As I climbed on to the back of the racing Ducati, the pit crew chief spoke to Dario, who was crouched over the converted race bike’s controls. I heard what was said above the bark of the engine – “giornalista”. I soon realised this was Italian for “show him no mercy”.
Setting off at an astounding pace from the starting grid of Brands Hatch racing circuit in Kent, Dario duly showed none. For two laps of the long grand prix circuit, my hands, locked around grips bolted to the tank, were often my only contact with the bike as Dario’s savage acceleration and braking threw the rest of me one way or another.
As a lesson in the capabilities of a race machine – World Superbike champion Troy Bayliss is using an almost identical bike to defend his title – the point was well made. The sheer violence with which Dario, himself an endurance racing champion, threw the slick-shod bike on to its side for corners, and then shotgunned it out, was light years removed from the smooth style most road riders favour.
I rode a race bike for a couple of seasons but, at the end of my ordeal with Dario, I was shaking my head at the gulf in our abilities almost as much as the bike shook its head along the straight as the front wheel merely skimmed the ground.
The violence of the braking was the most surprising part of the ride. That and the fact that, despite the huge deceleration forces that lifted me off my seat, the bike felt securely attached to the Brands Hatch asphalt – which I was grateful for. During a race there not so many years ago I shattered my collar bone.
One of the defining strengths of the 1098S, Ducati’s latest road superbike, is braking power. It is aided by the higher-quality suspension that is the main difference from the base 1098 bike. But the 160bhp 90-degree V-twin engine used on both bikes is identical. It has a design feature that Ducati has stuck with almost alone – desmodromic valve control, which closes each cylinder’s intake and exhaust valves mechanically rather than just by springs. Better springs and lighter valves have eroded the complicated system’s advantage in accurate control of the valves, but Ducati’s faith has been rewarded by a power output higher than any other twin-cylinder engine.
This engine is another key feature. It sounds rough and snatches at low revs but smooths out and finds its voice at higher revs. And what a voice. “It’s rather noisy,” said my partner, the professor, when I started it, initiating an insistent, barking bass riff from the exhausts – with a touch of triangle, from the rattling dry clutch – and a snarl when you close the throttle. The effect may not be as irritating as a scooter, or as intimidating as the slow rumble of a Harley, but it is loud enough to be embarrassing late at night when parking in a quiet north London square.
Even without the noise, the bike turns heads. It is tiny but, with a sharply aggressive face, it is reminiscent of the 916, the superbike that resurrected Ducati’s fortunes. Low, sleek and wearing top-quality engineering on the outside, the 916 series, launched in 1993, delineated an Italian look that catered to style-savvy buyers.
A decade later, Ducati’s replacement, the 999, was dynamically better but its stylists opted for angular brutalism to replace organic curves and threw away the aesthetic gains. The current 1098, though, uses elements of the 916 in a bike that, while not ground-breaking, is much more than a pastiche of past styles. Incidentally, the 1098 is actually a 1099cc bike, but the name steers around the sensitivities of those US taxpayers whose lives are bedevilled by IRS form 1099.
The bike does have its peculiarities. As the engine starts to warm, hot air from the engine and the underseat exhausts roasts your seat. It’s not as bad as the Buell from which the professor once jumped before we stopped, examining her thigh for burns. But in the sort of temperatures that summer is supposed to bring, the Ducati’s ability to use the rider as a heat sink rather detracts from the cool image.
Also on the debit side, most of the time the mirrors, beautifully shaped teardrops that also house the front indicators, are more decorative than useful. But damning the bike for such failings is missing the point. The successful World Superbike Ducati Xerox racer is based on the old road bike, the 999. The next racer will be derived from the 1098, and the track is where the bike’s soul lives.
On a track such as Brands Hatch, the road 1098S makes perfect sense. Small enough to be muscled around the tight Druids hairpin, the Ducati is also stable at full lean on scary, high-speed bends such as Paddock Hill, which falls away to the right at the end of a fast straight. At the long, sweeping Clearways bend, I could easily change direction to avoid slower riders even while banked over enough to keep my knee slider screeching along the ground.
But its chief strength is that it lets let a rider build up cornering confidence at his or her own pace. And, of course, a design I would be happy to have grace my living room.
The test ride
Say hello to: an even sportier version of the Italian bikemaker’s leading road bike.
How powerful? 1099cc 90 degree V twin with desmodromic valve control. 160bhp, 90ft lb of torque, 6-speed gearbox, chain drive.
How big? 56.3in wheelbase, seat height 32.2in, dry weight 377lb
How fast? 170mph
How much? £13,995 (£11,250 for the base 1098, which has cheaper suspension).
You might also like: Honda FireBlade a four-cylinder bike with 153 bhp, top speed 177 mph. Composed cornering ability that flatters riders, £8,999
Battle of the superbikes
Ducati has flown the European flag among roadgoing superbikes but the Fireblade from Japan’s Honda was the bike that set the pace.
When it was launched in 1992, the 893cc Fireblade was smaller than most 600cc bikes. Its 410lb dry weight and 125bhp seem dated now but were revolutionary at the time – as was its nimble handling, derived partly from the light and stiff alloy beam frame it used instead of steel tubes.
The Blade’s ability to use its power set the agenda for the big-capacity sports bikes that followed as the other big three Japanese bikemakers gave chase. Yamaha with its R1, Suzuki with its GSX-R1000 and – eventually – Kawasaki with its ZX-10R.
Top honours have swapped between the Japanese four, plus Ducati, as they updated their contenders in this fiercely contested class. But all the current bikes are anorexic machines that use expensive materials such as titanium alloys and carbon-fibre composites.
The result is race-bred superbikes with as much as 175bhp but with secure handling and huge braking power that makes them safe to ride with verve on the road – and even more fun on the track.
More reviews at www.ft.com/testdrive
Get alerts on Ducati Motor Holding SpA when a new story is published