A Quartet of Electronically Enhanced Superbikes | MC Comparison

Class of 2011: Divine Intervention

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing, Matt Samples, Joe Neric

Ducati 1198SP
Best Lap: 1:54.7

If there has been one constant since we began our annual “Class of” testing in 2007, it’s been Ducati’s Testastretta Evoluzione-engined superbikes. We started that year with the 1098, followed by the 1198 in 2009 and the super-pimp, 1198S Corse Special Edition in 2010. This year brings the top-of-the-line 1198SP, the latest—and likely final—Testastretta, as Ducati is expected to debut its all-new Superquadrata in 2012. Fitted with a larger, 4.75-gallon aluminum gas tank, Öhlins suspension, forged Marchesini wheels and more, the 1198SP can rightfully be considered the ultimate version of the superbike platform we’ve become so familiar with over the past five years.

“It’s a shame Ducati doesn’t incorporate a wheelie-control strategy; of all the bikes here, this one would benefit the most.”

Compared to the Corse Edition we rode last year, the SP (Sport Production) is improved with the addition of Ohlins’ best twin-tube TTXR shock, an electronic-assisted Ducati Quick-Shifter and—finally!—a slipper clutch. The four-valve, desmodromic, 1198cc, 90-degree V-twin is essentially unchanged. Gaping, World Superbike-derived 63.9mm throttle bodies and a symmetrical, tapered, 2-1-2 exhaust system are carefully tuned to boost low-end and midrange torque. It works: The monstrous 87.9-lb.-ft. of torque lords over the others, an impressive 10.2 lb.-ft. ahead of the runner-up BMW.

You feel every last bit of that torque, especially at the track. The 1198SP wants to wheelie and run wide everywhere, particularly in tight chicanes where even light throttle application lifts the front, complicating trans-itions and occasionally causing headshake. It’s a shame Ducati doesn’t incorporate a wheelie-control strategy; of all the bikes here, this one would benefit the most. Without it, short-shifting to run one gear higher than optimum was the only way to keep the front wheel pointed in the right direction.

Wheelies are only an issue because Ducati Traction Control (DTC) puts power to the pavement so effectively. Ducati was the first manufacturer to offer race-spec TC on a production superbike back in ’09, and the same relatively simple system is still used here, employing a single accelerometer along with throttle-position, gear and engine-speed sensors to assess available grip. Eight-level-adjustable and running the same software logic as the SBK-winning racebikes, DTC retards spark and reduces fuel to manage tire slippage. It’s commendably smooth and does a better job of keeping the bike in line, allowing significant wheelspin without the extreme slide angles of the Aprilia or Kawasaki.

The new slipper clutch is a huge benefit, eliminating rear-wheel chatter on downshifts that plagued the back-torque-heavy twin in previous years. The Ducati transmission remains one of the best in the business; positive, secure and now even easier to operate with the addition of the Ducati Quick- Shifter (DQS) that allows full-throttle, clutchless upshifts. Ducati-specific Brembo Monobloc front brake calipers, each concealing four oversized, 34mm pistons clamping down on equally oversized, 330mm rotors, deliver major stopping force—second only to the Beemer’s mega-binders.

The 1198SP worked well enough for the first leg of street testing, delivering the familiar harsh-with-high-feedback handling we’ve come to expect—and even admire—from the Italian brand. We wrote last year that “front-end feedback is the Ducati’s strongest attribute,” and praised it for neutral steering at speed and lack of resistance to mid-corner line adjustments. These sentiments still applied on the street, but when we got to the track and swapped the stock Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tires for Dunlop D211 GP-As, it was Game Over. Despite the best efforts of Advanced Motorsports’ Jeff Nash, on hand to assist with setup, we couldn’t work around the cursed combination of the hard-compound Dunlop front and too-stiff, 1.1-kg/mm fork springs. Together these caused vague front-end feel and a disturbing lack of stability at full lean. The result was atypically slow lap times, followed by an unceremonious dirt bath after guest tester Matt Samples tucked the front under heavy braking. This suggests how fickle the Ducati’s chassis is. When it works, it works very well—last year, three of five testers went fastest on the 1198. This year, none did.

The 1198SP was exactly what we expected after five years’ experience with this platform—full of potential when properly setup and punishing when it’s not. It’s still an iconic beauty and modern classic, especially in red, though we’re ready for a makeover after staring at that same face for so long. And it’s still no creature of comfort, with that thin, flat saddle and a long reach to the low bars, though taller and more athletic testers swear it’s reasonably comfortable for a superbike. If you can handle the rough edges and are willing to take the time to get it working right, the Ducati 1198SP remains an extremely rewarding, soul-stirring superbike.

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