A page is about to be turned in Ducati’s glorious quarter-century history of building the world’s ultimate twin-cylinder Superbikes, with the expected introduction one year from now of the Italian firm’s new-generation ultra-short-stroke 1200cc desmo V-twin. Featuring gear camshaft drive, a cassette gearbox and its cylinders still set at 90 degrees but rotated rearward to produce a true V-twin motor rather than the traditional L-twin format of all Ducati Superbikes ever made, the new engine will reputedly be located in a monocoque chassis based on the format of the Desmosedici MotoGP contender. As such, it represents a radical departure from the layout adopted by Ducati on all its models ever since the debut of its first liquid-cooled fuel-injected Superbike back in 1986, comprising a tubular-steel trellis frame housing an L-twin motor with toothed-belt cam drive.
To mark this forthcoming end of an illustrious era, Ducati has launched the most avant-garde volume-production sportbike it’s yet developed as the ultimate version of its series of title-winning twins. Replacing both the previous 1198S and 1198R models, the 1198SP isn’t a limited-edition homologation special like the R Corse, but it has all the electronic software and mechanical hardware, including DTC (Ducati Traction Control), DDA (Ducati Data Acquisition), Ohlins suspension, Brembo monobloc brakes and Marchesini seven-spoke forged aluminum wheels. New for the SP is DQS, Ducati’s Quick Shifter system that is the first for any Ducati production bike and is also fitted to the base 1198 model. Also new are a ramp-type slipper clutch fitted as standard and the larger, aluminum 4.8-gallon fuel tank from the R Corse model that saves two pounds compared with the 1198’s 3.8-gallon plastic tank. The SP is available in red or black, each with a red frame and black wheels with distinctive red pinstriping, and the SP lists for $21,995, just $200 more than the S model it replaces and $500 less than the Aprilia RSV4 APRC SE, similarly loaded with World Superbike title-winning electronics.
The engine is identical to...
The engine is identical to the standard 1198 powerplant, and no R version is offered for ‘11. However, engine internals will be available through Ducati Performance to upgrade the engine to the R specification.
Riding the 1198SP at Ducati’s iconic Imola home track-where the Italian factory’s race-winning heritage was forged back in 1972 when Paul Smart won the Imola 200 on the first-ever Ducati desmo V-twin racerunderlined the significance of this series production model. Carlos Checa, double race-winner on the Team Althea customer race version of this very motorcycle in the World Superbike round held just one month earlier on the same track, was present to give me a master class on how to ride the swoopy, switchback circuit, and confirmed his bike was still competitive at the very highest level. This new streetbike is the closest thing I’ve ever ridden to the bike I’m racing at weekends, even compared to the R1 Yamaha I built to do track days on when I was racing for Yamaha in MotoGP.
Same as all Ducati big twins since the advent of the 1098, the 1198SP has a spacious, balanced riding position without excessive weight on your wrists and shoulders, which gives you lots of space to move about the bike and use your body weight to load up either wheel by moving back or forth, as appropriate. As with the 848 EVO also launched that day, you sit much more within the Ducati than on it, with your arms draped round the voluptuous, larger fuel tank.
The traction control system is essentially unchanged from the 1098R it was introduced on three years ago, and monitors the relative speeds of the two wheels, engine rpm, throttle angle, gear selected and the engine map to deliver instant electronic adjustment to the ignition advance or, when more extreme intervention is required, cut the fuel injection. The rider has eight different levels to choose from, and it’s a genuine race-quality traction control system. However, the cutout causes a staccato rattle when the rear wheel loses grip and the TC activates, whereas the more controlled and refined Aprilia-developed system in the RSV4 APRC equivalent of Ducati’s 1198SP is completely silent and arguably quite a bit more refined in operation.
The Ducati Quick Shift system works cleanly and precisely, with none of the irritating over-sensitivity the feature fitted to some race bikes suffers from, even though it feels awkward at first hitting the lever upwards to change gear rather than using a more track-friendly race-pattern shift. It also shifts wide open between first and second gears without any stutter or outright balking as it passed through neutraland again, several systems won’t let you do that.
Another first for Ducati is the slipper clutch and the way the 1198SP stopped for any of the Imola chicanesespecially downhill into the Rivazza double leftwas really confidence-inspiring, with the reassurance of the trademark click on the clutch lever when you downshift to remind you that it’s there. Now, there’s no big deal about miscounting your gearchanges or aiming for too much engine braking on the overrun, and you no longer need to be quick on the draw with your clutch hand to avoid chattering the rear wheel into the kitty litter.
The Öhlins fork and Marchesini...
