RC51 vs. 999R

What's the price of true twin-cylinder happiness--$30,000 for Ducati's 999R or $16,000 for our hot-rodded Honda RC51?

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair... Hold on, wrong story. Ease your eyes over the quintessential Italian wrist rocket--Ducati's latest R-spec 999. It's unquestionably the finest production twin-cylinder sportbike ever offered to the paying public. In the right hands, this 139-horsepower, 452-pound synthesis of surgical handling and carbon-fiber sex appeal is all but invincible. For 30 grand, the paying public expects no less.

The question, then, for twin-cylinder devotees orbiting somewhere below the socioeconomic troposphere is simple: Can you rattle the Ducati's cage for less than the down payment on a three-bedroom condo? How much twin-cylinder love can you get for roughly half the 999R's sticker price? At $11,599--plus about $4500 in bolt-ons--our long-term RC51 is one perfect answer to that question.

Remember the RC51? Minted six years ago to replace the RC45 as Honda's global Superbike contender, it won the 2000 and '02 World Superbike championships under Colin Edwards. Honda's V-four couldn't break Ducati's desmodromic SBK stranglehold, but its half-brother could. Two years later, Nicky Hayden nailed down the AMA Superbike title. Although it appeared essentially identical to all but RC51 extremists, the '02 production bike was dramatically improved, especially in the chassis department. But despite its track record and HRC pedigree, showroom success was less resonant. The original 489-pound, 118.5-horsepower twin has been upstaged by a parade of lighter, stronger and flashier fours. Still, resolute handling manners and an aftermarket full of go-fast ordnance have sold enough hardcore fans on the RC to keep it in Honda's '05 lineup.

Even with supplemental hard- and software from various speed merchants, our RC can't suck the headlights out of a new R1. Not yet, anyway. But who cares? Once you're hooked on the linear rush of two 499cc cylinders ripping through 9000 rpm, it's more fun than any four. OK, like many ex-racers, weight can be an issue. But thanks to Sato Racing titanium mufflers and a few other lightweight bits, our blue-collar Duck hunter is down to 470 pounds, complete with life-giving bodily fluids.

The Ducati looks lighter because it is--by a full 18 pounds (wet), according to the Motorcyclist scales. After rubbing your nose in that little factoid, grandiloquent Ducatisti invariably point out all the spendy carbon-fiber bodywork (don't forget the chain guard), forged aluminum wheels and magnesium mounts for the headlight and mirrors. That's when zealous RC51 pilots--as if there were any other kind--bring up the fact that the 999R's tailsection is made of, um, plastic.

Not that there's anything wrong with plastic. It's what's under the skin that counts, right? With the obligatory Power Commander sending more fuel through those yawning 62mm throttle bodies, the soft rev limiter and intake flapper valve disengaged, our tweaked RC makes a respectable 129 horsepower at 10,250 rpm. That's a significant bump from the '04 model's stock output of 123 at 9250. Better still, this one makes 18 more horses than a stocker at 6000 rpm.

The Ducati's 499cc cylinders describe the same 90-degree angle and breathe through eight valves, but similarities end there. Each 104mm forged piston--4mm broader than the Honda's--moves through a 58.8mm stroke. Both engines are happy on super-unleaded pump gas, but the 999R sets compression at 12.5:1 vs. 10.8:1 for the RC. Ducati massaged the 999R to meet '05 AMA and World Superbike rules that hew closer to full-factory spec. That means seriously massaged heads, titanium connecting rods, bigger but lighter titanium valves, hotter cams and a lighter, streamlined crankshaft spinning in sand-cast cases.

After thoughtful digestion of all that plus innumerable pancakes (heavy on the syrup, please), the Saturday morning coffee klatch has reached a verdict: With 10 more horsepower, 18 fewer pounds and lines that make the RC51 resemble a farm implement, the 999R wins. Check please. Not so fast--for those who prefer leather jackets to tweed and riding to pontificating, the truth lies on a twisted stretch of pavement somewhere north of Ventura.

Hacking through the oxymoron of greater Los Angeles toward hilly Ojai, the Ducati defines impractical transportation, but you've got to get to the twisty bits somehow. It looks long, and the reach from seat to bars is exactly that, even with the saddle adjusted to its most forward position. In motion, the 999R feels light, tiny and impossibly slim, especially compared with the blunt, muscular Honda. Steering is light, but an XXL turning radius makes the 7-Eleven parking lot a dicey proposition.

