Now is the winter of my discontent made glorious summer, as the much-anticipated 2008 motorcycle racing season is finally underway. All the major manufacturers compete in both the World Superbike and MotoGP series, and the machinery they have developed is stunning. MotoGP machines are super-exotic multi-million dollar prototypes, whereas Superbikes are the pinnacle of production-based motorcycles developed into hugely powerful race-bikes.
Ducati, in its infinite wisdom, has produced consumer versions of each of its most prestigious race machines. The MotoGP-derived Desmosedici RR is now available for sale, and the road-going version of the World Superbike machine—the 1098R—is, likewise, arriving on the showroom floor. Naturally, there are a few concessions to mass-production and street-legality. Nevertheless, both motorcycles are each a direct sibling of the racers, if not quite a perfect twin. But make no mistake, these motorcycles are very, very close to the pukka racebikes. (Click image to enlarge)
With stiff suspension, contorted riding positions and ludicrous power outputs, these motorcycles have a rarified appeal, and it takes a particularly dedicated aficionado to consider buying either one, let alone both. However, one such passionate individual is my friend Kaming Ko. Describing himself—with masterful understatement—as "just an enthusiast," he is, in fact, an ex-motorcycle and automobile racer capable of riding these two machines close to their limits. An owner of the Desmosedici, and soon to be owner of the 1098R (this would be his first ride), he generously offered us this unique opportunity for the ultimate back-to-back Ducati comparison.
Spring Mountain Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, Nev. is a speed-freak’s Nirvana. After acquiring the facility four years ago, John Morris and Brad Rambo have invested both money and love into the facility. Supported by Tuscan-villa style outbuildings housing their Corvette and Radical race schools, there is even a gorgeous new club-member spa to indulge any satisfied, but track-weary, gladiator. The challenging track has a variety of corners to perfectly test these two motorcycles.
Being Ducatis, naturally they have similar silhouettes. Both bikes have hand-laid carbon-fiber bodywork wrapping each precious engine, smoothly coaxing the high-speed airflow around and over the machine and its rider. They are painted distinctly different shades of racing red—the white-striped "Team Version" Desmosedici RR in team sponsor Marlboro red, whereas the 1098R comes in the more classic Italian racing red.
Exotic materials abound, especially on the Desmosedici: the footrest hangars are carbon-fiber, as are the entire front and rear subframes, the radiator cowl and airbox. Magnesium cam, clutch and sump covers and a full titanium exhaust are visible, while the 1098R has sand-cast crankcases, a carbon-fiber fairing and seat, and a menacing pair of Termignoni mufflers that poke out the back. Both bikes are so exquisitely detailed that the closer you look, the more you see. (Click image to enlarge)
Both are equipped with Öhlins forks, however the front suspension on the Desmosedici carries the gas-charged racing version with more adjustments. The settings are claimed to be based on Ducati’s current MotoGP numbers, and has what Ducati refers to as a "balanced setting". In theory, this results in quicker response that improves rider feel. The 1098R uses the fabulous Öhlins Road and Track fork, which is a dramatic improvement over less exotic suspension.
Interestingly, critical chassis numbers on the Ducatis are identical. Both have a rake angle of 24.5° (though both can be set-up one-degree steeper), 3.8 inches of trail, and a 56.3-inch wheelbase. The 1098R’s seat sits 10mm lower than the RR’s, and Ducati claims the 1098R undercuts the weight of the RR by about 13 pounds (both sans battery and all liquids).Hopping onto the 1098R (that actually displaces 1198cc) and with Kaming on the Desmosedici, we headed out for our first 30-minute session. Beginning modestly, we warmed the tires and started getting our heads up to speed; about halfway through the session, we switched machines. The difference between the two bikes was immediately obvious and Kaming agreed. "Yes, it’s very clear," he said after we’d pulled into the pits again. "The 1098R is a hot-rod streetbike—whereas the Desmosedici is a true racebike."
The 1098R is a stunningly capable motorcycle, but what strikes me so forcibly is how easy it is to ride. It accelerates shockingly quickly, but the claimed 177.5 hp from its V-twin motor torques in from idle and is so linear, the fuel injection so seamless, that coupled with its neutral, stable handling, it immediately inspires confidence. Hugely, overwhelmingly powerful, it will effortlessly loft the front wheel in the first three gears; and yet because the power pushes in with such liquid smoothness, it feels supremely controllable rather than manic.
1098R RIDING STYLE
Helmet: Vemar VSREV
Leathers: Spidi GP Kangaroo
Gloves: Spidi Race Vent
Boots: Sidi Veritgo Corsa (Click image to enlarge)
Although they ride on different brands of tire, the bikes share the same front size at 120/70×17, but their rears are different. The 16-inch rear Marchesini wheel of the Desmosedici rides on a 200/55—an exclusively developed Bridgestone BT-01. Although the Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa 2 on the 1098R shares the same 55 profile, its 17-inch rear wheel of the 1098R has the more traditional 190mm width. The differences imply that the 1098R might turn a little quicker, although with its bigger footprint the Desmosedici should perhaps grip a little better.
After the first session, Kaming and I agreed that both bikes needed an increase in tire pressures so the 1098R went to 34 psi front, 32 rear, and the Desmosedici to 34 psi in each tire. The improvement was immediately noticeable. The 1098R lost its head-shake under power, and the Desmosedici gained feel (and rider confidence!) in the front-end. We were amazed how 2 lbs of pressure in the tires could make such a difference.
