Sportbike of the Year - First Look

Sportbike of the Year - First Look

You remember the famous deli scene from When Harry Met Sally, where Meg Ryan, loudly simulating the throes of passion, does such a convincing job that the lady in the next booth turns to her waitress and says, "I'll have what she's having."

These days in the sportbike world, Ducati is Meg Ryan—except the ecstasy is genuine—and every other motorcycle-maker wants some of what Bologna is having. Or at least they should.

Let's go back a year. Ducati had just pulled wraps off its new 1098, much-needed follow-on to the ill-fated New Coke of Italian repli-racers, the 999. Instant hit, stylistically evocative of the old 916 series while being its own machine. Priced right, too. The base 1098 stickered for $14,995, close enough to the Japanese liter bikes so that if you really wanted to ride rosso, you could make the rationalization.

When test units were passed out, the sly dogs at Ducati couldn't seem to find a base model for Cycle World, so sorry, but please take this 1098S with the Öhlins suspension instead, and so sorry again, but it also has the accessory Termignoni exhaust and ECU upgrade. Hope that's okay, don't know when we'll get more press bikes in…

Semi-ringer status duly noted (well, the parts are in the accessories catalog), we still came away ultra impressed. "The 1098 not only brings back the raw sex appeal that was desperately missing in the 999, but it takes a gigantic step forward in terms of performance," we wrote. "No longer does Ducati's flagship sportbike have to survive on handling alone."

Later we insisted on sampling a non-piped, non-chipped standard 1098. Our opinion didn't change; in fact, that's the model CW named as Best Superbike of 2007 in our annual Ten Best Bikes awards. The rest of the moto-mag world agreed, voting the 1098 as International Bike of the Year in a landslide. Tied for third was the 1098S, giving Ducati two spots on the IBOTY podium with the same basic platform!

Then came the 1098R, a so-called "homolgation special," street-legal but built in low numbers to qualify for World Superbike, a series that Ducati has dominated in the past, winning 12 championship titles since 1990. Just as the 1098 went above the liter mark to compete on the street, the R-model was further bored and stroked for an additional 100cc, snuggling displacement right up to the new 1200cc limit for Twins that Ducati had successfully lobbied for.

To do well in racing, sometimes the boardroom is just as important as the dyno cell.

Besides its bigger pistons, the engine gets stronger sandcast cases, a lightweight crank, titanium con-rods and oversized Ti valves. In this hot-rodded form, the "1198R" pounds out a claimed 180 horsepower. Fit the included race kit ("intended strictly for track use only") with its 102-dB carbon-fiber Termis and dedicated ECU, that number climbs to 186.

More importantly, the new black box knows how to talk to wheel-speed sensors fitted front and rear. Yep, while other manufacturers sneak up on traction control, the 1098R is the first production bike to be fitted with a true competition-level system. It's called, simply and without subterfuge, DTC for Ducati Traction Control, and can be dialed up to eight levels of effectiveness depending on tire/track conditions.

Cycle World's Mark Cernicky attended the 1098R's world press launch at the Circuito de Jerezin Spain. He came home singing traction control's praises, reckoning it was good for at least half-a-second a lap.

"DTC works most obviously when exiting slower corners; there, you can feel the power interruption and hear the motor stutter," he noted. "In faster corners, the effect is more of a subtle feathering, akin to a very soft rev-limiter. It takes some getting used to but I soon came to trust my little electronic friend, DTC."

Currently, a factory 1098R is leading the World Superbike points chase. Nice, but more important is the Ducati's role as pathfinder for a new generation of electronics-savvy streetbikes. That's why the 1098R is our choice for Sportbike of the Year.

Sure, it costs $39,995. So does a mildly optioned Buick Lucerne four-door. Which would you rather have?