Soup Tested: 2008 Ducati 848 Addition By Subtraction by mark norris
Friday, January 04, 2008
Ducati flew 90 journalists from around the world to Spain for the official unveiling of their new 848, a sportbike that, upon first blush, could be categorized as capitalizing on the growing trend of "plus-displacement" Supersport bikes. When Ducati asked if this displacement would be eligible for World Supersport racing and the answer was no, suspicions were raised as to the intent of, and market for, the bike. After a full day riding the 848 on the GP track in Almeria, Spain, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, it would be an injustice to consider Ducati's new 848 simply a smaller version of the spectacular 1098. It just may be the most versatile, flexible, and usable sportbike yet to come to market.
A heady statement to be sure, but it became apparent during the engine overview by Marco Sairu, Ducati's Engine Project Manager, that much has been gleaned and utilized from downsizing the 990cc MotoGP bike to the current, dominant, and now world championship 800cc bike ridden by Casey Stoner. The factory has learned much about optimization of weight and the development of "power character" during the engineering of both the 800cc GP bike and this new 848 sportbike. It was made clear that the major development mandate for the 848 was to pare off any weight that was not contributing to the performance of the bike, develop an engine that has a very user-friendly and broad powerband, and provide lively and lithe handling.
Trickle-Down Technology: Engineering For Hailwood...and You.
Many years ago I had the opportunity to straddle a very special motorcycle, it was one of Phil Schilling's prized Ducatis. The initial intent of my exercise was only to meet Phil, see and admire his collection. What I left with was a lifelong admiration for the complex engineering that has always been a trademark of Ducati motorcycles.
This particular motorcycle was purpose built to win the 1958 125cc World Championship with none other than Mike Hailwood aboard. I distinctly remember how tiny it was, and what stood out was a disproportionately oversized cylinder head that actually enclosed its three gear-driven Desmodromic overhead camshafts. Incredibly complex, the small Desmo seemed to be made for one purpose, to win a World Championship. Obviously Ducati has always been a company with an intense focus and clear intent for each of the motorcycles it creates, and the more racing oriented the bike, the more focused the objective. The immense amount of engineering that went into the development of Ducati's new 848 has resulted in a bike that already implements technology that supersedes the just released 1098. Stoner may have made it look easy in winning the Moto GP championship, but behind the scenes lay a labyrinth of knowledge learned both at the race track along with cutting edge engineering development tools and strategies back at the factory.
The 1958 Works 125 was developed utilizing drafting boards and blue prints, and an indescribable amount of ingenuity by the famed engineer Dr. Taglioni. The new 848 underwent countless engineering revisions and iterations utilizing computerized modeling. A process with which an engineer can, with the movement of his computer mouse, and the aid of very complex three dimensional modeling programs, simulate the outcome of every part of the motorcycle including new casting designs and processes, integrity of wall thickness at critical high stressed points, air/fuel flow via differing valve sizes, cam duration, valve timing overlap, combustion shape and valve angles, length and shape of intake tracks, injector timing and placement. The complexity can make ones head hurt, and as you can imagine, the development iterations could be endless.
Marco Sairu, Ducati's Engine Project Manager and his team were very focused on what the 848 was to deliver to the rider, and while the process is immensely complex, the outcome is a motorcycle that feels so proficient and competent in delivering to the street rider a balance of intoxicating power and real world flexibility.
The race track provided real world knowledge from the new 800cc GP07 championship winning bike, this combined with the new-age computer simulations and very bright engineers, Ducati has produced a bike that deserves to be looked at with a much more discerning eye. When ridden, remember that the smile on your face is a result of decades of focus, determination and belief in a beautifully simplistic, yet immensely complicated desmodromic valve actuation design, just as Taglioni utilized exactly 50 years ago. The methodology to meet their design goals may have changed, but the outcome has not. The biggest change being that in 1958 you had to be a Mike Hailwood just to have the honor to race the bike, today you can walk into your local Ducati shop and buy the latest in technological wizardry in the new 848.
Proof is in the numbers, not only with how evolved this engine is from the just-released 1098, but with the stout 134 crank horsepower at 10,000 rpm and over 70 ft. lbs. of torque at 8250 rpm that the new engine produces. Combine this with a dry weight of 369 lbswhich is a full 44 lbs. lighter than the outgoing 749 and 11 lbs. less than the 1098and the results are a lively and very entertaining ride, to say the least. With 70% of the engine being redesigned from the 1098, it was obvious, even before riding the bike, that Ducati is very serious about introducing to the discerning market a sportbike that should be included on any rider's short list regardless of displacement.
