Motorcycle Review

SR Archive: Flogging Carl Fogarty’s Ducati 996 Superbike at Italy’s Mugello Circuit

This article was originally published in the April 1999 issue of Sport Rider.

Riding Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

We blasted around the Mugello Circuit aboard Carl Fogarty’s championship-winning red thunderbolt, the Ducati 996.

The sensation of speed on some motorcycles can be quite deceptive.

It’s easy to equate that snappy, butt-slamming burst of acceleration when a bike hits the powerband with serious speed; anything less and you begin to wonder if the bike is really as fast as its pedigree seems to indicate. “Hmm, what a nice powerband…this thing’s a pussycat.” But imagine your surprise when you pop your head up from behind the windscreen to grab the brakes for the next turn, only to find yourself getting in quite a bit hotter than you originally anticipated. “I’ll just hit the brakes right about here and…OH FFUHHHH…!!”

The works Ducati 996 superbike that propelled Carl Fogarty to a record third World Superbike championship is one of those motorcycles. No explosive, tire-spinning, chassis-weaving theatrics here; just a smooth, progressive crescendo of acceleration that builds exponentially as the revs climb and belies an awesome ability to generate speed. I had to come to grips with this on a crisp November day whilst also learning the twisting 3.26-mile, 15-turn layout of the famous Mugello International Circuit in Italy.

Sport Rider rides Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Ducati mechanics kept me informed of my on-track progress with a pit board that read: KENT—U SUCK.

When the 916 made its debut in 1994, its incredible performance left the competition scrambling to catch up, and three consecutive World Superbike titles were literally Ducati’s for the taking. But the desmo dominance was beginning to be threatened by the other factories, so Ducati beefed up the power and chassis substantially for the 1997 season. Unfortunately, this opened up a hidden can of worms: Ducati pilots found themselves struggling with a brutally abrupt response when getting on the throttle which upset the bike’s handling in the corners, in addition to a power-induced understeer that riders (Fogarty in particular) complained hindered their ability to hold a cornering line. There were still a number of race wins tallied during 1997 but the competition in World Superbike is simply too fierce for any slipups, and Castrol Honda’s John Kocinski sewed up the title on the RC45 before the season’s end.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996 shocks and swingarm

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

From midseason onward the factory bikes used Öhlins’ latest TT4 double-tube rear shocks, which feature dual chambers for more consistent damping characteristics. No, the swingarm is not carbon fiber; that’s just a cover over the cast-magnesium piece.

Ducati’s engineering department, headed by the brilliant Claudio Domenicali (the man who refined Massimo Bordi’s Supermono engine concept), went to work immediately. The biggest change to the motor was the fitment of a new Weber Marelli fuel-injection system. Each 60mm throttle body (!) now sports a third injector positioned above the intake velocity stack. Its function is limited to full-throttle, high-rpm use. “The injector’s positioning permits the fuel spray more time to vaporize before it enters the cylinder, which results in a cooler, denser intake charge, giving crisper top-end power,” says Domenicali. This allowed the other two injectors to focus attention on low- and midrange delivery, which helped alleviate most of the throttle-response problems.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996 engine and chassis

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Pumping out a claimed 158 horsepower at 11,300 rpm, the 996cc superbike motor is still user-friendly compared with in-line fours. A new chassis installed midseason permitted a larger airbox to be fitted (partially visible at upper right), resulting in increased horsepower.

Another feature of the new EFI is the sophisticated Marelli ECU, which not only controls the fuel injection and other engine-management parameters but also utilizes a built-in alt=”Carl Fogarty’s Ducati 996 front brakes and forks” typeof=”foaf:Image” src=”” />

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Öhlins’ newest ultratrick GP-style fork graces the front of Fogarty’s bike. Note that the upper slider section is longer, offering more rigidity for less flex and stiction. Brembo cali­pers feature four individual pads per side.

Preseason testing with different frame constructions yielded further improvements in handling, with the engine moved 4mm forward to help counter the understeer problem. The latest ultratrick, Öhlins GP-style fork was fitted in ’98, utilizing a combined shorter-lower-stanchion-tube/longer-upper-magnesium-slider design that provides a stiffer overall structure and less stiction. Steering geometry is highly adjustable with magnesium triple clamps offering a 25–31mm range of adjustment in the fork offset, resulting in trail variations of 98–109mm. The usual rake/angle adjustment of 23.5– 24.5 degrees is also available. Öhlins’ new TT4 rear shock made its debut on the Ducatis midseason, featuring a unique double-tube design that separates the damping oil flow and offers a greater range of adjustment.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996 dash

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

I had difficulty getting used to the LCD bar graph tachometer. Trying to spot my rpm at speed took too much time compared with an analog-type tach. The switch on top is for the electric shifter, while the right-side switch enables the rider to switch between two different jetting maps.

