When it comes to homologation specials and setting hearts racing, Ducati is king. We trace the brand’s pedigree through the ’bars of their iconic 999R and dominant V4R
Some bikes look pretty, some bikes sound amazing, and some bikes go like stink... but very rarely do you come across motorcycles that tick each and every one of those boxes. That’s not to say it’s impossible, as Ducati has proven throughout more decades than we can count (three). Following in the footsteps of the brand’s 851 and 888 Desmos, the 916 hit the scenes in '94 and revolutionised our grasp of just how desirable a motorcycle could be, proving as big a hit in the showrooms as it was on the race track. It also signified the start of the Italian marque’s penchant for the exceptional, formally known as ‘homologation special’ versions, being littered with more bling than you’ll find on a rap star and brandished with added initials such as SP, SPS or R. This was no marketing exercise, or haphazard encounter with a keyboard, but an opportunity for global domination in the World Superbike scene through a clever interpretation of the rules and the relentless desire to achieve performance perfection.
Come the arrival of the 999 in 2003, Ducati had honed its homologation skill set to exception and didn’t wait long to reveal an ‘R’ version (late that same year) for the masses, kitted with a short-stroke motor and a true 999cc capacity (the 999s were actually 998cc, confusingly). It did what it set out to do, ruling the world championship for three years straight, while leaving its mark on the domestic scene too, proving to be Ducati’s most successful race bike ever. Despite its Marmite aesthetics, the 999R earned its place in the history books owing to its pure brilliance, and there’s every chance it’s 14 years' fresher sibling is on a course to achieve a similar status of elevation. Of course, I’m talking about Ducati's new V4R, which has released an onslaught of devastation in WSB and BSB, locking out podiums and leading both championships at the hands of Bautista and Bridewell. After countless pleading emails to Ducati and too many sleeps to mention, our time finally came to test this performance-fuelled maestro, in the company of the forefather that paved its DNA. Here’s what we made of them…
They say you should never meet your heroes, but I’d have sooner hit my own hand with a hammer than pass off a chance to ride the Ducati 999R. This was the bike that calcified my lust for racing, that made me dream motorbikes and shave ‘Hodgson’ into my cat’s fur-coat (ok, that last bit was a lie). I was 16 when the 999 hit the showrooms and it won me over instantly; I just had to ride one. It was a dream that had failed to come to fruition, but following a chance conversation with a nice chap called Ian Carson, the offer was there to head to the hills and give his bike a good spanking in the picturesque Peak District. It was an offer I couldn’t resist, and nor could Carl, who cancelled that day’s pedicure to chaperone me on this Ducati-themed adventure. Having ridden there on a V4R, the first thing that hit me was the comparable size of this great ancestor; the 999R was petite, but well formed. Its lines were bold, the width of the package narrow, and as for the seat height, even Carl could get both feet squarely on the floor. It wasn’t high-tech in the slightest, the dash was non-assuming, but to suggest it had weathered 14 years harshly would be nothing short of fibbing. It still looked fantastic, and especially so because Ian, who owns performance specialists Speedycom, hadn’t at all held back in the spec department.
Obviously, the carbonfibre fairings and titanium valves that come as stock with this exotica hadn’t been enough for him, so a Zard titanium race exhaust and an EVR carbonfibre airbox were absolute essentials. They were joined by Bonamici rearsets and lever guards, an MRA screen and Brembo M4 calipers. Every which way I looked, more bits jumped out at me, from the upside-down mounted rear caliper, to the Alth racing brake discs and Domino quick action throttle. Not even the screen was standard (MRA), or the saddle, which had been uprated by a super supple Luimoto gel offering. But for me, the pièce de résistance was an über sexy, EVR dry clutch. It’s a sight you seldom see these days and I couldn’t wait to fire this icon into life and remind myself of that slightly concerning metallic jangle of old. It didn’t disappoint, and as for the boom from the race system, its bark would’ve silenced a hungry pack of wolves. The noise of any unchastised V-twin is always quite special, but coupled to a seamless, fast revving engine that’d seen 205 dyno runs to map its Microtech ECU to perfection, the crisp boom emitted was more poetic than Shakespeare.
