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Article #12, 9 May 2011 by Harné Heuvelman

Ducati is a racing company, and although several business owners took their accountants to meetings, you can see that (despite many financial difficulties over the years) Ducati has been most successful in developing and producing racers for the track and for the road. This has been the case since 1954 and it seems that whenever ‘management’ decided on directions towards ