TWIN PEAKS

The Italians make the best sporting V-twins. And the Japanese rule in ultra-performance inline-fours. But why? And how did these two disparate design cultures build bikes that arrive at basically the same place?

In a fast-moving world, tradition and constancy seem to be terribly outdated concepts. What's new is new, and what's not usually gets pitched into the recycling bin.

To make sense of this ever-accelerating cascade of technology--more dehumanizing the older you get--we all develop a mental shorthand that magically boils something, anything, down to a single-sentence synopsis.

Not even we motorcycle enthusiasts are immune. Say "Ducati." Instant mental image: Scarlet super-sport bike with a race-winning reputation and a quaint adherence to an archaic engine design. And the new ones are funny looking.

Now say "GSX-R." Mental image: Raucous, lightweight, deadly serious inline-four sportbike meant for pros--though often embraced by wannabes--and the racetrack. Chronically generic styling. New ones...hmm.... What do they look like, exactly?

Such mechanical and stylistic stereotypes are accurate through the first millimeter of the topic, but never answer the Real Question: Why? Why are Ducatis--and in many ways Italian bikes in general--the way they are? And why does Suzuki (and the rest of the Japanese, for that matter) build sportbikes the way it does?

SUCCESS STARTS AT THE RACETRACK

Domination. Seen outside the contrived reality of a press release, domination is every manufacturer's dream--to so thoroughly soak your competitors that they have no recourse but to regroup and redesign. In modern motor-cycling, the standards are so high and the engineering excellence so widespread that total dominance is usually fleeting--a one-year window to steal headlines, win magazine comparisons and soak up the limelight. Still, in 2003, two sportbikes truly stand out: Ducati's brilliant yet controversial 999, and Suzuki's 152-horsepower velvet sledgehammer, officially known as the GSX-R1000.

The first is an inimitable amalgam of art and science--the culmination of 32 years of building evocative, desmodromic, V-twin engines in a uniquely Italian way that reflects the single-minded creativity of confident designers, yet is able to both set and follow market trends. In the other, we see a characteristically unemotional Japanese motorcycle manufacturer focused with laserlike accuracy on what it does best--serious, no-compromise sportbikes that dominate in racing and in the showroom.

WIN ON SUNDAY, SELL ON MONDAY

Commercial success often follows a good showing in motorsports, so 2003 was the year of both the Ducati 999 and Suzuki GSX-R1000. Under Neil Hodgson and Mat Mladin, race versions of both streetbikes took hold of World Superbike and AMA Superbike, respectively, with iron fists. In WSC, the question was not so much whether a Ducati 999 would take the title, but which one, Hodgson's or Xaus's. And remember that this was the first year on the grid for both bikes, as the 999 replaced Ducati's previously dominant 998, while the big GSX-R followed in the footsteps of the legendary GSX-R750 that gave Mladin his last three AMA titles.

It's impossible to overstate the importance of winning in racing. The major manufacturers spend huge dough to compete--Honda's international racing budget would support any of several Third World countries--because success creates a halo effect. Dramatically simplified, it's as though winning with a bike that may (or may not) be remotely related to its street-going namesake makes the streetbike better. Or makes you a smarter consumer. Or, to cut to the chase, makes the bike that much cooler.

The oft-heard excuse/justification for racing--that development of the racebikes actually improves the streetbikes from shared technology and perceptive engineers--is often no more than lip service. But for Ducati and Suzuki, as well as for several other Japanese and Italian companies through the years, the link between racebike and streetbike is clear and essential.

Both the 999 and the GSX-R are at the top of the modern sportbike's evolutionary ladder, that much you can tell by riding the bikes--which we do as often as possible. But to understand how these motorcycles came to be, how they represent not just the cleverness of their engineers but also their respective corporate--and national--cultures, you need to peek inside the companies themselves.

DESIGN, ITALIAN STYLE

Ducati is driven by a powerful mix of tradition, engineering and racetrack glory, and by the very Italian concept of technology and art being inextricably intertwined. Leonardo da Vinci, after all, was a world-leading artist, as well as a world-changing inventor.

But the first goal of all this art and science is, in Ducati's case, crystal clear. First, you must win races. Which is why the racing department, Ducati Corse--headed by outwardly pleasant but deadly competitive Claudio Domenicali--is tightly integrated into the design and development process.

