Monday, April 12, 2010

Ducati's 1198S

Ducati's 1198S is something of an animal, especially in comparison to its predecessor, the equally stunning, but less potent 1098. Ducati's superbikes always look so intimidating and serious. Perhaps it's the deep red paint that highlights the athletic bodywork. Perhaps it's the legendary badge that has graced the top step of MotoGP and World Superbike podiums alike.

Or perhaps it's just the thought of straddling all those thoroughbred stallions in a focused racing crouch and wondering if I've really got the guts and skill to stick the throttle on the stop. Can I trust myself not to get carried away with £14,950 of Italian magnificence? Or can I trust the new traction control system?

Power and performance
The 1198S, as its name suggests, has a 100cc capacity hike, which has resulted in an increased power output of 10bhp to 170bhp at 9,750rpm. Wind the throttle back and the 1198S is capable of rendering you utterly speechless. It fires you forwards like a human cannonball with a rush of power that batters your senses.

The power that surges from the two beefy cylinders is utterly predictable. It's linear and precise, running hard until it hits the 10,500rpm redline, unless you slide up another gear and renew the charge. A track you know and pace you're comfortable with suddenly seems like a distant memory as corners fill your vision with alarming speed. Braking markers fly past as your throttle hand falls for the Italian's spell and sticks the ride on fast forward.

Such explosive power needs to be harnessed in a way that will encourage you to exploit the bike's potential ... or at least try to. The lighter S version is a higher-spec model than the standard 1198, with extras like GP replica seven-spoke forged wheels and fully adjustable Ohlins as opposed to the base model's Showa suspension. Not to mention the traction control ...

Overcooking corners can be easily rectified by leaning the bike outside your comfort zone. Its high-speed stability is as impressive as its eagerness to turn sharply or correct a wayward line. And despite feeling initially cautious, it soon became apparent that the bike responds best to a firm hand and a confident rider. That said there's also a kindness to its nature that guides you through mistakes, rolling through turns as if your excessive speed is just a number.

Ride and handling
Did I mention traction control yet? The R version was equipped with DTC, Ducati Traction Control and I loved the idea of having a safety net against my clumsy throttle hand. But it worked by retarding the ignition before eventually cutting the spark, instead of the fuel supply, and the technology was suitable only for use in conjunction with a non-cat race exhaust.

The 1198S also benefits from having DTC as standard but because its system works by interrupting the fuel injection when the level of grip is compromised, it's safe to use with road-legal catalytic exhausts and the standard ECU. It also has DDA, Ducati Data Analyser (a nice toy) which records the performance of you and the bike which you can download and produce later as evidence during the inevitable pub banter.

There are eight different settings on the traction control system and the higher the digit displayed on the MotoGP-styled dash, the more secure the safety net. Here's where the trust comes in. The trouble with safety nets is that you can't always see them. Try standing 40ft in the air and jumping onto a black net, suspended above black carpet, in dimmed light ... in Lycra.

I've done it and it's not pleasant. So it's little surprise that I selected level eight on my first track session at Pau Arnos in France, to build my confidence in the system. I needn't have bothered. It's so effective you can snatch the throttle back, with a healthy degree of lean, with zero risk of orbit-launch. A row of red lights flash on the dash to show the system has been activated and it continues to serve and protect until the appropriate traction is resumed. Rumour is that it's nigh on impossible to highside above level three. Level four it is then!

More throttle, more acceleration, more fun. The bike lights up on the exits and takes the edge off the power without interrupting the flow of your riding. It's confidence inspiring and it flatters your riding, whatever level that may be.

The 1198S and I devoured an afternoon on track and I savoured every moment. The riding position is focused and firm, and ideal for these circumstances, although less so for the road. But the traction control system will suit both environments and most riders. Trust it.

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