Fight Club - Ducati 1198 v Yamaha R1 review

While Ducati cleaned up in superbike racing with Bayliss and Yamaha the year after with Spies, which is better a production version of their winning bikes?

Two countries, both renowned for their engineering brilliance and passion for motorcycling have produced two technological two-wheeled marvels for 2009. In the red corner Ducati’s 1198 follows on from the massively successful 1098, while in the blue corner, few of you will need to be told too much about the all-new Yamaha YZF-R1, such has been the hype surrounding this ground-breaking new machine.

Ducati’s dominance of World Superbikes in 2008 was matched only by Rossi’s brilliance in MotoGP, with Yamaha claiming back their world crown. Each of these manufacturers, while worlds apart both geographically and ideologically, are essentially striving to achieve the same thing – build a capable bike for the common man that will sell in droves and win the 2009 WSB championship. Technology plays a massive part in winning races these days and thanks to the WSB homologation rules enforced, it means we all get a taste of what our heroes have risked life and limb to develop. For Ducati, it’s an evolution of one of the best engines ever built augmented by an electronics package that includes a traction control system and on-board datalogging for the rider.

For Yamaha, it’s a complete rethink of how an inline four-cylinder motor should work, with an uneven firing order taken straight from Rossi’s M1 that helped him to dominate MotoGP last year. But which one’s best? Only one way to find out: Fight!

The fluorescent light is annoying me. The flickering tube erratically filling the garage is giving me a headache of epic proportions and I can feel the tension in my shoulders mounting; I need to get out of here.

But something’s looking at me. And then I remember. Parked up in our secret underground facility, two sets of eyes shimmer in the light, almost blinking the reflected light given off by the source of my annoyance.

As dreams go, discovering that someone has filled your garage with the latest incarnation of Yamaha’s YZF-R1 and a blood-red Ducati 1198S, each with less than 500 miles showing on the clocks isn’t a bad one. Realising that it isn’t a dream at all, and that for the first time in recent memory the sun’s out and you’ve got a dry track to play on followed by an afternoon tearing up the Kent countryside is even better. Yep, if you ever hear John Hogan or I moaning about work, feel free to vehemently remind us why we shouldn’t.

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Three hours sleep, 6.30 in the morning, 7° C and 1000cc aren’t usually numbers that stack up too well. But on the way out of a cold, damp London on the R1, it doesn’t even occur to me until I remember the little switch on the right handlebar, Yamaha’s mode selector.

In standard mode the bike behaves like a welltuned Honda VFR800, less the pointless and intrusive V-TEC. There’s no strong sense of urgency from the bottom end and it’s not really until the motor is spinning above 8,500rpm that it feels worthy of its R1 moniker.

It’s a feeling of disappointment exacerbated by a first gear so tall that by the time I’ve reached Blackfriars Bridge a mere three miles from the office, my left arm feels pumped and I feel the need to switch from two to four-fingered clutching – it’s not that the clutch is particularly heavy, more that for any speed below 40mph I’m being forced to use the clutch lever a hell of a lot.

But then there’s that switch. Flick it into ‘A’ mode and the bike transforms from long-legged and lethargic into the bike you’ve read all the hype about. The power isn’t exactly explosive though, and compared to the strong, fluid delivery of Ducati’s absolutely stonking Testastretta engine, feels, for want of better expression, stifled by technology. Where the Ducati feels loose and eager, as though every reciprocating component is floating friction-free in a film of expensive oil, the Yamaha feels a little tight and more than a touch strained. There’s a feeling that Ducati’s interpretation of the Euro III emissions regulations is a little different from Yamaha’s. It’s hard to imagine the Ducati’s performance being massively improved by bolt-on paraphernalia, while the Yamaha feels as though it needs to be derestricted and freed from the shackles of environmental responsibility. Just looking at the size of the exhausts Yamaha has deemed necessary to ruin the back end with would leave you in no doubt as to which bike is cleaner. But if being clean means carrying your dustbins underneath your seat then forgive me for looking elsewhere. The Yamaha’s back end is ugly.

