The Circuito De Velocidad De Almeria in the South of Spain packs 15 corners into 2.5 miles of wonderfully undulating pavement unspoiled by the four-wheeled asphalt-rippling behemoths that tear up and scar our tracks here in the States. Despite Spaniard Fernando Alonso's pair of recent Formula 1 car championships, Spain has its priorities straight and does not place motorcycles below cars on the racing circuit pecking order. That's good for Almeria's track surface, but it leaves precious few reference points for track first-timers such as myself to cue off of for plotting precise lines through the circuit's many critical blind corners. I found a pair of near-90-mph, blind-crest righthanders stimulating, to say the least.
As problems go you can do worse than perfectly smooth, virtually unblemished pavement, but it makes getting up to speed quickly quite tricky. With only four 15-minute track sessions available and a handful of quick European journalists who can apparently lap Almeria with their eyes closed, the pressure to uphold American and Sport rider pride was on. What I needed was exactly what Ducati delivered: a capable, agile and forgiving partner.
The fleet of 15 pearlescent white Ducati 848s was exactly what the doctor ordered. Under the self-induced pressure of another international-journalist Grand Prix, most of my peers were similarly pushing their personal comfort envelopes, and had any one of the many key factors of engine, chassis, brake or tire performance been out of balance, the paddock would have been packed with wrinkled brows and muttered complaints. Instead we're all grinning like fools and chattering like gleeful chipmunks.
A year after Ducati's breathtakingly beautiful 1098 signaled a major course correction for the Italian firm in terms of design philosophy, sales figures and consumer enthusiasm, we're introduced to the 848, or "the little sister," as world Superbike competitor ruben Xaus refers to it. And while the flagship 1098 will no doubt grab race-winning glory in the hands of Xaus, troy Bayliss and others, Ducati expects "the light and nimble 848" (as spelled out in bold type in the first paragraph of the press kit) to sell in far greater numbers, due in no small part to its $3000 or so lower price point.
In the case of the 848 less is more, and not just in terms of price. Ducati claims the 848 is 11 pounds lighter than the 1098, but smaller dimensions in several key areas make it feel like more of a difference. I've logged plenty of street and track miles on the 1098 and 1098S in Sr's open Class and Bike of the year comparison tests, and while it is devastatingly powerful, resetting the standards of twin-cylinder performance, it is not a particularly user-friendly package. its off/on throttle transition is abrupt, and the engine's massive torque hits hard enough to pitch the chassis about suddenly. The transmission's wide ratios often leave you near the hard-hitting rev limiter second-guessing whether you should upshift on short straights, only to require another downshift a moment later. The 1098's massive brake rotors and powerful Brembo calipers are the strongest I've sampled on a production bike, but even with one finger on the lever they demand a delicate touch. the bike's suspension feels stiffly sprung even for my 185-pound weight, refusing to settle comfortably into its stroke until pushed hard, and then it still didn't feel quite right.
Thankfully the 848 was far more user-friendly in nearly every way at a track that rewards finesse over force. In Ducati philosophy the 848 twin is aimed at the competition's middleweight 600s, though at a claimed 134 horsepower at 10,000 rpm (at the crank, not the rear wheel) it's a bit of an overdog. The press kit points out that the 848's power-toweight ratio compares favorably with the previous 999. Just as the italian firm was successful in persuading the powers that be in world Superbike to up the twincylinder displacement limit to 1200cc for Superbike, the company hopes that the 848 will someday be approved for world Supersport competition. As of now, however, it looks as though the 848's racing will be limited to the AMA Formula Xtreme class.
The 848 has a much softer power delivery as you crack the throttle open midcorner, thanks to smaller throttle bodies controlled by Marelli electronics. The Desmoquattro mill pulls cleanly but leisurely below 5000 rpm and picks up revs eagerly above 6500. It hits with a vengeance near its 8250-rpm torque peak and continues pulling well past 10,000 rpm. only on the half-mile-long uphill back straight, where i was staying in the upper rpm longer, did the 848's mill begin to run out of breath. Its higher rev limit of 11,200 rpm (versus the 1098's 1000-rpm-lower rev limit) allows more room for skipping gearshifts-a good thing, because for several of Almeria's corners i was cranked over with my knee skimming the ground at the top of second gear, the series of shift lights on the dash flickering like a Christmas tree. The last thing i could afford was an abrupt rev limiter upsetting the chassis. the fastest riders, Xaus and AMA Superstock racer Chris Ulrich, who also have previous track knowledge, were obviously carrying more speed and using third gear. I tried that option, but it didn't give the desired engine braking to tighten up the line if i drifted wide over one of the blind crests. Lacking the confidence of track knowledge and not wanting to sample the Spanish soil, i went back to spinning up second gear with shift lights flickering and my right wrist performing a delicate act of staying just off the rev limiter and keeping the weight distribution balanced between the front and rear contact patches. A little more overrev capability would be a comforting option.