The R's rearview mirrors are either annoying or totally useless, depending upon your personal dimensions. Those asymmetrical headers feeding the underseat muffler carry catalytic converters and radiate enough heat to roast your crotch in coagulated traffic. Then the dry clutch gets hot, howling like a wounded beagle at green lights. Take comfort in a smarter Magneti Marelli engine computer and track-spec injectors that deliver flawless rideability around town and everywhere else. And memorize the address of every gas station on the way, because the Duck gets thirsty when you goose it. Restraint can coax 160 miles from the dainty 4.1-gallon tank, but a little debauchery can drain it in just 100. The RCcan be just as thirsty, but it carries more fuel.

Meanwhile, parked on its crowned, nondescript saddle, you're more in the Honda than on it, wrapped around its 4.8-gallon tank and closer to narrower bars. With less leverage to work with, steering is a little heavier. And with more weight to steer, everything takes a bit more effort. Everything but the exemplary clutch and gearbox, anyway. Both are as good or better than anything else we've ever tested.

Climbing toward the 6000-foot peaks beyond Wheeler Springs, the 999 pulls like a cross between some nuclear freight train and Dale Jr.'s number-eight Chevy. Sporting thrust begins just past 4000 rpm, reeling in pavement quickly enough to make even the current crop of liter-class Japanese fours nervous. Even with cripplingly tall standard final-drive gearing (15/35), an impulsive throttle hand cues instant wheelies with frightening ease. After bolting up a rational set of sprockets (14/38), a mod any 999R owner should insist on, throttle control is even more crucial, but for a trifling expenditure the bike is literally transformed. Vaulting out of corners like a typical twin then revving as quickly as a four, the R-spec gives that fat rear Michelin plenty of time to get a grip between big bangs. The only downside is enough engine vibration above 7000 rpm to make the tach largely superfluous.

OK, so the maximum Ducati fundamentally outguns Honda's 999cc twin. There's less thrust on tap below 5000 rpm, and power builds progressively, though not as quickly. Still, unless you're stepping off a 999R, the RC is plenty quick. Basic intake and exhaust therapy lifts the power curve enough to keep things interesting. Although power delivery is as linear as they come, the Honda doesn't kick in with any serious muscle until 7000 rpm. Free of the soft rev limiter, it pulls all the way to 10,000 rpm rather than going gradually limp from 9000 to the 10,250-rpm cutoff point.

Riding quickly is more of a momentum game on the Honda, which lets you make the most of its brick-house stability. Matching the Ducati's 23.5-degree track setting, the RC's rake is on the steep side. But 95mm of trail--versus just 91mm for the 999R--is on the long side. Factor in less leverage at the bars and tight roads are a workout. The Bridgestone BT014 radials that went on when the stock Dunlops wore out delivered tenacious grip. Overall, the Honda is happier when corners are faster and farther apart.

Trading Honda's standard 15/40 final-drive sprockets for something more realistic--our 16/41 combination, for instance--is essential for anything but autobahn travel. After that, a Kyle Racing shock link adds ride height and suspension compliance to the Honda's rear end, making the single biggest improvement to the RC51's handling. An hlins shock and a Kyle-tweaked fork--both with stiffer springs--help as well. Brakes were plenty strong to begin with and stronger with HRC pads. Although not quite as powerful as the 999R's radial-mount four-pad Brembo front calipers, the RC's front stoppers are more linear and forgiving. The Honda's weight rides lower in the chassis, but there's still more of it. Wrestling those extra 18 pounds down Lockwood Valley Road while trying to keep the more agile Ducati in sight is a very sweaty proposition.

Unraveling tight pavement on the 999R is more of a mental workout. Some bikes reward finesse. This one demands it. Brakes, throttle and steering respond to every action with an instantaneous reaction. That's great if you've got game, but terrifying--or painfully expensive--if you don't. The Ducati's hlins suspension deals with sketchy pavement better than our Honda's current arrangement once you dial it in. New top-out springs in the fork aim to keep the chassis calm when 139 horses lift the front wheel. They also take any remaining slack out of the suspension setup. Proper chassis attitude is critical on both bikes, but more so on the 999R. Too much preload up front or too little in the rear and it runs wide exiting corners. The difference between nirvana and stained shorts is only a few clicks.

