Ducati 1098S VS. 999 | The Real Deal

How Much Better Is Ducati's New Superbike Than The One It Replaces? Former AMA And World Superbike Champion Doug Polen Helps Us Decide.

It's the eternal question whenever a manufacturer brings out a new model: How good is it? The answer is more important than normal in the case of Ducati's 1098 Superbike, which follows on the heels of the firm's star-crossed 999. The latter was a superb motorcycle functionally, winning three World Superbike Championships. But its styling, penned by former Ducati design chief Pierre Terblanche, was almost universally panned. Message boards were positively inflammatory when the 999 debuted in 2003, one infamous posting going so far as to say, "Shoot Terblanche and his dog." But the most public condemnation came from Italian racing hero Pier-Francesco Chili, who flat refused to ride it, preferring to stay with the previous-generation 998 on largely aesthetic grounds. Sales were predictably flat.

It comes as little surprise, then, that when it came time to pen a replacement, the job went not to Terblanche (who has been demoted to a consultant), but to his understudy Giandrea Fabbro. The resultant 1098 draws heavily from the bike the 999 replaced, the legendary 916/996/998 series designed by the equally legendary Massimo Tamburini, who went on to create the exquisite MV Agusta F4. The 1098's twin headlights, dual underseat mufflers and single-sided swingarm all pay homage to the 916, while the bodywork blends elements of that and the Desmosedici MotoGP racer.

Looks alone might have been enough to attract a new generation of buyers, but when word got out that the 1098 made more horsepower than the limited-edition 999R, weighed 30 pounds less than the standard 999 and would retail for just $14,995-nearly $3000 less than the 999 and literally half the price of the 999R-dealers were deluged with deposits. The two upgraded special editions-the $19,995 1098S and $24,995 1098S Tricolore-sold out almost immediately. And if you don't have a deposit on a standard 1098 by now, you might not get one this year.

Amazingly, much of this money traded hands before buyers even knew if the 1098 worked-such is Ducati's reputation for quality. And while reviews from the international press launch at Kyalami, South Africa, were largely complimentary, the question of how the 1098 rates next to the 999 remains. So when Ducati gave us a 1098 testbike-an S-model with Marchesini wheels and hlins suspension, since those were first off the assembly line-we asked for a comparably equipped 999S to conduct a shootout.

First order of business was seeing if the 1098's specs lived up to Ducati's claims. According to the materials distributed at the press intro, the S-model produces 160 crankshaft horsepower, 90.4 lb-ft.of torque and weighs just 377 pounds dry. The dyno at Carry Andrew's Hypercycle shop (www.hypercycle.com) backed up those performance claims, the 1099cc V-Twin producing 144.9 bhp and 80.9 lb.-ft. of torque at the rear wheel-about what you'd expect given drivetrain losses. That's 3 more horsepower than the last 999R this magazine tested and 12 more than the 999S tested here, both equipped with Termignoni exhausts.

As for the weight claims, the Motorcyclist scales protested, the 1098S weighing in at 410 lbs. with an empty fuel tank-33 more than Ducati claimed. That kind of discrepancy is fairly common with Japanese bikes, but European makers are usually more accurate. Still, that's 23 lbs. lighter than the 999S, so Ducati's weight-loss claim wasn't too far off.

Given the 1098's superior power-to-weight ratio, dragstrip testing was utterly predictable: The new bike beat the old one by a half-second and 8 mph, helped, tester Gene Thomason said, by a better-acting clutch and smoother-shifting gearbox. The roadrace track, however, wouldn't be that definitive...

To put the 1098S and 999S through their paces, we called in Doug Polen, who won the 1991-1992 World Superbike Championships and the 1993 AMA Superbike Championship for Ducati. Surely the transplanted Texan (who now resides in Southern California) could give us a clear indication of how the two bikes stacked up.

