Motorcycles > Ducati 999R

While flipping channels earlier this week, a whacked-out guest of the preachy "Dr. Phil" show was telling the nation about his financial problems. He and his family had declared bankruptcy a couple of years ago and were well on their way to losing it all again.

The motorcycle-related part of this anecdote is that, despite this poor sap's near financial ruin, he was resolutely unwilling to sell his prized Ducati. "No, you don't understand," he pleaded. "It's a Ducati."

Well, if this dude ever took a ride on Ducati's stupendous new 999R, he'd be looking for a nice cardboard box to live in.

Yes, Ducatis have the ability to turn once rational riders into slavishly devoted snobs. Exotic, exclusive, visually stunning and with a rich racing heritage, the Italian brand is seen as something to aspire to beyond the ubiquitous "rice rockets." And the 999R you see here is the pinnacle of Ducati streetbike technology.

The Borgo Paginale-based company has achieved worldwide fame with its multitude of victories and championships at the World Superbike level, garnering lustful feeling from racer wannabees across the globe. But in America, a highly lucrative market for Ducati, the red Superbikes haven't had much racing in the past decade—they haven't won an AMA championship since way back in 1994 when Troy Corser exploded on the U.S. scene with the Fast By Ferracci squad.

Hence the introduction of the new 999R, the striking platform on which Ducati will base its front-line racers this season. America sees the arrival of 300 units to meet homologation requirements for the AMA Superbike class, showing Ducati's dedication to performing well on American racetracks; just 50 999Rs were sold here in '04.

And just who is in the market for a $29,995 streetbike? Aside from Eric Bostrom and former SBK champ Neil Hodgson who will ride hopped-up versions of these same machines, a Ducati rep told us there's already been about 200 well-heeled enthusiasts who have purchased this limited-production piece of Italian exotica.

If you're wondering if the ultra-cool 999S we tested, with its R-spec Ohlins suspension and new-for-'05 radial-mount Brembo brake calipers, is pretty much the same bike, think again. The extra $7000 the R commands is mostly due to an entirely different and more exotic V-Twin engine, actually displacing a true 999cc instead of the 998cc of the standard and S versions. Yes, you read that right, Ducati's 999 and 999S don't have a 999cc engine. (Side note: For '05, the standard 999 uses the 2004 S model's engine, giving it a decent boost of power in stock form.)

Instead of the 100 x 63.5mm bore and stroke of the lesser 999s, the 999R has a larger bore (104mm) and shorter stroke (58.8), as it did last year. Also remaining the same is the R's aluminum crankcases that are sand-cast instead of being cast in a steel die like the other 999s. But that's where the similarity to the '04 motor ends.

The key change to the already potent engine is a completely new cylinder head design. Revised ports feed larger valves, now made of lightweight titanium. Although the intakes are 2mm larger in diameter and exhausts gain 1mm in size, Ducati claims the valves are lighter by a significant 36% and 39%, respectively; a 1mm-thinner valve stem also helps pare weight down. More aggressive cams with higher lifts are fitted to the desmodromic valve-actuating system. The fuel mixture is squeezed at a slightly higher compression ratio by a new piston shape, pushed up and down by more titanium, this time in the form of Ti connecting rods. The steel crankshaft is another component that has lost some weight through a redesign, and its counterweights are now "knife-edged" for less power loss as they splash through crankcase oil. Feeding the beast is a new set of 12-hole injectors in the 54mm Marelli throttle bodies that atomize fuel better than the old 4-holers.

What this means in practice is the most potent production V-Twin motor ever. We measured 134.1 horsepower on the Dynojet dynamometer of our buddies at White Brothers. That's an impressive 14.6 ponies up on the 999S we tested last year, a meaningful 11% gain. Just as impressive is the increased torque production of the R, churning out 76.5 lb-ft at 8000 rpm for an 11% bonus over the S's 67.8 figure. FYI, that's right in the middle of the peak torque production figures posted by the current four-cylinder literbikes.

But the way in which the Duc produces its twist is nothing like that of the Fours. Its individually numbered triple clamps will come up to greet you with just a gentle twist from as low as 3000 rpm. Its deep well of torque is a bit surprising for such a highly tuned oversquare motor like this, but the triple-nine-er defies physics by cranking out more than 50 lb-ft of torque from as low as 2600 rpm! For those keeping score, any 600 supersport produces less torque at their peak! It's the kind of power that launches a bike out of corners with controlled ferocity, making the rear tire squirm as it digs into the pavement in search of grip.