That, and the heft of American riders, explains the stiffer springs fitted for the 999R's coming-out party at Laguna Seca. Still, since American roads are quite often imperfectly paved, those springs serve up a rough ride for anyone under 180 pounds. No worries, though. What's a little suspension work when we're talking about a piece of twin-cylinder performance art that could upstage Paris Hilton on an RC51? Saddle it with 215 pounds of motojournalist and the 999R still pulls away, even with a 150-pound waif back there on the Honda.

Still, if you're dodging minivans on the way to work, paying for tuneups, insurance and imposing domestic cutbacks to finance another track day, there are more practical considerations. In that case, the Honda isn't heavy. It's...husky--yeah, that's it--and relatively cheap. Make that dirt-cheap if you buy used. We clicked up a clean '02 RC51 with 2300 miles for $8500 on eBay Motors in three minutes of surfing, and there are plenty of less stellar examples out there for less than that.

In the end, these two expressions of the same idea are as different as Bologna and Tokyo. Ducati's 999R is a fantasy few can afford and fewer have the skills to live up to. Still, for the well-heeled handful who will actually own one, a 999R is the sporting twin. The Honda doesn't look particularly sexy or even remotely Italian. There are plenty of sexy Italian twins out there if that's what you want. For those who prefer function to fashion and two big cylinders to three or four, a carefully sharpened RC51 proves you don't always have to choose between love and money. Sometimes, you get both.

Ducati 999R Honda RC51
PRICE MSRP $29,995 $11,599
Type l-c {{{90}}}-deg. V-twin dohc, 8v l-c 90-deg. V-twin Valve arrangement dohc, 8v
Bore x stroke 104.0 x 58.8mm {{{100}}}.0 x 63.6mm
Displacement 999cc 999cc
Compression ratio 12.5:1 10.8:1
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed
Final drive #525 chain #530 chain
Weight 452 lb. (wet) 427 lb. (fuel tank empty) 470 lb. (wet) 441 lb(fuel tank empty)
Fuel capacity 4.1 gal. (16L) 4.8 gal. (18L)
Rake/trail 23.5-24.5 deg./3.82 in. (97mm) 23.5 deg./3.7 in. (94mm)
Wheelbase 55.9 in. (1420mm) 55.9 in. (1420mm)
Seat height 30.7 in. (780mm) 32.3 in. (820mm)
Front 43mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping 43mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear single shock adjustable for spring preload, ride height, compression and rebound damping single shock adjustable for spring preload, ride height, compression and rebound damping
Tire, front 120/70ZR17 Michelin {{{Pilot}}} Power 120/70ZR17 Bridgestone BT014
Tire, rear 190/50ZR17 Michelin Pilot Power 190/50ZR17 Bridgestone BT014
Corrected 1/4-mile* 10.34 sec. @ 134.37 mph 10.55 sec. @ 131.6 mph
0-60 mph* 3.17 sec. 3.14 sec.
Top-gear roll-on, 60-{{{80}}} mph* 2.94 sec. 3.31 sec.
Fuel mileage (low/high/average) 24/45/37 19/45/35
Cruising range (exc. reserve) 121 miles 140 miles
*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury)

Off the Record

Jim O'Connor
Age: 34
Height: 5 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 160 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

How close is a $15K Honda RC51 (with mods) to a $30K Ducati 999R? Clearly the 999R is the best Ducati I've ever ridden and quite possibly the best production sportbike around. It's small, light, handles great and is fast, fast, fast. The 999R explodes out of corners thanks to its stock 139 hp and 427 pounds. Watch out on those exits, though, or the 999R will spin the rear wheel, lift the front, or both. Its engine revs fast and free with huge torque everywhere. Torque like a twin and fast-revving like a four, what's not to like? The front brakes bite hard and take a little getting used to; I wanted them to be a bit more linear. Marchesini wheels shed a lot of spinning mass, which makes directional changes quick and effortless. Ducatis aren't known for comfort, and my wrists and neck hurt, but in this case, who cares? Just make sure you spend the time to set up the suspension properly. On the 999R it makes a big difference.

