 999R ready to ride with minimal compromise, although the Ducati did respond well to an increase in front spring and damping rates, as well as a reduction in rear spring preload and compression damping.
Riding the tremendously capable Ducati 999R can open new realms for its willing participant to exploit, and the Bologna twin does this like few other highly tuned production motorcycles. This bike comes to its new owner by way of the racetrack and Ducati’s own racing past. The intent of Ducati Corse for this race-bred machine is to excel on the track—the venue for which this motorcycle was principally designed and purposely built.
In a world of perfect justice, the 999R is far too good to waste on the street. It belongs on the track. But wherever the lucky 300 owners elect to use their R-models, they will soon know a simple truth: The 999R is a motorcycle that can better take the measure of its rider than the rider can take the measure of the machine.
At Laguna Seca, the quicker-revving 999R delivered not only genre-typical V-twin low-end torque on corner exit, but also the seemingly endless power surge of an inline four at the top of the rev-band. A disciplined throttle hand is needed, but the 999R’s deceptive power became most apparent as I found corners rushing up much faster than I had anticipated. The front brakes were touchy at first, though once accustomed to the minimal finger pressure necessary, braking power and feel were truly excellent.
The 999R is the slimmest sportbike I’ve ever ridden, translating into less knee fatigue and therefore less pain. After a hard day at the track, that alone is very alluring for those of us in the older set.
The Ducati 999R’s astonishing power and handling demanded respect yet also allow a new level of confidence to be explored. The roads where most owners will ride can only tease with hints of the bike’s potential. Take it to the track.
Photography by Kevin Wing
Ducati 999R courtesy of Kaming Ko