One of our all-time favourite Ducatis, the 851 was launched back in 1987. The first truly modern machine from Ducati, the 851 Desmoquattro came with liquid-cooling, fuel-injection and four-valve, Desmodromic cylinder heads.
Based on the older Ducati Pantah engine, the 851’s v-Desmo v-twin was designed by Massimo Bordi, who worked with the UK-based Cosworth to develop the original Desmoquattro mill. Depending on the version (Strada and the various SP versions…) and whether you measured power at the crank or the rear wheel, this 851cc engine made anywhere between 93 to 128 horsepower. Ducati claimed a top speed of over 280km/h for the top-spec 851SP, though we think 240-250km/h might be a more realistic number…
The Ducati 851 was fitted with a six-speed gearbox, multi-plate dry clutch and steel-tube trellis-type chassis. Initially, the bike was fitted with a 16-inch front wheel but that was later changed to a 17-incher given the complaints about the machine’s handling. With its Marvic wheels, Brembo brakes and Marzocchi suspension (some of the later bikes were fitted with Showa suspension components), the 851 was well equipped for the street and the track...
Produced between 1987 and 1993, the Ducati 851/888 was ridden to numerous race wins by legendary riders like Marco Lucchinelli, Raymond Roche and Doug Polen. Ducati never stopped improving the bike, launching the 851 Sport Production (SP) in 1989 and the 851 SP2 in 1991, which actually had an 888cc engine. The 851 SP2 featured two injectors per cylinder, close-ratio gearbox, a Termignoni exhaust system, cast-iron brake disc (Brembo) and high-spec Ohlins suspension front and rear.
There were also SP3, 4 and 5 versions, with various updates like higher compression, uprated clutches, forced air induction, less restrictive exhaust systems, stronger crankcases and uprated braking systems. The 851 was finally replaced by the Massimo Tamburini-designed 916 in 1994, which went on to prove itself as the true spiritual successor of the 851/888 Superbike.
Fast-forwarding the story to 2009, the 1198S is now the reigning heavy-hitter in the Ducati superbike line-up. After the 851/888, the Top Dog title at Ducati was held by various versions of the 916, 999 and the 1098, and this year it rests with the new-for-2009 1198S. With a dry weight of 169 kilos, and 170 horsepower at 9,750rpm and 131Nm of torque at 8,000 revs from its 1198cc ‘Testastretta Evoluzione’ L-twin, the 1198S offers truly remarkable performance – performance that’s equal to, or better than, anything on offer from Japanese machines with 1,000cc inline-four engines.
Like the 851, the 1198S still uses a steel-tube trellis frame, but in terms of sophistication and refinement, it’s a whole new world. In recent years, the focus has moved from sheer outright power to power that’s actually usable, and that’s where the 1198S’ electronics come in.
While the 851 had Weber electronic fuel-injection, the bike probably did not have much more in terms of electronics. On the 1198S, there are things the 851 wouldn’t have dreamt of. Things like Ducati Data Analyzer (DDA) and Ducati Traction Control (DTC), which come as standard equipment on the bike.
The 1198S’ DTC system is the most significant of recent superbike technologies. It monitors front and rear wheel speeds to detect rear wheelspin under acceleration, and electronically reduces engine power whenever needed, to restore traction. Yes indeed, it’s the first proper race-bred traction control system on a streetbike.
In terms of sheer, outright track-oriented performance, the 2009 Ducati 1198S is currently the best superbike in the world (though the 2009 Yamaha R1 should run it close...)
The 1198S also gets high-spec, fully adjustable Öhlins suspension (the standard 1198 gets Showa components), Marchesini forged aluminium wheels and various carbonfibre bits, which keep dry weight down to 171 kilos.
Unless you can afford a Desmosedici RR, the Ducati 1198S probably represents the ultimate in hard-core (but street-legal) sportsbike performance. Prices start at around US$16,500 for the standard 1198 and US$22,000 for the 1198S.
Back in the early-1990s, the 851 cost about US$15,600 (at today’s exchange rates), so prices for Ducati’s top-of-the-line bikes have remained at least reasonably consistent. Given the advances in technology, performance, of course, has moved on to a whole new level. But for those with memories of watching the likes of Roche, Falappa and Polen in action on their 851s and 888s, the original Ducati ‘Superbike’ remains evocative as ever…
Ducati 851 riding impression from 1987...