1978 Ducati 900TT1 | Review

Mike Hailwood Motorcycle 

Of all the many great motorcycle race victories against the odds, the many sterling feats of skill and bravery that pack the pages of the past 100 years of TT history—in this, its Centenary year—what took place on the Isle of Man on June 3, 1978, is widely recognized as the most remarkable. On that day, 11 years after he last raced on the world’s most challenging and dangerous race circuit, Mike Hailwood made his fairytale comeback to the 37¾-mile public roads course with a decisive victory in the TT Formula 1 race aboard his Sports Motorcycles Ducati 900TT1.


Hailwood’s 900TT1 sits on its race stand, ready to tackle Mallory Park nearly 30 years after its historic win. (Click image to enlarge)


But if you’d told me, as I hung over the fence on the outside of the Creg-ny-Baa turn that day, watching my greatest hero pass Phil Read on the factory Honda to win his comeback race on my favorite bike, that decades later I’d be lapping the 1.3-mile Mallory Park racetrack in the British Midlands on that very same motorcycle, I’d have reckoned that a potent combination of the atypical warm weather and the Manx ale had got to you.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened, thanks to the generosity of the present day owners of Hailwood’s TT-winner, New York-based Auriana brothers, Mark and Larry, and the man who made Hailwood’s feat possible by providing him with the bike in the first place, Sports Motor Cycles team owner Steve Wynne.

In doing so, not only did the dream of every Ducatista to ride Hailwood’s TT winner come true, but also on a personal note I answered some questions that had been left unresolved for many years. See, back at the start of practice week in that ’78 TT, Mike the Bike had boomed past me on the Duke going into Schoolhouse Corner in Ramsey, waving a nonchalant left hand to an unknown, much slower rider, as he cruised to a ton-up lap on his desmo V-twin. The earth moved—my hero waved at me!

Then, as I grappled with the weave caused by the dip in the road surface just as I peeled into the left hander, I realized that his Ducati had thundered through there as if on rails, shrugging off any minor inconveniences the Manx road system could throw at it. "Wow, wish I was riding that!" I remember thinking.

For exactly one week after his TT triumph, Mike Hailwood raced the very same desmo Ducati V-twin to an even more improbable victory in a round of the British TT Formula 1 title series (a forerunner of today’s Superbike class) held at Mallory’s prestigious annual post-TT meeting. That day, Hailwood demonstrated that his TT comeback success had been no fluke. As such, it gave him arguably even greater satisfaction, as well as further rewarding Wynne, the man who had persuaded Hailwood to ride the Ducati and race-prepared the bike.

 


RIDING STYLE
Helmet: Arai RX-7 Corsair
Leathers: Kushitani Power K-Suit
Gloves: Kushitani GPR K-816R
Boots: Kushitani Pro Master. (Click image to enlarge)

So, the chance to ride the Hailwood Ducati at Mallory Park made this diehard Ducatista’s dream come true, yet the most remarkable thing I noticed at once about the 900TT1 is how normal it feels to sit on and ride. Save for the substitution of an oil cooler for the headlamp you might expect to find in front of you, and the classical white-faced Veglia rev counter staring back at you, this could be any period Ducati V-twin street bike. Though the clip-ons are surprisingly steeply dropped—almost like a 125 GP racer—they do at least allow you to tuck elbows and shoulders well in behind the generous fairing.

 

Long Girling shocks mean you sit quite high off the ground, slotted into that comfy, well-padded seat. Those Girlings were a godsend to those of us racing Ducatis in mid-‘70s Production events. They improved handling via extra wheel travel and helped jack up the rear end to remove ground clearance problems, and steepened the effective fork rake and sharpened up the steering making you less aware of the V-twin’s truck-like 59-inch wheelbase.

