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DUCATI 851 / 888

Article #11, 3 May 2011 by Harné Heuvelman

The Ducati F1 proved to be the ultimate of the Pantah engines and was designed at the limit of the technical possibilities of a two-valve per cylinder and air-cooled engine. Although it was a great bike with exceptional handling, the power output was at a fairly low level, especially for racing purposes. As a true racing company, Ducati started thinking about a more modern engine design that could be at the forefront of the modern Superbike racing class.

Gianluigi Mengoli started working on a double overhead camshaft four-valve per cyilinder desmodromic cyilinder head in 1986. The result was the 748 I.E. racer of the same year. It used modified Pantah crankcases and a modified TT1 frame and was enlisted in the Bol d’Or 24 Hours race at Paul Ricard, France in September 1986, driven by Marco Lucchinelli.

Although not the most successful Ducati racer (it retired with a broken con-rod bolt), a lot of knowledge was gathered with the 748 I.E. and the bike evolved to the 851 of 1987. With redesigned cylinder heads, a strengthened crankcases and power output now reached 120 bhp at 10,500 rpm. With a frame mostly similar to that of the earlier 748 I.E., Lucchinelli rode the 851 to victory at Daytona’s Battle of the Twins in 1987.

The experiment had proved to be successful and Ducati decided to enter the World Superbike Championship with the 851 in 1988. At its dream debut on April 3, at Donington Park, Lucchinelli won the race! Much of improvements were made during this first Superbike season and the title was in sight. However, due to financial problems, Ducati could not enter the last two races of the season and Lucchinelli finished 5th overall.

Ducati had to homologate the 851 for the Superbike championship in 1988 and so the 851 Superbike Kit was introduced to the public. The engine was a tuned down version of the racer, using Pantah crankcases as a basis. The frame was derived from the Ducati F1 (as the racer shared many features with the TT1).

In true Ducati style this too was a limited edition uncompromised ‘racer for the road’, as the 750 Super Sport, 900 Super Sport, Mike Hailwood Replica and the F1 were before. Many components came directly from the paddock, like Marvich 17 inch magnesium wheels and fully floating Brembo P4.32B brakes.

A second model was introduces simultaneously, the 851 Strada. Although many specification were shared with the 851 Superbike Kit, the Strada had 16 inch Marvic/Akront composite wheels fitted but without any changes to the geometry of the frame. The result was a rather poor handling bike, especially compared to the Superbike Kit. Only around 300 Strada’s were produced in 1988.

With Ducati Corse now at full ‘attack mode’ in the World Superbike Championship (SBK) in 1989, the 851 Strada received a major update with 17 inch Brembo wheels, although losing its superb Brembo floating discs. In 1990 the Strada received a dual seat a Showa front fork and Öhlins rear suspension.

The homologation rules of the SBK dictated Ducati to sell the 851 Sport Production 2 or 851 SP2 in 1990. Although titled 851 the engine actually displaced 888cc. The SP2 received high quality Öhlins suspension, fully floating Brembo disc brakes, 45mm Termignoni exhausts, an aluminium rear sub frame and a monoposto seat. Again, a true racer for the road, the 851 SP2 may have been uncompromised, it also set the standards in 1990 when it came to handling an performance.

Meanwhile, with eight victories in the 1990 season, Raymond Roche won the first World Superbike Championship title for Ducati. It soon turned out that Ducati would turn out to be the team to beat in the SBK of 1991 too as Doug Polen was winning the championship on his Ducati 888.

1991 saw the introduction of the 851 SP3, with only minor changes to the 1990 SP2: the Termignoni exhausts were mounted higher and the Brembo wheels were now black. The engine received higher compression pistons and air intake was now forced.

While both the official SBK racers and the Sport Production models already had 888cc, the 851 Strada was still available in 1992. With a minor facelift, the 1992 851 Strada had a new dual seat design (with passenger handles), newly designed foot pegs, a curved radiator and a pivoting steel fuel tank. Suspension was now Showa front and rear and the Strada got a ‘Gold Series’ Brembo brake system.

