2011 Ducati Diavel World Exclusive

What the hell?

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing, Thomas Maccabelli

File this under "Things, not what they seem." I got my first good look at the controversial Diavel on a cold, gray November morning at the football field-sized test track behind Ducati's Bologna, Italy, factory. I'm not sure what I expected, but it wasn't to see Ducati's lead test rider Alessandro Valia exit the factory's back gate sideways and spewing tire smoke, then launch into a three-gear power wheelie. Reaching the opposite end of the track at almost 100 mph, he toed the rear brake and pitched the duct tape-disguised prototype into a tire-howling, full-lock, supermoto-style slide. "That's not normal cruiser behavior," I thought to myself.

When word first surfaced that Ducati was building a cruiser, reaction from enthusiasts was swift and almost universally unforgiving. This was called the beginning of the end for the iconic racing brand. Ducati was accused of selling out its hard-earned high-performance heritage in exchange for a slice of the tacky, trendy, substance-free cruiser pie. When early spy photos surfaced, former Confederate Motorcycles designer JT Nesbitt denounced the Diavel as "a monumental breach of brand trust and honesty," citing the 240mm-wide rear tire as the first time Ducati had ever specified a component that "objectively compromised the performance of their motorcycle."

Criticism was hyperbolic and largely unwarranted. Although Ducati built its brand identity on uncompromising performance, recent models like the Streetfighter, Hypermotard and Multistrada have proven the company to be unusually adept at translating that signature performance undiluted into new and unexpected market segments. To assume the Diavel would be compromised just because it was a cruiser showed remarkably little faith.

Rather than issue another ignorant a priori rejection, we traveled to Italy to meet with Diavel design staff in person and answer these questions firsthand. Was this merely a tricolore-tinged bar-hopper built for pot-bellied posers too old or unskilled to handle a real superbike? Or was it, like company reps insisted, something remarkable-the ultimate musclebike? We set off for Bologna to find out.

Our search for answers started at the top, with Claudio Domenicali, who led Ducati's race department until 2005 when he was named general manager in charge of product planning. "The Diavel is not a chopper," Domenicali says, curtly. "It has some cruiser elements in the wheelbase and rake, but it's not a foot-forward bike." It's not a conventional naked bike, either. The riding position is similar to the Monster, and the handling too, though the Diavel is bigger in dimension and much more comfortable. Ducati's test department reports that this is the quickest-accelerating and best-braking bike the company has ever built-outsprinting and outbraking even the 1198-but it's certainly not a sportbike. It's a bike that defies categorization by design.

Like the original Monster in the '90s-and, more recently, the 150-horsepower Multistrada 1200 that introduced the idea of an adventure-touring superbike-Ducati intends the Diavel to be the prototype for a new category of motorcycle. By cleverly combining select elements of a superbike, a naked bike and, yes, even a cruiser, Ducati has created the first sport cruiser deserving of the name. "The Diavel is not a copy of anything else," Domenicali says. "It's something new and original. And, of course, it's an authentic Ducati, loyal to our core performance values in every way."

This is the latest example of Domenicali's on-going effort to grow Ducati by increasing market penetration with innovative machines that make the company's world-class performance accessible-and attractive-to a broader spectrum of enthusiasts. The cruiser market cannot be ignored. More than half of all motorcycles sold in the U.S. are cruisers, mostly to affluent consumers "of a certain age" who have no appreciation for pretzeled ergonomics and track-tuned suspension. The challenge is to appeal to these non-traditional customers without alienating hardcore Ducatisi-and initial Diavel backlash suggests how difficult this challenge is. "We couldn't make just any fat-tire cruiser," Domenicali admits. "We had to start with nothing and create Ducati's idea of the perfect cruiser, without any compromise in handling or performance."