Twisting the 999R's quick-turn throttle hard and letting it rev out results in a pull unlike we've ever felt from an engine with less than four cylinders. Many Inline-Four riders are often disappointed by a Twin's less peaky power characteristics when they ride one, as they don't quite measure up to the rush one gets from a multi-cylinder's hit; Twins are often favorably described as "sneaky fast," which perhaps isn't quite as thrilling. But this is one Twin that breaks the mold – there is nothing sneaky about the speed of the 999R.

We were lucky enough to get the 999R out on the track not once but twice, and it proved to be about as much fun as a speed junkie can have on two wheels—or any wheels, for that matter. If you can't go fast on this thing, you simply can't go fast.

We went to Spring Mountain Motorsports Park in Pahrump, Nevada, as guests of our friends at SoCal Trackdays. An SCT event—held almost exclusively at Spring Mountain—is one of the best ways to get maximum track time under your belt. Unlike all other track days we've attended, SCT doesn't split riders up into two or three groups based on skill levels, so a rider is free to head out as long and as often as he/she desires. Most bikes in attendance are dedicated track bikes or racebikes with number-plates, and the majority of riders were both fast and smart. This isn't the best place for track neophytes, but anyone with a few trackdays under their belt will really value the schedule flexibility and will end the day exhausted.

Although Spring Mountain doesn't have a lot of wide-open spaces to really stretch the legs of a 999R, it does offer far more opportunities to stretch the throttle cables than the street ever could. Power gently seethes with a light touch on the right grip, exhibiting none of the abruptness during re-application of throttle that we hate on some other fuel-injected bikes. Twist harder and the Italian stallion piles on speed with force and grace as it runs up unrelentingly through the revs. It was interesting to watch a racer on a modded Ducati 998 pass me in one of Spring Mountain's corners, only to have the stock 999R reel him back in gap hand-over-fist down the back straight. And let's not forget the R meets EPA and Euro 2 emissions regs with its choked-down, catalyzer-equipped exhaust.

"The power delivery is a definite step above the other Twins we tested in 2004," said Editorial Director Ken Hutchison after his ride at Pahrump. "I can't believe how hard this bike pulls."

We strapped on our Racelogic Vbox data logger to measure just how fast the 999R is, and we came away impressed and pumped with adrenaline. It ran a best of 10.35 seconds at 142 mph in the standing-start quarter-mile. CBR1000RR owners suffer the ignominy of not only having a four-cylinder bike that weighs more than a traditionally heavier Twin, but also having a bike that runs a slower quarter (10.43 secs). On the Duc, 60 mph comes up in just 2.98 seconds thanks to bountiful torque and a cooperative clutch. Keep it roaring for another 25 seconds or so and it will max out at 167 mph (a figure that jumps to 174 mph if corrected for barometric conditions), even though its digital speedometer ceases to display any reading after indicating up to 174 mph.

As you might expect from a championship-winning Superbike, this delicious Duc has a chassis worthy of its stout motor. Naturally, top-shelf Ohlins suspension is used front and rear, and it's even better than before. The 43mm inverted fork has been thoroughly tweaked: a new top-out spring makes the bike more stable under hard acceleration, and revised spring and damping rates combine with a new plastic spring guide that reduces internal friction. The Ohlins rear damper now has a non-return valve in the rebound damping circuits that isolate the effects of compression damping adjustments. The new aluminum swingarm is identical to that on the '05 Superbike and is made from a cast center section and pressed-aluminum sides, which Ducati says is more rigid. It will suffice to say that you'll likely never ride a better suspended bike.

The 999R retains Ducati's adjustable rake angle feature in which a steering head eccentric can be rotated to give either the standard 24.5-degree rake and 97mm of trail or a racier 23.5-degree/91mm combo for quicker steering. The standard (and more stable) position is hard to beat, as it offers mid-corner stability as good as anything we've ever tested. Few bikes are as serene with a knee down – if it had a cupholder, I could have a sip of my café latte while knee pucks are scrubbing.

"The 999R is so stable that it rewards you by remaining planted mid-turn and not being adversely affected by smaller inputs or road imperfections that usually unsettle lighter, more radical bikes," says Hutch. "That stability opens up a door that encourages the rider to go faster because it feels so planted."

In this case, unshakable stability does not compromise agility. The 999R features forged aluminum Marchesini wheels that are said to be a massive 7.1 pounds lighter per pair than the cast-aluminum hoops on the 999 and 999S. This huge reduction in rotating mass results in steering that is noticeably quicker than lesser 999s.