By contrast the Ducati looks truly beautiful from every angle. Riding through central London gives the slightly more vain rider plenty of opportunity to ogle his reflection in the myriad glass-fronted office buildings. Admittedly, I’m one such rider, and I have to say that at every pass of a reflective surface I was jealous of Hogan and the attention the 1198S received from men and women alike – it’s as though he was a Greek Adonis astride a thoroughbred stallion, parting the traffic as drivers made room for him and his steed. Clearly, he’s neither Greek nor is he what the young ladies of the day might describe as buff, but the simple fact is that anyone can be made to look very cool by this motorbike, while I may as well have been dressed in full Gestapo regalia straddling a pig.

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Normally when you arrive somewhere that’s jam-packed with bike fanatics on a new bike you draw something of a crowd. In fact, it’s something that any honest journalist will admit is an enjoyable part of the job. As we arrive at Brands Hatch, I’m sure that a couple of blips of the R1’s throttle are all it will take to spark nothing short of a riot. A few riders wander over to ask if it’s the new R1 and are keen to hear the engine being revved but, once they’ve heard it, told me how quiet it is and passed comment on how it’s not as nice-looking as the last one, interest soon wanes and they start drooling all over the Ducati.

I start to feel a little sorry for the Yamaha. I mean, all the Italians have done is bore the engine out a bit and change a few stickers, while the Japanese have been busy in their labs working out firing intervals and calculating crankshaft stress points; burning midnight oil, pushing back boundaries. There’s real MotoGP technology inside – this thing is derived from Valentino Rossi’s M1 fer chrissakes.

And yet after the first session, I’m less than impressed with the R1. Even in full power, ‘A’ for attack mode, it doesn’t feel as fast as a Fireblade or a K8 GSX-R1000. Sure the smooth, flat delivery gets the job done, but there’s precious little in the way of exhilaration. I was hoping the bike would prove deceptively fast but even trying my hardest out of Clearways, I arrive at Paddock Hill unflustered lap after lap. It just doesn’t feel fast.

To add to my disappointment, the suspension feels way too hard at the front, too soft at the rear and I’m getting little in the way feedback from the front tyre. Consequently I either run wide or my corner entry speed is way down on what it should be, forcing me to try and creep my mid-corner speed up on the throttle.

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Hopeful that the improved rear traction thanks to those clever little chaps over at Hamamatsu headquarters will save the day, I’m abruptly fired out of the seat on the exit of Druids as the rear Japanese Dunlop D210 lets go. It happens again out of Clearways and within a few laps the tyres have overheated and gone greasy. I flick it back to standard mode and three laps later roll back into the pits suffering from boredom.

Why Yamaha (and most other Japanese manufacturers, to be fair) choose to spend hundreds of thousands of Yen on chassis and engine development only to fit tyres that don’t grip is staggering. Ducati’s instant advantage isn’t anything more technical than the fact that they’ve chosen to fit tyres that are suited to both road and track. And, sadly for Yamaha, the advantage just builds from there on in.

There’s an instant confidence with the Ducati. Ask any rider, road or race, the one thing he wants from a bike and you can bet your house it’s feedback; great waves of glorious feedback. The Ducati has bloody tonnes of the stuff. As soon as I turn out of pit lane, the slender Italian is instantly chatting away to me about tyre temperature and grip. Within three laps I feel as though the Ducati is my bike, as though Luigi and Mario have set the bike up just for me. The 1198S never feels like just one of thousands churned out from a production line. This thing’s got soul.

The front-end feel from the new Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP (made specifically for the 1198 and also the control tyre for the 2009 FIM European Superstock championship) via those delicious Öhlins forks inspires the confidence to trail brake deep into turns or to change line midcorner, two things that I can’t bring myself to do on the Yamaha for fear of folding the uncommunicative front end. Where I wasn’t sure whether to push harder on the Yamaha to get more feel, for fear it would end up with the front tyre letting go faster than you can say, “Hoyles, you’re sacked”, with the Ducati you just… well, you just know where you are with it. It gives you little warnings that you’re taking the piss, gently suggesting you might not be riding too smoothly and generally flatters your riding rather than mocking it – all of which are priceless.

On the Ducati there’s a feeling of unity between rider and machine that you just don’t get with the Yamaha. The Ducati rarely feels upset with a clumsy input and, though the intimidating numbers on the lustrous red panels would suggest otherwise, it’s a bike that’s really forgiving and easy to ride, like climbing into a Ferrari race car only to find it’s as easy to drive as a Ford Focus. This completely accessible performance is the Ducati’s masterstroke.

