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.”
I had a great illustration of the Ducati’s strong initial pickup one lap exiting the second-gear final turn on to the uphill Misano pit straight, when Marco Melandri cut inside me under braking, and his Yamaha teammate Eugene Laverty tried the outside line. Gunning the Ducati in pursuit of Melandri, I noticed how well it picked up on initial acceleration at low revs in second gear from around 7500 rpm, lifting the front wheel in second and then third gear before I stepped on the rear brake each time to hold it down, until I ultimately lost out to the faster fours as the revs mounted. Still, though Melandri was long gone, I actually managed to hold Laverty off along the fourth-gear front straight aboard the Ducati, noting as I did so that the Team Althea guys on pit wall were all waving their arms in support. Sorry, chaps, not brave enough; Laverty swept under me into the left-hand Turn Two, quickly followed by Johnny Rea on the Castrol Honda in the ensuing long right. But I was given a good illustration of the relative engine performance of the Ducati against its four-cylinder rivals, and it’s quite obvious from this that Checa won his world title by riding clever, and making his Pirelli tires last longer.
Ohlins TRVP25 43mm inverted...
Ohlins TRVP25 43mm inverted fork utilizes the same twin-tube technology as the TTX series shocks, providing more consistent damping. Brembo’s latest lithium aluminum alloy monobloc calipers bite on 320mm discs and offer outstanding stopping power.
The RS11’s huge kit swingarm...
The RS11’s huge kit swingarm is fabricated from aluminum (the carbon fiber is just a cover) and is not only stronger than the stock unit, but also designed to clear the monstrous 16.5-inch rear tire, as well as offer different linkage ratio options.
Though the Ducati will drive from as low as 5000 rpm in a slow turn, you need the reading on the Digitek dash — much more legible than I remember it to be — showing 7000 rpm before you get serious acceleration. But get it revving above that, and the Ducati thunders out of a turn with deeply impressive drive, until the three green shifter lights above the dash start flashing at 11,800 rpm, and you need to think about grabbing another gear. There’s a larger red shift light fitted on the right, but Checa doesn’t have it connected, a fact I discovered by unintentionally hitting the 12,400 rpm rev limiter. He prefers to change gear by sound and feel at around 12,000 rpm once he sees the green lights flashing. I found the wide-open race-pattern powershifter a little sticky on downshifts, and you must use a lot of foot pressure to change gear either way, which is obviously a matter for personal choice for Checa. Some riders go to the other extreme, and seemingly shift gears by waving their toe at the lever. However, you must use the clutch for downshifts, which coming to the Ducati immediately after riding two four-cylinder Superbikes each equipped with an auto-blipper, it was initially hard to get my brain focused on using again.
Nestled deep inside the kit...
Nestled deep inside the kit swingarm is a race-spec Ohlins RSP40 shock. Note that the Termignoni exhaust uses 52mm and 57mm stainless steel tubing in its design; since weight saving isn’t an issue (the twins require ballast to meet minimum weight), titanium isn’t used.
Upgraded software in the Magneti...
Upgraded software in the Magneti Marelli ECU mounted in the forward-most section of the instrument assembly allows better control of fueling from the twin shower-head injectors for each cylinder. Carbon ram-air ducts feed the stock plastic airbox as per the WSBK rules.
The RS11’s 1198cc engine is...
The RS11’s 1198cc engine is rated at a claimed 199 crankshaft horsepower at 11,900 rpm, although torque figures are closely guarded by Ducati. The engine still has an electric starter motor, but it is only used in emergencies.
The reduced weight transfer and more rational steering geometry of Checa’s balanced chassis setup made the Ducati feel really confidence-inspiring on the brakes, helped by the extra engine braking from his chosen setting for the slipper clutch. At the other end of a turn, the traction control seemed even less obtrusive than the last time I rode a Ducati superbike two years ago. But it must have worked, because I didn’t unhook the rear wheel even chasing factory Yamahas, yet without seemingly holding back drive. I’d just occasionally hear a slight engine fluttering exiting a turn, but it didn’t make the engine pickup any less vivid, just more effective. The ride-by-wire throttle had a smooth, fluid response, delivering irresistible acceleration out of turns while combining with the traction control to optimize engine response without you really noticing it. The whole electronic package on the Ducati seemed really user-friendly; it gave me confidence to open up the throttle while leaned over without feeling I needed to lift the bike up before I tried to aggressively get on the throttle. Exiting the final second-gear turn was a good example; I could get harder on the throttle, sooner, knowing that I wasn’t going to spin the wheel in doing so.
With the decision already made about whether he’ll race the new 1199 Panigale in defense of his World Superbike title in 2012 — Ducati announced it will only homologate the new model for Superstock racing next season, leaving WSBK riders to stick with the tried and trusted 1098R that’s presumably tapped out in terms of development — Checa will surely be trying to make it two in a row next season, assuming he and Genesio Bevilacqua strike a deal to continue together, this time with the number 1 plate. That being the case, it’ll be fascinating to see if the bike once derided as yesterday’s papers can become the Superbike supreme two years in succession. After riding it at Misano against all its rivals, I have to say: don’t bet against it! SR