OK, we're not going to diddle around with all the controversy surrounding the design of Ducati's 999, or the man behind it, Pierre Terblanche. Nor are we going to delve into all the major mechanical details of this innovative machine, since we covered most of that in our First Ride in the December 2002 issue.
So let's just cut to the chase, shall we? What's Ducati's latest flagship like to ride on the street? One of Terblanche's mandates in designing the 999 was to make the bike easier to ride than its Tamburini-designed predecessors, while still improving the all-out performance that the desmoquattro has been famous for. So once you get past all the "Shoot Terblanche!" and "Burn the heretic design!" griping and armchair critiquing, the big question remains: Have Terblanche and the Ducati design team succeeded in their quest?
Let's be frank here-while the 999's ergonomics are a vast improvement over the 916/998's uncompromisingly racebike-replica riding position, the 999 is still a narrow-focus sportbike, not a soft-core model like the Kawasaki ZX-9R or the older Honda CBR600s. Yes, there's a lot more legroom for taller riders, and the broad, flat seat has much more room to move about, in addition to offering far more support for your derriere. The adjustable seat/tank unit, adjustable footpeg assemblies, and adjustable foot control components all contribute to a more adaptable motorcycle than the previous "take it or leave it" design.
But there's no overlooking the fact that the 999 still has one mission on its mind: to get from point A to point B quicker than its predecessor. Which means that while there were some accommodations made for comfort, there weren't any compromises included with them. The seat may be more supportive and roomy, but the padding is still pretty thin. And although the 999 doesn't force as much weight on your wrists and arms as the 998, it's still a very aggressive sportbike posture that will have your body crying uncle on any highway drones longer than 30 minutes.
Nonetheless, the 999 feels even smaller and thinner than the 998, a bike that already made other sportbikes look like pregnant guppies by comparison. The bars are closer to the seat (and the reach can be made even shorter by moving the seat/tank unit forward), and the Ducati's midsection between the rider's knees is even narrower than before, giving you an impression more akin to a bicycle than a motorcycle.
Although not apparent in this...
Although not apparent in this photo, the row of warning lights atop the anolog tachometer are obscured from view by the windscreen's trailing edge. The mirrors are absolutely useless in viewing anything behind you.
The same air of quality fit and finish is apparent everywhere you look, from the hollowed-out top triple clamp (contrary to popular belief, the top triple clamp does not have to handle large side loads) to the molded brake/clutch fluid reservoirs and incrementally adjustable control levers. Turn the key, and both the analog tachometer and LCD panel display glow a pleasant green hue, as the ignition system goes through a diagnostic check before settling in to its default digital display of speedometer, coolant temp, battery status, time and odometer (tripmeter, ambient air temp, fuel consumption and a lap timer that also displays top speed and rpm can be accessed by pressing switches that bracket the tachometer).
Brembo's excellent four-pad...
Brembo's excellent four-pad calipers have finally made it onto a mass-production Ducati. Their fantastic power and feel make the old Brembos feel like wooden blocks.
Starting the 999 in the morning requires that you remember a single mantra: Do not open the throttle or fast idle lever until the engine fires up. You must simply hit the starter button and wait for the engine to come to life after a few seconds of listening to the starter motor struggling against the engine compression and crankshaft weight. Attempting to crack the throttle open will only force you to run the starter motor longer (and possibly drain the battery). Once the engine begins to idle, you can open the throttle or fast idle lever at any time. We theorize that the 999's "shower" injectors are the guilty party here; while they have many advantages over conventional setups that position the injectors inside the throttle bodies, cold engines require a lot of fuel to fire up. Much of the initial fuel spray from shower injectors probably condenses on the cold surfaces of the throttle bodies and intake tracts before it can get down into the combustion chamber to aid startup.
The projector beam lights...
The projector beam lights give off a decent pattern at night. We're not sure of the purpose behind the "reading light" mounted on the windscreen above the two headlights.
Getting underway reveals the same tall gearing from the 998 (top gear at 70 mph has the engine loafing along at 3500 rpm, much too low for any decent acceleration), which calls for some clutch work to get off the line smartly. The clutch in our test unit also protested with a bit of grabbiness and noise when used aggressively, and lever effort is still a bit high. Transmission feel and action is much improved, however, and finding neutral at a stop no longer requires deft shift and clutch lever work. Contrary to our first impressions at the Misano track launch, the 999's mirrors, while an improvement over the 998's tiny afterthoughts, still require body contortions to see what's directly behind you unless you're near full race tuck.