The Diavel was born almost as a dare: Could Ducati build a comfortable, stylish cruiser that still delivered handling and acceleration to satisfy the most demanding superbike enthusiast? It had to be a clean-sheet design; a big-motored Monster or fat-tired Streetfighter wouldn't do. It would give the illusion of being big, with a strong visual presence, but it would be unexpectedly lightweight and agile. It would be very fast, yet comfort was a priority, too. A fat rear tire was a must-have, but not at the expense of handling. The latest electronic technology, including traction control, ABS and variable drive modes, would be incorporated as well. It would be a cruiser Ducati wanted to build. Without this passion, Domenicali knew, the bike would lack personality.

Ducati Style Center Senior Designer Bart Janssen-Groesbeek was tasked with creating the new machine. Coincidentally, the Dutchman-who arrived at Ducati in '02 after a stint at GK Group, Yamaha's industrial design division-had already been sketching some Yamaha V-Max-inspired power-cruiser concepts. His first ideas weren't well received: "Everyone here is a sportbike fanatic," he says, "so there was a lot of skepticism. It's not easy to convince someone who spent his life saying 'cruisers are sh*t' that his company should now make one. The flame war on the Web? I had that same argument with the rest of the company two years ago!"

At first the project was Janssen-Groesbeek's alone, and he relished the freedom. "With a superbike-or even the Multistrada-everyone wants to be involved," he says. "The Diavel was a hot potato for a long time. No one wanted any part of it, so I was able to get away with many crazy ideas." Crazy ideas like side-mounted radiators, a horizontally mounted shock, "invisible" rear lighting and much more. "I pretty much did whatever I wanted," he says. "By the time the tech department bothered to look, the layout had already been done."

With the design finalized, Ducati devoted unprecedented resources to what was known internally as Project 0803. This was the biggest development project in 15 years, and the quickest, too, moving from sketch to final production in just three years. The Diavel test group numbered 15 people-three times that of a typical new model-because the company had no previous data or experience in the cruiser segment. "That's the confidence Ducati has," Janssen-Groesbeek says. "Any other company would do market research, then analyze everything and back it up. By then trends have changed, and you're three years behind the times. We do what we feel is right. We want to set trends, not follow them."

Testing staff, led by Andrea Gesi, benchmarked Star's V-Max and Harley-Davidson's V-Rod Muscle, scrutinizing power delivery, handling and ergonomics. They wanted the powerful visual presence of the Muscle without wonky handling and oversized ergonomics, and the power and acceleration of the V-Max without excess weight. A highly adjustable test mule allowed experimentation with every possible ergonomic configuration: forward foot controls, rearsets, high bars, low bars and everything in between. Mid-mount foot controls and a low-rise, swept-back handlebar emerged as the only acceptable solutions, defining a moderate riding position that's comfortably upright but still allows athletic riding.

A bigger challenge, Gesi says, was developing a suitable rear tire. The testing department benchmarked 200-240mm widths in both the 16- and 18-inch diameters presently available for chopper and custom-sportbike applications. Not a single one delivered handling up to Ducati's very high standards, so the company contracted Pirelli to develop an all-new, 17-inch, ZR-rated, 240mm tire, engineered exclusively for the Diavel. The profile is remarkably similar to a MotoGP slick, Domenicali says, and delivers exceptional agility and stability, especially at maximum lean.

With ergonomics and chassis dynamics finalized, the Diavel quickly became the test rider's favorite. "In the beginning-hmm, strange bike," Gesi says, "but after the first ride, everybody loved it." Valia-a multi-time Italian National Supersport and Superbike Champion-calls the Diavel his favorite Ducati to ride on the open road. "So comfortable," he says, "and incredible how fast you can ride it!"

Performance was just one part of the equation; the Diavel is also intended to set a new standard for style, design and finish. "This is a flagship bike, so it's built with premium materials and showcases the latest technology," Domenicali says. There are almost no plastic parts. The gas tank is steel, the radiator shrouds are brushed-aluminum and the top-of-the-line Carbon model is sheathed in high-grade carbon-fiber. The mirrors are aluminum, as are the milled reservoir covers. Gorgeous forged and machined wheels on the Carbon are unlike anything ever seen on a production bike before, and the LED lighting and tank-mounted TFT (thin-film transistor) instrument display could have been borrowed from an AMG Mercedes. It's an amazing example of industrial design, and likely the finest-finished production motorcycle at any price.