Despite these changes, riders felt there was still room for improvement, especially in regard to engine power. At some of the faster tracks early in the season, it was apparent the factory Honda RC45s had surpassed the Ducatis in top-end speed. Ducati quickly countered midway through the year, homologating a new chassis (specifically designed to provide room for a larger airbox) by manufacturing a limited run of 916 SPS roadbikes. The revised airbox and intake funnels permitted Ducati engineers to update the engine with a redesigned cylinder head that featured different porting with larger valves (39mm intake/32mm exhaust vs. 37mm/31mm in the previous version) and a shallower valve angle/combustion chamber, in addition to new cams, pistons, titanium rods, and crankshaft. Although these updates made their debut at the South African round at Kyalami, it wasn’t until three events later—at the superfast A-1 Ring in Austria—that the Ducati pilots were able to really see the benefits. “I felt [in practice in Austria], ‘We’re going to know now [whether or not the changes helped the top-end].’ I was able to stay with the Hondas so I knew Ducati had [closed] the gap,” recalls Fogarty.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996 intake and ECU

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Just above the cavernous carbon-fiber intake funnels sits part of the Magneti-Marelli ECU, which not only controls engine functions but also features a full alt=”Carl Fogarty’s Ducati 996 engine” typeof=”foaf:Image” src=”” />

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing factory mechanics don’t do a lot of en­gine work at the races. If a major problem comes up they just slap in a new motor. The words “dense package” don’t do this labyrinth justice.

But that power is by no means explosive. Foggy’s 996 is content to ride at everything from a six-tenths, which-way-does-the-track-go pace, on up to an eleven-tenths, omigod-I’m-gonna-wad-this-thing pace. It all depends on how hard you twist the throttle.

For such a highly tuned thoroughbred, the Ducati has an extremely wide powerband. The big beef begins at 6000 rpm and builds in a smooth-but-strong manner up to 9000 rpm. Anything beyond that is where things begin to get serious. At this point, if you are planning on using anything more than three-quarter throttle you had better be: a) pointed in the right direction, or b) ready to deal with a bike that’s difficult to turn, since the front tire is usually in the air. Acceleration continues to build at an alarming rate to 11,800 rpm, where power begins to trail off before the rev-limiter crashes the party at 12,200 rpm.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996 rims

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Dual Termignoni cans spit out a thunderous bark at full chat. Gumball Michelin Pilot slicks provide prodigious grip at all lean angles. Rim sizes vary be­­tween 5.75 x 17 inches
and 6.00 x 16.5 inches from track to track.

Running through the gears along Mugello’s uphill front straight (never letting off the throttle, due to the electric shifter), I found myself struggling to get used to the Ducati’s bar graph LCD tachometer. My eye is accustomed to recognizing an analog tach’s relative needle position. So that extra tenth of a second needed to convert the bar graph while checking rpm resulted in a few rev-limiter tags and even a couple of superhot entries into Mugello’s first turn. In addition to the tach and various vital engine-function displays, the dash also displays your lap time as you cross the start/finish line—but I neglected to look for fear of embarrassing myself. (Of course, the Ducati mechanics kept me informed of my on-track progress with a pit board that read: KENT—U SUCK.)

Thankfully those overcooked turn entries were amply handled by Brembo’s latest single-piece, four-piston calipers. A unique feature of these brakes is that there are four separate pads for each piston. I was also surprised to see that the 320mm brake discs were stainless steel, not cast iron. Power and feel were excellent, although not quite as good as some superbike brake combinations I’ve sampled in the past. Stability while hard on the binders was excellent.

Paolo Casoli's 748 racebike

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

We also got a chance to take a spin on Paolo Casoli’s World Supersport–spec 748. Although bound by regulations that are similar to AMA Super­sport’s, WSS racebikes are permitted much more freedom with engine modifications: cams, pistons, porting and close-ratio gearboxes are all permitted under the rules. Casoli’s 748 demonstrated an eager willingness to rev, with a nice midrange hit at 8000 rpm. Straight-line speed was easily on par with the latest 600cc Supersport multis (Casoli won the WSS race
at Laguna last July), and the Pirelli Dragons that were mounted seemed to give much more feedback than previous versions.

Handling was absolutely fabulous and I had no desire to change any settings from Fogarty’s setup, which was supposedly straight from the final race at Sugo, Japan. (Even though I was probably circulating at a pace akin to Fogarty scrubbing in tires.) Fantastic suspension compliance and control at both ends transmitted good tire feedback from the Michelin slicks both entering and exiting the turns while keeping the chassis from getting too pitch-happy from weight transfer. In fact, it was the chassis’ ability to keep the rear Michelin hooked up that made powering out of slower turns an exercise in throttle control.

