Ducati 999 World Premiere - Second Ride

From Bologna with lust

I remember getting a little sideways right before the Tramonto left-hander turned into a bad dream. Thankfully, that's all it was. Disoriented but undamaged, my jet-lagged neural circuitry caught up with reality, grateful to climb back into a cheesy foam bed instead of an Italian ambulance. When it came to crashing 5700 miles away from my orthopedic surgeon, the floor in the room at the Hotel Le Conchiglie was infinitely less traumatic than a Misano gravel trap. There's a lot on the line here, so let's rewind for a minute.

You remember Editor Boehm and the ever-effusive Sir Alan Cathcart had first crack at the nuevo desmo 999, revealing its intimate details back in September. Now the rest of motorcycling's journalistic effete had been bidden to Misano for tuna carpaccio and the chance to goose Ducati's feted 916/996/998 successor. Considering the gravity of this situation, I did my homework.

After cleansing my palate with consecutive 500-mile days back in Los Angeles on a 998S Testastretta twin and 11 hours in steerage on an Air France Boeing 777, I was ready for some comfort and cooperation. The 999's alleged agility and humane ergonomics would be a welcome change. Once my majestic gear bag materialized in Bologna baggage claim, all the pieces were in place. Perhaps I should warm up with something more pedestrian?

A walk to Via Cavalieri Ducati 3 brings various revelations. Eleven years ago, the Bologna works looked like it should have been cranking out Macchi C.205V fighters for the Axis air effort instead of Paso 907s. Now it's a modern factory. Keep your eyes open. Is that a 999 Testastretta twin? A modular coolant manifold says yes, which means engines are already in production. Inside, 100.0mm x 63.5mm cylinder dimensions actually add up to 998cc, not to be confused with the racier 104.0mm x 58.8mm holes of the 999cc engine inside the 998R; the homologation foundation for Ducati Corse Superbikes. Welcome to Italy. Everything will be revealed in due course.

Because Italian showers are less intuitive than Italian motorcycles, there's (just) time enough to clean up, slip into something less comfortable and catch the bus to Misano; 999 world-premiere festivities have shifted into second gear. Welcome to la dolce vita. Chase some bruchetta with a little champagne, then reminisce about being strafed by the California Highway Patrol plane with Ducati CEO Carlo Di Biagio on our pre-World Superbike jaunt to Laguna Seca. There are enough desmodromic luminaries to make a Ducatisti's valves float. There's Mr. President: Federico Minoli. Wave at Troy Bayliss, Ben Bostrom and Ruben Xaus looking exquisitely bored. Notice 999 Design Chief Pierre Terblanche looking nervous, and Testastretta mastermind Pierluigi Mengoli just looking.

The assembled press finally assembles a little after 7:00 p.m. for the predinner press conference. Having turned 11 million Euros in profit on 408 million in sales, things are good at Ducati. Tearing up Tamburini's 916 and starting over was gutsy, but it had to be done. This is revolution, not evolution. Here's what's underlined in my notebook: This is the first Ducati born of CAD (Computer-Aided Design) technology. I didn't count, but they say it's comprised of 230 fewer parts than a 998. Electronics congregate on the left side of the bike; oil plumbing is on the right. Mechanics rejoice: Separating the engine from the stiffer trellis-type frame is easier. Although Tamburini's 998 was something of an aerodynamic marvel, Terblanche's 999 is 1 percent more marvelous in the wind tunnel. The 999's seat is 15mm longer and 10mm closer to the bars. The double-sided aluminum swingarm is 15mm longer, shifting an alleged 50.7 percent of the claimed 439-pound dry weight to the front wheel.

