South Africa, Ducati, and Troy Bayliss. Great motorcycle expectations, indeed. The thing about expectations-they generally end up being either satisfied or disappointed, but rarely exceeded. But occasionally, if you are fortunate, expectations will be not only brilliantly surprised but also beautifully surpassed.
One of the surprises was South Africa. Ducati chose Kyalami Race Track located in the suburbs north of Johannesburg in the Gauteng province of South Africa for the official introduction of its new 1098 superbike. It is hard for someone who has never been there, not to have a vision of South Africa based on every news broadcast or movie cliché from the last 100 years. Geographic and climate expectations of South Africa are along the lines of the either Gorillas in the Mist or Cry Freedom. All savage green jungle butted up against urban blight.
However, it turns out to be more like, Under the Tuscan Sun. Johannesburg’s summer months are like those outside Bologna, down to the hotel architecture, farmland, and vineyards. This goes a long way in explaining Ducati’s location choice for the introduction. Maybe Kyalami is Sesotho for Mugello. Regardless, with four-star hotels, restaurants along with a casino within easy distance of the track, and, put to full use, any accommodation expectations I had of South Africa were exceeded nicely.
As you might imagine, expectations from a company with such motorcycling passion and history, were extremely high. The goal of this invitation was to showcase Ducati’s most significant new model in the most impressive light imaginable. Judging from personalities attending and efforts made, it was apparent that Ducati was as anxious for the Robb Report MotorCycling to experience its newest superbike as I was to ride it-perhaps even more. My expectations, however, were not quite so high. For this 1098 was supplanting the mighty 999, and how much better could it be?
For Ducati, the new 1098 Testastretta Evoluzione is a machine of complete redesign, and represents the culmination of its most important collaborative superbike project ever. A motorcycle such as the 1098 is an end product, the result of an incredible amount of work by creative people, all of who have contributed their individual expertise in some form or fashion.
Troy Bayliss, 2006 WSBK Champion and Kyalami-now we are talking real expectations. Besides being Tuscany II the South, the decisive reason Ducati selected South Africa for the 1098’s official coming-out is Kyalami Race Track. It was here in 2002 that Troy Bayliss enjoyed total success, winning both rounds of the event on his factory Corse Ducati 998 F02. Ducati, with its close familiarity with Kyalami, was fully aware of the challenging nature this fiercely demanding track and willingly chose it to showcase the true potential of their new superbike.
Following a brief technical introduction led by Claudio Domenicali, the man responsible for spearheading the machine from its inception to this ride’s completion, I quickly suited-up to for my track familiarization session. On hand to show me the way was Ducati’s current World Superbike champion Troy Bayliss. Bayliss’ 1098 developmental experience and winning familiarity on this track made him the perfect track guide, while his candid relaxed persona and approachable presence also conveyed a willingness to teach.
In my first session, the only time my expectations were disappointed, Bayliss cleared-out and disappeared into the distance, denying me admission to the University of Troy. As a result, I spent the remainder of my initial outing essentially scrubbing the tires while establishing a feel for the Ducati and learning the basic track direction. It would come in handy later.
Before my next ride, and determined not miss college admissions again, I boldly made a request of Troy to show me Kyalami. To Troy’s credit, he didn’t smirk or roll his eyes. Whatever his expectations of this journalist were, and with his WSBK Crown still shiny new, along with his recent Moto GP victory in Valencia, Bayliss willingly presented himself as a track day instructor. A true gentleman, and more than generous, my expectations were more than surprised and surpassed.
From the start, it was apparent that Troy was familiar with his 1098S- the "S" designation that signifies "Sports" and arrives with full Öhlins suspension, an adjustable Öhlins steering damper, front carbon fender, lightweight forged wheels and a fully active data acquisition system. Any track formidability played no part in restraining his approach. As the pace he set steadily increased, he on occasionally checked back on my proximity. One suspects it was barely raising his pulse, while for me it quickly escalated far beyond that of any Sunday ride.
Ducati worked closely with Magneti Marelli, Ferrari’s F1 companion, to adapt the unique fuel delivery system previously developed on Ducati’s GP winning Desmosedici GP7 to the 1098. Until now, all fuel injection systems on sport bikes have delivered their mixtures from conventionally round throttle bodies. Now, exclusive to the 1098, engineers fit very short 60mm elliptical throttle bodies, claiming the change resulted in a 30 percent increase in airflow and five additional five horsepower. To capitalize on the engine’s sum of improvements, the engine, frame, subframe, wheels and exhaust all enjoy weight reductions and the 1098 weighs a full 30 pounds less than the 999.
For the second outing, I actually completed the entire exercise close enough to see him ride. As such, when viewing the 1098 from behind, I noticed the once familiar 998 identity returns with dual mufflers, perhaps Ducati’s single most identifiable trademarks, first established with Massimo Tamburini’s remarkable 916 designs. This Ducati’s new stance and sporting look has a feel somewhat reminiscent of its magical predecessors. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the return of the single-sided swingarm. The arm, however, looks completely different; a combination of brushed aluminum stampings welded to castings, its massive shape resulted is a 40 percent stiffer part, without weight gain. Lap two of my eight laps with Troy, is where the first session’s experience came in handy and the crescendo of our surprise and expectations of the 1098 occurred.
