Ducati has earned a special place in the hearts of motorcyclists, blending the captivating allure of Italian design with a racing heritage of production bikes that is unmatched by any other brand. The little Italian factory has won more World Superbike (SBK) races with its desmodromically actuated 4-valve V-twin engines than any other manufacturer in the world. We take a look back at Ducati’s raciest V-twins, from air-cooled gestation to four-valve championship glory.
The Path to Superbikes
Ducati engineered desmodromic valve heads to the 750 GT’s V-twin engine for the 1972 Imola 200, scoring a glorious one-two finish for the team. The Imola victory set the course for Ducati’s future racing programs, focusing primarily on competing with production motorcycles rather than the Grand Prix series. One year after the Imola glory, Ducati launched its 750 Supersport Desmo, which adopted the signature desmo valvetrain still used today in Ducati’s production bikes and its Grand Prix racers.
(1987-1993) Ducati 851/888
Engineer Massimo Bordi’s development with four-valve cylinder heads led to Ducati’s groundbreaking 851 model that debuted in 1987, signalling a new era of Ducati superbikes. Desmodromic valves were retained, as were belt-driven cams, but the fuel-injected and liquid-cooled 851 was a major leap forward in sportbike evolution. In 1987, former 500cc world champ Marco Lucchinelli rode the eight-valve 851 to victory in the Battle of the Twins race at Daytona.
Fast Fact: The World Superbike championship was launched in 1988, pitting 750cc four-cylinder machines against bikes with fewer than four cylinders that were allowed up to 1000cc.
Development of the 851 continued, and the bike’s progress culminated with Ducati’s first World Superbike title in 1990, when Raymond Roche was victorious on the 888 version of the platform. More racing milestones were passed when American Doug Polen earned the World Superbike title in 1991 by an overwhelming 150 points, then followed it up with another championship in 1992 when five Ducati riders finished in the top 10 in points. When Polen moved back to America to win the 1993 AMA Superbike title for Ducati, it opened the door for Scott Russell to steal the World Superbike championship riding a Kawasaki ZX-7R despite Ducati-mounted riders taking far more race victories.
(1994-2002) Ducati 916/996/998
The Ducati 916 is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful motorcycles ever created, with good reason, becoming an instant icon when it was introduced in 1994. Penned by ex-Bimota designer Massimo Tamburini, the 916’s stance and proportions are perfection, even after more than 25 years since we were first stunned by its Italian sexiness.
The 916 retained the 888’s 94mm bore but added a longer stroke of 66mm. Not only was the 916 more powerful than the 888, rated around 114 hp, it was also 15 kg lighter and had a shorter wheelbase. On the racetrack, Brit Carl Fogarty won nearly half the races of the 1994 season to claim the World Superbike championship. The 916 dominated, and Ducati went on to win every riders and manufacturers title for the rest of the decade except 1997, cementing the bike’s legendary status.
The venerated 916 platform ushered in a new era for Ducati, helping transform the brand from a small player into an admired company capable of producing lust worthy sportbikes. The 916’s design carried on through 996 and 998 versions through to 2002.
(2003-2006) Ducati 999
Poor Pierre Terblanche, the man charged with designing a replacement for the revered 916. The 999 that emerged was roundly criticized for being ugly in comparison to the stunning 916/998 even though it was actually a better-functioning motorcycle. It initially used the 998’s Testastretta engine, and the bike proved to have a better-handling chassis than the 916. The high-end 999R, in particular, was thoroughly excellent.
The platform and proven motor were used to good effect, trampling its World Superbike competition by winning every race of the 2003 World Superbike season after Japanese manufacturers were switching focus to the new MotoGP category, and winning the title again in 2004.
However, Ducati’s racing success would be marginalized by new rules in the World Superbike class for 2003, allowing 1000cc four-cylinder engines instead of being limited to just 750cc. The Japanese OEMs returned with factory support in 2005, with Troy Corser wresting the title away from Ducati on his GSX-R1000. Ducati would go on to take championship laurels in 2006 and 2007 even though its twin-cylinder motor was down on power compared to the four-cylinder competition.
(2007-2011) Ducati 1098/1198
The 999’s incredible era of racing success was offset by tepid sales in Ducati showrooms, prompting Ducati to revisit several of the 916’s styling cues in the design of its new superbike. The single-sided swingarm returned, as did the twin undertail mufflers, and its nose looked like a modern version of the 916’s attractive proboscis. The up-spec 1098R (1198cc) boasted a claimed 180 hp and became the first mass-produced street motorbike to be equipped with traction control back in 2009.
New engine displacement rules in World Superbike for 2008 would allow V-twins to displace up to 1200cc, once again giving Twins a size advantage over its multi-cylinder rivals. Balancing the displacement disparity was a heavier minimum weight (168 kg to 162 kg) and air intake restrictors. No matter, Troy Bayliss dominated the 2008 championship on his 1098.
Ducati again took top honors in 2011 with Carlos Checa aboard the 1198, but it would sadly end up being Ducati’s last V-twin World Superbike title.
(2012-2017) Ducati 1199/1299 Panigale
A bold new era in Ducati superbikes was launched with the innovative Panigale platform – the first ground-up mass-production model from Ducati since the 1979 Pantah. The Italian manufacturer’s trademark tubular steel frame was replaced by a monocoque design that employed an aluminum steering-head section as well as the engine itself. The resulting platform weighed a significant 10kg less than the 1198.
The 1199’s “Superquadro” powerplant was a clean-sheet design, with its bore size vaulting to 112 mm. Its actual displacement was 1198cc, despite the bike’s model name, and it produced 25 horsepower extra over the 1198, now up to a purported 195 ponies. It was a wicked machine, weighing less than its four-cylinder 1000cc rivals and boasting dramatically increased torque production. It got even more wicked in 2015 when its motor was boosted to 1285cc in the 1299 Panigale via an overbore to a bonkers 116 mm size, larger than any production motorcycle. Horsepower went up to a whopping 205 hp.
Sadly, for the Italian manufacturer based in Borno Panigale, the Panigale is the only generation of Ducati’s superbikes never to have won the World Superbike championship. The closest Ducati got to another title was three vice-championship placings with Chaz Davies in 2015, 2017 and 2018, taking runner-up honours to Jonathan Rea.
(2018-present) Panigale V4
Ducati says the Panigale V4 is the biggest investment the company has ever made in a single product. It was the most powerful Ducati ever, with a claimed 215 hp from its 1103cc’s of displacement. Its sound is even reminiscent to a V-twin thanks to its MotoGP-like Twin-Pulse firing order. But it’s also 10 cm (4-in) wider and 11 kg (24 lb) heavier. To aficionados of Italian V-twins competing at the superbike level, it’s the end of an era.
Die-hard twin-cylinder Ducati superbike fans now have the option of choosing the Panigale V2 that debuted in 2020. Its 955cc motor pumps out 155 hp and will outrun any Ducati sportbike prior to the 1198 model, plus has a full complement of go-fast electronic rider aids. As materials get lighter and software more advanved, Ducati continues to research and develop new ways to be fast while still being beautiful. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next.