I'm hungry enough to order a Y-spoke Brembo front wheel al dente off the spec sheet when Ride of the Valkyries erupts from the PA system. When the Italians put on Wagner, they're not kidding around. Time for the suitability majestic, strobe-lit/dry-iced/ooh-aah reveal: Photos cannot do Terblanche's work justice. The first ones made me wonder if his design studio had proper ventilation. In person, it's bloody stunning. So is dinner, though I suspect the ravioli de crostacei in salsa de pomodoro, melanzane e timo may be implicated in my Tuesday night high side.

Tearing up Tamburini's 916 and starting over was gutsy, but it had to be done.

By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday morning I'm walking into garage 19 at Misano on three hours sleep and four double espressos. Inside, a factory mechanic is already busy on the bike. I wonder what the poor journalists are doing. Time to straddle up. Even with the adjustable seat and pegs set to stock, the 999 is to the 998 as first-class is to coach: more room everywhere. Forget the old tail-up stink-bug stance. The new ergo package puts more weight where you sit and less on hands and wrists. You're more in it than on it.

Fired up and rolling, the 999's Marelli fuel injection inherits most of the 998's terse throttle response. Otherwise, the new engine is obliging: eager from 3000 rpm on and revving post haste to the declared 124-horsepower peak at 9500 rpm. Even with the adjustable geometry set to standard (24.5 degrees of rake and 97mm of trail) steering is lighter and more precise everywhere on the track, especially through the tricky Variante Arena chicane. Ducati didn't invite any 998s to this party, and I'm not complaining.

More spring preload would be nice, but Signore Meccanico is waiting for my lap times to stabilize. Si, prego. I'm waiting for my sphincter to stabilize between Curva del Carro and the infamous Tramonto. Bayliss makes it look easy going by on the afterburner. Just wrap yourself around the fuel tank, turn left and upshift until you run out of gears, nerve, racetrack or all of the above. Bear in mind that flashing red lights on the tach at any point mean the rev-limiter will halt all internal combustion activities in another 200 rpm. I shift at 9000 rpm and skirt the whole issue.

Cranked over with triple digits on the LCD speedometer, the new chassis obliges with unconditional stability. Showa suspenders (Oehlins for the upscale S model) are compliant but sprung on the soft side. Street-compound Michelins stick well enough if you're easy on the throttle and spin if you're not. Moving the seat all the way back helped me, but some in the European contingent insisted on showing us how to wear the 999 as a hat. Just grab too much 999 midrange--anywhere from 5500 to 8000 rpm works fine--and win a free ride in the crash truck.

After negotiating another turn on the shock preload collar, the chassis and I are happy together. At last, I have a rhythm. Warm the tires for a lap then floor it for five or six more until the crash truck and/or a micro cloudburst cues another intermission. These four-pad Brembo calipers slow things down from 140-something into Tramonto with minimal drama. Yes, Virginio, you can have everything as long as another doppio espresso keeps the jet lag away. After that, discretion is the only part of valor. Time to head home.

People see photos of the 999 and call it heresy. No promises until a test bike rolls into our garage. No firm price either, but educated guessing puts it around $17,000 and $3000 more for the hotted-up S model when the bikes show up Stateside in October. At that rate, this latest Testastretta puts its predecessors in perspective for me. The 999 belongs in the garage for perfect Saturday mornings. There's still room for the 998: in a nice frame hanging on the wall.

Passing the Torch:
2003 Ducati 999 Superbike

DFX Ducati World Superbike rider Steve Martin took 51 laps on the first 999 Superbike in its August 2002 debut at Mugello. "The new 999 is great," Martin said, "Compared with the 998 'client' bike I race with, the latest version of the Testastretta engine has got a lot more torque as well as the same superb drivability." Despite the fact that a Ducati-sponsored test-spokesperson would have only encouraging words for the '03 Superbike, there's no reason to expect anything but success.

Ducati Corse was in on 999 development from the beginning, and the 190-horsepower Testastretta has proven its mettle this year under Bayliss, Bostrom and Xaus. Note Superbike-spec suspension and rolling stock, plus a heavily braced aluminum swingarm built to deal with the racing engine's horsepower.

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