The front straight, or Brilliant Straight as it is called, terminates at T1, which is really more right-hand kink than corner. Next, a short downhill chute brings you to T2 a fast dipping left hand sweeper called Total. I had been taking T1 kink in fourth gear and Total in third gear during my first session. On lap 1 of the session, so had Troy. On lap 2, Troy upped his approach here a full gear ratio higher. Should I stay or should I go? Quickly realizing and readying myself for the increased speeds and any protest from the 1098, I followed suit leaving the gear, brake and throttle were they where. Like butter! I then established a smooth South African rhythm.
After Troy essentially coaxed and towed me to a comfortable grasp of correct line choice, apex references and braking points, in following sessions my attention turned more closely to the Ducati, specifically with the handling of the stiffest trellis chassis the company has produced to date, which has been simplified with fewer tubes and a more direct layout.
Reading chassis attitude and balance mainly when entering, at mid-corner and exiting the majority of turns are true challenges, and because Kyalami was unfamiliar, initially my sharpest focus was limited to only a few corners. For me, concentrating on key sections of track and where the machine is most unsettled during each lap makes it easier to recognize change related improvements resulting from suspension and chassis adjustments.
Once comfortably circulating Kyalami, I sought a slightly more compliant rear suspension setting, both to increase rear traction and reduce post-slide reactions. This was accomplished by removing rear spring preload and also increasing rear rebound damping. As a result, the Ducati’s ride, feel and rear traction did improve. The only other change I asked for was in front, with a slight increase in spring preload, matched with some additional rebound. These small, yet noticeable, adjustments had our standard Showa-shod 1098 well balanced front-to-rear and reasonably compliant for racetrack settings, with bumps and track surface irregularities being almost imperceptible. My goal was to ride the 1098 as quickly and comfortably as possible, while continuously searching for greater or obvious limits of machine and tires.
Ultimately, the single most significant feel and feedback impression emanated from the front tire. For me, the particular corner of greatest recollection is named Mineshaft, a flat left that you enter at well over 120 mph in fourth gear. Located about mile-marker 1.8, this is a seriously fast section. Here, after entry, the 1098, still capable of giving more, really seemed to load the front tire. My past experience applied in the present sense, with real-time feel had the impending limits of the front Pirelli close at hand. The available traction, while still approaching the apex but prior to mid-corner, had my senses fully positioned on high. Later, my on-board perception was visually corroborated in the pits where inspection of the front Pirelli showed an ample amount of wear, by comparison actually more than exhibited from the massive 190/55 rear.
It is apparent that engineers gave the 1098 more static front weight, I suspect to counter the increases in output. This was accomplished by adding to the overall wheelbase with a 10mm longer swingarm, moving the more compact engine closer to the front tire and even positioning the rider some two inches higher in the seat. The total adjustability of the 1098, for both front and rear ride heights, allow the rider to make full use of the stiffened new chassis potential.
The fitment of latest Pirelli’s 190/55 Dragon Supercorsa Pro rear tire provides excellent driving traction, with the Testastretta benefiting from the larger footprint. Unquestionably a necessity, the Testastretta’s recognizable increases in output are delivered through a clean and constant surge, literally starting from idle and up through to the engine’s 10,700 rpm redline. As expected, the big twin’s torque is always available to the rider and must be carefully managed as the new engine also gains its revs quickly, seemingly without resistance. When pressing, constant premonition of rear traction is required as the Ducati effortlessly exudes strong exiting drives, traction most susceptible where the track surfaces dropped-away on corner exits. Around Kyalami the rear Pirelli would controllably spin and loose traction, albeit always predictably.
As for the superb efforts of Brembo’s entirely new cast single-piece calipers matched to pads made of updated friction materials, the 1098s incredible new brake system could not be fully exploited while circulating Kyalami. Riding here rewards maintaining a flowing rhythm, with the rider’s primary focus being maintaining corner entry speeds. Its layout has only compact straights, the majority of which lead to continuing fast sweepers. Yes, where braking performance was in demand the system was exceptionally powerful, offering smooth linear feel while requiring only two fingers at the lever.
To the 1098’s credit its instant response and solid stable feel Ducati is always a remarkable experience as stability and responsive feedback are now expected machine attributes and seem inherent with the brand. On the new machine although our pace felt extremely quick, under braking, accelerating or cornering, we never felt like the limits of this motorcycle were close.
The most convincing aspect of my 1098 and Kyalami experience was being aboard a still-unknown motorcycle, following a rider of grace and riding ability far beyond my own, and pushing, quickly and comfortably, the motorcycle on a foreign racetrack. My trust levels and expectations of the still fresh new 1098’s capabilities were immediately and amazingly elevated and, yes, surpassed. Given my tutor and the desire to follow his lead, my learning curve of Kyalami, and 1098 were literally accelerated and condensed in eight educational, productive and thrilling laps. I concluded my five-session day fully convinced, the new 1098 has accomplished its intended next step, and a huge one at that: faster, lighter, more stable and even more capable. Moreover, what would we expect?
Once again, Ducati has produced a motorcycle whose reach will exceed the grasp of 99.9 percent of mere mortal. Moreover, Great Expectations had indeed been surprised and surpassed by South Africa, Ducati and Troy Bayliss.