A year ago, Ducati proudly launched its fastest and most sophisticated large displacement twin into the world's motorcycle market, the 1098. The bike not only quelled the debaters on Pierre Terblanche's 999 avant-garde design, but accompanying the latest Testastretta's performance and technical wizardry, was a price of $14,999.00, a figure that almost seemed inconceivable compared to the previous generation of 999. As tested with the optional Termignoni exhaust, chip and air-box, the 1098 would effortlessly rip through the quarter mile in the high 9's at nearly 150mph. This wasn't just a new twin, it was truly a purpose built superbike that ultimately was awarded "Best New Bike of 2007" by many of the world's most discerning press.
Fast forward to October '07. I am riding in the mountains above Malibu with Soup's Danny Coe. I am aboard not just the 1098, but the lighter 1098S. It quickly became apparent that I was following someone who has seen this tarmac before and Coe was also aboard a much lighter middleweight. I soon found that on these roads you are constantly transitioning from corner to corner, truly a busy environment that places strong demands from both you and your motorcycle. To perform exceptionally here your motorcycle should be lightweight, have impeccable handling, and be powered by an engine with ample torque. For me it was obvious, on these roads the best overall package was a harmonious combination of engine, chassis and brakes, all working in unison to avail its rider with a machine of perfect balance.
As you would expect with the nature of tight canyon roads, hazards always abound. You can almost imagine running in too hot into any number of unmarked unsuspecting corners where in an instant your motorcycle of choice can quickly become either friend or foe. Here I quickly realized this Ducati is a neutral and precise navigating tool, allowing me to focus more on the road rather than on the machine I was controlling. The 1098's stability, balance and neutrality of steering, allowed for quick transitions and late braking, all with minimal weight transfer, regardless of changes in road surface each needed to negotiate what seemed like countless corners.
While the morning progressed and my angst of not knowing my way around these fun but challenging roads diminished, I really began to appreciate the character and feel of the 1098S. Regardless of whether I was coming into an unknown corner too fast, or not knowing how long I could accelerate through the short straights and busy sections linking the road ahead, the 1098S possessed the critical traits needed to answer my every demand. Perhaps what stood out the most were the engine's power and the Brembo monoblock radial brakes. Each can equally provide performance to impress even the most unimpressionable, and upon demand either can be asserted in a hard and almost brutal manner. The balance of the 1098's personality is one that could be considered tactile in nature. It is immensely precise in the way it communicates every movement of the suspension, steering, weight transfer and cornering prowess, and as a complete package it provides a sense of confidence and control. Almost immediately I came to appreciate these strong attributes of the 1098 I was riding.
Now fast forward from the mountains of Malibu to the south of Spain, where Ducati debuted their new 848 superbike at the Almeria circuit. My first visual impression of the 848 was that apart from color, it looked virtually identical to the standard 1098. But after a day of track time I had discovered that in comparison the 848 was in fact a very different motorcycle. In many ways it felt more of an extension of myself to ride it, moreso than the 1098S. One could argue that comparing a motorcycle ridden on the street to another on a racetrack is not fair, however the track layout of Almeria was not so dissimilar to the undulating back roads above Malibu. The infield of Almeria's track consists of thirteen fast, tight corners linked with short quick straights, which allowed the 848 to launch hard from corner to corner, and on the moderate back straight the speedometer was still capable of hitting an indicated 155mph.
After a few sessions riding the 848 and after making a small front suspension adjustment to stiffen the 848 front fork spring and rebound settings, I found the bike to be profoundly effortless ride, at lest when compared to the well-endowed 1098S. While I would suspect most every person that has ridden the bigger Ducati would agree, the intoxication of power of both the engine and brakes are more racy in nature, perhaps better suited to the track than street riding. That's not to say that sport riders will not love these attributes, but after a day of riding the 848, I discovered that it has a different balance, which allowed me to use the motorcycle as an integral tool. By concentrating more on my lines, braking, corner speed, it really helped me to line up for the best approaches into and out of each corner, rather than working constantly to control things.
David VS. Goliath?
The 848 benefits from a series of reductions, not only in overall weight at 11lbs. from the 1098, but also in a dramatic loss of reciprocating mass of almost thirty-seven percent within the 848's engine. This loss enables the bike to transition from corner to corner with much less effort. Other gains were made when Ducati designed the 848 with a longer bore-to-stroke ratio, again to produce a broader and more usable powerband. Combine this with an engine that has been repositioned in the chassis significantly forward vs. the 1098, and the 848 gains a new level of overall balance. In an age where many of the new Super Bikes come stock with far more power than one can take full advantage of, I found the 848's balance of linear power and lithe chassis exceptional. For the expert rider or the person spending more time on track days the 1098, 1098S and of course the spectacular new 1198cc 1098R with it's 180hp will surely prove spectacular, again gaining an even higher level of performance. Time has a definitive way of providing the answer, but I wonder if trying to manage 100ft.lbs. of torque may well have the rider concentrating more on throttle control and limitation, rather than extracting the maximum amount of overall performance from the bike as a whole. If you think about Ducati for a moment, they have a wealth of exciting new tools, each crafted and tuned to meet what is obviously a very focused objective. The 848, 1098, 1098S, 1098R and even the Desmosedici. Although it's the smallest Desmo of the Superbike group, its overall balance and accessibility will undoubtedly prove to be the 848's greatest advantage.
As for riding on public roads with equipment advantages being what they are, I'll take every one I possibly can, thank you. And while it is hard to turn away from the rush of power that all of its bigger brothers provide, I believe the 848 may be the best overall tool for the street, especially given it's friendly price of $12,999.