The Spanish Andalusian countryside is an endless rhythm of hills, ancient trees and bleached medieval cities—possibly one of the last places one would expect to establish a world-class racetrack. Yet, after months of searching, Dutch racing enthusiast Klaas Zwart, a resident of Marbella, discovered the future home of his Ascari Race Resort while piloting a Eurocopter 130 above the virgin terrain just outside of Ronda.
Following the sale of his oil business in 1999, Zwart embarked on a quest to build the ultimate private racetrack and club. A winner of the EuroBoss race series in 2003, Zwart’s familiarity with Formula One courses initiated his idea of what makes a great track. He then walked, cycled, and drove circuits from Monza to Sebring in order to digest the scale, proportion, and sense of occasion that distinguishes those legendary tracks.
Covering 3.5 miles—the longest in Spain—Ascari winds effortlessly through the landscape, capitalizing on natural elevation changes. “Some of the Spanish Oak and Encinas trees are hundreds of years old,” Zwart explains, “and we built this track with an absolute minimum impact on the environment,” adding that only a dozen trees were removed in the process. The graceful course is a merging of aesthetics with the realities of economics and structural engineering. The result is both scenically grandiose and technically challenging.
The Termignoni-tweaked S4Rs. (Click image to enlarge)
The track features homages to famous landmarks such as the downhill drop through Eau Rouge curve from the Spa Francorchamps circuit and Copse corner from Silverstone where Alberto Ascari, the F/1 driver who inspired the track’s name, won twice. Though Ascari boasts its share of tight, technical turns, its fast sections are also challenging in a hair-raising, manhood-affirming sort of way.
Zwart’s vision involves more than just paving a great racetrack into the countryside; his ultimate goal is to create a total experience in which the track is the centerpiece of a resort that includes a seven-star hotel and spa.
The track timeshare and driving school are the first seeds of the Ascari experience to come to fruition, while the hotel and spa are slated for completion in 2008. Timeshare members such as former Formula One driver Martin Brundle and British vocalist Jay Kay utilize their yearly allotment of 51 days of track time with personal exotics like Pagani Zondas and Ferrari Enzos. A lifetime membership costs e125,000. Members and non-members can also rent track cars, or learn the intricacies of high performance driving in everything from a Lotus Elise or BMW Compact to a Reynard F3000 or even one of a pair of 735-horsepower 1996 Benetton F/1 cars.
Ascari Race Resort from the air. (Click image to enlarge)
“We don’t just let anyone out in the Benettons,” Zwart emphasizes, pointing out that potential drivers of the Formula One cars must first prove their skill in an F3000. The fee for driving the F/1 car is e500 per lap.
While Formula One racecars offer an unparalleled sensation of speed, thrill seekers need not accumulate a five-figure bill in a half-million dollar vehicle to pilot a seriously quick machine at Ascari. Proving that motorcycles offer an astonishing adrenaline-to-dollar ratio, Ducati’s new 130-horsepower Monster S4Rs—the company’s latest and most powerful naked bike—was not incongruous at the lush Ascari track during its world premiere there.
Originally introduced 13 years ago with 73 horsepower, the Monster has enjoyed a gradual infusion of technology and power from its more sophisticated stablemates. This particular Monster is touted by Ducati as the most evolved yet, essentially a true superbike, sans bodywork. In fact, the S4Rs is so focused as a high-performance bike that Ducati chose to highlight it only within the confines the track, ignoring the picturesque roads surrounding the Ascari property.
The S4Rs’s top shelf components reflect its tremendous capabilities. On Ascari’s first of 26 turns—a tight chicane that interrupts a high speed straight—the fully adjustable front and rear Öhlins suspension provide the sharpness necessary to aggressively carve the bend. On wide, fast sweepers, it also effectively communicates the bike’s dynamics. Particularly on turn 23— a fast, banked left-hander—the suspension compresses and maintains the curve before a tap of the brakes preceding an abrupt left turn. If anything, the suspension’s adjustability invites experimentation in order to set the ideal ride height and damping, which are crucial to exploring the bike’s handling boundaries. Aiding the bike’s responsiveness is an aluminum Marchesini rear wheel that is 23% lighter than the S4Rs’ equivalent unit, and a front wheel identical to the one fitted to the 999S.
On the track at Ascari Race Resort. (Click image to enlarge)
Radially mounted, 4-piston/4-pad front Brembo brakes are the same as those found on the 999R, and allow for gut-sinking deceleration when setting up for suspension-loading corners. Considerably more efficient than their predecessors, these brakes require 45% less lever effort in order to yield equivalent stopping power. Braking at the end of long stretches is crucial, as several of the straights at Ascari lead to sharp and unforgiving bends. The Brembos perform admirably, biting hard, and effectively scrubbing off speed. (Click image to enlarge)
Once the handgrip is twisted and the Monster pulls out of a turn, its L-twin begins churning out power from almost anywhere within the rev range. Such thrust comes in handy on a track with the massive scale of Ascari; Monster torque not only produces a satisfyingly thick sensation of thrust at low rpm, it also minimizes lost momentum if too tall a gear is inadvertently selected.
Boasting the same engine as Ducati’s flagship 999, the S4Rs’ powerplant features the company’s now trademark Testastretta, or “narrow head” configuration, that produces more effective combustion than the 996 engine fitted to the S4R, the previous top-of-the-line version of the Monster. A new throttle body, airbox, rocker arms, camshafts, and larger intake valves also allow the engine to breathe deeper and therefore produce more power. Also incorporated into the S4Rs is a low oil sump design, enabling the pump to remain working during high G-force cornering.
