Ducati’s Superbikes. A history.
Chronicles of the ultimate V-twin Superbike
Hamish Cooper looks at how the racing world went from 888 to 916 and a bit beyond.
Ducati defied the critics when it reinvented the V-twin in 1986. Its clean-sheet design launched a Superbike legend but it often travelled a rocky road to success.
Where it all began
Ducati’s ground-breaking 851 Superbike was born in a great period of change in the mid1980s, both for the Italian company and world motorcycle racing. A takeover by Cagiva had brought in new money and a renewed interest in racing. From Dakar-winning Cagiva-ducatis to dominance in Battle of the Twins and World F1 championships, the Italian firm seemed back on track. But it needed a new, more powerful engine to replace its ageing Pantah-based twins. With the retirement of legendary designer Fabio Taglioni, the spotlight fell on a new team of young lions. Chief among them were Massimo Bordi and Gianluigi Mengoli. In just a few months they created the prototype of what would become the world’s most sophisticated production V-twin. Then they flew it to the world’s biggest race for twin-cylinder motorcycles, Daytona’s Pro Twins. While it retained the Pantah’s 90-degree V-twin layout, its package of liquid-cooling, fully-computerised fuel injection, DOHC heads and eight valves was new territory both for Ducati and motorcycling’s mainstream. It may have been a world beater but what fronted up at the Florida speedbowl in early 1987 resembled a backyard build. Electrical
cables looped clumsily through the frame and hoses stuck out at odd angles. The tank even looked like it had been yanked off Cagiva’s GP two-stroke. But Ducati’s 851cc prototype fitted easily into Daytona’s Pro Twins (formerly Battle of the Twins) scene. A support event to the famous Daytona 200, it was a hotbed of innovation and a nursery for some of the most creative Superbike participants of the next decade. Martin Adams was turning Honda’s ultrarare flat-track RS750 V-twin into a potent roadracer that could exceed 160mph on the banking. In the 1990s he became a major player in American Superbike racing running the Camel and Smok’n Joe’s Honda race teams. The Erion brothers were doing similar things to a humble Honda Hawk V-twin. They would go on to form Two Brothers Racing, one of AMA’S top performance shops. After tuning Rob-north-framed Triumph triples for Daytona’s vintage races, Eraldo Ferracci switched to the Pro Twins class. A few years later he would team with Doug Polen and deliver Ducati two World Superbike titles. Then there was Dr John Wittner, whose home-built short-stroke, four-valve Moto Guzzi would revive the factory and help refocus its model range. Soon John Britten would arrive, with various versions of his V1000. The clean-sheet Ducati was so new it didn’t even have a name. Its technicians referred to it as the 4V (a reference to its four valve heads). But the fact that 1981 world 500cc champion Marco Lucchinelli was riding it meant Ducati was taking this race deadly seriously.
‘Lucky’ had easily won the BOT race the year before on the ultimate version of Ducati’s TT-F1 air-cooled twin. This year he faced several TT-F1S and a host of home-brewed but devastatingly fast twins. The ‘4V’ was a highly developed version of the experimental racer codenamed 748 ‘IE’, which had lasted 15 hours of the September 1986 Bol D’or endurance in France. Based on air-cooled Pantah crankcases, this unheralded and largely ignored entry had proved to its creators that the design was worth developing. Within a few months it had been boosted to 851cc, fitted into special crankcases and dyno-tested for over 100 hours. Fuel injection meant Ducati could increase intake size from a maximum of 42mm using carburettors to a starting point of 50mm. Not only that, using complements sourced from nearby Weber Marelli meant F1 car technology was on hand. The result was a world first – a computerised and fully-mapped injection system tuned to suit various fuel and ignition requirements. Before the race Lucchinelli was playing down his chances, saying his bike “only had 850cc” against his mainly 1000cc opposition. Among them was the Uk-built Quantel Cosworth twin ridden by Rob Phillis and Harley’s one-off short-stroke XR1000 housed in an Erik Buell frame and ridden by reigning American Pro Twins champion Gene Church. Phillis didn’t front the starter after the bike that Paul Lewis had taken to second place the year before failed in practice. Church’s race lasted one lap before he speared off the track trying to outbrake Lucchinelli. Then the Italian was challenged by Stefano Caracchi, on an 850cc version of Ducati’s air-cooled F1.
Lucchinelli lost the lead when his bike appeared to falter but he got lucky when the race was stopped in the next lap due to an oil spill. He was declared the winner. What really created interest was the bike’s top speed and lap times. Officially clocked at 165mph, it was just 10km/h slower than the fastest four-cylinder in the 200-mile race for 750cc four-strokes. These were the bikes that would be racing in World Superbike a year later. Back in Italy, the Daytona prototype continued as a mobile test bed, raced in local events while the production 851 was developed. It was cleaned up to take pride of place beside the road-going 851 Strada at the Milan Show in November 1987. So the version you see on display in Ducati’s museum now has 851 on its fairing, twin exhausts and many other subtle differences to the Daytona winner. But this is where the legend began.
The 851 with the road kit fitted.
1993 888 Corsa.
The 996 engine.
Carl Fogarty in action on the 996.