There have already been more words written and opinions expressed on the Ducati 999 than on most machines of recent years — replacing something as iconic as the 916 design was never going to be less than contentious. Over the next few months we’ll all no doubt be reading test reports and comparisons on the 999 until terminal boredom sets in. We’ll see it being wheelied, stoppied, ridden knee down, elbow down and occasionally arse up, by road testers whose behaviour is entirely untempered by the need to pay for maintenance, tyres and damage. Good for them — we’ll enjoy the vicarious carnage.

Me, I’m neither particularly fast nor painfully slow, moderately competent on a good day and prone to the occasional braindead moment — pretty much like most of us, then. So this is the everyman opinion, albeit concocted over the course of a single hour-and-a-bit’s test ride. This test ride has been occasioned by the decision to change bikes — time to pension off the faithful 748 for something a little newer, perhaps a little quicker and possibly a little more comfortable — the old injuries are playing up.

 A very different look

A very different look

Making it Happen

First off, an abortive attempt to ride the Pro Twins demonstrator — I booked a test ride; I confirmed by telephone on the morning; I rode 50 miles to South Godstone. To find their 999 demonstrator still upstairs in the showroom, sans mirrors and wearing a set of shagged race intermediates. No apology. No deal. Pity — they’re a good bunch.

Next stop is at Ducati London South, the shiny new Ducati flagship store in the festering hinterland of Croydon. Purley Way Crescent is not La Promenade des Anglais. They are however organised, helpful and offer a good deal: halfway decent trade-in and a discount on parts and accessories. They’re also happy to book a test ride, So, time to step outside and confront the beast…

Looking at it

It’s small, neat but rather visually incoherent — from the magic of the lights, instruments and top yoke to the mundanity of the slab-sided fairing and something of a mess of frame tubes, with so-so welds where the rear sub- frame joins the main frame. There’s been an attempt make it a little more obvious that there’s a stonking great v-twin engine in there – the rear cylinder head is left exposed, something that works well from the left, but not the right, where the black plastic cambelt covers look like recycled plastic bin liners. Strike one for compulsory carbon fibre fitment.

And then there’s the exhaust. Ah, the exhaust. So close, yet so far — Signor Terreblanche should be ashamed of himself for perpetrating this monstrosity. If you want to see high level cans done right, look at anything by Tamburini, or the FP1, the Aprilia Futura or even the Multistrada. Hang on, that last is one of his…

The Good…

Stop looking at it. Get on, turn key, start up and pull away. Stall. Restart. Stall again. Deep breath. Get hang of the clutch and disappear into white van hell of Sarf Lunnon. Very smooth and linear pickup, without the low-speed injection lurching of the 748, and great oodles of low-down torque. Nice. And nicely judged – the 998S I rode the other day was, by comparison, an hilariously evil torque monster, taking any opportunity it could to spin up the rear wheel and remind me just what the consequences of a mistimed

hiccup while cranked over could be — of the three people I’ve met with these machines, four of them have low-sided it. The 999 is just that little more friendly towards those of us of a ham-fisted disposition. The first 10 miles are a hack through heavy traffic – no problems – smooth injection, good steering lock and small size making trickling through traffic a no-brainer.

Finally, on to the curving dual carriageway of the Caterham by-pass: up the hill, past a few errant reps with cellphones stuck to their ears and make the latest turn-in I dare for the long left-hander. No fuss, no drama, no effort. Repeat for a while to M25, thence the open curves of the A22, finally doubling back on rising and falling twisty roads through the forests and farmland around Godstone before heading back into The Smoke. By then, I’ve got a little of the information overload from a new machine sorted and am actually checking the speedo. Ooooh — this machine takes the Ducati Deception — the ability to always be travelling 20mph faster than you thought you were — to entirely new levels and places, officer.

Corners, bounces and wobbles: It does, it doesn’t and it doesn’t. This is, without doubt, the best handling motorcycle I have ever ridden — it manages to turn much more quickly than previous models whilst also being utterly, unflappably stable. it’s also possible to brake in turns without being fired out at a tangent (yes, yes, I know, but let he or she who has not cocked up their entry speed once in a while cast the first rock). New technogame: pick section of fast bends; hit lap timer button; get to other end; examine max speed readout and giggle. I haven’t yet worked out if there’s a Delete The Evidence panic button. If not, there should be. It also has another innovation for a Ducati: suspension. Which simply works, leaves dental work intact and refuses to allow the machine to be kicked around on poorly surfaced bends. That will do nicely. Within the last week I’ve briefly ridden both a 998S and an Aprilia RSV-R — two machines with exemplary handling and suspension. I reckon that anyone on a 999 could simply ride around either of these at any time of their choice.