First impressions can be very telling if the design and development criteria have been met, so it was apparent that it was going to be a fun day when, coming out of pit lane, the front wheel lofted skyward after clicking second gear, then, with what seemed to be little effort, flicked into a fast but tight turn one. The Almeria track is an undulating course made up of 14 turns with just two moderate straights, which means that you are almost constantly concentrating on braking, corner lines, and quick transitions. Throughout the day's sessions, it became very clear that the true magic lay in the development of the engine. Exiting turn one brought me over a blind hill down into a flowing right turn, then quickly flicking into a fast, but long, left turn that had my toes on the pegs, as grip and stability were almost a second thought. A week before this trip I had spent a warm-up day on a 1098S, for which I was thankful, as this 848 felt like a much-lighter, even smaller bike to ride even on this demanding course. When I asked how the 848, being dimensionally almost identical to the 1098, could feel so lively transitioning left to right and back with such ease, Marco Sairu carefully explained that Ducati had removed 36.8% of the reciprocating mass. In other words, the rotational inertia of the crankshaft, piston/conrod, primary gear, flywheel, and rotor (which alone is 46% less than the 1098 and outgoing 749R) have been lightened so much that the effects of this rapidly moving "mass" on the chassis, is this agile, almost racebike feel. Over the past few years, many articles have been written on how the factories have been experimenting with the center of gravity on the new breed of GP bikes. The trickle-down benefit to the 848 is the "C of G" being moved 3.3mm closer to the center axis of the crankshaft and 7mm higher. When you combine this with the reduction in internal rotational inertia, you get a sportbike that handles more like my 250GP bike than a modern, fully legal streetbike.
Compared to the 1098, the crankcases employ a new casting technique called "Vacural", which is a vacuum diecasting technology that enabled Marco and his team to remove 6.5 lbsa full twenty-five percent of weight--out of the crankcases alone. In tandem with FEA (finite element analysis), the engineers were able to reduce wall thickness of the castings by as much as fifty-percent from 6mm at the thickest points to 3mm in less load-bearing areas. Another benefit of this new casting technique is that it provides a denser, tighter grain with minimal voids in the alloy. Upon visual inspection, it was easy to see in the telltale Testastretta deep sump that the finish was very smooth and almost glass like. Also unique was the utilization of material around the critical crankshaft bearing area, where there is a balance of thinwall material and a unique spiral webbing spreading out from the edge of the bearing area, allowing for required strength but, yet again, attaining the target weight reduction. Another lesson of less is more. Combine all this with a thirteen percent lighter crankshaft and a new wet clutch that is twenty-nine percent lighter than the usual dry clutch application on Ducati's sportbikes, and the result is a bike that has a better power-to-weight ratio than the potent 999.
Ducati brought along Ruben Xaus to entertain us all with his riding prowess, and to show us firsthand that the flexibility of the engine and chassis enables the rider to shift much less frequently and concentrate on lines and setup for a good drive out of the corners. Ruben stated that he rode the entire inner course in third gear, proof that the dramatic reduction in reciprocating weight, centralizing mass, and a reduction in polar movement resulted in the ability to roll the throttle on from a very usable 2,500 rpm all the way to, and into, a newly developed "soft" rev limiter at 10,800 rpm. In fact, it was possible to finish up a corner holding a gear in the soft limiter without any perceivable impact on chassis composure and drive.
The engine's newfound "power character" is a direct result of the seventy-percent changes from the 1098 engine. Starting with large 39.5mm intake valves with 11.6mm of lift and 32mm exhaust valves with 10.7mm of lift, these combined with GP-developed oval 56mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors with very direct straight-shot inlet tracts, ensure that there was not only plenty of power but, again, it is the flexibility of the engine's output that made riding the bike so enjoyable. With stroke at 61.2mm--just 3.5mm shorter than the 1098's 64.7mm--and a bore that is 10mm smaller at 94mm vs. 104mm, it became clear that this longer stroke ratio plays a key part in the immensely usable character of the engine. Back to Almeria's twisty infield, exiting each corner, I was constantly surprised about how easily the 848 could be stood up coming out of a corner, enabling me to grab a full twist of throttle and then flick hard into the next corner with so little effort. The acceleration between corners was stout with the engine emitting a snarl that was both intoxicating and addicting.
