Used Test: Ducati Desmosedici GP5

Ducati have kept it simple, but the Desmosedici is on the cusp of greatness. Niall bagged a go

Over the years I've been criticized for assessing sportsbikes from a racer's perspective and accused of giving no relevant feedback to the normal user. Quite what a 'normal' sportsbike rider is I'm not sure - because sportsbikes are ridden by a whole spectrum of people, from those who've just past their test all the way to factory MotoGP stars such as Loris Capirossi. What I do know is that my pace relates to that of a rider in the fast group at a track day: good enough to put a bike through its paces, but not unachievable for many owners.

Riding a MotoGP bike is a different story, though. Any journalist attempting a full - and I mean on-the-limit - evaluation of the Ducati Desmosedici would be deluding themselves and their readers. For a start, it would take a lot more track time than we'd ever be allowed to have on the bike. You can't get into a position to ride the wheels off a factory MotoGP racer in just a few laps.

That said, you do get a feel for it. I reckon this Ducati isn't so far off the Yamaha M1, which has been substantially improved since I last rode one (that was before Valentino Rossi joined Yamaha, and back then it felt like the engine, chassis and riding position belonged on three different bikes). And this Ducati has won races, too. At 230bhp it may not be the most powerful, but it often registers the highest top speed, proving Ducati's investment in a new wind tunnel is having a positive effect on performance.

Millions of dollars have been spent on research and development in Bologna but I believe much of Ducati's success still comes from keeping things simple. A trellis frame with removable bracing houses the fearsome 'twin pulse' Desmodronic 90° V-four with the very best Öhlins suspension bolted on at each end - the 42mm forks have carbonfibre outer tubes for added stiffness, surely a future 'must have' for the sportsbike aftermarket.

Even the slipper clutch is a mechanical ramp affair, in marked contrast to the complicated electronic devices that the Japanese factories have been using. But the connection between the throttle and engine management is as advanced as it gets, incorporating two potentiometers and painstakingly tested software to promote synchronicity between rider and engine.

During the briefing we were talked through the various functions and controls on the dash, but it seemed like there was at least one different button for every lap I was going to be on the track, so I chose to leave well alone. The main options were different engine mappings, which enable you to adjust power delivery to suit changing track conditions or tyre performance. There's also a pitlane speed limiter (my old mate Paul Denning, boss of Suzuki's MotoGP team, jibed that I had it on all the time. Looks like I'll have to sort him out at my next track day).

The combination of a tall first gear and little power at low revs made it tricky to get away from a standstill. Considering there's 990cc between your legs, nothing happens before the engine is really spinning.

I avoided the embarrassment of stalling in the pitlane by pushing off before letting the clutch out. So it was out onto one of the tightest tracks on the GP calendar with hot Bridgestones (courtesy of tyre warmers) and the comforting knowledge that Alex Criville (now road testing for a Spanish motorcycle mag) and Nobby Ueda had dumped their Kawasakis after just a few corners the day before.

Thankfully I kept it on the road as I built my pace around Valencia's anticlockwise coil of eight second-gear and four third-gear corners. The Ducati feels and sounds very much like the 'big bang' 500s of the '90s - smooth off the bottom, then a big rush of controllable power, but instead of stopping at 13,000rpm it goes instantly to 16,500rpm.

Only when I hit fourth gear did I realise how the power has been suppressed in the first three gears to give the rider half a chance of keeping the front down and the wheels in line while exiting corners. At the end of the lap there's a straight, and from fourth through to sixth the acceleration is like a dragster. I hit the rev-limiter in sixth on that straight and, although the mechanics told me that the rear tyre they'd fitted had lowered the gearing, I couldn't help thinking  they'd also put on a big rear sprocket to keep things safe for the press.

Hitting apexes was easy. The hot, sticky Bridgestones had me there and on my side in an instant. The handling made it feel like a super-rigid lightweight superbike, but with twice the power. This being Carlos Checa's old bike, it suited me better because he had a much roomier riding position and ran stiffer suspension than his team mate Loris Capirossi.

Having carbon brakes means this bike stops as quickly as it accelerates. I mean it - two fingers on the lever were more than enough at any time. When race bikes first went over to carbon brakes they were scary until they were up to temperature, but half a lap seems enough now to give good feel.

The first generation of MotoGP bikes were a real challenge, but on the evidence of this ride they've become more user-friendly. That said, there will only ever be a handful of riders around capable of pushing them to their absolute limits. Meanwhile, I'll take any opportunity I can to experience these awesome million-dollar machines.

Ducati Desmosedici GP5 Specifications

Engine 990cc liquid-cooled 90° V4 four-stroke, desmodromic DOHC
Top speed
Front suspension
Öhlins upside-down 42mm
Rear suspension
Öhlins rear shock
Front brakes
Two 320mm Brembo carbon discs
Rear brake
Single stainless steel disc
Marlboro Red, Carbon