Like much of the technology in their bikes, the Italians are proud of the digital instrumentation "taken from Ducati's MotoGP GP7 project." I know that world Champions Casey Stoner and Valentino Rossi all use similar digital bar-graph tachometers, but i much prefer seeing the needle sweep across an analog dial and find it far easier to read at a glance. Another nit to pick is that upshifts, particularly clutchless upshifts, seem to take more effort and a more pronounced rollout of the throttle than i'm accustomed to with other Ducatis or competitive bikes. I noticed this in other riders, too; as I drafted past on the back straight, sometimes both of us needed a second or third attempt to finally execute the upshift. Downshifts, however, were smooth and predictable.
A peculiar characteristic of the Almeria circuit corner radii and camber is that it continues to work the front tire hard even after the apex when your wrist is back to neutral throttle. Those of us new to the track were still making minor midcorner corrections as well, all the while aware of the traction available at front and rear contact patches and carefully balancing the throttle. At a track like this you need complete and absolute confidence in the front tire, and the 848 delivers. Ducatis have never been known for light and quick steering manners; the engineers from Borgo panigale prefer conservative rake and generous trail figures that yield stability and superb traction feedback. I've always leaned in this direction in my racebike setups, and a track like Almeria highlights this handling aspect. The 848's narrower rear wheel-and-tire combination also gives sublimely neutral and responsive steering characteristics that make subtle midcorner corrections-even with your knee already on the deck near maximum lean angle-possible and almost effortless, while bikes with a wider rear wheel/tire combo might resist or feel sluggish and unresponsive.
Helping exploit the traction provided by the superb Pirelli tires is the surprisingly supple Showa 43mm inverted fork and Showa shock. In the range of stock suspension rates among manufacturers, Ducatis are typically stiff and biased toward the track. no mention of spring rates is made in the 848 press materials, but our test bikes felt more compliant, yet remained planted and well balanced no matter what antics I performed. perhaps it was because of Almeria's billiard-table-smooth surface or that the 848's suspension rates are in fact softer than those of the 1098, but whatever the case there was little to fault.
Another forgiving trait is the virtually bottomless well of stopping power provided by the 848s's 320mm discs and Brembo two-piece calipers. Thankfully less sensitive and responsive than the larger 330mm discs and monoblock calipers found on the 1098, the smaller bike's brakes make you feel as if you can do no wrong, and then when you finally do they bail you out of that, too. Even stateof- the-art binders on other sportbikes typically get to the point where squeezing another 20 percent harder on the front brake lever yields perhaps five percent-or maybe even zero percent-additional braking. I never found that limit on the 848, even when a nice slipstream draft up the back straight got me into the next corner much hotter than anticipated. My eyes grew quite large as the corner approached much faster than before, but an extra squeeze on the lever brought a corresponding increase in stopping power to allow my eyes to go back to normal. Another factor that allows such antics is that Ducati's fairly long 56.3-inch wheelbase is supremely stable under hard braking. The competition's bikes are anywhere from half an inch to an inch and a half shorter in wheelbase. Again, Ducati may be sacrificing quick handling, but in my experience that added stability is a worthwhile tradeoff.
Such late-braking stunts led at least one journalist to add spring preload to the fork, but he reported that the change sacrificed front grip over many critical corners. Discussing it with Xaus, I learned that he was brought in a day early to set the suspension, and his only change from the factory-recommended settings was one click out on "extension" or rebound damping. I asked about the front-end dive under heavy braking and his answer made sense: "Better to have maybe one problem at 80 kilometers per hour than a problem in several corners at high speed with a tight feeling in your throat."
After hearing a few of my fellow journalists boasting of cheating death in earlier sessions, I decided that I hadn't well and truly scared the bejeesus out of myself, so perhaps I needed to twist that thing harder. On my second-to-final lap I picked up the throttle early and aggressively to get a smokin' drive up the back straight to catch up to that foreigner a few seconds ahead. The 848's power delivery is so predictable and forgiving that I'd gotten away with this type of foolishness several times before with barely a wiggle, but this time I had added a bit more corner speed and with it lean angle, and my injudicious throttle hand got me the deserved result. The tired pirelli spun up, with the Ducati's rear end slewing sideways almost-but not quite-to the steering lock. As if in slow motion, i mouthed the words, ooooh noooo!" inside my helmet. But even with my butt hovering a couple feet above the seat and the bike swap-ping beneath me, I somehow knew the 848 wasn't going to toss me on my head as I probably deserved (although thinking back on it, the bike jerked me about with little more violence than an adult wagging a finger at an impetuous child, as if to say, "oh no you don't!").
Thankfully Ducati's new 848 is a lot more forgiving than many adults. It's a very amiable package, offering the performance of many top middleweights without some of their demanding and intolerant personalities.