Ducati made it very clear that there is a new philosophy within the factory to develop each bike with specifications and capabilities that are aligned with the bike's target audience and intended environment. So, when the discussion of the new "wet" clutch came up, I heard some pre-ride grumbling from some of the other journalists on hand. Yet, after a full day of thrashing, the clutch performed flawlessly without any chattering or abruptness that the dry clutch can at times exhibit. Combine the 29% lighter weight with the oil-bath environment, and this clutch should provide many miles of trouble-free and innocuous performance. I asked another respected journalist what he thought of the clutch, and he said, after a pause, that he didn't really notice itpossibly the best compliment.
Another departure from the 1098 is the use of a 180/55-17 rear tire mounted on a 5.5-inch rim vs. the 1098's larger 190/55-17 tire on a 6-inch rim. Again, this combination seemed to be a perfect match to the light, agile, and effortless character of the 848. Even dealing with 134hp and rolling the throttle on early and hard exiting Almeria's fast corners, never once did the bike exhibit a tendency to stand up or lack traction. Consistent with the theme of the bike's development, this tire/wheel package again reduced critical weight and rotating mass. Pirelli was also on hand, as the bikes are equipped with their Dragon Super Corsa Pro racing street compound tires. During the moderately warm day of riding, these tires provided very linear feedback and more than enough performance for very spirited street riding and track days. In Pirelli's latest hierarchy of performance street tires, these are stacked above both the Diablo Corsa 3 and the just-released Diablo Rosso.
Braking performance may be the one area that may well differentiate the 848's and 1098's performance both on the track and the street. While the 848 brakes include the now-obligatory radial mounting, they utilize 320mm x 4.5mm thick rotors and (vs. 330mm x 5.0mm) two-piece Brembo calipers with a four-piston, two-pad configuration. The 1098 has already garnered a reputation for phenomenal braking performance with the Brembo monoblock radial brakes which, in truth, may actually prove to be more brake than can be fully utilized on the street. The opposite can be said for the 848 configuration. While we were restricted to a track-only session, the 848's brakes required noticeably more effort on the lever to stop versus the almost one-finger power of the 1098's monoblock calipers. Almeria's back straight was long enough to see an indicated 250 kpm (152 mph) ending in a 3rd gear right sweeper. Late braking required a firm pull on the lever but with no fade or drama each and every lap. I suspect this more friendly linear feel may well be more suited to the street which, in reality, is where these bikes will see most of their time.
This is also a bike where cost-cutting measures are not apparent. Details such as the magnesium front fairing support, multi-piece single-sided swing arm, and fully adjustable Showa suspension are all carried over from the 1098. Later in the day, one of the dedicated Ducati mechanics added a turn of front spring and one click of rebound in the front fork, which resulted in a noticeable change in the front's ability to hold a line and feel balanced. Proof that, while the 1098S's Ohlins suspension may indeed be the pinnacle of current suspension, the Showa-equipped standard 1098 and the new 848 have very capable and adjustable suspension components. The 848 is also equipped to install Ducati's data acquisition system if the rider wants to review post-ride data. And, as with all Ducati bikes, there will be a plethora of performance parts available, as well.
It may be easy to convince yourself that bigger is better but, given the tremendous effort to provide the 848 with broad usable power, lighter weight, and a more agile chassis, many riders should be able to use more of the 848's potential while having more fun at the same time. Ultimately, it would not be surprising if the majority of riders actually ride faster and with increased confidence on the 848 versus not only the company's own 1098, but liter bikes in general. True, nothing beats the almost-violent, intoxicating power surge above 7,000 rpm of the 1098, then there is the just-announced jaw dropping 1098R that Ducati test rider Vitto Guareschi stated is "heart-thumping fantastic."
Price will be $12,999.99 for either the Ducati signature red, or a very striking new pearl white/graphite combination, with shipments due to dealers in the next few weeks. Considering that the new batch of four-cylinder Supersport 600cc bikes are encroaching on $10,000, the 848's qualities of flexible power, cachet, and unquantifiable character may actually provide more real-world bike for the money.
Full circle back to the 848 development criteriawhich may very well prove that less is indeed more for most riders. While walking away from the pearl white/graphite 848 that was Soup's ride for the day, it struck me that, after listening to the staccato rip from the exhaust as the bike charged from corner to corner, I wished for another day of riding on this exceptional new Ducati. As Mr. Domenicali stated, "Our goal was to make the 848 more usable, a bike built for passionate connoisseurs, that is as fast and enjoyable as can be."