Yet as the head of the design department and the spark plug for Ducati's recently daring styling exercises, it's Pierre Terblanche who takes the public bravos and brickbats. Ironically, when the decision came down to finally replace the 916 platform, Terblanche's design brief was just that--brief. "They said make it fast, sexy and red. The rest was up to me." To assume that the 999's greatest tricks involve its form is to misunderstand something about Terblanche: He's among the most vigorous advocates for real-world, practical motorcycles. With the 999, he reckoned that two seemingly conflicting issues--practicality and style--could be reconciled with clever thinking and hard work.

His design mandate had several important and inflexible limitations. The engine would be a carryover, the 998cc Testastretta. The development costs of this engine, committed in large part to bolster Ducati's current and future racing success, would preclude even considering anything else. Ducati has a huge emotional and financial investment in its iconic 90-degree, desmodromic-valved V-twins. And according to noted designer James Parker, the desmodromic valve system is the main reason the Desmosedici MotoGP racer has such killer top-end. Less friction means more power to the wheels, and throwing away stiff valve springs reduces friction considerably. When we see a street version of the MotoGP-winning V-four--and we will--there will still be no chance of it displacing the venerable "L-twin" as Ducati's signature engine. Economically and emotionally, Ducati is wedded to the twin. For its new 999, the Testastretta was the only choice. But there's more to it; by using a proven engine in a new motorcycle, many of the variables automatically resolved themselves.

BUILT FOR COMFORT, BUILT FOR SPEED

An even greater show of support for the 999's new-think ergonomics came from the race squad. According to Domenicali, the racers appreciated being more comfortable on the bike, and positioned lower in the chassis than on the 998-based machines. "When the riders are more comfortable they can race longer without fatigue, and this makes it easier to win," he says. And winning, of course, is the whole point.

If Terblanche and his design crew fretted over the details of the 999's ergonomic renaissance, it was nothing compared with the effort put into improving the packaging. "On the 916, there were bits and pieces everywhere," Terblanche says, scowling. "It was a mess. They put the battery over on the right because that was the only place it would fit. There wasn't any thought given to servicing the bike." It would become Terblanche's battle cry to improve maintenance access, and he would make the point throughout the bike's gestation from big idea to actual production by touting ease of construction as one of the principal benefits of this new emphasis. And don't forget that the easier a bike is to maintain--the critical parts accessible as well as reliable--the better it will be as a racebike, which is subject to constant tweaking throughout a race weekend.

WHAT MAKES A DUCATI A DUCATI?

A free hand Terblanche got, but it was never in his power--or, to give him credit, his desire--to step away from traditional Ducati virtues. But how do you define them? Is it simply the lope of the 90-degree V-twin? The clockwork artistry of the unique, desmodromic valve system? Or the elegant look and feel of the steel-tube trellis frame? Does it come from the suspension calibration, determined by regular test riders in Bologna, and principally on the racetrack?

It's worthwhile to remember that Ducati is adept at sticking to what it knows, both because it has had some incredible failures trying to color outside the lines, but also because it is a small company whose engineering euros have to stretch a long way. Indeed, the first Ducati V-twin was formed from the bones of its popular single-cylinder models because worldwide consumption of multicylinder bikes had become ravenous. Blame Soichiro Honda for that.

THE HONDA FACTOR

In 1969, the CB750 debuted, recasting every notion of what a multi could be, and setting new standards for power, docility and reliability. Quickly, the other Japanese brands copied the across-the-frame, four-cylinder concept. Ironically, it took Suzuki the longest; the GS750 didn't debut until '76. In the late '60s, with its competition turning out twins and triples, Ducati's own financial situation grew increasingly dire. (See Alan Cathcart's Apollo feature on page 54 for another look at Ducati's perilous situation during the '60s.) Charming little desmodromic singles weren't enough anymore. Without Honda's relatively vast resources, then-Engineering Chief Fabio Taglioni went to work with what he had, essentially turning two singles into a 90-degree V-twin--with single, overhead cams and traditional valve springs--for the 750GT. From the first prototype shown in September '70, it laid the foundation for Ducati's future success, and proved so popular as a design concept--perfect primary balance was a revelation 33 years ago--that Ducatisti credit it with saving the marque from extinction.

In a culture in love with history and intensely loyal to saviors of the day, how could Ducati ever leave the V-twin behind? Quite simply, it cannot.

Bologna recognizes a good investment, which is why Ducati is indelibly invested in the V-twin; it would be extraordinarily costly to develop alternate configurations for the streetbikes. Besides, giving away one of the main things that makes a Ducati a Ducati would be excruciatingly bad for business, not to mention for its worldwide brand.

