The biggest privilege of my career thus far was to be invited by Ducati to test ride the new 1098 at Kyalami at the world press launch on Sunday the 2nd of December.
John Hackett, owner of Ducati Coventry and myself met up in Heathrow airport on Friday afternoon as the two lucky representatives of the Ducati UK subsidiary to go and represent the UK in South Africa.
Here's my story from that event.
Firstly the track – Why Kyalami?
The high altitude of 1800m above sea level left the bike down on power, roughly 20bhp according to Ducati’s technical guru.
Every 4.2km lap is composed of a combination of super-technical, very fast sweeping bends, a tight – almost stop chicane, bumpy surfaces, steep inclines and even steeper declines, braking whilst changing direction, double apexes, blind summit braking points, off / on cambers and guaranteed 30 degree weather – simple!
In fact, everything you could possibly ask for to test the latest Superbike, that's why we went there!
After being picked up at the airport on Saturday morning, we arrived at the hotel in time for breakfast. We settled in and decided to have a swim in the outdoor pool. John didn’t make it after crashing out trying to get his swimmers on and I flaked out at the poolside after mustering the energy for a 2-minute swim! I subsequently made it up to my room to get the sleep I obviously needed!
I came downstairs at just after 7 to meet John as we previously discussed and found him chatting to Troy Bayliss over a beer. I joined in and we had a great overview of his season and what he thought of the new bike. Needless to say he can’t wait to get his hands on his new race bike. After a while, Troy dashed off to some PR event and John and I met with the rest of the group and took the 5-minute walk to the chosen restaurant for that night’s dinner.
Sitting at the long table in the Italian restaurant amongst the various representatives from all over the world, the topic of conversation never strayed far from the new bike and what our hopes were, not only for the bike and its performance but also for our collective customers expectations.
It was a great night and some of the chat was hilarious!
At the track
Getting off the bus we were greeted with every possible area of billboard, track signage and flag in a sea of Ducati red and white. We moved inside the press area through a wide, dimly lit corridor into a seated area with a cinema screen at the far end.
On a stage to our left a 1098 sat illuminated by a subtle red light. Stage right, a podium from which we were given a full rundown with videos and powerpoint presentation of the many new features on the 1098 and how it grew from concept to production. This culminated with a speech from Troy welcoming us to the circuit.
I checked my time slot for my sessions on the large plasma screen and took my gear to get my leathers on.
Riding the 1098
Getting on the bike, I could immediately feel the difference in weight from what I was used to.
I waited while my tech’ quickly searched through different modes on the GP dash until he got to the lap timer mode. He toggled the mode switch and gave me a pat on my back, the “on you go, you’re ready” signal I had been looking forward to and dreading at the same time, (you don’t want to be the first to chuck a bike up the road at these type of events!!)
Engaging gear, the shift lever clicked into first with a silky slick and positive motion. I rolled into line behind the other riders with my heart lodged in the back of my bone-dry throat! The waiting was finally over.
The first three laps behind no other than Mr Bayliss (who had just broken the current lap record on an S with road tyres) were all about finding which way the track went and a feeble attempt to discover which gear I should be using for the turns. I was also suffering from a distinct lack of confidence after being off any bike for 3 months or so.
At the end of lap three we came back in and left the pit in stages to break us all up.
Given a clear pit exit, I opened the throttle to the stop in 1st and immediately had to control the front wheel from clawing at the blazing sun - the power delivery is so dramatic and linear, it’s breathtaking.
Turn one (at the end of the day with some 20 or so good laps under my belt) was a very quick 5th gear turn, braking on the exit and changing down into 4th while flicking the bike into a fast and mildly bumpy left. Here the bike stayed rock solid over the bumps following the line I had marked out in my head. The front end allowed you to feel every movement over the uneven surface
After clipping the apex, you let the bike naturally drift over to the right hand side of the track, ready for another not-so-fast left in 3rd.