The RC51 was more comfortable. It's noticeably heavier, harder to turn, not as quick and it makes power in a smaller rev band. The RC51 wasn't bad, though. Because of its heft, it was more forgiving of rider movements while at speed. It also had more engine braking, which I tend to like for both street and track riding. It's wider, therefore easier to lock your body into while cornering. Any shortcomings the RC51 had were only apparent when we swapped bikes on the test, but the gap was large.

Mitch Boehm
Age: 42
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 220 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

With track days having become such a big part of the sportbike experience, it makes sense to cover these two bikes in that context. Both are obviously excellent at the racetrack game, though they do their best business in different ways. The Honda's talents lie primarily in its battleship stability. Get this thing set up correctly and even the most brutally jerky or ham-fisted rider will have trouble upsetting the RC's chassis. The bike's weight and longish wheelbase help keep it settled over rough pavement even at big speeds, and with its broad spread of less-than-startling power, you're never worried about overcooking things at the exit of corners. Even though our hopped-up test bike is both lighter and faster than a stocker, the RC retains its reassuring, stable posture. Which says a lot about the goodness of the bike's chassis.

As I wrote a couple of months back, the 999R feels more like a genuine racebike. In fact, with 139 horsepower at the rear wheel, this R model produces about what Scott Gray's factory Ducati 955 made back in '94 when I rode it during practice at the Laguna Seca AMA National. Narrow, light-feeling, brutally fast and feedback-intensive in a way only a racer can be, the Duck is all business, and is easily the most entertaining stock motorcycle I've ever ridden at the track. The feel, the sound, the way it makes power, the way it brakes and corners...just amazing. Expensive, yeah, but probably worth every penny.

The Duelists
Ducati's Troy Bayliss vs. Honda's Colin Edwards Jr. in the ultimate battle of the twins

It's fitting that Ducati's 999 and Honda's RC51 battled at Imola to finish the 2002 World Superbike season and decide the championship. Locals say you can still hear the faint sound of ancient chariots in the distance on a quiet night. The track is built on a former chariot track amphitheater that turned to dust hundreds of years ago.

In '02, Imola was the scene of a battle between two powerhouses so fierce one could only wonder what it would consume. Ducati fielded its fire-breathing 999 Testastretta V-twin in the more commonly known 998 F02 chassis. Honda offered the slightly more sedate Euro-version of its V-twin SP-2, known in the U.S. as its RC51 Superbike weapon. Both contenders for the title were former world champions: Colin Edwards for Honda in 2000, and Troy Bayliss the defending champion for Ducati. Bayliss and Ducati owned the advantage until midseason, but Edwards dug deep and pulled an amazing late-season string of wins to take the championship lead by one point before Imola.

Normally, when two riders are jousting for a championship at the final round, moves are made like an exaggerated chess game, with neither showing any superiority until key moments. Imola in '02 was not normal by any means. When the green flag dropped for each of the day's two races, it was like Marvin Hagler versus Tommy Hearns for the Middleweight Boxing Championship in '85. Bayliss and Edwards essentially met on the racetrack and started beating the tar out of one another. Aggressive inside passes were met with slammed fairings and gnarly, wide outside drafting moves. Bayliss showed the heart he's known for, but Edwards and his Honda had an answer each time. Edwards won both races; Honda won the title and both Edwards and Bayliss won a legion of fans--for life.

In celebrating his championship, Texan Edwards let loose with a loud "Yee-Haw!" Undoubtedly, even the ghost drivers of Imola's chariot races would have understood. - --Dean Adams

Cheap Duck
An affordable Ducati isn't an oxymoron. It's all in your heads...

Maybe a $30,000 999R is totally out of reach, and even mentioning a standard 999's $17,695 sticker price incites domestic unrest. Maybe you still prefer the look of Tamburini's 916 to Terblanche's 999. Just remember that cheap is a vulgar little adjective in desmodromic circles.

When it comes to desmoquattro twins, there's no such thing, really. Infirm, abused or high-mileage examples of the breed aren't bargains. Like many aging supermodels, eight-valve Ducatis can get cranky--and expensive--in their old age. Better to pay a little more up front for, say, a 2002 998 than pay a lot more later in somebody's service department.