So, Ducati knows the V-twin intimately and has developed an indelible corporate consciousness about the design. It has tried innumerable variations of valve sizes, camshaft profiles, combustion-chamber shapes, and induction and exhaust systems. It has underestimated bearing loads and overestimated cooling needs. It has won scores of engineering victories and suffered its share of defeats. Also of some help: Ducati engineering leader Gianluigi Mengoli has been there for more than 30 years.

MORE THAN A BIKE: A CULTURAL ICON

Without question, the 999 is the ultimate expression of Ducati culture. Like it or loathe it, the 999's shape evokes passion and cuts a profile that is literally unmistakable. Terblanche says, "We don't have the luxury of creating a new shape every two or three years. What we do has to live beyond that, to be as timeless as possible. For that, you must take risks." Moreover, some of the risks taken with the 999--in the way it was developed, the way its systems are distributed on the bike, the insistence that it be easy to work on--will pay dividends in other Ducati models.

SUZUKI: STICKING TO CORE COMPETENCIES

Pull the GSX-Rs from Suzuki's lineup and what do you have? Several good, competent motorcycles that, with one or two exceptions, would have a hard time setting the world on fire. Return the GSX-Rs to the mix and Suzuki becomes a mighty might, a small company capable of great things.

What makes this possible on a relatively limited budget? Focus. Talk to people within Suzuki and it's clear the GSX-Rs receive the greatest internal corporate emphasis. These are the halo bikes, the championship winners and, likely as not, the most compelling reason most street riders walk into a Suzuki dealership. That they might ride out on an SV, Bandit or a Katana is all part of the plan.

NOT ART, BUT SCIENCE

Yet the GSX-R's development process couldn't differ more from Ducati's if you wrote the script yourself. Like the other Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, Suzuki is focused on engineering the best possible motorcycle for each extensively researched market segment. What do the riders want? What color? How big should the tires be?

At the risk of fomenting cultural stereotypes, it must be said that, at least historically, most Japanese engineers tend to think in terms of objective measurement rather than artistic expression. If it can't be measured on a dyno sheet or a spider chart, it's often regarded with suspicion. Which is one reason why Japanese motorcycles, through the ages, were traditionally known for making lots of easily measurable horsepower, but tended to lag behind in the fuzzier, less-definable realm of handling--and certainly of character.

Unlike Italy, Japan's specialty is the expedient creation, application and production of various bright ideas. Technology becomes interchangeable--it's just a tool. Put your corporate vision of what works in all the right places and you will inevitably create a popular, profitable motorcycle.

The Japanese view of technology is also reflected in how the final product, the motorcycle, is seen and appreciated by its owner. For all its essential wonderfulness as a machine, a GSX-R remains a tool for racing, or otherwise going fast. Its engineering inspires cool, reserved admiration--but rarely a lot of passion. A Ducati, on the other hand, is a more emotional contrivance, seemingly as much animal as machine. Like the technology that created it, a GSX-R is designed to be ridden, used up and replaced. A Ducati is meant to be enjoyed, savored, appreciated--and eventually enshrined.

Look at the early evolution of the GSX-R line, which arrived in the United States in 1986 with a 750 and an 1100. One of the essential design concepts was the use of oil as a cooling medium. Engines use oil as a lubricant and, in some way, use that oil to cool. But Suzuki's solution was elegant in its simplicity and, at the time, quite effective. It was part of a thorough program to strip weight from the bike--its amazing aluminum frame was part of that, also--to give it incredible performance even if the engines weren't the most powerful in the class. Air- and oil-cooling worked well until power output crept up--the constant evolution toward smaller, lighter, stronger bikes finally rendered the air/oil system bulky and inefficient. Then Suzuki did what it had to do and built a liquid-cooled GSX-R. The switch wrought public outcry, similar to the caterwauling of Ducatisti who felt the liquid-cooled, four-valve Ducati engines weren't real Ducati motors. But they got over it.

What separates Ducati and Suzuki design philosophies, what cleaves most European and Japanese theologies, is this willingness--and necessity--to cast aside old designs for new. Even with constant development, Ducati engines remain essentially familiar, often sharing many parts across considerable timelines. Except for the name on the cases, there is little linkage between the original GSX-R1100 powerplant and the amazingly compact and powerful current GSX-R1000's. For Suzuki, time marches on. And old designs, while an important part of the company's history, are merely guidelines to the future, not ropes to the past.

