First Ride: Big Boost for Bologna's Base Superbike

The "plain" 999 now enjoys last year's R-rated power

For 2005, Ducati's base 999 has been tuned to produce 140 bhp. That's a hefty 16 bhp more than last year's version--and even more powerful than the previous R model.The standard 999 now gets the R's uprated ignition pulse generator. New camshafts have more lift and duration than their predecessors. At the bottom end, a lighter crankshaft has revised oil passages. It spins above a deeper sump, which should prevent oil starvation under hard acceleration.

And boy, this souped-up 999 certainly accelerates. I could barely shift fast enough to avoid the rev limiter, which cut in rather suddenly at 10,500 rpm. Peak torque (up from 76 to 81 lb.-ft.) still arrives at 8000 rpm. Thanks to precise fuel delivery from the Marelli injection system, it's not only a very fast bike, it's very easy to ride fast.

The inevitable drawback of the lumpier cams is a slight reduction in power below 6000 rpm. "There was no way around this," admits Ducati development chief Andrea Forni. "As soon as you increase valve overlap you lose some power at low engine speeds. But while the gain at high revs is big, the loss at low revs is small."

Low-rev power loss wasn't particularly objectionable when I tried a top-gear lap of the track. The Ducati pulled cleanly, albeit without much enthusiasm. My bike's only problem was a gearbox that shifted less sweetly than usual before eventually sticking in fourth, which cut short my final session. The other press bikes had no shifter problems, and as the box itself is unchanged the failure is probably not typical.

The new fairing nose is 10mm wider at each side, the old slits on either side of the top headlight are gone and the screen is slightly taller, echoing the mods made to the recently launched 999R. Traditional Italian red bodywork comes with a matching red frame. There's a gloss black option for the dual-seat model as well.

The 999 also gets a braced aluminum swingarm similar to the one used by Ducati's works racebikes and R models. Consisting of a cast pivot, extruded pieces and forged rear sections, it's more rigid and 500 grams lighter than the old version, contributing to an overall weight savings of a couple of kilos.

Given that the 999's only chassis changes are a stiffer swingarm and a slight weight reduction, I wasn't surprised when it carved through Mugello's glorious mix of flowing curves and occasional chicanes in fine and familiar style, feeling agile yet very stable. Its Showa fork and shock worked well, as did the unchanged, non-radial Brembo front brakes. OEM tires are Michelin's Pilot Power radials. The bike features two-position-adjustable steering rake and a steering damper.

Mugello highlighted just what a rapid and capable track bike the basic 999 has become, and it promises to be equally impressive on the road, despite that slight low-rev power loss. As before, you can adjust the position of the seat and footrests, with potential comfort benefits. By Italian superbike standards, the 999 remains an improbably practical machine.

But more to the point, it's a significantly faster one. That 16-bhp increase is a big chunk of power, and the other mods are worth having, too. The price of this hotted-up 999 is $17,995, a modest $300 more than the current model's. In terms of value for money, there has never been a better, more competitive eight-valve Ducati.--Roland Brown

Ducati 999PRICEMSRP$17,995EngineTypel-c 90-degree V-twinValve arrangementdohc, 8vDisplacement998ccTransmission6-speedChassisWeight 410 lb. (claimed, dry)Fuel capacity4.1 gal. (15.5l)Wheelbase55.9 in. (1420mm)Seat height30.7 in.

The '05 fairing is subtly changed; it's less than an inch wider across the top, with a slightly taller screen. The slits that bracketed the upper headlight in Pierre Terblanche's original design have been filled.
The deeper sump keeps oil feeding the pump no matter how hard you twist the throttle.