Being just about at bursting point, the time finally came to hit the road and see whether all the hype was worthwhile. Being truthful, I’ve been down this route before, testing older bikes and being bitterly disappointed for one reason or another, so why wouldn’t that be the case this time? How could a 14-year-old motorcycle be expected to match the criteria and performance of a box-fresh bullet, blow for blow? From a stats point of view, the 999R had failed before it’d even got going, producing a mere (proven) 145bhp at the rear wheel – some 15bhp less than several contemporary nakeds. But it didn’t feel a steady bike as the slick clutch was released and rear drive was introduced. The Ducati lurched forward, tensioning my arms as its deliverance of torque came to life; I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t expect the fueling to be so smooth either, allowing me to run the bike as low as 2,000rpm before it became unbearably jerky. This was, after all, a V-twin, and to have completely removed its vibrant nature would have been equal to robbing it of its soul. The notions weren’t excessive and when revs were added into the mix, the systematic burbling from the big Vee was exciting me in a way few modern bikes could. To put a name to it, this bike had character, and plenty of poke, too! I was amazed at how fast it could get up to naughty speeds, helped on its way by a silky, linear power delivery and an aftermarket HM quickshifter. The obliging six-speed ’box was a pleasant surprise, but I’ve no doubt a lot of its goodness was owing to the fact this bike had only just clocked 5k miles from new – all at the hands of its conscientious owner, Ian.
As litre bikes go, the Ducati felt pretty light. My weight was shifted forwards, encouraging a front-end bias that caused my body to lie long and low, with mild pressure on my wrists. The whole package felt sporting, with its high-set pegs and acute angled ’bars adding to the DNA, but it also made me feel like I was within the bike. For extra mileage, Ian had kitted the bike with a larger tank from a 749R, which felt ridiculously narrow between my knees. The MRA screen was offering good wind protection and the purchase from the uprated Brembo front brakes assured me I was in safe hands. As for the mirrors, they looked nice, but I couldn’t see bugger all but my shoulders in them. Still, I wasn’t complaining, especially once I’d got into some corners and discovered just how genius this world-conquering sportsbike truly was. Ian said he’d worked pretty damn hard to get the ride height of the bike exactly how he’d wanted it. At one point, he’d tried race-spec yokes to get the bike steering faster, and had also looked to alter the adjustable headstock angle to get the 999R working the way he wanted it to. It’d come from Ducati with top-spec Öhlins, but those pogos had since had a visit to Maxton Suspension, where they’d been re-valved and re-worked to deliver a plush, dependable feel. It was money well spent, because the agility of this bike proved to be unreal. It took less effort than chewing to get the Ducati pitched into bends, where it obligingly hung around on an apex with utter stability. Even on the bumpiest of roads, the Öhlins showed no issues with sucking up the imperfections, rewarding me with peace of mind and a broad smile across my face. It was to stay stuck there through the six hours I spent in its saddle, going anywhere and everywhere just because I could. This bike was genius, with loads of grip on tap and a connection between the throttle and rear wheel that would simply shame most bikes of 2019. It didn’t need traction control; it didn’t need rider modes; it just needed riding. Impressively, age had not wearied it. Through the right modifications, Ian had ensured its magical feel had evolved with the times, not just looking the part, but delivering the goods too. It might have taken me 16 years longer than planned to sample the joys of a 999R, but the fruits of this sample had rendered the weight negligible – I’d hit the jackpot, losing my virginity to what is perhaps one of the best privately- owned, road legal 999Rs in existence. It’d proven an education I’ll never forget; an insight like no other into the origins of Ducati’s R-spec way of life. The only question left was whether the patiently waiting V4R would win me over even half as much as this. So, it was time to step things up a notch.
It’s funny, but when you slap a fancy price tag on something and bolt a few bits of bling here and there, it’s impossible not to be drawn to it. Without having even straddled the thing, you’re already fighting the temptation to sell off your grandma’s bone china, and her too if only you can find a buyer, just so you can get a slice of the action. I’ll prove my point. Within no time of the V4R being announced at the back end of last year, Ducati had taken orders for all 1,500 planned units without a single buyer having ever turned a wheel on one. That’s not a bad day in the office for any manufacturer when the retail price tag is an astounding `51.8 lakh (ex-showroom) a pop. So what makes this bike so alluring? Truthfully, I could waste the best part of your day and mine reciting its spec, because it’s absolutely dripping in the good stuff, but to counter that allure and to put things in perspective, it actually weighs more than a 1299 Panigale Final Edition and produces less torque and power in stock trim than any of the 1100cc V4 Panigales. So it’s got to be the wings, right? That was the question that was bouncing around my mind when I hopped aboard the V4R for the first time. There was an aura to the model, ratified by its exotic booming exhaust note, and its aesthetically pleasing brushed aluminum, lacquered fuel cell (which extends like a superbike’s, under the rider’s derriere to keep the weight low and central). ‘This here is something special’ I kept telling myself as I fought the urge to make comparisons between this and the other, more affordable Ducati V4s. For all intents and purposes, it looked and sounded very much the same as its brethren, only that bit less unique than a Speciale that comes with a Tricolore paint scheme and a unique production number engraved onto the top yoke. There was none of that, though sure enough, the bike’s top-spec, manually-adjusted Öhlins-kitted forks made it stand out from its siblings, even if the coloured TFT dash was the same, as were its switchgear, and as for the seating position and clip-ons, the formula felt very familiar. Maybe this bike didn’t need glitzy colours or self-praising placards to stand out from the masses? Of course, its main identifier was its wings that were never out of my vision and they certainly were different. The mirrors extended further than them, but as I manoeuvered the bike around on foot, ready for a good thrashing, I couldn’t get it out of my head that I was moments away from banging the carbon fibre lovelies on anything or anyone that came within a metre of me… but surely they’d be worth the headache.