In the Sport Production ‘department’ two models were available in 1992: the 851 SP4 and the 888 Sport Production Special (SPS). The 851 SP4 was quite similar to the 851 SP3 with the same engine specifications but received the same design update as the 1992 851 Strada with new foot pegs, curved radiator and steel fuel tank. The 888 SPS however was the ultimate racer available in 1992. With larger valves, higher valve lift, racing cooling system and carbon fibre Termignoni exhausts, the 888 SPS almost was a 888 Corsa with lights and mirrors…

Ducati won the 1992 Superbike Championship with Doug Polen, but a new talent was recruited: Carl Fogarty, first with the factory Ducati Corse team in 1993. With Massimo Tamburini working on the development of a completely new bike at the factory, Ducati was preparing for a move that would change the company forever.

In 1993 the 851 began its final year now under the title of 888 Strada, although it was virtually the same as the 1992 851 Strada, only displacing the extra 37cc. The final Sport Production model, the 888 SP5 however was mostly based on the 888 SPS and received its high performance engine, only with a SP4 cooling system, a Showa front fork and bronze Brembo wheels. Both the 888 SPS and SP5 are extremely rare and among the best machines money could buy in their days.

In 1994 Ducati was ready to strike the motorcycle world with a hammer blow; the 916.  This model proved not only to be a huge success for Ducati, but would also dominate motorcycle styling till today.

The 916 made use of the same engine as that of the 888, only with a longer stroke. The frame however was a new development, much stronger than that of the F1 derived 851/888 and with a lower position for the engine. The rear swing arm was single sided cast aluminium with an eccentric chain adjuster in the hub. A steering damper was mounted vertically between the extremely stiff steering head and the steel fuel tank.

The design further featured double exhaust mufflers fitted directly under the seat and double specifically designed head and tail lights. The 1994 916 Strada was only available as monoposto and from 1995 on only with a dual seat (biposto) The 916 was extremely compact compared to other motorcycles of the early 90’s.  Not only for its striking beauty, but also for its handling and performance the 916 is regarded as one of the most important models, finally earning a place for Ducati in the hearts and souls of a broad public.
Off course, being first and foremost a racing company, Ducati designed the 916 for the race track. It made its first appearance, driven by Carl Fogerty and Giancarlo Falappa in the World Superbike Championship in 1994, winning its first ever race at Donington. Ultimately winning the SBK title in its debut season for Carl Fogerty and the constructors title for Ducati. It also won the World Superbike titles in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999. Its predecessor, the Testastretta 998 regained the winning streak in 2001. The 916 Desmoquattro became Ducati’s most successful racer.

Designed to take part in the World Superbike Championship, the 916 Desmoquattro saw a number of homologation versions. The first was the 916 Sport Production (SP) of 1994. It featured racing style twin fuel injectors on each cylinder, larger valves, hotter cams, a 45mm exhaust system with Termignoni carbon fibre mufflers and forced lubrication to the piston pin. The rear shock absorber was Öhlins the front mudguard made from carbon fibre and fully floating Brembo disc brakes. The 1995 916 SP remained unchanged, but for 1996 the model was titled the 916 SP3 and featured some minor updates to the crankcase.

The Desmoquattro engine started out in life as the 748 I.E. racer in 1987 and soon after the 916 made its market introduction, Ducati started development of a small brother, the 748 Strada, introduced in 1995. The same year also saw a homologation version for the Supersport championship in the form of the 748 SP. The 748 followed much of the development of its larger brother and, apart from engine displacement, much of the specification were shared throughout its lifetime.

In 1997 the engine was further developed as a 996cc version for the race track, first making its way to the street on the 916 SPS. Again like the on the 851 Sport Production models, it featured a larger engine displacement than the name would suggest. Updates included new crankcase design, lighter crankshaft, larger inlet valves and ports, higher primary gear ratios, new camshafts and a larger 50mm exhaust system. Power output was now at a level of 134 bhp at 10,500 rpm. The 1998 model was virtually the same, apart from some extra decals.

The 916 Desmoquattro later was updated as the 996 Desmoquattro in 1999 before the new major development was the Testastretta 998 engine, introduced on the 996 R in 2001. The 916 / 996 / 748 family proved to be one of the most important in Ducati’s existence and one can see the resemblance with the 1098 / 1198 / 848 Superbike family of today.

References (recommended further reading)

Falloon, Ian (2004) Standard Catalog of Ducati Motorcycles, Iola: KP Books

Falloon, Ian (2002) ‘Ducati Desmoquattro Superbikes’, Motorbooks International

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