The Diavel is obviously an important model for Ducati, and expectations are high for it to perform in the marketplace. The company expects it to appeal both to existing Ducati naked-bike owners and to those who have "aged-out" of sportbikes, as well as owners of other brands attracted by the proposition of a uniquely powerful and stylish musclebike that weighs less than 500 pounds. Like the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan have done for Porsche, it's hoped the Diavel will make Ducati a more diverse, robust and, ultimately, more profitable brand. "Our strategy now is to shift the pendulum from sportbikes to more parts of the market," Domenicali says, "to make a more balanced total proposal."

Enthusiasm for the Diavel is emboldened by the runaway success of last year's Multistrada 1200, which was created with similar goals in mind. Rather than a BMW GS knockoff, Ducati created a uniquely performance-oriented interpretation of the adventure-touring concept that met with amazing success. More than 7500 Multistradas-around 20 percent of the company's total production-were sold in the first seven months of 2010, taking Ducati from zero to a record 18.4 percent market share in that segment. With great risk comes great reward.

"We just knew with the Multistrada that we were creating something great," Ducati Marketing Director Diego Sgorbati says. "The Diavel is exactly the same way. Everyone here at Ducati, from the designers to the test riders, feels the same way about this bike. We think there's another segment out there waiting for something distinctive and original, waiting for this bike. The Diavel is pushing even our envelope, but we think the time is right for this bike."

California Hot Rod, Take 2
Behind The Diavel's American-Influenced Design

Words: Aaron frank
Photo: Thomas Maccabelli
You don't have to look hard to find an American drag-racing influence in the Ducati Diavel's design. You can see it in the stance, with a tall, wide rear tire bookended by a skinny, raked-out front. It's echoed in the stubby tail and massive midsection underlined by those huge, sweeping exhaust headers. The Diavel's profile resembles a smoother, sleeker, very modern update of a '60s fuel altered roadster.

American drag racing might seem like a strange place for a Dutch-born designer of Italian motorcycles to seek inspiration, but that's exactly where Diavel creator Bart Janssen-Groesbeek found his muse. "I'm a big fan of American hot-rod culture," he says. "People who say the U.S. doesn't have culture just don't know where to look. The hot-rod scene, Von Dutch, drag racing-that's culture. I like that, and I looked at that a lot to design this bike. The idea was to stay true to our commitment to performance and acceleration, and incorporate drag-racing and custom-bike design."

Paging through the designer's lookbook also suggested a strong custom-chopper influence, with many examples of bikes built by Roland Sands (who consulted with Ducati on this project) and the two Jesses, Rooke and James. There were also photos of production bikes like Harley-Davidson's V-Rod, Confederate's Wraith and the original Yamaha V-Max. In fact, Janssen-Groesbeek created the first Diavel concept drawing by transposing a Ducati 1098 Superbike outline over the outline of an original V-Max.

The resulting shape, with the long, stretched-out wheelbase and low seat height, was exactly the aggressive, lunging silhouette Janssen-Groesbeek desired. Creating a muscular profile around the Ducati Superbike's V-twin engine wasn't easy, however. "Our engine doesn't have the physical presence of, say, a 2-liter S&S twin," the designer says. Side-mounted radiators created the requisite broad-shouldered look, and allowed the motor to be moved further forward to enhance acceleration.

The decision to locate the shock horizontally beneath the bike was another breakthrough, allowing a low seat height without sacrificing rear-suspension travel. The low profile also created a strong diagonal motif running from the rear axle through the frame and up to the steering head. "When you look at Jesse James' bikes, or Roland's bikes-the hardtails, at least-they all have that strong diagonal line in common. I really wanted that here," Janssen-Groesbeek says.

The final product is unmistakably a Ducati, with signature elements like the trellis frame and single-sided swingarm intact, but with an aggressive attitude unlike anything the company has done before. "Everything-the wheelbase, the engine position, that huge rear wheel sitting there-it looks exactly right, badass," Janssen-Groesbeek says. "We knew from the first design mule that it was all there. All we had to do was not mess it up!"

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