The big reason is that Testastretta engine. Named for its narrow, compact head, the 998cc Testastretta powerplant was the first major makeover of Ducati's iconic desmoquattro twin, and it was new from the top down. The most obvious change--flattening the included valve angle from 40 to 25 degrees--did more than shrink the heads. It made room for bigger valves, more compression and steeper, more downdraft intake ports feeding 100mm by 63.5mm cylinders. The 100mm pistons are an ounce lighter than the 996's 98mm slugs.

Virtually every part in this more compact engine is stronger, lighter or both. Spinning the more rigid hollow cams in plain bearings saved weight. Redesigned cam lobes put tighter tolerances between valve adjusters and rocker arms, allowing hotter cam timing and less clatter. Symmetrically opening rocker arms are stronger and lighter. New rocker geometry reduced critical side loading on the valves. Valve guides and seats are machined to tighter tolerances as well. And new covers provide drastically easier access to the valves themselves.

Plain-bearing cams need clean, high-pressure oil, so the 998's lubrication system was designed to deliver both. Dual-stage filtering keeps oil cleaner, and revised routing sent cooler lube to the new heads. Everything sits on externally reinforced crankcases that tilt the cylinders 10 degrees rearward, channeling oil back to the sump more efficiently. Ducati claimed 123 horsepower for the 157-pound engine, while our last 998 made 111.2 rear-wheel horses on the dyno at 10,250 rpm.

It's much easier to live with as well. "The 998 is a much improved engine compared to the 996," says Jeff Nash, owner of AMS Ducati, located near Dallas, Texas. "Checking valve clearance is a vastly simpler deal. Just remove the 10mm screws, pop open the covers and it's all right there. Once they're set up right, tolerances really don't change much. Testastrettas are also much more responsive to tuning than the older eight-valve Ducatis. You don't need such radical cams to make useful, reliable power."

Outside of the engine, most other 998 components were translated from the '01 996. At 479 pounds (wet), it is one pound lighter than the 996. Depending on where you live, a clean, well-tended '02-spec 998 can sell for anywhere from $11,800 to $12,500--generally about $1500 more than an equivalent '01 996. But once you know what's under the hood, it's worth every nickel.--Tim Carrithers

Complete with its inspirational Nicky Hayden autograph, the Honda cockpit is an exercise in austere efficiency. Bright sunlight makes the LCD tach hard to read, and a clock would be nice. Fairing supports complicate access to the fork and master cylinders. Otherwise, no complaints.
Ducati's raciest streetbike gives you the time of day, ambient temperature, fuel consumption and a load of other semi-useful information. Alleged rearview mirrors are worthless for viewing anything but your elbows.
Our Honda's lightly massaged fork and front brake are a few years behind the current cutting edge. The combo isn't as trick as the full hlins/Brembo deal, but plenty effective on the street and much less expensive.
The 999R front end is an exercise in overkill on the street, but we're not complaining. The hlins fork is exemplary. Radial four-pad Brembo calipers generate prodigious stopping power, but we'd trade some of it for more linear feel.
Ducati says the 999R swingarm is identical to what you'll see on an '05-spec 999R Superbike. The cast center-section and pressed aluminum sides add up to a more rigid structure than you'll find on previous 999s. Threaded lugs accommodate standard spools, which make using a race stand much easier.
Working through our Kyle link and hlins shock, the heavily braced RC51 swingarm does an admirable job of keeping the rear wheel in line and in control. Note the remote spring-preload adjuster above the muffler.
HONDA RC51: Aside from that dip between 4000 and 5000 rpm, the Honda literally defines linear power delivery. Moving from paper to pavement, the Japanese twin makes maximum thrust between 6000 and 10,250 rpm.
DUCATI 999R: Both engines are about even to 7000 rpm. After that, the maximum Ducati drops Honda's 999cc twin like a bad habit. The Desmo revs much more quickly as well, arriving at its 139-horse peak sooner.
Although it is unquestionably one of the most beautiful sportbikes ever created--much easier to look at for most of us than Ducati's latest 999--the 998 is also excruciatingly uncomfortable. Once you've moved beyond the engine compartment, changes are more subtle. Basic chassis parameters haven't changed much since the original 916 debuted at the '93 Milan show.