FUNCTION LEADS FORM INTO THE FIRST TURN

For the life of the product, the GSX-R has embodied a clarity of design purpose, even if the execution, such as with the first, overweight, liquid-cooled bikes, sometimes left something to be desired. It is this aspect, allied to constant, insistent development, that makes the current GSX-R line--and the 1000 in particular--so deadly good. Look around the bike. It embraces every bit of design orthodoxy you can name: a tightly packaged inline-four engine with fuel injection, an aluminum frame made from a combination of castings and extrusions, and reasonably premium suspension and brakes. Yet there are few frills, almost nothing you could point to as an engineering gimmick. Contrast, for instance, the Suzuki's simple butterfly-type exhaust valve--all it does is alter back pressure in the system to help smooth the powerband--to the Honda CBR954RR's complicated exhaust mechanism, or even to Yamaha's simpler power valve.

BEAUTY LIVES IN THE DETAILS

As with the 999, Suzuki took the generational change in GSX-Rs, circa 2000 with the 750, to dramatically clean up and simplify the bike's architecture. Run out to the garage, grab a few wrenches and start working on your GSX-R; you can do 70 percent of the engine-bay work with the tank propped on its stay. Notice how the seat bolts are exposed, yet cleverly integrated into the bodywork? One hex key removes all the panels. The GSX-R is a delight to work on, a case study in simplicity and rational design that eschews theoretical optimums for practical solutions. In the revised '03 GSX-R1000, there are still more minor changes that improve serviceability and make repairing crash damage less painful. Artsy design looks great on paper, but a pragmatic approach can be easier to live with on the street or the track. Suzuki's way whips all comers in this category.

THE 400-POUND GORILLA

How important is the GSX-R1000? Look at the competition's response. Yamaha owned the literbike category with the launch of the YZF-R1 in 1998 but was smoked by the big GSX-R in '01. Since then, the R1 has seen two rounds of serious tweaking--in '02 and now again in '04. Kawasaki's previously impressive ZX-9R instantly became everyone's favorite sporty sport-tourer. And poor Honda. As good as the CBR929RR and CBR954RR were, the sales momentum was clearly with the Suzuki (and the R1, also).

Throughout the development of the new RR, Honda watched the Suzuki effort closely, observed the direct interaction of Suzuki Japan and Yoshimura R&D;, Suzuki's de facto racing arm, and kept tabs on aftermarket support for the GSX-R series. It takes approximately $5600 to turn a stock GSX-R1000 into a reasonably good privateer racebike, and just double that to get dangerously close to the fast end of the grid. Were you to race an RC51, that $11,000 would be pocket change. In this respect, Honda approaches racing according to what it can do, while Suzuki (and Yoshimura) is more likely to concentrate on what it should do.

Boil it down, then, and the driving forces for the 999 and GSX-R1000 are less likely to be found in obscure engineering exercises or radical technological leaps than in the sound execution of concepts fully understood and appreciated by their designers and engineers. Great motorcycles have come out of left field, but the ones that make lasting impressions--and, critically within the Japanese paradigm, actually dictate the direction of a category--are bikes that balance technological innovation with human scale. Ultimately, the great motorcycles are the ones around which you wrap mental shorthand, the quick identifier. Ducati. (999.) Suzuki. (GSX-R.) Job well done.

ROAD WARRIORS

How the 999S and GSX-R1000 Stack up on the Street That the GSX-R1000 is a wonderfully functional streetbike despite its 152 rear-wheel horsepower shouldn't be a surprise. After all, Japan Inc.'s been building comfortable, reliable, quiet, easy-to-work-on and hugely capable street-going sportbikes for a long time.

What is a surprise is how street-competent the 130-horsepower Ducati 999S is, especially in light of the fact that its previous-generation superbikes--the 916-platform machines--weren't motorcycles you'd choose to live with day to day unless you lived and breathed Bologna red. Thank Chief Designer Pierre Terblanche, who worked mightily to make the new-generation Ducati superbike a highly capable streetbike.

You expect the GSX-R to be a top-shelf all-arounder. You expect well-honed ergos, a (mostly) vibe-free ride, above-average suspension compliance, light steering feel, crispy brakes, decent wind and weather protection, peerless throttle response, excellent fit and finish, big-time horsepower--and you get 'em.