We convened at a Take It 2 The Track (www.ti2tt.com) track day at Buttonwillow Raceway, where Polen has turned countless laps over the past few years on a Ducati 999R while conducting his One on One riding schools (www.dougpolen23.com). After a quick morning photo shoot with lensman Kevin Wing, he saddled up the 999S to re-familiarize himself.

In the interest of fairness and better traction, we'd fitted both bikes with race-compound Pirelli Supercorsa radials. And even though the two feature rider-actuated on-board lap-timers, we went ahead and installed infrared AiM MyChron units so there was no possibility of discrepancy.

Right away Polen was up to speed, clicking off a series of 1:55s despite having to thread his way through heavy traffic. (Last we heard the lap record, set by Jeff Tigert on a Honda CBR1000RR Superbike, stood at 1:46.5.) After his first 20-minute session, we sat Doug down and debriefed him. "The neatest thing about the 999 is its powerband," he said. "It's very rideable, very smooth, very linear. There's no big hit anywhere, so no matter where you are on the racetrack-slow corners, fast corners-when you roll the throttle on, it goes. It's tractable no matter what the rpm or speed. The chassis is nice, too. It's not the fastest-handling with how it's set up now, but it's real smooth, it's hooked up and stable, so overall it's a nice ride."

We started the day with the 999S on its standard settings, the adjustable steering head set in its more conservative 24.5-degree rake (as opposed to 23.5 degrees) and the seat in its middle position. The only change we made was to raise the footpegs to their uppermost position in the interest of greater cornering clearance.

Polen came in mid-session for some front suspension changes, requesting two turns of spring preload, a half-dozen clicks more compression damping and a couple clicks more rebound. "That tightened it up quite a bit and made it a lot nicer," he said later. "The faster you go, the more load is exerted on the suspension. What happens is you get way too much of a geometry change when the suspension is that soft, and that transition upsets the way the bike handles and how the tire contacts the ground."

One of the few functional criticisms leveled against the 999 is its too-abrupt rev limiter, which shuts down the party shortly after the shift light illuminates at 10,000 rpm-it doesn't help that the tach has no redline. Asked if he noticed this, Polen said he did. "Yeah, it is abrupt. It comes in a lot quicker because of how the power is-it keeps pulling all the time, so the next thing you know you're in the limiter."

Riders familiar with high-revving fours sometimes complain that twins need to be shifted more often on the racetrack, contradicting their reputation for having wide powerbands. But Polen said that's not the case: "I'd say I actually shift a little less because of all the years I spent racing a twin. I got to know when I didn't have to shift, so I could get out of a corner with a lot lower rpm and use the torque of the engine to accelerate instead of the top-end horsepower. This 999 has more power than my 888 Superbike did in 1991, even though I used to rev it to 12,000."

Asked what changes he'd make to the 999S before riding it again, he said he'd start dialing in the rear, adding some preload and compression. "The front is shaping up quite nice but now the rear is too soft. When it loads in a corner it squats farther than the front, so the balance is a little off at the moment. We'll get the balance good on both ends and let 'er rip."

That set the stage for Polen's first session aboard the 1098S, and when he returned to the pits, he found himself surrounded by curious eavesdroppers. "The power-it's the real deal!" he exclaimed. "It's almost like a turbo version of the 999. The increase in power is through the whole range, but it's more noticeable down low and in the middle. The rev limiter seems higher, but it may just be that it pulls harder lower. It's making a lot more power down low. The tach is cool; it looks like the one I had on my 888."

He also noticed the weight difference: "This bike feels a lot lighter. You notice it at slower speeds, where you're not having to fight the weight of the motorcycle. At higher speeds, it's the gyroscopic effect of the wheels you're fighting, so you don't notice it as much."

As enamored as he was with the engine performance, Polen said there was room for improvement in handling. "The chassis is good, but it's not set-up yet," he proclaimed. "I was just hanging on to make sure I didn't lose the rear, because it's got way too much spring. We'll make some changes, take some preload out."