However, the Hailwood bike’s riding position isn’t quite as rangy as the 750SS Ducati I’ve been racing on and off for the past 30 years. The fat backpad that wedges you in place also helps push you forward a little, to offset the 52% rearward weight bias. The footrests feel lower and a little farther back than usual on a racing Duke, a testament to Hailwood’s crash at the Nurburgring in ’74 that ended his Formula 1 car-racing career. The permanent damage to his right leg and foot made even walking sometimes painful. So, after a classical career of right-foot shifting, he had to learn how to use a modernist left-foot one-up race-pattern gearshift for his TT comeback.


Steve Wynne of Sports Motor Cycles, the original owner of the Hailwood Ducati. (Click image to enlarge)



While the low footrests may be more comfy, in winning the Mallory race, Hailwood ended up dragging his right foot hard enough on the tarmac to wear away the boot leather and finish with a bloody foot. Never having encountered a similar problem with any of the several big-twin Ducatis I’ve raced down the years, I surprised myself by emulating the master at Mallory. Even Kushitani’s effective toe scrapers could not prevent 40 laps of cranking round Gerards and the Esses delivering a severely chamfered right boot. No blood, though. Obviously, I was not trying hard enough.

I had expected the TT-winning Ducati’s overbored 883cc 90-degree V-twin motor measuring to deliver a muscular, meaty power delivery down low. Even with the high-lift cams fitted, it did not disappoint—the higher 11:1 compression ratio helps it pull crisply and cleanly out of the walking-pace Mallory Park hairpin or chicane from very low revs. The lazy-feeling engine is as smooth and tractable, building revs relentlessly up to 7,000 rpm. Then, suddenly, things start to happen quite a bit faster, as the exhaust note hardens and acceleration becomes suddenly more purposeful. But, at any revs, the big twin feels loose and free-revving, with notably reduced inertia compared to any other bevel-drive desmo V-twin I have ridden, including Paul Smart’s 1972 Imola 200-winning 750. Smart’s 750 did not have a lot less power, but it definitely was not as torquey as Hailwood’s bike, nor, in spite of having a smaller engine, such an appetite for revs.

Really, any gear you throw at the Hailwood bike is the right one. Even with the vastly improved shift action of the Hewland gearbox—which the British car racing transmission specialist made for the Ducati as a favor to Hailwood—you don’t need to work the gearbox as hard as you’d expect. Yet, even with the very high bottom gear that allows you to thunder out of the Mallory hairpin and into the chicane without a shift, acceleration is strong enough to leave modern 600 Supersports weighing only a little more than the Ducati’s half-dry 166 kg, in your wake. The 87 hp on tap is delivered to the rear wheel at 9,000 rpm in a forgiving yet deceptive manner.


Legendary #12 back in action at Mallory Park.

Riding the Ducati in what Wynne termed "something approaching anger" at Mallory Park only increased my appreciation and awe at Mike Hailwood’s achievement—winning the F1 race there against the better accelerating, shorter wheelbased, more agile fours, even without the chicane that now disfigures the track. The long wheelbase chassis feels ultra-stable round the fast Gerards 180-degree turn, especially with the Kawasaki steering damper mounted below the right clip-on to stop front wheel flapping over the bumps on the exit. That didn’t prevent the period Marzocchi forks chattering there, however. There was fairly dramatic power understeer on the exit both here and again at the right/left third-gear Esses, where I had to work hard at muscling the Ducati back on line. Hailwood’s relatively unsung Mallory victory was arguably an even greater achievement than his TT win, as this motorcycle is fundamentally unsuited to such a relatively tight though deceptively fast track. What a hero.

One factor would have helped out, though, and that’s the stellar way the Ducati brakes compared to the heavier fours of two decades ago. Just remember never to use the hefty same-diameter rear disc, though, so as to avoid locking the rear wheel on the overrun as you do so—one reason, as Wynne confirms, that Hailwood never ever used the rear brake, in those days before the slipper clutch was invented.

But with the Girlings on their softest setting, the Ducati must surely have been a great ride by the standards of the day over a bumpy course like the Isle of Man—fast but forgiving, stretched-out but stable. Now, after riding it at Mallory Park I know that is indeed the way it was on a short, tight and twisty track, too. Just as Mike Hailwood proved, almost three decades ago…

 


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