Ducati 851: Where It All Started

Only days prior to my trip 500cc World Champion Marco Lucchinelli had raced the factory 851 at Monza …

The first Ducati to win the World Superbike championship: Raymond Roche’s 851/888.

(Written 2002)

In September of 1987, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Italy by the former Cagiva Ducati representing the late Cycle Magazine. My mission would be an exclusive test of the first 851 Superbike. As it turned out this was to be my first experience riding a one-off motorcycle in Europe, on a track that was unfamiliar to me.

At the last possible moment, I was handed a first class ticket on Alitalia and told by then Cycle Editor Phil Schilling that I was going to Italy to ride Lucchinelli’s 851. Schilling peered at me from above his glasses and said “now go pack” When I left the States it was almost on a whim, and little did I know that some ten hours later I would be whisked into Ducati’s racing inner sanctum, a pawn of sorts for some prearranged agreement I knew little about.

Only days prior to my trip 500cc World Champion Marco Lucchinelli had raced the factory 851 at Monza and, unbeknownst to me, by the time of my flight the motorcycle had undergone a series of changes. Once I arrived in Milan things happened fast. The now Ducati historian Juliano Pedretti along with another Ducati mechanic (Rugerio) picked me up in Milan and took me to the Bologna factory. I was brought directly into the race shop and from here the fairytale really started. Next thing I know, I’m shaking hands with 851 crew chief Franco Farne, the former factory racer who had started as an apprentice at age fourteen, securing a position as factory racer and tester. Next to greet me was the late Dr. Fabio Taglioni, affectionately referred to as “Dr T” around the halls of Cycle. He was the man solely responsible for the design, development and even current success of the Desmodromic valve actuation system Ducati uses to this day. Not done yet, next was Massimo Bordi, who at the time was introduced to me as the engineer behind the new water cooled, four-valve cylinder head used on the 851. Also present was engineer and four-valve designer, Mr. Mengoli, whose current title is Technical Director. All legends now, they were some heavy company, to say the least.

Following the afternoon tour of the race shop, they loaded the motorcycle in a box truck and I was off to my final destination: Mugello. Once arriving at the track we unloaded the 851 and I walked to into the outside pits, where from a distance I saw this Italian looking fellow in Lucchinelli’s leathers. Once closer, I realized this was the man himself. Apparently, Marco rode to Mugello on his Montjuich-powered Paso, and was there to make sure the new machine was fit. The former World Champion allowed me to ride his healthy running Paso for some get acquainted laps while he rode the street trimmed 851. Marco’s only requested change; to replace the 16 inch treaded Michelins with proper slicks. Now late in the day, we retired, off to enjoy the typical small restaurant feast, not unlike what one still relishes when visiting Italy today.

In the morning, my track day started by watching Marco do three laps scrubbing-in the tires. Farne handed me the 851 with a generous smile and all the trust in the world. With great appreciation, I rode that motorcycle with all my heart, and as fast as I possibly could. The sound of the open exhaust echoing from the pits, concrete bleachers and surrounding hills was almost deafening, but still beautiful music. It was fifteen years ago and I can still remember that wonderful sound today in my head. My other lasting impressions of the machine were that it loved to change direction, was prone to wheelie, seemed really fast and needed not one adjustment.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In answering AMASoup’s invitation to test the new 999 afew weeks ago, I was again headed for that special factory in Bologna. Upon my return to Ducati some 15 years later, it was apparent there had been significant changes in my absence. With the exception of Mr. Mengoli, many of the previous pioneers are gone. In touring the factory with Ducati North America’s Dan Van Epps, the machine shop was now brighter and cleaner than I remembered. New automated multi-axis CNC machines ran continuously churning out shiny engine parts, while quality control stations seemed to be everywhere. For a technical comparison, Dan showed us an old machine on display that was truly a glimpse of the past. State of the art during WWII, it was the size of a fairly large reef and performed numerous machining steps on a single engine case. What the factory machinists accomplished with this old equipment was truly amazing.

Another new approach to manufacturing is a greater dependence on outside suppliers for separate components, examples being such pieces as entire fork and brake assemblies. Where the factory would previously construct these parts individually prior to the production line, they now arrive pre-assembled and inspected by the outside suppliers, ready to install on the production line as modular units. This collaboration has proved to save time, improve quality and reduce the warehousing demands of individual components.

In concluding the tour, my single regret of the trip was that I did not spend enough time in the Ducati museum now located upstairs in a building housing the main offices. The Museum offers a wealth of historical information, photos, displays, parts, engines and original motorcycles from past-to-present. This is a “must see” for every motorcycle enthusiast and your time would be well spent with a visit.

Past and Present

The first 851 was a major step into change for Ducati. A new trellis frame design, four valve heads, dry clutch, water cooling, fuel injection, in total a completely new motorcycle. This project was truly a leap for a company that at the time was not all that strong financially, and in many respects dependant on the success of the new machine for survival. On my first visit I don’t think I could have been more impressed with the new bike or the openness of Ducati’s reception.

In many respects, the evolution of the 851, when compared to its predecessors, is comparable to the metamorphosis of the 999. The Starship I rode in 1987 had an interesting mix of special parts, perhaps a pre-production version of what would be considered today’s “R” version in street trim. Although there were lights, fairing and turn signals, certain race pieces remained in various places. With billet Brembo brakes, open velocity stacks and unrestricted exhaust, the 130 hp machine was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing, best suited for the track.

Today, Ducati continues to offer their new motorcycles in different configurations depending on the needs of its customers. This is an approach still not offered by other manufacturers and it’s nice to see that a large company like Ducati remains both flexible and accessible to its followers. It is obvious that Ducati has always been passionate about motorcycles.

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