Steering was far lighter than the stock 996, and initial turn-in required little effort. Much of this can probably be attributed to the 996 racebike’s feathery 357-pound weight. With the bottom limit of trail adjustability set at 98mm, it isn’t the result of supertight steering geometry. The payoff is near-unflappable stability through the fastest, gnarliest corners at Mugello—of which there are plenty. Fogarty says his riding style is centered on corner speed, and it’s easy to see why. By combining the Ducati’s light-steering feel, rock-solid stability, and user-friendly power, you end up with a combination that promotes high midcorner velocity.

Carl Fogarty's Ducati 996

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

Once the engineers were able to get the power and handling dialed in, Ducati’s 996 Superbike resumed its position as one of the dominant forces in WSB racing in ’98—good enough to help Fogarty garner his record third World title.

The state of World Superbike racing has evolved to a point where even the slightest disadvantage can mean the difference between fighting for the lead, and dicing for a top-10 finish. The competition has become so fierce that it’s now as much a technological war between the factories as it is a battle amongst the riders. Ducati knows going toe-to-toe with the Japanese requires a 100 percent effort on all facets of development; after sampling their latest championship-winning machine, it’s obvious they know how to exploit any advantages to the fullest. With the riders very happy with the current package, Ducati will be tough to beat in ’99.

Carl Fogarty interview

Photography by Fabrizio Porrozzi

We also interviewed the World Superbike Champion himself.

Interview with World Superbike Champ Carl Fogarty
Sport Rider: What was the real turning point this year—when you really thought you had a shot at the title?
Carl Fogarty: I think [it was] after America [Laguna Seca]. We came away from America having just broken down for the first time this year [1998], and I said to Davide [Tardozzi, team manager] ‘From now on, we’re going to be really strong to the end of the year.’ I knew where we’d been going wrong. My injuries had [healed]—I had to race at Nurburgring with some injuries. We had a bit of bad luck at some races with wrong tire choices, we’d qualified badly because we’d make too many changes throughout qualifying…. I said, ‘That’s it, now we’ll make a strong run at this. We can still do it, we’re not that far behind.’ After Laguna was the turning point.

SR: When you came back to the Ducati in ’97, what were the main problems?
CF: It [was] very hard to ride, it wasn’t the bike I remembered from ’95. A lot of the problems were with the throttle response. Every time you touched the throttle in midcorner, it was like an on/off switch; it would just snap the bike upright and you’d run wide. It made it very difficult to carry midcorner speed and hold a tight line. Every time I tried to do that, the back end would break traction and come around on me. To make [matters] worse, I won a few races early on and was leading the championship [in ’97], but the bike wasn’t right and I ended up pushing too hard and crashing trying to make up for it.

At the end of [the ’97 season] we went to Albacete and brought four bikes: one each from ’94, ’95, ’96 and ’97. The ’97 felt the fastest but the ’95 felt nicer in the corners. In fact, my lap times on the ’95 bike were almost as quick as the ’97’s, even though the newer bike had a much stronger motor. So we [combined] all the [best assets] from all of the bikes to come up with the ’98 model.

SR: Did the changes that were introduced at Kyalami—like the new airbox—make a big difference in the power?
CF: You couldn’t tell at that time because Kyalami is at high altitude. We weren’t going to know if the bike had come on until the faster circuits. Kyalami is very twisty, Laguna is twisty, Brands Hatch is the same. But we got to Austria—a fast circuit—and I was able to stay with the Hondas, which was good. In Monza [early in the season] it was almost unfair. We couldn’t even stay in the slipstream.

SR: What were your main complaints with the Honda RC45 (in ’96)?
CF: Biggest problem [with that bike] was in midcorner. My strong point has always been midcorner speed, and the RC45 wouldn’t let me ride the way I wanted. Nearly every time I tried to do it the back end would come right around on me. At some tracks, like Donington and Phillip Island, it was terrible.

It’s funny, when I jumped on the Ducati in ’97, after a year on the RC45, I was having the exact same problems with the bike. I remember thinking to myself, ‘How can I be having the same problems in midcorner with two completely different-feeling bikes?’

SR: How many tire choices do you have on any given race weekend?
CF: Throughout practice there are probably seven or eight standard choices for the rear, and maybe five or six for the front. That’s what I really concentrate on most in practice now, picking the right tire. In Japan [the last race of ’98, where he clinched the championship], we really didn’t do anything to the bike. All I was thinking through practice was ‘I’ve got to pick the correct tire for the race.’ That’s all we worked on before the race.

Choosing the right rear tire for the race is critical nowadays, much more so than in ’95. And we’re always testing new [different compound and construction] tires at every practice; we’ll try one or two, and maybe Troy will try one or two. You always race [without] having tried one tire, so you maybe gamble on it for the second race. There’s usually too many tires to test and not enough time to test them.

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