Ducati owes a big thank you to Carlos Checa, as well as to Team Althea owner Genesio Bevilacqua, and his crew of mechanics, for making its controversial strategy to axe its factory Superbike team this season appear to work. Checa gave a new lease of life to the obsolescent 1098R model which had seemingly reached its sell-by date, and put Ducati back at the top of the World Superbike category by winning its fourteenth World Superbike Riders title. The chance to ride the Checa Ducati at Misano in early September, as Carlos mapped out his final push towards clinching the World title, gave me an opportunity to evaluate how he and the Team Althea men had achieved this. Well, with just a little help from the Ducati factory, whose bevy of engineers were in constant attendance at every race. Ducati Superbike boss Ernesto Marinelli insists that Checa’s victory was achieved with a motorcycle which anyone could buy for the princely sum of €135,000 (approximately $190,000) plus tax — the cost of an RS11 customer version 1098R superbike.
“For 2011, after closing the factory Superbike race team, we sold off Haga and Fabrizio’s four F10 factory bikes from last season to Team Liberty, and built a handful of new customer racers, two of which went to Althea for Checa,” says Marinelli. “These had uprated software for the Marelli ECU, with revised strategies for engine mapping and anti-spin, a new camshaft design with the same amount of lift but a different profile which gave us an extra two to three horsepower, new lightweight lithium-aluminum Brembo monobloc radial-mount brake calipers, and new Öhlins TRVP25 forks incorporating a different type of damping system. Everything else on the bike was unchanged from before, but the huge amount of careful attention to detail which Carlos invested in setting up the bike and riding it so intelligently, and bravely, made the difference.”
Further loading the dice against the twins, the street 1098R actually weighs the same as the minimum dry weight (with oil and water, but no fuel) for the RS11 racer, and it breathes quite a bit better, too. That’s because the stock 1098R’s elliptical-bore throttle bodies measuring the equivalent of 63.9mm must carry 50mm intake restrictor plates imposed on it by the rules. The RS11 retains a starter motor, and even with this, the Ducati must still carry lead ballast to meet the 363.8-pound (165kg) minimum weight limit.
Climbing aboard Checa’s Ducati at Misano immediately revealed a riding position that felt very balanced and rational, less tiring compared to more extreme stances I’ve sampled on other Ducatis. But the relatively spacious seat gives you room to move about behind the broad tank with its massive extensions to deliver the 6.3-gallon capacity that’ll let it finish a Superbike race, versus the stock 1098R’s 4.1-gallon unit. There’s no front end instability when moving about on the bike, thanks to the raked-out 24.5-degree head angle and quite conservative trail numbers that Checa varies for different circuits via fork offset changes. This chassis geometry does have a penalty though, and that’s the extra physical effort it takes to lift the Ducati from side to side through a series of slow corners, especially compared to the quicker-steering fours I’d been riding earlier that day. It’s always been a downside of Ducati’s overall architecture, and benchracing with Checa after my 15 laps of Misano on his bike revealed it was the first thing he noticed about the Ducati on his debut ride at Portimao in October 2009.
That wonderfully torquey motor more than compensates for this deficiency though, and after testing the works Ducati four out of the last five years at the much faster Mugello circuit, riding Checa’s bike at a track with so many slow turns like Misano underlined the desmo V-twin’s advantages in terms of rideability and forgiveness. This must make the Ducati a great bike in traffic, where you can hold a gear, alter your line, or wind on some more power for a controllable spurt of extra speed to pick up a position.
It was immediately noticeable that Checa uses a very long first gear on the Ducati’s six-speed gearbox, and that he’s geared the bike to use only the lower five ratios for the twisty Misano track. “I tried to use only four, but five is better,” he said, while also revealing he uses first gear four times per lap there. “I put it in first to use more engine braking, also to hold a narrow line in a tight bend, and then also when you open the throttle, you get a more direct response; second is too long with too low revs,” he said. This relative newcomer to the desmo V-twin racing fraternity has set up his bike in a way that I felt completely at home with at Misano, opting to adjust the ramp-style slipper clutch with noticeably more engine braking than other Ducati riders usually do. He avoids rear wheel chatter by manually sliding the clutch, although the ICS variable idle speed program in the Marelli ECU surely helps — the Ducati was just great on the brakes. Using bottom gear while exploiting the magnificent braking delivered by the RS11 Ducati’s uprated Brembo radial package gives a little extra stopping power and vital control as you peel into the apex of the turn, provided you remember to keep working that clutch lever when necessary to offset the start of any chatter. It also lets you turn more tightly, like the sharp right-hander leading onto Misano’s back straight, where holding a close line allows you to get hard on the gas much sooner. “You can do that turn in second as well, but it’s a longer line so you cover more distance, you have less grip, and the throttle response also is not as good,” advised Checa. “I use first gear for this reason.”