For an even more hardcore riding experience, Ducati offers modifications that make the Monster positively rabid. Replacing the stock exhaust with the Termignoni kit incorporates huge, 50mm pipes, carbon fiber silencers, a high performance racing air filter, and a dedicated engine control unit mating the powerplant to the exhaust. Not only is the motor’s growl even more seductive with the aftermarket components, but also the boost to 148 horsepower is markedly perceptible from lazy engine speeds all the way up to its higher 10,000 rpm peak. This increased power pushes the Monster even closer to the domain of Formula One performance, but in a progressive, linear way that is predictable and smooth, not snappy or high-strung. Though brand new Michelin Pilot Power Race tires are initially a bit hesitant in their footing, after a couple of warm-up laps they bite with more reassuring traction than their stock, street counterparts. The race compound Michelins are the undisputed weapon of choice for track riding.
Top:The S4Rs at speed. Bottom: Zwart relaxes at the Ascari Race Resort paddock. (Click images to enlarge)
Adding to the trick effect is an exhaust note that bellows with unmistakable authority. Its volume projects far longer distances than stock, and, though officially a track-only accessory, it will doubtlessly make its way onto public roads thanks to zealous Ducatista whose love of decibels and power outweigh their fear of law enforcement.
While the mechanical evolution of the S4Rs makes it a more finely tuned track instrument, aesthetic improvements have also made it easier on the eyes. Although the mechanical complexity of water-cooled engines inevitably involves more hoses, pipes, and loose metallic ends, Monster product engineer Giulio Malagoli takes pride in the S4Rs’s nip/tuck job that eliminates the use of zip ties and hides electrical cables for a more uncluttered look. There is still quite a bit of visual noise created by the Monster’s engine, but it’s not called a naked bike for nothing.
Exterior details on the S4Rs are in keeping with efficient, high-grade construction. While the ounces saved by utilizing carbon fiber on the front mudguard, radiator guards, timing belt covers and side panels may be incremental, the bike’s fierce power-to-weight ratio is reflected in its agility, and the alacrity with which it hustles its 390-pound dry weight around both the strict and ample sections of the track.
At Ascari, the Monster’s spare design philosophy matches the austere task of ultimate speed. Engine revs rise rapidly but steadily, firing insistently until a quick click of the left foot brings the next gear change. The small fairing does not offer much wind protection, and quivers under high-speed aerodynamic stress, but such is the essence of this plain-clothed superbike; the Monster S4Rs’s refinement has a raw edge.
An instant classic. (Click image to enlarge)
Though its riding position is somewhat upright, a day of wrestling the Monster wracks the wrists, tightens the thighs, and knots up the shoulders; it also fills the senses with sound, wind, and the crudely refreshing sensation of unfiltered velocity. The S4Rs compresses Ascari’s F/1 scale with sheer power and deft maneuverability.
The day after the launch, I met with Klaas Zwart, who happened to be testing his Ascari A10. The 600-horsepower, race-tuned supercar will eventually see a production run of 50, competing against exotics like the Porsche Carrera GT and the Mercedes McLaren SLR.
Strapped into the passenger seat with a five-point harness, it became immediately clear that the A10 was purpose-built for the racetrack. Its BMW V-8 sputtered and spat, shaking the carbon fiber monocoque as it revved in the pits and shot itself towards the same 26 turns I had traversed on the Monster.
Generous ground clearance enhances cornering. (Click image to enlarge)
The A10 exhibits some very motorcycle-like characteristics: light weight, stripped down design, and purposeful construction. It was still a little rough around the edges, Zwart told me, and its chassis was being sorted out. But it was breathtaking, accelerating as only a lightweight, 600 hp racecar can. Handling was impressive thanks to stiff suspension, extreme aerodynamic downforce, and thick tires that kept everything firmly planted. Though straight line acceleration between the A10 and the Monster was close, the car’s four large contact patches produced more absolute grip around bends than the bike’s two, allowing it to carry higher corner speed. In contrast, turns in the A10 felt more safe and insulated within the airtight security of the cabin. The sensation of speed was strong, though not as invasive as on a motorcycle, where the road passes inches below and the sky rotates above.
For a car, the A10 is uncompromising. As powerful and responsive as it is, however, there is no way to drag a knee across the asphalt, or to be as physically involved in the maneuvering of the machine as one is on a motorcycle.
It is, of course, unfair to compare superbike and supercar. But after experiencing the S4Rs and the A10 on a track like Ascari, it is almost impossible to avoid. They are both designed to provide sensations of speed without concession or the pretense of practicality. The two are handcrafted, providing a similar feeling of tailor-made ergonomic familiarity. And, considering their specific aims of producing ultimate performance, they accomplish their goals exceedingly well.
The visceral impact of riding the Monster S4Rs is undeniable, particularly on a track. Apathy or passivity is impossible when pushing its limits, and in modified form it offers even more gut-wrenching performance. While lightweight supercars are staggeringly seductive, this Ducati offers its own unique allure. And perhaps that is why we love motorcycles like the S4Rs for what they are: finely tuned machines that feel perfectly at home at the great tracks of the world, as well as riding out of your driveway into the rough-and-tumble of everyday street life.