Despite having never ridden a 1098 before, Polen was once again right up to speed, turning a best lap at 1:55.68. As we did with the 999S, we started the day with the 1098S on its standard settings, the only difference a 190/50 rear tire instead of the standard 190/55. But given the 1098's tail-high attitude, that was a step in the right direction. Before the second session we took out three turns of shock spring preload to set sag at 30mm, noting that the nylon spring retainer is easily marred even when using an hlins spanner. We also decreased rebound damping by four clicks, a finicky operation requiring a 2.5mm Allen wrench inserted through a hole in the swingarm.

"The changes we made in the rear were in the right direction, but we need to go farther," Polen said after riding the bike for the second time. "It steers fast enough the way it is, and we probably could benefit from lowering the rear to give the tire some more bite. Right now, it's on the edge."

Polen got a wake-up call partway through the session when he lost the front end in the fast, third-gear Sweeper and saved it with his knee. "It was just going to full lean angle when the front got really vague and then it just wasn't there," he recalled later. "I kept it there till the speed slowed down and the grip came back." That's a fairly nonchalant description given that the slide wore his brand-new knee puck through to the ribbing, ground a hole in his boot and scratched the fairing! His best lap was a 1:53:71.

For his third session, we took out one full turn of ride height, an adjustment Ducati (and MV) offers that no Japanese sportbike yet boasts in stock trim. And for the following session, we took out another turn of ride height and discovered we were nearing the limit. "Go ahead and take it all out," Polen said, and so we did. Afterward, he had this to say: "No doubt the ride height is the best so far. It's much more planted in the corner, better mid-corner and finishes the corner better. The set-up is getting closer to where the 999 comes stock. No traffic and that thing would have been doing the business!" Sure enough, his best lap that session was a tad slower at a 1:54:47.

"The rear spring on this thing is way too stiff," he confirmed. "Off the corners, it just lights up the tire. The 999 doesn't ever do that because it's so soft in the rear, it gets really good traction when it drives. Maybe they've gone too far? But I only weigh 150 pounds; if you weigh 200-plus, you might be better off."

Having spent most of the day dialing-in the 1098S while the 999S sat unloved in the pits, we formulated a plan to settle the score: Doug would ride the 999S for the first half of the final session and then hop on the 1098S for the remainder. With most of the track-day attendees packing up to go home, the circuit was now largely empty, giving him free reign. Surprisingly, he pitted after just three laps on the 999S and pointed to the lap-timer: 1:52.25, it read-1.5 seconds quicker than he'd had gone on the 1098S. He then hopped on the new bike and put in another half-dozen laps, his best go-round a 1:53:31-nearly a second slower than he'd gone on the old bike.

How was this possible? "The 1098 is so light that it doesn't work the suspension," Polen explained. "You have to ride it very hard to work the suspension, so I'm out there running harder and all that's doing is beating up the tires. As soon as I rode the 999 with its fresh tires, the 1098 was in trouble. It was over before it started."

Granted, if the 1098S's tires hadn't been shagged, Polen might have matched or even surpassed his pace on the 999S. But it's worth noting that it took all day to get the new bike to the point where it worked as well as the overweight, underpowered old one did right out of the box-and the fact that Polen went faster on the 999S after only a dozen laps just made the feat that much more impressive.

Is this surprising? Not according to Polen: "The thing is, you're trying to top a motorcycle that is very, very good to begin with. It's hard to drastically improve something that's already one of the best." That he said this the same day Troy Bayliss won a World Superbike race at Phillip Island on a 999 just made it ring that much more true.

The bottom line? The new Ducati 1098S is an amazing motorcycle, and certainly worthy of the hype. But don't go selling your 999 just yet.

White-faced 999 tach is easier to read than 1098's LCD bar graph, but the new bike's shift light gives more warning.
New bike (bottom) has revised suspension layout with shock and pushrod mounted to separate points on the swingarm instead of sharing one.