April 1, 2002
I remain quite bemused by the ability of engineers to continually squeeze more and more horsepower out of any given engine design. They plot, plan, blueprint, build, experimentóand eventually more ponies come forth. Ducati is a marvelous example of a company that can always seem to find a way to increase the herd. The engineers push a design to its limits...and then they seem to move those limits.
This new 998, with a new engine, has upped the horsepower, as measured against the 2001 996, from 112 to 123. That is a whacking great 10 percent increase!
This short report is as much on how Ducati managed to breed these extra horses as it is on what the 998 is like to ride. As Bill Heald wrote in his report on the Ducati 996 (February 2001), these are not really the sort of machines that most Rider readers would be interested in owning, but they do make for fascinating studies in the pursuit of power, in just how far an engine can be developed. And we motorcyclists are generally interested in such arcane subjects; it goes with our passion.
If you want a superb, narrowly focused sportbike, intended solely to go extremely fast on smooth roads, I canít recommend the 998 highly enough. This is not your all-rounder, your do-anything, multi-purpose sportbike; quite the opposite. The 998 is as mono-purpose as you can find on the market today, impressing the rider with its power and handling while cheerfully breaking all recognized speed limits in these United States without getting out of second gear.
I did appreciate the fact that Ducati chose to introduce this street model at Californiaís Buttonwillow Raceway, where we motojournalists could take advantage of the 998ís capabilities without worrying about running afoul of the highway patrol. I should add that I am not really qualified to judge the go-fast merits of the 998, which are somewhere beyond my touring-oriented riding skills.
Push the button, spark those plugs, and ease out onto the track. I rode at my own pace, while the fast guys were zipping by me; I have no ego when it comes to speed. Only on the straight bits would I twist the throttle to the stop, a very sobering experience. A couple of 996s were on hand for comparisonís sake, and I did feel that the 998 enjoys an increase in midrange power.
A quick bit of history. Present-day Ducatis are known for their desmodromic valve actuation; this desmo concept simply means that rocker arms both close as well as open the valves, without employing the traditional valve springs.
Ducati first used the desmo system on a single-cylinder 125cc Grand Prix bike in 1956, becoming available on street singles in 1968, and on street V-twins in 1974. This air-cooled, 90-degree, two-valve (desmodue) twin became the Ducati standard, and is still used today in most of the Ducati models, from the 620 Monster to the 900ss. However, by the mid-1980s it became apparent that to win at the racetracks would require some new thinking, so the liquid-cooled, four-valve (desmoquattro) 851 appeared late in 1987. Which evolved into the 888, the 916, the 996, and then the racing-only 996R, the R being the first to have the more efficient, narrower cylinder heads (testastretta). And now the 998.
While this may all be evolutionary engineering, there are not many interchangeable parts between the 996 engine and the 998. It is an entirely new motor, not just a 996 bored or stroked out another 2cc. Far from it. Everything is different, from crankcases, cylinders and heads, to the revised belt drive for the twin overhead camshafts. Ducati wanted to keep the engine Superbike legal, under 1,000cc, while upping the horsepower a good chunk. Since they had only three cubic centimeters to work with, the real trickery would have to take place elsewhere.
The 996 had a bore and stroke of 98.0 x 66.0mm. The new dimensions on the 998 are 100.0 x 63.5mm. Up in that narrowed head the included valve angle was reduced from the 996ís 40 degrees to the 998ís 25 degrees, the size of the valves increased, and new camshafts have slightly more lift.
With the help of that mild bit of destroking, the 998 engine now puts out maximum power at 9,750 rpm, as opposed to the 996ís 8,500. And that power, as we all know, is a result of the more efficient cramming of fuel and air into the combustion chamber. More combustibles in, bigger explosion, more power to the crankshaft. To this end Ducati extensively revised the Marelli fuel-injection system, using a larger throttle body, 54mm vs. the old 50mm, and, more importantly, a new single shower-style injector that has a straight shot right to the valve openings.
And that, in a couple of hundred words, is how the 998 gets 123 horsepower at the crankshaft, which feeds through a geared primary, a dry clutch and a six-speed transmission.
The chassis is really unchanged from that of the 996, with the same wheelbase of 55.5 inches. The frame is trestle-style, made of tubular steel, with a single-sided swingarm. A fully adjustable ÷hlins shock absorber is at the back, a fully adjustable Showa 43mm fork at the front; these are quite pricey elements, and they do their jobs very well indeed. An insert in the steering head can be adjusted to give an extra degree of rake, if so desired. After setting the suspension to his or her individual taste, a rider should never have a complaint.
Wheels are five-spoked alloy Marchesinis, with the front having new 320mm brake discs that are thinner (4.5mm), and are therefore lighter and capable of dispersing heat more quickly, with four-piston Brembo calipers generating the heat. The rear has a single 220mm disc, 5mm thick, with a two-piston caliper. The tires on our test bikes were either Dunlop Sportmax 207s or Michelin Pilots; Pirelli Dragon Corsas will also be available.
Colors are red or yellow, and you can opt for the single- (monoposto) or dual-seat (biposto), though I doubt any passenger would want to go for a very long ride.
This is one fantastic motorcycle, but one which will be a mite painful to ride in urban traffic. First gear is very tall indeed, necessitating clutch-slipping in any traffic-clogged situation. The seating position is brutal at low speeds, with all your upper body weight resting on your forearms. Just remember, suffering is good; it builds character.
My recommendation? Do buy the 998 if you have a spare 18 large, but recognize that its primary function is that of garage jewelry, with maybe an occasional early Sunday-morning ride on some deserted byway.
And if 123 horsepower is not enough for your jaded soul, you can negotiate with your dealer to get the $29,000, racetrack-only 998R, which puts out 15 percent more horses.
Will the ability to get increased power never end? Stay tuned.