Ducati engineers achieved nearly a 4% weight reduction from the S model by slathering the R with numerous pricey materials like titanium (valves, rods), magnesium (head covers, headlight support casting, mirror brackets), and, a Ducatisti favorite, carbon fiber (fairing, cam belt covers, chain guard, countershaft cover, front fender and muffler wrapping). The net effect is the reduction of the S's 439-lbs tank-empty weight to just 425 lbs.

With all these high-end components, it wouldn't be right to fit brakes that are anything less than stellar, and the 999R doesn't disappoint. A radial-mount master cylinder actuates the twin 4-piston, 4-pad radial-mount calipers, all top-line Brembo stuff, including the 320mm front rotors that are placed further outward this year for an improvement in cooling airflow. They proved to be stunningly powerful, with strong retardation possible with just a short pull of the adjustable lever. More than once we went into a turn with more speed than anticipated, and the 999R—which is very stable under braking—easily scrubbed off enough velocity to quell the puckering moment. Our only caveat here is that their aggressive initial bite can surprise the unwary.

Our bike was fitted with Michelin's new Pilot Power tires, replacements for the little-loved Pilot Sports. They proved to be predictable, grippy and quick to warm, noticeably better than the old Sports. On the 999R, a rider can feel the rear tire dig in satisfyingly as V-Twin power pulses propel the bike forward.

The 999R proved to be a better streetbike than we had expected from such a high-strung animal. Although clutch lever pull is traditional Ducati high-effort, modulating the dry clutch's friction zone is surprisingly easy. When accelerating away from a stop, a rider can almost immediately lift the front wheel just an inch or two off the ground and then use the precise throttle to easily adjust the angle of attack as high or as low as he dares. And even if the front wheel is descending, there is ample power to hoist it back up again. One-wheel wackos will enjoy how the front end can be pulled up at speeds as high as 80 mph.

Although the R is definitely not intended for touring or commuting, it's amazing how a top-line sportbike suspension can be so supple on the road. Botts dots disappear underneath the Marchesinis, while big hits that might make a rider wince get swallowed with nary a whimper. It's a magic carpet ride on the freeway, with the pricy Swedish suspension bits erasing pavement imperfections like a steadfast servant clearing the path for impending royalty.

But spend too much time on the highway and a 999 rider will be cursing its track-oriented riding position, brick-like seat, and cursed mirrors, the latter making terrific turnsignal holders but lousy rearward viewers. Hands will go numb after about 30 freeway minutes, but that's a fault of the clip-ons forcing an awkward wrist angle more than from any sort of engine vibration. In fact, with the motor's lighter reciprocating and rotating masses, this might be the smoothest Desmos we've ever sampled, and it positively loafs along at a lofty 85 mph (or higher). Our 999R might also have had the nicest shifting gearbox of any Ducati. Ergonomically, we appreciated the taller windscreen fitted to the 999R; not only does it offer a bit more protection from the elements, its upper edge no longer obscures a rider's view of the gauges.

Although the 999's appearance has been lambasted by some, it continues to grow on us, especially with the '05 changes to its nose that fills in the cosmetic slots above the actual air intake slots. It's cleaner and better looking. People seemed to really appreciate the sight of the 999R and, we're supposing, what it represents. At one traffic light in particular, a guy in a '68 Mustang fastback hung out his window as he drove past to give the bike a thumbs-up. Moments later, a guy hung out the side door of the armored car next to me and implored me to pull a wheelie for his visual amusement.

As befits a pricey Italian exotic, the 999R can be a bit temperamental. It stalled on us twice during our street testing when re-applying throttle from idle at a stoplight, a low-rpm hiccup causing a desultory cah-ugh from the highly tuned Twin. The rear turnsignal housings are cleverly designed for easy removal at trackdays by rotating them just a quarter-turn, but we only found out about this feature when we returned from a track session one signal lighter; it's likely we inadvertently twisted it while loading or unloading. We'd also bitch about the riding position that's so brutal on the street, but it's so perfect on the track.

Finally, we'd like to encourage Ducati to fit a longer sidestand; its shape neatly tucks into the side fairing for enhanced aerodynamics and a clean look but it's much too short for this application, resulting in a grunt when heaving the leaned-over bike up off its undersized stand.

Oh, and then there's that not-so-subtle hurdle of its $30K price tag. Okay, we admit this tasty bit of kit is out of our financial leagues, and probably yours, too. But for riders with fat wallets, this limited-production dream machine is worth every one of the 3 million pennies it costs

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