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1098R and the Fastest Island in the World

Ducati’s glorious 1098R thrashed around the the Isle of Man just days before thousands of bikers got there for the 2008 TT. If there’s a two-wheeled heaven, this may just be it

The Isle of Man has always given me mixed feelings. When I was 18 years old I packed a rucksack and rode my trusty VFR400 from my home in a sleepy Cotswold village to watch Joey race around the infamous course. The few days I spent there were a blur of beer, large ladies exposing their breasts to the baying crowds and bikes being ridden at a terrifying pace on the public roads.

I remember a few of the grimmer parts, the local news reporting two racers being killed in morning practice, seeing crashed bikes parked on Douglas highstreet with signs on them saying ‘cut up on the mountain by a twat on a Fireblade, please give generously’ and stories of German riders being involved in a head on crash during Mad Sunday. But I was young, the whole experience was mind-blowing and, at my tender years, I was only just starting my journey of discovery about the delights of alcohol. So everything was exciting and new.

Time has passed and events have made me think about the Isle of Man in a different way. Being involved in the motorcycle world I’ve got to know a number of riders who race at the TT, which casts the annual event in a different light. I can no longer watch and marvel at the sheer spectacle of racing at over 180mph on the public roads, instead I watch minute-by-minute timing to check that my mates have made it home.

Most of the time they do, but in the last few years several have not. At these times I find myself questioning the validity of an event where life is lost so easily and regularly, which is why I don’t think I’ll ever return to the island when the racing is on. I’m in no way one of the ‘ban the TT brigade’, the racers know the risks and love competing in the TT, and I love the fact that in this pathetic nanny state we live in such an event can still happen. But for me personally, the magic of the racing has been lost by a few tragic and needless events.

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But there’s still plenty of magic on the Isle of Man, much of that to be found at 6am on the mountain section, tucked in behind the screen of a superlative sportsbike. And they don’t come any more superlative than the Ducati 1098R. This £24,000 hand-assembled masterpiece is as savage as it is beautiful, arguably worth every penny and was my personal guide around the famous twists and turns of the fastest island in the world

Rolling off the Steam Packet ferry in Douglas at 5am I was greeted by a stunning sunrise that turned the whole sky a deep crimson, not to mention a few dirty looks from the few locals who were awake at that un-Godly hour. To allow the traction control system to be used the 1098R was running Termignoni race silencers, but judging from the din I think the word silencer is a bit misleading. The catastrophic racket from tickover the 1098R was making was akin to two warring parties attacking each other with an array of large cannons. There is absolutely no way of being subtle on this bike, I don’t think it could have been any louder if I had removed the whole exhaust system wholesale and chucked it in the sea.

Trying to be as subtle as possible I attempted to keep the Ducati close to the 30mph limit and followed the signs towards the famous mountain section. I say attempted to stay close to the 30mph limit because on the 1098R it’s impossible to go this slowly. When I rode it on its launch around the circuit of Jerez I remember saying it was the closest thing to a race bike I had ever ridden, and on the road that is exactly what it feels like.

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The Ducati doesn’t like being below 50mph at all and protests quite vigorously about it. Like a dog straining at its leash the engine is always trying to push the speed up and if you do allow the revs to drop below 5,000rpm it vibrates and stutters like crazy. Even in top gear. On the motorway ride up to the ferry port in Heysham I found that in top gear the vibrations are so bad below 5,000rpm that you can’t actually read the dash because it’s so much of a blur. Which is all very amusing until you realise that to get beyond this patch you have to be doing above 86mph, or ride in fifth gear! And I won’t even bother mentioning the mirrors. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to work out how bad they are, no matter what the speed!

In fact town riding is best avoided all together on the 1098R. As well as the speed issue the clutch is heavy and has a very grabby action. More than once when I thought I was being quite gentle slipping the clutch there was a squeaking sound followed by the plates suddenly engaging and the bike rocketing forward. And then there is the heat from the engine. On the go the cooling system on the 1098R must be fantastic because it runs at about 67-degrees on the temperature gauge, which is really low. But get stuck in town and this shoots up. My personal record was 105-degrees through Liverpool, but I’m sure far higher can be achieved in summer.

But who gives a damn about such idiosyncrasies. You don’t buy a 1098R to commute on. Well, not if you have any sense anyway. This is the ultimate Ducati and in many ways the ultimate V-twin, a bike that is designed to go fast on track, win WSB, and as an after thought has a few lights and a horn fitted. R stands for racing, not relaxing and there is no ‘R’ in commuting after all.

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Heading out of Douglas I followed the black and white curb stones that mark the TT course. Not being an afficianado of the racing I don’t know the route like the back of my hand so was happy to act like Hansel and Gretel and follow these painted bread crumbs towards the mountain.

Despite what many people may think the Isle of Man police have a very dim view on speeding and if you’re caught roaring through a 30mph limit at 90mph they will throw the book at you. Jail sentences are properly handed out for excessive speeding and points accumulated in the Isle on Man count on your UK licence, so caution is advised until you get to the mountain. But get there and anything goes, within reason. You can’t get done for speeding, but ride like a twat and a charge of dangerous riding can be aimed in your direction. Not that this is likely if you choose your time correctly. It’s only in the early morning and between four and six in the evening that the traffic is particularly bad, outside that time you are pretty much left to your own devices to explore the 12-miles of racetrack road.

Stuttering my way into the unrestricted area in first gear I opened the Ducati right up. On the road the 1098R accelerates so fast it’s actually quite intimidating, you’ve got all your weight over the front and she just wheelies so violently. Into second and I brave holding the throttle wide open. The front rises again when the bulk of the power kicks in at 7,000rpm, the bike lancing forwards with a demented roar from the airbox. Into third, the front briefly goes light again but stays almost in contact with the road, skimming its surface.