You get most of that functional excellence on the 999, too, though the experience is quite a bit different. For one thing, the ride is firmer, especially on the Oehlins-suspended S-model we used for this story. It's not a harsh firmness, however, which means the ride is both reasonably comfy and superbly controlled, especially at elevated speeds, where this bike shines. Ergonomically, the new Ducati is closer to its Japanese rivals, the rider now sitting lower and closer to the bars than on the 916-platform machines. As a result there's less weight on the wrists, and more comfort behind the bubble. The 999 also feels thinner and lighter from the saddle than both the GSX-R and the old 916/996/998 machines. Vibration is well-controlled, steering is as light and quick as any Japanese sportbike we can think of (and way lighter and quicker than the old desmoquattro bikes), injection manners are quite good, fit and finish are typically top shelf, and, well, you're beginning to get the picture. No longer must enthusiasts sacrifice all-around ability to get the character and mystique that defines the bikes from Bologna, which is exactly what Mr. Terblanche was after.

--Mitch Boehm

The 999S' massive midrange grunt makes maneuvers like this ridiculously simple, while the crisp, feedback-intensive chassis--helped by top-shelf and fully adjustable suspension componentry--makes short work of even the gnarliest back roads.
Derived from the early 1970s 750GT and 750 Sport, the Ducati 750SS set the quintessential Italian sportbike profile because it was so closely related to Paul Smart's Imola-winning racebike. What's more, the very engine configuration owned by Ducati (or vice versa), the 90-degree V-twin, was an expedient move by Fabio Taglioni to counter the rising tide of Japanese inline-fours. Those first "round case" Ducati V-twins carried conventional valve springs; it wasn't until the 750SS of '72 did the desmodromic valve-actuation used on Ducati's singles make it into the twins. Above: Cook Nielson aboard his Superbike-winning SS at Daytona in 1977.
Although the Honda CB750 had little of the visual flair of the Ducatis that came after, the bike's technological impact was so great that it literally changed the face of motorcycling. Smooth, fast and incredibly durable, the CB placed Honda at the forefront of Japanese design and manufacturing. Below: Dick Mann aboard the Daytona-winning CB750 in early 1970.
Owing lineage to the 750GT, the 999S's Testastretta engine benefits from years of racing and production development. Although difficult to package, it's a design Ducati understands well, which is enough to trip the balance.
Ducati's design chief, Pierre Terblanche, was gifted with extreme latitude in recasting the 916/996 family into the 999, and the job was not undertaken lightly. Extensive drawings helped develop the look, but the real work was under the skin.
Foamcore and clay mockups helped locate major components on a 996 skeleton.
The final form remains true to the narrow V-twin concept.
The GSX-R1000 engine epitomizes the relentless (yet still cautious) approach of Japanese industry. With every generation, pieces get smaller, lighter, more efficient; and yet power continues to rise. Will future generations look upon the GSX-R1000 motor as we do the CB750 or Z-1's? You bet.
It's all about the packaging. Refer back to the shot of the Ducati's Testastretta engine. See how long it is, front to back? Now look at the GSX-R chassis--this is the reason Japanese manufacturers love the inline-four. As the engine grows ever more compact--and the Suzuki doesn't (yet) have the stacked gearbox shafts as do the new Honda and Yamaha's trendsetting YZF-R1--packaging the rest becomes easier. Nothing fussy here; just solid engineering, and lots of it.
Who else but an Italian firm--led by a South African!--would produce a bike so dramatically styled. Ducati's relatively small size allows it to outmaneuver the more conservative Japanese on the style front. You may not love the shape, but credit Ducati for trying.
1973: Kawasaki Z-1. Kawasaki has lived on a reputation for fearsome engines, started right here.
1984: Kawasaki Ninja 900R. Same deal as the Z-1, 11 years on. First modern inline-four and dead-serious chassis.
1986: Suzuki GSX-R1100. Gloves off, Suzuki abandons long-running GS series for the ultimate sports ship.
1988: Yamaha FZR1000. Genesis engine, Deltabox aluminum frame--the serious-o-meter hits the peg.
1993: Honda CBR900RR. A new emphasis on low weight with high power produces a 600-sized literbike. Woo Hoo.
1972: Paul Smart Imola-winning superbike. Claimed victory its first time out, cementing Ducati into the hearts of Italophiles.
1979: Pantah 500. Renaissance engine for Ducati, introduced belt cam drive. All roads lead back to here.
1985: 750 F1. Amid the dark days of the Cagiva buyout, the F1 signaled Ducati's will to build the same bikes it raced.
1988: 851. Developed by Massimo Bordi, the liquid-cooled, four-valve 851 won on Sunday, sold on Monday.
1994: 916. Sparked adolescent longing the world over. Perhaps the sexiest motorcycle ever.