Bike Icon: Ducati 888

The Ducati 888 is the Great Grandaddy of the 1198 and its awesome racing pedigree bred a road legend whose racing history is crucial to its status

Posted: 8 September 2010
by Mark Forsyth
ducati 888 side
Ducati 888 front
Ducati 888 rear

The 888 appeared out of necessity from under a leaky roof in Borgo Panigale, home of the Ducati factory. It was 1986. Ducati, then owned by the Castiglioni brothers, were skint but under the brilliant guidance of engineer Massimo Bordi they hatched a bike to speed them to racing dominance while creating a following like never before. This was Ducati's new 'reparto sperimentale' - or 'experimental department' in full effect.

For his new project, Bordi took the parts most readily available - the belt driven ohc Pantah engine, a bit of a compressor maybe  but still the best they had.

In its two-valve form it had long reached the end of its racing road but Bordi had a plan. He grafted on a pair of water cooled cylinders topped off with a pair of desmo dohc heads with four-valves per cylinder. He also broke the mould by adding a super-sophisticated Weber Marelli fuel injection system.

In September '86 the first lashed-up 751cc prototype arrived at the Bol d'Or 24-hour race. Its speed stunned the sceptics but not half as much as its longevity did because it ran for an incredible 15 hours, placing as high as seventh before a gearbox bearing broke. For a bike bolted together a few days before the event, this wasn't half bad going.

The following March the factory entered Marco Lucchinelli at Daytona on an 851cc version. He cleared off into the distance - clocking 166mph on the banking on his way to win the twins event. Tongues wagged.

The roadgoing 851 was launched at the Milan show in 1987. It now had its own purpose-built crankcases and 100bhp at the back wheel. Despite dubious quality control, public and press alike raved.

In 1988, with £250,000 and ten bikes at his disposal Lucchinelli campaigned the 851-badged (but in fact, 888cc) racers in WSB. He finished the season fifth but not before scoring a couple of wins at Donington and the scary-fast Osterreichring.

Raymond Roche and Baldassarre Monti took over as riders in '89 of the now very fast but still frustratingly fragile 888 and Roche took double wins at the two fastest tracks on the calendar - Hockenheim and Brainerd.

And when Ducati re-signed Roche and ex-Bimota rider Giancarlo Falappa things got serious. The 1990 888 was a missile and reliability was improving. It won nine races and Roche clinched the title 57 points clear of the next rider. Sadly Falappa suffered a near fatal crash in Austria - snapping both femurs in half, breaking a wrist and a collarbone for good measure. Unsurprisingly, it was the end of the mad-looking Italian's season.

'91 and '92 saw Doug Polen taking back-to-back double titles, then in '93, after a stunning debut season on a privateer 888, a certain Mr Fogarty arrived. Scott Russell eventually took the title, but it was close. The following year Foggy did it though, giving the 888 its last title, and him his first.

From inception 888 power had jumped from a lowly 100bhp to an incredible 155. The Japanese factories, and Aaron Slight, whinged mightily but all that was happening was Ducati were playing the rule book to perfection - and winning. Respect.

Roadbike 851 and 888s were a mixed bag. By far the best were the Öhlins-kitted SPs, culminating with the best-of-the-bunch SP5 in 1993. But like anything exotic and Italian, getting the best out of an 888 requires experience, knowledge, patience and money. The factory's base suspension settings were all over the shop making a good 888 class-leadingly stunning and a bad one worse than a poorly rebuilt write-off with flat tyres, square wheels and a chocolate frame.

But the key to the 888s celebrity status isn't the fact that it's drop-dead gorgeous, vastly fast, or rewarding to ride. It can indeed be all of those things, granted, but because the factory produced so few by today's mass-manufacturing standards, it's the 888's scarcity that adds volumes to its value and appeal. The 888 is the biking equivalent of a Ferrari 250GTO, and that dear reader, is why you want one.

Riding the 888

She's big in all her measurements - tall, broad-tanked, long and with a stretch between all the controls. But despite all this, an 888 is still a great ride if you're prepared to work it.

When I raced them I often wore the soles of my boots out putting so much effort through the pegs and, if we used kit bars, I regularly bent them through the effort of making it turn fast enough. How Foggy managed with his Monty Burns physique I'll never know. Probably to do with talent...

But it's the noise of a highly tuned 888 that shakes my tree. We're talking induction noise beyond the pain barrier. Those twin, unfiltered 50mm inlet trumpets pointing at the underside of your helmet let you know what's going on, that's for sure. They sound so different track-side, you'd swear it was a different bike.

And the fuel injection is awesome - I've ridden worse today (SP2, SP1, etc). It was a peach to ride in the rain as a result. Totally tractable, totally controllable, totally fast.

I love 'em. Which probably explains why I've got three of the buggers. I'll get my coat...



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