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This is speed on a grand scale, with a ripping, thunderclap of sound behind from the howling pipes. It’s an engine of staggering performance that spins up so quickly. Often Ducatis don’t feel fast, they have a certain lazy revving feeling to them that belies the speed. Not so with the R, you know you’re going properly bloody fast, it’s all down to how brave you are as to how long you can stay on the ride. By way of comparison, a standard 1098 (which is a bloody fast thing in itself) feels civilised, polite and slightly effeminate next to the R-model engine.

Accelerating along the straight leading to Creg Ny Baa I manage to hit fifth gear before slowing down for the Shell-gripped corner there. Dropping it down a couple of gears (delicious close-ratio gearbox) it felt like someone had slammed my clutch fingers with a hammer at every change of cog. The R comes with a slipper clutch, rough, ragged and straight off the racetrack. I didn’t notice it being bad on the world launch so I assume it gets better at speed, but for road riding it’s really vicious.

Not only is it very heavy, something I can live with because the 1098R is so powerful, but it has a violent kick back. Rather than smoothly disengaging then re-engaging the clutch the Ducati feels as though it slips, then simply throws the clutch back into action, sending a shock wave along the clutch fluid that finds its way to the lever.Riding the bike all day I found my fingers hurting due to this action. I remember a few bikes having this problem years ago when slipper clutches first started appearing, but things have moved on immeasurably since then. Ducati seem to have missed this advance.

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Heading up towards Kate’s Cottage the Ducati is forging ahead at a speed that quite literally sucks the air out of my helmet. As it passes through 6,000rpm the torque comes in hard and by the time it’s into its stride in third gear a small rise in the road is enough to catapult the front up again. Woah! Unlike other 1098 models the R has a brutal powerband, pulling hard low down but there’s a slam of power just under 8,000rpm that makes it properly, properly take off. You think you’re going fast and then you realise the fast bit is about to arrive. Yet despite all this brilliance the engine is silky smooth and rattle free. Unlike the KTM RC8 we rode last month the 1098R doesn’t feel agricultural, it feels refined, smooth and just mentally quick.

Running out of bottle I brake well before I need to for a corner, totally misjudge it and have to brave a few downshifts on the gears to get speed back up again. Unless you know the way around caution is certainly recommended on the TT course, the drop-offs either side are rather steep and the walls quite hard, but the 1098R’s brakes also contributed to my poor corner speed.

Although they are the same monoblock calipers as the 1098 we rode last month these Brembos are insanely sharp. Get some heat in them (drag the brakes for 200yds each morning to clear the oxidisation off them) and anything more than one finger is pushing your luck. A panic grab is almost certain to result in a locked front wheel and either wet pants or a big bill. And you really don’t want to fall off this bike. Not only is it far too pretty to hurt, I heard a rumour that a new carbon seat unit will set you back close to £5,000.

But clichéd as it sounds, you really would have to be a bit of a Gareth to crash this bike in a corner (dropping one U-turning in the road is totally acceptable as I demonstrated last month) as the handling and quality of the suspension once committed is simply staggering. Stop ninnying around, get properly stuck-in and the R comes alive like no other Ducati in the range.

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In stock form the rear ride-height could be raised a little to speed-up the steering (standard Ducati and this new R isn’t half as bad as they used to be) but once in the corner you simply can’t upset one of these bikes mid-corner or push it anywhere near its capabilities. The quality of the Öhlins suspension, which is about as trick as anyone outside the MotoGP paddock can get their hands on, is untouchable and the feedback from the front end simply stunning.

On the fast flowing smooth corners of the mountain the 1098R was amazing to ride. Keeping the speedo between 90 and 120mph is the perfect zone for the power and chassis to all gel together and return a unique riding experience with a glorious soundtrack from the booming silencers. You’re just plugged into the 1098R, it becomes an extension of your body and your senses as you look way ahead, planning the next corner, feeling the bike working underneath you. All day I saw the same riders who were happily razzing up and down the 12-miles of unrestricted road on their bikes, some with British plates, but also a fair few with Manx registrations, locals who were making the most of a sunny day.

On the road the 1098R is like a very expensive bottle of Champagne. Made of the finest grapes and fermented with love and care, it’s just desperate to pop its cork and release all that brilliance. So much about this bike doesn’t make sense. It’s hideous in town, uncomfortable at normal speeds, the engine sometimes decides to quit for no reason and a tank range of 70 miles (at full bore) makes it of limited use. But you just don’t care.

This is a bike full of passion, real Italian passion, and it bleeds red-raw out of every bolt and screw-head. From the sound the R makes out of the pipes to the way it feels in third gear when you hit 8,000rpm to the uncrashable squish of the Öhlins mid-corner, no Japanese superbike on earth can come near the Ducati in terms of feel. If you’re looking for some kind of ultimate in the way a sportsbike should feel, this is it. And the Isle of Man was the perfect place to experience it. 

Specifications

Ducati 1098R

Price: £24,000
Engine: 1,198cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve V-twin
Power: 180bhp @ 9,750rpm
Torque: 99.1lb.ft @ 7,750rpm
Front suspension: Öhlins 43mm USD, fully-adjustable
Rear suspension: Öhlins Monoshock, fully-adjustable
Front brake: 330mm disc, four-piston radial monoblock calipers
Rear brake: 245mm disc, two-piston caliper
Dry weight: 165kg (claimed)
Seat height:  820mm
Fuel capacity: 15.5l
Top speed: 180mph
Colours: Red