Everyone remembers how they got into bikes, don’t they? Because I sure do. You see, my love of bikes came off the back of this stunning red beast that used to sit pampered at home in our garage – or, as it was properly known, my dad’s 916.
From as early as I can remember, it was literally the best thing in the world. You could hear it roar from miles away, and even just being able to sit on it in the garage was a proper treat. I fell in love with it, which was fairly handy because I’m pretty sure that my dad loved the bike about as much (or more) than he loved me. But then again, who can blame him? When we’re talking about the 916, 996 and 998 range of Dukes, I still don’t think there’s a more iconic range of machines on this planet today – or where two wheels are concerned, anyway. So, when the call came in that we were putting together this utterly bonkers three-bike test, I threw my hat in the ring for the Duke straight away.
A chance like this, to ride a pukka 996R, doesn’t come along all too often, and this
was an opportunity I wanted to make the very most of. It was a proper ‘pinch yourself’ moment to find myself swinging a leg over a bike that took back the title from Honda on its very first attempt (sorry John) in the very capable hands of Troy Bayliss. And like we said, this was a time when world superbikes ruled the roost. It was a golden era, and a time when manufacturers threw everything they had at these homologation specials.
When I look at the modern-day racing specials like the Panigale Rs, ZX-10RRs, R1MS and Fireblade SPs of the world, I always think they are fairly edgy and extreme, yet compared to what the manufacturers used to throw at these bikes to make ‘em race weapons as standard, makes the modern editions look like a drop in the
I THREW MY HAT IN THE RING FOR THE DUKE STRAIGHT AWAY.
ocean. And in my eyes, the 996R was a perfect example of Ducati, pulling out all the stops, to, well, push the rulebook as far as it could go.
I mean, let’s just start with the name. Sure, it was called the 996R and had the same chassis as the standard model, but it really was a whole different animal. Thanks to some innovation from a Ferrari F1 engineer that Ducati nabbed into their team, the brand spanking new Testastretta engine was born, meaning the 996R actually housed the first 998cc engine. Yeah, really. It had a narrower head, alongside aggressive camshafts, titanium con-rods, plus a shorter stroke and wider bore compared to the standard 996, which produced more power, in a safer way – in its day, the 996R pumped out 136bhp, and 105Nm of torque, which isn’t a shabby number at all. Couple that with Öhlins pogos front and rear, chunky Brembos, revised and more aero-efficient carbon bodywork alongside some carbon fibre Termignoni pipes, and you can already see why this thing took the world superbike crown back for Ducati. But that was then and this is now, so begs the question – how does it cut the mustard 20 years on?
I always knew the 996R was going to blow my mind, but not to the extent it did. Quite simply, it offered an experience I wasn’t prepared for, with a punchy, smooth motor, and lithe track handling that made this bike feel both potent and purposeful. It might have taken all day to prise it out of Carl’s hands, but the wait was well worth it. I was amazed at how agile the bike proved, and while not the most stable in a corner, my love for the motor, when winding on out of bends, far outweighed the whacky shapes the chassis was making. That’s what they call character, right? The Ducati certainly felt lively, exciting and extremely capable, which is what you would expect of a machine crafted to cut it against the best of the rest. It looked great too, sounded awesome and had loads of fancy details to keep my wandering eyes occupied. In short, it won me over completely and justified the hype.
If we judged machinery on looks alone, then the 996R is, without a shadow of doubt, the best bike on this planet and probably any other in our solar system. Sure, the Aprilia and the Honda aren’t ugly (actually, they are a bit chunky for my liking), but when opening the lock-up door at work and seeing this trio, there was only one bike that drew my eyes. Not only did it spank both of those bikes on track in 2001, but even today it’s by far the best looking of the bunch as well. Oh, and I’ve got to say, it was also one of the best kept examples I’d ever seen, which probably helped its cause – sporting fresh pads and tyres to make sure this ride was as pleasurable as possible.
Everything, from the shape of the silhouette and the shade of red paint to the gorgeous single sided swinger, just oozed serious Italian exotica. Up close and personal, there were so many nice little touches, from the number plaque on top of the yokes to the fact that it has just Zeus fasteners holding on those carbon fairings. It literally looked like a full-on racing weapon, ready from the factory. Well, that’s if you can ignore the chunky, old-school mirrors, indicators and plates; they’ve got to be the components I’d be binning off straight away, and are the biggest tells of just how old the Duke is.
With old bikes, the riding position tends to be more ‘in the bike’ rather than on it, and the 996R was absolutely no exception. Being a short arse, getting on without kicking the high tail unit was a serious struggle, but when on, I couldn’t get over how small the Duke felt between my legs. It felt closer to a little two-stroke 250 than it did a fire breathing superbike, with a relatively low seat height and thin chassis, combined with small, tight ‘bars and some fairly high pegs.
The dash looks like it’s out of the ark nowadays but it shows everything you could ask for, with clocks for speed, temp and RPM. It was also a really refreshing sight to be looking down and not greeted with any unnecessary tack, plastics or wires – although the foam backing on the clocks isn’t exactly what I’d call the makings of a premium masterpiece. But then again, everything
about it felt absolutely ready for a good spanking, with no thought for anything besides the very quickest lap times. I felt just like Bayliss.