Out on the road, the V4R surprised me. From my very first ride, fueled off the back of all the hype, I was expecting fireworks at the slightest twist of the slick-action throttle. I had the bike set in race mode, my knees braced against the grippy tank and my wrists tight on the ’bars. When the moment came to get cracking, ecstasy was replaced by utter confusion. Sure, the 998cc motor pulled respectably enough, but no way near as quickly as most of this model’s many counterparts… or the other V4s, for that matter. The engine felt flatter than home-brewed beer, and the lower things went, the lumpier it got. Travelling at 50kmph was a particular nightmare, unless you were in third gear, where this bike had a 3kmph window of blissful, smooth power, without the monotonous clanging and clunking of a V4 hunting to be unleashed.
In all honesty, the bike felt like hard work, and as for the heat emitted in and around the saddle, probably even Satan would have found it too toasty. The other things that niggled me were the ’bars that would trap your hands against the fairings and the side-stand, which was impossible to extend without giving the bellypan a good kicking, unless you decided to reach down and use your hand like a heathen.
This was not the first date I’d dreamt of, tootling around awkwardly wondering how on earth this bike was causing the devastation it was in BSB and WSB. I needed answers, so an early port of call was Black & White Bikes, where the Ducati got unleashed on the dyno. In stock trim, it made 196bhp, meaning it was 6bhp down on a V4S we’d tested at the same venue just weeks earlier, but the thing that really hit me was the lack of grunt until you crested 9,000rpm. I’d felt this on the road, but seeing its map on a dyno chart shone a whole new light on the package. There was only one answer; to nail the nuts off it.
When I changed my approach, the V4R immediately took a new form. Up high in the revs, the Ducati came to life with the aggression of a cage fighter. The thing was wild, willing and warping my world with every twist of my wrist. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster, and I had the key to release as much adrenaline as I wanted, whenever I wanted it. I’ve ridden lots of bikes, but I can’t think of another road bike that felt so fast up top, fueled by a relentless motor with faultless fueling and the tenacity to keep on going for as long as you could hold on. Up the top, everything made sense, from the way the electronics seamlessly sewed together the dynamics of the package, to the lithe handling that could make a shopping trolley feel lardy. The bike was firm but stable, agile but informative; it was a weapon to behold and I was loving every second of its V4-powered performance. Of course, there’s only so much joy you can extract on the roads before getting yourself in trouble, which meant I never got the chance to fully appreciate what this package was capable of. Ducati strictly stated that we could not pitch this bike against any of its rivals, or blitz it around on track. That latter constraint was the hardest notion to swallow, because here was a machine that bled racing, comprised of the sporting DNA that’s fueled many a GP, WSB and BSB win. It was, for all intents and purposes, a race bike with road fairings, requiring the same approach as a superbike to access its inner brilliance. On the road, this bike was being little more than tickled, and as for the wings, they proved little more than jewellery. I don’t doubt that they’re doing what they were meant to do on the racing platform, because Ducati know aerodynamics better than any other manufacturer and they wouldn’t have gone to such hassle to develop, endorse and manufacture these winglets unless they were getting the royalties in return. Whatever their tangible benefits, they certainly did a good job of attracting attention. I clocked hundreds of miles on this bike and wherever I went, people would be drawn to the ancillaries like a magnet. I guess that in turn made the bike feel that tad more special, so their presence probably was justified. The truth is the components that make this bike truly so special are buried deep beneath its plastic panels. You don’t get to see the STM EVO-SBK dry-clutch that makes downshifts heavenly, or to take note of the 4mm larger throttle bodies that pair up with lightened engine internals to offer this bike eye-watering performance up to its 16,500rpm limit. The lightened front frame will be unlikely to draw your eye, or the four-position adjustable rear swinging-arm pivot point. The make-up of this bike is exceptional and practical, but only when used in the right context; nailed on track. For the road it’s perhaps that bit too focused, and if I were to make a call between one of these and a V4 Speciale, I’d opt for the latter because it has a more special look and feel to it. Pitch one of those against the V4S and I’d probably go for the V4S, because I think that model represents greater versatility and better value for money. There’s no two ways about it, the V4R is a wonderful statement in every environment, but if you want more than adoration from onlookers as you blast along your favourite B-roads, this bike’s maybe not the best option. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want a V4R, but if I owned one it’d be kitted with slicks and parked up in the paddock, ready to bounce its backdoors off, full throttle on track, at home in its natural habitat.
Words by Bruce Wilson