The 999's front brake and...
The 999's front brake and clutch levers are incrementally adjustable using a screw-type adjuster, rather than the more common six-position cam dial. Note how the fluid reservoir is molded around the lever mount for extra steering clearance at full lock.
That same body positioning is also required to see the warning lights rimming the top of the tach clearly, as the edge of the windscreen obscures them from a normal riding posture. The 999's fuel tank is smaller (4.1 gallons vs. 4.5 for the 998), so the fuel level light comes on much sooner, typically at around 125-130 miles; we often were able to reach 150-160 miles on the 998. We stretched one tankful on the 999 to about 150 miles, but that was pushing it; as we filled up the tank, we discovered the Ducati was running on fumes. The battery level display converts to a real-time mpg readout when the fuel level light goes on, which we found a bit silly; we'd rather know how many miles we'd run since the warning light came on.
Engine heat management seems better, as we never suffered from the roasted thighs common to our rides on the 916/998 in traffic. We'd read some reports in other magazines about the exhaust collector box underneath the seat radiating a lot of heat to the rider's butt (it contains one of the 999's two catalytic converters), but we never encountered that problem. We can't vouch for the biposto version, however, which has thick heat-reflecting foil covering the entire surface underneath the passenger seat. Incidentally, the 999 biposto model does not have the fore/aft adjustable seat/tank unit like the monoposto edition.
As on the previous generation...
As on the previous generation 998, the 999's rear suspension ride height is easily adjustable via the threaded linkage rod underneath the seat.
The 999's seat/tank assembly...
The 999's seat/tank assembly is adjustable fore and aft by a total of 20mm by using one of these three mounting holes underneath the seat. Unfortunately, the biposto version doesn't have this feature.
WHAT IT WAS DESIGNED FOR
OK, so the 999 hasn't exactly been gentrified into a soft-core, infinitely refined sportbike. So what. The instant you grab some throttle heading into your favorite set of twisties and flick the bike toward the first apex, you'll discover that Terblanche and Co. have indeed succeeded in improving the breed. The 999 is simply easier to go fast on, requiring far less effort from its pilot to run at an aggressive pace through asphalt curvature.
The muffler/collector box...
The muffler/collector box for the exhaust retains a lot of heat, due to the catalytic converter inside. The exhaust note is a bit too muffled for our tastes.
The most noticeable difference is in the 999's steering. Even though our test unit had its adjustable steering head angle set at the more conservative 24.5-degree setting (we saw no need to use the racier 23.5 degree position), steering manners are so much lighter than the 998 that you may find yourself running off the inside of the first corner if you're not careful. Granted, the 999 isn't a razor-edge rapier like the Honda CBR954RR; instead, the 999's front end is precise yet forgivingly neutral, and by no means flighty, even while accelerating hard through bumpy corners. Nor has it lost any of the 998's trademark front-end feedback that inspires high entry and midcorner speeds. Picking the bike up from one full lean angle to the other no longer demands the massive upper body effort that can quickly tire you out after a while.
Revised suspension rates also contribute to the 999's improved handling. Although the spring and damping rates appear to have been softened up considerably (which helps the Ducati's city/highway manners immensely), they can easily handle the rigors of aggressive backroad/racetrack charging without losing their composure. Minor bump compliance is much improved, yet the bigger hits and massive weight transfer that occur while riding at anything above a 7/10ths pace are handled without breaking a sweat. We would, however, like Ducati to provide a rear spring preload spanner in the tool kit (which is cleverly hook-and-loop-fastened to the inner right fairing lower); we had to crank in a lot of preload, and the lack of a proper tool and shock access forced us to use the ol' hammer-and-punch method, which dinged up the spring preload ring. Not the way to treat your $17,695 baby....
Not a whole lot of tools available...
Not a whole lot of tools available in the tool kit, including any sort of spanner wrench for the rear spring preload. You might be careful accessing the tool kit too, since it's fastened inside the lower right fairing next to the hot motor.
Let's not forget the 998cc Testastretta motor, which may be virtually identical internally to the 998's powerplant, but breathes much easier by virtue of a larger airbox and improved exhaust system-even with two catalytic converters installed. This parlays into a much-improved midrange punch over the 998, especially off of medium-speed second/third-gear corners; you can let the revs drop to 5000 rpm and still accelerate strongly at the exit. Throttle response from the 54mm Marelli shower injectors is a little fluffy below 4000 rpm riding in traffic, but it sharpens up anywhere above that, providing a crisp response that lofts the front end easily in the lower gears.