The DTC traction control system isn’t just a gimmick – it’s a genuine rider aid that, set-up correctly, will save the less experienced rider in the wet and help a fast track rider go even faster. Set to level three, it wasn’t long before I had complete and utter faith in the system and ended up being amazed at how hard I could put the throttle on out of Clearways before the system even kicked in, such is the incredible level of innate rear end grip the 1198 boasts. The electronics mean dark lines and fear-free corner exits are there for the taking.

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It’s this utter and complete ease of use that makes the Ducati so bloody good. Where the Yamaha feels unwieldy round Druids and ties itself in knots through the fast direction change at Surtees, on the way into Clearways, the Ducati is obedient, super-accurate and fast absolutely everywhere, road included.

Away from the circuit the Ducati still trounces the Yamaha. We’d expected the Yamaha to pull out a great big trump card once we headed away from the track, but it wasn’t the case at all. There’s no real noticeable difference in comfort though, if we’re going to be pedantic, the massive frontal area of the R1 does deflect more wind than the slim, less protective Ducati.

But that’s small change for having to look at those massive, unfinished black plastic panels and air scoops aboard the Yamaha, particularly when you could be getting wood over the Ducati’s immaculately finished cockpit and truly stunning, race-spec dash.

The Yamaha simply doesn’t deliver in any of the myriad ways the Ducati does. In fact, apart from the initial purchase price and subsequent servicing costs, the Ducati wins on every front. The fact that it’s £4,000 more expensive wouldn’t bother me either – I’d simply sign up for another credit card and grab every scrap of overtime I could to pay the difference. Why? Because the 1198S is quite simply the best Ducati – if not the best motorcycle period – I’ve ever ridden and it’s worth every last penny.

Development takes time and time is one huge advantage Ducati have over Yamaha. Wedded to the V-twin engine, the Italian firm has done little but tirelessly perfect the sports V-twin, both on road and in the white-heat or world-level racing. Next to that body of experience the R1’s eleven years in existence look meagre. Give Yamaha a year or two and things could be very different. But right here and right now, it’s a resounding 1-0 to the Europeans.

Ben’s second opinion - Ducati 1198

“...You’ve got to love Claudio Domenicali’s work, he being the steely-eyed and fiercely intelligent guru who’s come to lead Ducati’s crusade from builder of desirable but firmly fringe machines to irresistible world-beating force. Before him, tests of the 916/996/998 inevitably struggled to overcome the simple fact that a cheaper Japanese superbike was much, much faster. The mighty 1198 needs no excuses. Beautiful, clever, incredibly accessible despite its initially intimidating ergonomics and smile-in-awe fast, the 1198S is an incredible road-going package. Expensive? Not for the man-hours of undiluted genius involved...”

Ben’s second opinion - Yamaha YZF-R1

“...Taken firmly in the context of a road-going superbike, I’ve taken a shine to the new R1. For some time now there’s been a sense 1000cc sportsbikes have reached some kind of zenith; unspeakably powerful, there was nowhere left to go. I’ve long been a fan of the direct, almost organic way in which V-twins deliver their power, if not their crude chugging at low revs. The growler motor is the best of both worlds; tractable at any revs, fast as hell and unintimidating to use. Confident riders like Rob may find it underwhelming but for the rest of us it brings much to the inline four layout, not least an epic noise, while sacrificing nothing...”


Price: £14,950
Engine: 1198cc, 8-valve, V-twin
Power: 170bhp @ 9750rpm
Torque 97ftlb @ 8000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm forks, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock
Front brake: 330mm discs, four- piston calipers
Rear brake: 220mm disc, single-piston caliper
Dry weight: 169kg
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 15.5 litres
Top speed: 165mph
Colours: Red, Black

Price: £10,103
Engine: 998cc 16-valve, inline four
Power: 182bhp @ 12,500rpm
Torque: @ 10,000rpm
Front suspension: 43mm upside-down forks, fully adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brake: 310mm discs, six-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 220mm disc, two-piston caliper
Wet weight: 206kg
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 18 litres
Top speed: 185mph (est)
Colours: White, Blue, Black