Exiting at good pace you brake whilst confidently still leaning over, drifting once more to the right hand side for the tightest turn of this part of the track.
You leave it in 3rd get the bike easily on its ear and throw it through the turn onto the back straight. This was my where I made my first mistake
when learning the track, taking this turn in 2nd, I hit the apex too early and drifted onto the rumble strips on the exit, I knew I was fine for the turn but opened the throttle and found the back end trying to overtake the front, the wheel felt like it stepped out about 2 metres but in reality was probably about 18 inches, this sent the bike into a frightening slide / weave / bronco affair on the rumble strips that Troy told me later, were the slippiest on the whole track. The bike immediately composed itself as soon as I touched proper tarmac again and returned to its previous state of total stability – a testament to the tyres and set-up.
After I began to breathe again I was aware of a rider behind me about to pass, Mr Bayliss then passed me gesturing for me to take it easy, he had witnessed the whole (slow motion for me) moment. Of all the people to make a mess of it in front of, I chose him!! Bollox!!
At the end of the back straight you find 4th for a very long and fast double almost triple apex, late entry right-hander heading up the hill to a slower 3rd gear left. The bike just kept egging me on, almost like it was laughing at me - it wanted me to give it more.
From here you keep heading up the hill then momentarily down again to a fast 3rd gear left / right chicane where the track takes a significant turn upwards. The torque from the motor hauled me up this very steep hill with total ease, rushing toward the limiter although never actually getting there until you crest the top of the incline in 4th
The black rubber on the track denotes your braking point coming back to 2nd gear. On more than one occasion, the Brembo monoblock brakes worked so well the back wheel left the tarmac. This might sound scary but happened in such a beautiful fashion, controlling the resulting mild weave was a sheer delight and something to relish every lap.
Short shifting into 3rd for the double apex, driving out the turn off back down the hill, waiting for 4th then hooking 5th, the most intimidating 4th gear left hand turn comes looming at you at breakneck speed. The 1098 remained super-composed even although the camber is a bit suspect. Heading into the next on-camber right, back 2 gears, the monoblock brakes again showed their prowess at this extreme braking point.
Using 3rd for just a second or two, the slowest part of the track, the right / left chicane comes up fast, braking hard, engaging 2nd, takes you into the turn where you almost come back on yourself. Even at this slow speed the bike was so controllable and easy to go from ‘flip to flop’.
Without changing from 2nd gear this takes you to the last left hand turn on the track onto the start / finish straight where you get your left index finger ready to flick the “pass” button to record your next lap time.
Watching others come by this point as a spectator, you can hear how good the standard exhaust sound, straight out of the crate.
Occasionally, you would be forgiven for thinking you were hearing the Termi' kitted S we had a chance to ride.
Kyalami is a track combining the best of Cadwell, Croft, Silverstone, Knockhill and Brands all rolled into one. You will think I’m just the ‘company *****’ my mate describes me as but the 1098 just lapped up the whole affair with total ease. I would have loved another day to really get to know the bike and the track to see what it was really capable of.
I can’t wait for mine to arrive!
Not one of us dropped it (but almost, phew!) and we headed out for another meal that night in an authentic African restaurant for some well needed nosh and a couple of beers.
Every single rider, irrespective of riding ability was completely blown away by the bike and was keen to feel the increase in power when we get it out the hills. That was just about all we talked about until 2 in the morning!!!
John and I both agreed (after solving the worlds problems in the bottom of a couple of Jack Daniels) that this bike, simply put, is the most competent, inspiring, beautiful and best Superbike Ducati has built, bar none.
Thoroughly exhausted and suffering from a mild hangover, we headed back to Heathrow after a tour of Johannesburg with our group and our new drinking mate from the night before, Claus, a Ducati dealer from Hamburg.
We got there after the same amount of sleep on the way out!! After saying our goodbyes we headed our own ways to wait for the next launch.
Hmmmmn, The Hypermotard, that WILL be fun!