Even top-end power was improved, despite the flow-impeding cat-cons: our test unit cranked out 119 horsepower at 10,000 rpm, an increase of eight over our previous 998. Like its desmoquattro predecessors, the 999 builds its speed smoothly and deceptively, until you find yourself hurtling into the next corner way faster than you expected. In fact, that acceleration is deceptive enough that it's sometimes difficult to know where you're at in the rev range, and banging into the 10,200 rpm rev limiter is a much harsher experience than on the 998. Where you could stretch a gear on the old bike by just carrying the rev-limiter, the 999's rather abrupt limiter causes the engine to stutter way too much for this practice to be comfortable (and to make time). Hitting it midcorner can also be startling, although it's not abrupt enough to upset the handling. And the shift light on the dash isn't bright enough to catch your attention in daylight.
Thankfully, the brakes have been upgraded to keep up with the increased steam. Brembo's latest four-pad calipers have finally made their way to a mass-production Ducati, and not a moment too soon. Paired with the usual 320mm discs up front, the new Brembos ironically are a major factor in the 999's easier effort at making time. Their power, crisp response, progressiveness, and excellent feel literally make two-finger braking unnecessary for all but the most aggressive situations; one finger effort is often all that is needed. This frees up rider concentration and physical effort for other riding chores while charging through a set of corners, which results in higher speeds.
SO IS IT REALLY BETTER?
Ducati and Terblanche took a big risk in tampering with a formula as successful at Tamburini's 916/998 design. There's no doubt that the styling has generated controversy, with many Ducatisti crying for Terblanche's head. Styling is a subjective, emotional subject that can polarize the most loyal of bike fans-especially those of an Italian marque. Even at the SR offices, opinions on the 999's appearance are mixed; some like it, some don't. Whatever the case may be, we caution that you view the bike up close and in the "metal" before you pass judgement. Photographs unfor-tunately don't do the 999 justice at all.
But what isn't debatable is that the new 999 works better than the previous generation. In every aspect of backroad performance, the 999 is superior to Tamburini's 916/998, and it accomplishes this without pummeling the rider physically. Sure, there are the usual warts that keep the slate from being perfectly smooth, but they don't impede the 999 from achieving its intended purpose-and performing it better than before.
If you're more concerned with how a sportbike looks, then by all means check out a 999 up close and make your judgement. But as one of our testers said recently: "Hell, I don't know about those other guys, but I can't see how great the bike looks while I'm riding it."
It all started to make sense as I bolted down the hill after the photo shoot, trying to make the main highway before dark. This particular canyon, one of my favorites, is not one on which Ducatis traditionally shine, as the road is full of dips and rises, and twists back on itself in a series of first-and second-gear hairpins. But the 999 surprised me, taking it all in stride with its light steering and free-revving motor. It's amazing how different the 999 is from the 998; with that bike, you had to use all your concentration and be super-careful with every control input, while still using a lot of muscle. The 999 can be ridden almost lazily, like a 600-it's willing to go as fast as you are capable of riding it.
As an engineer, I can look at the 999 for hours, noting the details and truly elegant design solutions that Terblanche has incorporated. In that way, the bike is beautiful. But as much as I like the 999 in that respect and in how it functions, I can't say that the styling works for me. Plus, with the boom box replacing the 998's twin cans, the 999 sounds like a strangled vertical twin rather than a booming V. Does the new bike's performance offset its lack of style and sound appeal in my mind? Yes. It's that good. -Andrew Trevitt
I will admit that after seeing initial photos of the Terblanche-designed 999, I was a bit disappointed. But after spending a few weeks living with the new desmoquattro, its looks are growing on me. The small projector beam headlights and sloping nose of the front fairing were the main styling warts for me; but getting a chance to see one up close for a while has made those gripes far less obtrusive than they used to be. And they never were enough to make me overlook the bike's performance.
Of course, it helps that the 999 is a far superior sportbike than the previous 916/998 generation, which was a standard-setting machine in its own right. The 999 is simply sharper and better in nearly all aspects of performance. My only real remaining gripe is the absolutely useless mirrors. They are far too low in relation to the rider, and force you to take your eyes completely away from the road (in addition to lifting or bending your elbow) to see what's behind you. -Kent Kunitsugu
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Sport Rider.