If a Ducati with compliant suspension is a surprise, ’tis but trivial compared to the other great shibboleth they’ve done away with — this is a Ducati with steering lock; very good steering lock. Hitherto, you’ve not been considered a seasoned Ducati rider until you’ve almost or actually fallen over while attempting a full lock turn, feet up in a road less wide than a football pitch.

Given the heady mixture of power, torque, handling and London traffic, there comes a point in any even moderately exuberant test ride where slowing down moves from being optional to necessary. So on with the brakes. Then off with the brakes and accelerate again to reach the obstruction. These are wonderful things, with huge initial bite, total feedback and tremendous linearity, and all at a finger’s pressure. They feel much the same as those on the 998S I rode at the weekend, and way ahead of the earlier versions on my machine.

One thing though, it vibrates at high revs. A lot. Much more than any other recent Ducati I’ve ridden. This I’m prepared to ascribe to this machine – it was 400 miles overdue for its 600-mile service, which could account for it. If it doesn’t, they’ve screwed up.

And did I mention the brakes?

The Bad…

The subjectivity of the aesthetic aside, that’s all pretty damn positive. Very pretty damn positive. Now here, for me, is less the fly in the ointment than the elephant in the trashcan — the riding position: This is, for me, the worst single aspect of the machine for road use — it only actually comes together when you’re chin on the tank, tucked in and, ah, going for it. I think I’ve spent no more than an hour or so in three years in that position, total. And most of that was on a single rain-soaked blast up the péage in pursuit of a ferry. Under normal riding, the sort for which most of us buy Ducatis, where we’re head up, forward on the seat and moving around the machine on twisty roads, it’s crap — the mirrors are utterly unusable, the screen obscures the instruments, and the seat is notably uncomfortable — you end up sitting on the nose of the seat, with enough space between bum and bum stop to carry half the Vienna boys’ choir. But let’s not go there. I’ve no problem with a committed riding position — it’s just that I think they’ve committed to exactly the wrong one. And, lest you think I’m Quasimodo’s grumpier brother, I’m 1.83m (6′) tall and about 82kg (180lb), which should be pretty much median in the intended range of riders.

I’ll grant that it’s much roomier than the previous bikes, despite being tiny in overall dimensions. It’s long and the peg/bar/seat relationship isn’t that much different from the earlier bikes. And the range of adjustment available in the footpegs doesn’t seem to amount to a great deal in the knee-creaking stakes. Height and angle adjustable bars would have been a real step forward. The monoposto version of the 999 has another adjustment — a seat/tank adjustment range of about 20mm fore and aft. That may be useful to the highly-tuned sensibilities of racers, but I’m sure I vary my riding position on the seat by more than that according to how I’ve adjusted my underwear, without noticing any difference.

And Ducati have clearly put considerable design effort into the mirrors. Not apparently however in pursuit of making them work as mirrors — that would clearly be too easy. They are actually worse than those on the 748, a breathtaking feat of determination. At least the earlier bike demonstrated Italian priorities — the only thing they were really good at was for checking out the inner thighs of pillion passengers. So I am informed.

They also claim to have paid great attention to weight saving — 3kg on the wiring harness alone, and are notably proud of their new instrument cluster weighing only 500g. So why does the bike weigh 6kg or so *more* than the 998?

And, enfin, consider this: Ducati claim to have cut the component count by over a third, which should improve production efficiency and cut costs. Yet the bike costs more. For explanation, we need look no further than their last quarterly report:

“For the three months ended 3/31/02, revenues rose 10% to EUR124.7 million. Net income rose 12% to EUR5.5 million. Revenues reflect increased sales in the Super Sport and Superbike families due to higher prices and higher operating margins due to a reduced provision for risks and charges.”.

In other words, spend less, charge more — and see where the market breaks.

The Smugly…

I had cars honking at me and people leaning out of vans and screaming Dooocaaateeeee!!! as I wombled past. So it clearly makes an impact, even in the twilight zone of the Home Counties. The Kings Road and Box Hill would make for an interesting day out. But I’m not yet entirely convinced — power delivery, handling, brakes and ride are a revelation; aesthetics are subjective; riding position is plain wrong. Doesn’t quite add up for me. Oh yes and it’s expensive. But we expected that. So what now? If they took the same frame and engine and gave it a more real- world riding position, they’d really be on to something. Updated ST4S, anyone? Think I’ll wait a couple of weeks and see what the Munich show brings.