WORLD SUPERBIKE AND THE 888
In little over a year, Ducati’s 851 had gone from working concept to production motorcycle. Now the factory targeted the inaugural World Superbike championship as the perfect showcase for its new flagship model. No other major motorcycle company has relied so heavily on racing success for sales as Ducati. So much was hanging on this first season of Superbike. Early in 1988 it manufactured 300 of the 851 Stradas with a heady price tag of $25,000. It also quickly produced 200 racekitted versions to meet the series homologation requirements. In a time when four-cylinder engines housed in beam-alloy chassis seemed the only way forward, Ducati’s 851 was an oddity. It was the only bike on the grid with a V-twin engine and “birdcage” tubular steel frame. But Lucchinelli gave the 851 a win on debut at the series’ first round at Donington in April. After finishing second behind Bimota’s Davidtardozzi in Race One he took the chequered flag in Race Two ahead of eventual series winner Fred Merkel (RC30 Honda). Lucchinelli followed that up with another victory three rounds later at the A-ring in Austria. Despite these early wins, the factory only raced at selected rounds and finished fifth in both the riders and manufacturers’ points table. However, Lucchinelli’s racer never really was an 851. Ducati was quick to extract as much power as possible, boring it oversize to displace 888cc. It also used thinner bodywork, lighter frame tubing and weight-saving materials in the engine. Its wheels were 17in while the road-going 851 Strada ran 16in. Lucchinelli’s was the only competitive 851 Ducati in the first year of world Superbike, but that all changed in 1989. By now Lucchinelli had become team manager, with Cagiva GP racer Raymond Roche his main rider. Roche finished the season in third place with a total of five wins. Ducati ended up third in the manufacturers’ table, helped by fellow Lucchinelli team riders Baldassarre Monti and Massimo Broccoli, with Lucchinelli himself pulling on the leathers for a couple
of rounds to earn 13 valuable points. This time Ducati committed to attending the final far-flung two rounds at Oran Park in Australia and Manfield in New Zealand. Roche (888 Corsa/roche) finished fourth and second in Australia but was a DNF in both New Zealand races. Season 1990 was the breakthrough year for Ducati. Roche was joined by spectacular young Italian Giancarlo Falappa. The Frenchman went on to win the title while Falappa rode into 11th place and Ducati folklore with his lurid and fearless race technique. Roche’s series win came despite strong challenges from Yamaha, Honda and Kawasaki. Nevertheless, Ducati came within 13 points of beating Honda to the manufacturers’ title The factory had raised the stakes in 1990, releasing the first of the true race-replica Corsa range. Although nominally an 851, they displaced 888cc and featured race internals and stronger crankcases. The base model 851 gained a twin seat while over the next few years various limited editions of the Corsa or SP range brought more of the race technology trickling down to the buying public. Ducati’s superbike was now a viable option for racers around the world. However, many new owners struggled with the wide-ranging suspension and steering adjustments available while the engine also required intense maintenance. One issue that blighted the early racing success of the 851-888 racer was its fragile crankcases. Often they failed to last a full race weekend. Season 1991 was the start of Ducati’s decade of dominance. Doug Polen arrived with American super tuner Eraldo Ferracci in a satellite factory team and won the championship by a staggering 150 points. Roche finished second ahead of Kawasaki’s Rob Phillis. Ducati also won the manufacturers’ title by over 100 points, helped by five Ducati riders finishing in the top 10. It was a similar result in 1992 but when Polen was sent back to win the AMA title for Ducati in 1993, it lost the world championship but retained its manufacturers’ title. However, new signing Carl Fogarty had recorded 11 race wins on the ultimate development of the 851, now heavily developed into a 926cc powerhouse. By now even the production version of the Superbike was called an 888 (the SP4 of 1992 was the first Ducati to be officially called an 888). Time had moved on and the next chapter was about to be written.
Raymond Roche in action on the 888.