The smugness of seemingly sitting on top of the best bike of the lot quickly vanished when it came to actually starting the thing.
Where the other two bikes burst instantly into life at the thumb of their starters, the 996R did no such thing. Even with the choke on and the throttle idle button engaged, it just did not want to fire up.
It wasn’t even cold outside and had a tank full of fresh fuel, yet the 996R really was a pain in the neck to get running. It took a ridiculous amount of attempts and the wise touch of the old grandpa of the group (Johnny Mac) to finally get it started. But, cor, when it roared into life, all was instantly forgiven. The combo of the Testastretta engine, dry clutch and Termi’ carbon pipes were devastatingly saucy, creating a soundtrack that Beethoven himself would’ve been envious of. With every crisp, crack of the throttle, the speed in which the revs built up as well was genuinely surprising; that lighter crank really is a thing of beauty. With a few little changes to the adjustable levers, 998cc, L twin cylinder 100 x 63.5mm 11.4:1
Injection 136hp@10,200rpm 105Nm@8,000rpm
Tubular Trestle Frame 43mm Öhlins forks Öhlins monoshock 2 x 320mm discs, Brembo 4 piston calipers 220mm disc, 2 piston caliper 1,410mm 790mm 185kg 17 litres
EVEN WITH THE CHOKE ON AND THE THROTTLE IDLE BUTTON ENGAGED, IT JUST DID NOT WANT TO FIRE UP
£20k+ www.ducati.com or eBay...
Like the Porsche 911, the 916 family kept the same basic shape and form but updated what was ‘under the hood’.
The 916 Foggy Rep of 1998 homologated improvements for Carl Fogarty’s factory 1999 racer; bore, stroke and compression would be identical to the previous ‘996cc’ SPS launched in March 1997 (98mm x 66mm, 11.5:1), but steel rather than titanium con-rods would be used and the frame would be revised, as would be the air-box. Pretty much everything else was standard 916 fayre and 202 would be built. Allegedly some proceeds would help pay King Carl’s wage demands.
At the end of 1998 for 1999 came the 996 Biposto, which finally gave the base model two-seater the same cc motor and the 996 SPS, which was the trick track version.
Confusingly, from October 2000 came the 996S model (996cc motor, gold frame with five-spoke Marchesini wheels, Showa forks and Ohlins rear) and 996R, replacing the old SPS moniker, but with a 998cc motor, Ohlins front and rear and Marchesini five-spokers… The 998-badged base model, S and R would replace the short-lived 996 by the end of 2001.
Race-wise the Ducati V-twins had been dominant, winning the 1990, 1991 and 1992 titles with Raymond Roche and Doug Polen on the 888 (erm, with more than likely 926cc motors) before Carl Fogarty won the title on the 916 in 1994 and 1995. Troy Corser would win in 1996, but remember – even by that time the 916 racer was actually a 955cc-995cc bike, before the later race machines matched the capacity logos on the side of the road bikes. Got that? Later models would win titles with Foggy again in 1998 and 1999, then Troy Bayliss in 2001 before the 999 came along in 2003.
Seven or eight years ago, £3500 could have netted you a half-decent 916. Today, you’re looking at double that. If you really want a 996 Bip/S/R, they’re rare as they weren’t around for long, and clean bikes start around £10,000 now for any 996S or 998 Bip/S models. Issues: standard Ducati 916 really, service history and belt changes are paramount (every two years, with valve check). Reg-rectifiers can also go, and Ducati dry-clutches are weak. Also, do not believe that every single-seater model is a trick version as many owners changed Biposto tail units for single-seat jobs. Find a good, local Ducati specialist and stick with them if you can’t do the jobs yourself. and an attempt to move the mirrors to make them marginally useful (which didn’t work), it was time to set off.
We’re incredibly lucky to have a lot of things these days, and lighter clutches are one of those things I always take for granted. It took all four fingers to be in proper control of the Duke’s left-hand lever, and it literally almost got all the way out before there was any bite whatsoever. In all honesty, it had me a bit worried that it’s low speed manners would be utterly gash – until we actually got rolling and the 996R surprisingly blew me away.
Navigating at slow speed through the car park and the town, not only did it have a pretty hefty amount of steering lock (even if it does catch your hand on the fairings when turning left), but the actual throttle connection, even at the bottom end of first gear, was surprisingly strong. Sure, the suspension set-up was incredibly stiff when it came to speed bumps and potholes, but for an old brute like this? I was genuinely shocked. I mean, it would still put a fair few modern bikes to shame as the fuelling felt absolutely spot on, with a beautiful pick-up with each roll of the throttle. I’d almost go as far as saying it would even put the ’21 range of Panigales to shame at the bottom end… now who would’ve thought that?
I certainly wouldn’t, and things only got better and better the further into the Wolds we ventured. As the roads opened, the 996R really did come to life. It felt incredibly fun and exciting. Before my ride, I really was worried that the powerplant would feel underpowered and therefore underwhelming compared to the insane superbikes we are blessed with today, yet it really didn’t, and
8 Puts a lot of modern bikes to shame…
Pfft. What’s that?
For its age? Hell yeah!
Made me a very happy chappy.
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