The Öhlins fork and Marchesini forged aluminum wheel are carried over from the S and R models, while the outstanding Brembo monobloc brakes are shared with all versions of the 1198.
The SP’s four-piston radial-mount monobloc calipers gripping meaty 330mm Brembo front discs deliver what is surely today’s benchmark braking on bikes, combining impressive sensitivity with ideal control. The 370-pound dry weight claimed by Ducati for the 1198SP seems barely credible for a big twin, but those brakes certainly stop it well from high speed, such as into the Tosa hairpin or the walking-pace first-gear Variante Bassa chicane in front of the pits. Even lifting the rear wheel slightly under really hard braking, as I repeatedly did downhill into Rivazza, didn’t result in any real instability, even though the soft stock setup for the fully adjustable 43mm Ohlins fork, which Ducati hadn’t had a chance to dial in for Imola because of heavy rain the previous day, meant a lot of front-end dive when hard on the brakes.
The SBK/MotoGP-derived Öhlins...
The SBK/MotoGP-derived Öhlins TTX shock is standard, and features twin-tube technology aimed at minimizing friction and reducing the risk of cavitation, as well as a ride-enhancing top-out spring.
Ducati has had a bit of practice...
Ducati has had a bit of practice getting quick shifters right as it was the first team in World Superbike to fit such a system to Carl Fogarty’s factory 916 back in the mid-1990s. It’s surprising that, while you can switch the SP’s system off if you want, you can’t convert it to a race-pattern shifter.
Recalling the original fuel...
Recalling the original fuel tanks of Paul Smart’s Imola-winner and its 750SS replicas, which had a clear stripe of unpainted fiberglass to serve as a quick gauge of how much gas was left inside, the SP’s alloy tank is partly unpainted, the bare metal just clear-coated in part to show what it’s made of.
The 1198SP’s Testastretta Evoluzione engine still has the same muscular, meaty torque as the 1198S motor it’s basically identical to, which makes it eager to wave the front wheel in the air in a second-gear power wheelie when you accelerate hard out of any of Imola’s quartet of chicanes, using the TC to lay the power down to the max. With what feels like every bit the massive hit of torque the numbers promise (a claimed 97 ft-lb peaking at 8000 rpm, most of which is already on tap a couple of grand lower down the rev band, and 170 horsepower delivered at 9750 rpm), the new Ducati has a brutal but addictive build of power out of a turn, especially those four second-gear chicanes at Imola. Just as well the dual-compound rear Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP warms up quickly and has a harder tear-resistant center section that does its job in laying the power to the ground. Still, I remembered to make a point of lifting it upright exiting a turn before pressing the trigger, to be sure to use the fat section of the rubber to absorb all that meaty grunt. Plus, you must force yourself to use a gear higher than often seems appropriate at first, because of the hefty low-down punch that will see the front wheel lazily lofting above the ground even in third gear. There’s no sign of an anti-wheelie program on the 1198SP as its Aprilia rival has, and this is a pity as the big twin with all its torque really could do with it. Still, the way the Ducati drove out of corners was truly impressive, coming on strong as low as 3000 rpm before building easily and eagerly to 7000 rpm. From there, it really takes off toward the 10,000 rpm mark, when the first of the three shifter lights on the dash flashes to remind you to hit a higher gear, before the arrival of the relatively harsh 10,800 rpm rev limiter heralded by a bright red light.
The final ingredient in the new Ducati’s alphabet soup, the Ducati Data Analysis system, is included as a stock feature on both the revised 1198 and the 1198SP, while on the latter there’s an Ohlins fully adjustable steering damper as there was on the S model. But the Digitech dash is just as hard to read as ever cluttered and dark with too small digits.
Ducati’s done a good job in loading up the 1198SP with all the electronic and mechanical rider aids it’s had on its factory Superbikes down the years, all of which work well and are a direct example of how racing improves the breed. Diehard Ducatisti will like this bike, significant as it is in pulling down the curtain on the family of motorcycles born back in 1986, which not only established the small Italian manufacturer as a major force on the world two-wheeled stage, but also defined its commercial strategy for the past quarter of a century. SR
Specifications 2011 Ducati 1198 SP
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, 90-degree V-twin, 4 valves/cyl.
Bore x stroke: 106 x 67.9mm
Compression ratio: 12.7:1
Induction: Marelli EFI, elliptical throttle bodies with 64mm equivalent dia., single injector/cyl.
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear tire: 190/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail: 24.5 deg./4.6 in. (118mm)
Wheelbase: 56.3 in. (1430mm)
Seat height: 32.2 in. (820mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.8 gal. (18L)
Claimed dry weight: 370 lb. (168kg)