With the tire pressures now at optimum, the 1098R’s handling was close to flawless. It is incredibly intuitive to turn and precise placement on the track is easy. The Öhlins R&T fork on the 1098R was exemplary. The change in surface at the exit of Turn 4 while fully leaned over was barely noticeable, and even with the surface vagaries of Turns 1A and B, both Kaming and I felt complete confidence in the front end. There is no quirky tucking on turn-in, and coming back on to the power the bike stays absolutely on line without any tendency to run wide. Flicking through Turns 3A and B—which are more like a fast-transition chicane—the 1098R steered crisply and precisely, allowing me to focus on braking hard for the bumpy downhill entrance to the following left-hand Turn 4. (Click image to enlarge)
At the back, both bikes are Öhlins-equipped, though the 1098R comes with the new TTX36 shock. Unlike past designs where a washer-packed piston pushes through oil, the new TTX has a patented twin tube design that creates equal pressure on both compression and rebound, resulting in quicker damping response. Under braking, the rear of the 1098R felt more planted than the Desmosedici, the latter tending to lift its rear wheel when hard on the brakes. We put that down to weight balance, but the 1098R’s TTX shock undoubtedly helped too. Both machines come with the now-ubiquitous slipper-clutch; the 1098R has a heavier spring load to offset the stronger engine back-torque, but we found the spring load settings on each bike to be ideal.
Exiting the second gear transition of Turns 1B on the 1098R feels like being shot from a cannon. With a nearly 100 ft/lbs of torque at a 7,750 rpm peak gushing onto the track, the rear Pirelli squirmed (although not enough to cause the traction control on setting 4 to interfere) and the bars shook a little. As the power poured in, the bike straightened up and lofted the front wheel effortlessly in a long, controllable wheelie. As the revs boil up and I upshifted into third, the front wheel returned gracefully to earth. The grin on my face was so wide, the muscles around my mouth started to ache.
And that’s the story of this hot-rod. A loud, barking Termignoni race pipe that intimidates all within earshot; shocking yet linear power from idle that has such a perfect throttle connection you can dial in small increments by merely thinking about it. Outstanding Öhlins suspension and a stable chassis giving superb front end feedback and confident corner entry, and Brembo monobloc brakes that possess enough feel and stupendous two-finger braking that a week later I’m still popping Aleve like candy to alleviate the throbbing ache in my shoulders. Kaming’s immediate reaction of, "it’s just so easy to ride," confirmed my feelings. It has the lithe, lightning quick reactions of a big cat, but truly it is more panther than lion; the 1098R is light, incredibly fast, stunningly well braked and it goes exactly where you want it to.But then there is the Desmosedici RR. Pushing the starter button is like pulling the pin on a hand grenade—you just know there is about to be trouble. I could not help but draw a quick breath, as if the machine was literally springing to life before my very eyes. The fast idle produces a crackle from the all titanium exhaust that lets you know you had better be respectful, buddy. Every blip sends a tingle down my spine. Where the 1098 growls charisma, the Desmosedici barks it. Even non-motorcyclists look at it differently—everyone knows the RR is something very, very special, with a purposeful wickedness about it that only true exotica possess. If the 1098R is a panther, then the Desmosedici is a cheetah with ‘roid rage.
My first few laps on the Desmosedici were cautious. I was very aware of the special nature of the bike I was riding and, even though I had ridden an RR before, I was certainly careful and knew that this machine could bite back. The boisterous motor is extremely tractable. The engine’s V-4 outputs over 85 ft/lbs of torque (almost 15 less than the 1098R) at 10,500 rpm. It certainly goes well at lower revs, but without the 1098R’s mega-punch. Although I would never describe the RR as gutless, lower down it lacks the immediacy of the 1098R.
The Desmosedici turns sharply, transitioning its weight faster than I expected. On my initial out-laps, it turned almost too quickly, flopping a little into corners; nothing alarming, but definitely not as confidence-inspiring or as easy to ride as the 1098R. Yet, as the laps started to click away, my confidence increased and I wicked it up. And, with that, everything changed.
At 10,000 rpm—about the same point as the V-twin 1098R runs out of puff—the Desmosedici’s LCD tach sweeps right and the motor gets angry. Real angry. The gloves come off and suddenly the world takes on a peculiarly warped view as the 197 hp (claimed, but I believe it) explodes out and tries to wrench the Bridgestone off its rear Marchesini magnesium wheel. The exhaust crackle becomes a howl; as the power pulls me back in the seat, it takes most of my strength to hold on. It is no wonder my arms are still aching. Finally somewhere between the 13,800 rpm redline and the rev-limiter at 14,200 rpm, I frantically grab another gear and desperately try to keep the front wheel down.
Simultaneously, the handling sorts itself out perfectly. The firm suspension smoothes out and the Desmosedici simply floats over bumps and surface irregularities. Turn-in becomes precise and predictable, and the previously mentioned flop-in disappears. Bottom line: Total commitment is required to make this beast behave.
Photograph by Don Williams
The Brembo monobloc brakes are, of course, fabulous. Both bikes use radial pumps at the handlebar and twin 4-piston radial calipers squeezing two pads against 330mm rotors. Brembo claim to spend more on R&D annually than the rest of the brake industry combined earns in revenue. True or not, these brakes possess a level of finesse and ultimate stopping power that we could only dream of a few short years ago. The Desmosedici has a racing-type front brake adjuster that snakes across the top triple clamp to the left handlebar for easy on-the-fly adjustment; it is another example of race detail that differentiates the Desmosedici from the wannabes.
Ducati has positioned these two bikes perfectly, and Kaming agrees. The 1098R is the ultimate hot-rod streetbike and on track it will exceed virtually anyone’s expectations. The Desmosedici RR’s track prowess is at another level entirely—provided you show it the commitment. Although impractical for road use, it simply possesses so much exotic charisma and crowd-pulling power that it would be impossible to leave it glowering with rage in the garage. I guess that means that, just like Kaming Ko, you’ll need one of each.