Ducati 1198SP Sportbike | First Ride

From the podium to the showroom

By Roland Brown, Photography by Marco Campelli

It's not fair to launch a bike like the 1198SP at the Imola circuit in Italy. A person can only handle so much stimulation when he's supposed to be making a professional analysis of a new production motorcycle.

Imola is an atmospheric, history-steeped cathedral of Italian motorsports, its legendary bends the scene of epic feats and occasional tragedy. Its status as Ducati's home track is neatly book-ended by Paul Smart's legendary 1972 victory and last year's double World Superbike win by 1198-mounted privateer Carlos Checa.

And Signor Checa was present at the launch, adding another fantastic facet to the impressive experience of riding Ducati's latest superbike at one of the world's most historic raceways. With a sumptuous lunch served by the Xerox team's own chef and a few trophy girls wandering the paddock, the experience was so incredible I was tempted to pinch myself.

Such idyllic surroundings raise expectations dangerously high, which made the fact that we only had one session aboard the SP all the more stressful. The SP was not the star of the show. Rather, the more extensively modified 848 EVO was the focus and the SP was a guest of honor, although considering how fierce the superbike is, it should have been the other way around.

The 1198SP replaces the 1198S and includes even more trickle-down race technology. Every aspect of this upgraded machine is intended to aid its movement around a racetrack. Like its predecessor, the SP has a 43mm Öhlins fork up front, but it goes one better at the rear by borrowing the Swedish firm's TTX shock. The 1198cc V-twin gets a slipper clutch and the bike is the first from the Bologna factory to be fitted with an electronic quick-shifter. This uses a micro-switch in the gear linkage to cut the ignition momentarily based on the bike's speed, revs and throttle position.

There's no change to the eight-valve desmo engine, which churns out industrial quantities of torque on the way to a stated maximum output of 170 horsepower at 9750 rpm. Naturally the 1198SP is fitted with Ducati's MotoGP-developed traction control, as well as a DDA data analyzer that keeps track of myriad details about your track session, including where and how much TC is active. A Corse-style aluminum fuel tank is 2.6 lbs. lighter and boosts capacity from 4.1 to 4.7 gallons. The only other difference between the S and the SP is the price, which contrary to tradition has decreased. While the 2010 1198S cost $24,995, the 1198SP costs $21,995 and has more features.

The SP felt just like its predecessor as it grumbled out onto the circuit and began eating up the straights with addictive grunt. My previous sessions on board the 848 EVO had shown how satisfying it can be to keep a high-revving V-twin working hard, but as the SP rampaged out of the tight Variante Alta chicane with its front wheel in the air, I was reminded that raw power trumps a singing exhaust note every time.

Due to the single session there was very little time for suspension setup, but the showroom settings were pretty close. The bike was slightly soft for my weight but steered well enough and felt reasonably taut and planted. The Ducati's thoroughbred quality was evident at all times, but it was clear that getting the most out of the race-spec suspension would require some dedicated set-up time.

Similarly, the quick-shifter's performance suffered due to a lack of time for fine-tuning. The SP's shifter was positioned too high for my long legs, which meant I didn't always nudge it firmly enough to complete the gear change when coming off corners. I'm sure that adjusting the lever would have prevented that and allowed the sweet, wide-open-throttle shifting that helped the Ducati suck up Imola's straights in the higher gears.

Plenty of riders will be enthused about the SP's slipper clutch, which eliminates the need for clutch-lever finesse during downshifts and helps soften the 1198cc V-twin's strong engine braking while entering corners. It's an excellent accessory and yet another race-ready feature that elevates the SP above its predecessor. Ducati Traction Control is still present, and made its presence felt on more than one occasion as I wrangled the bike around the tricky, undulating circuit.

Even without all the clever electronics, the SP would be an outrageously rapid machine. A full-up wet weight below 400 lbs. and that 170-bhp figure give it a better power-to-weight ratio than Ducati's works Superbikes of a decade ago. The SP's high-tech features add further to an ultra-sophisticated, race-ready V-twin that inevitably requires experience and set-up time to deliver its full potential.

Sadly, time is one thing we didn't have, either on the track or at the end of the day. After spending too long quizzing the ever-patient Checa, I delayed the bus almost long enough to make us all miss the flight home. Apologies for the worry, guys, but I hope you understand. The combination of Imola and the Ducati 1198SP is enough to make anyone delirious.

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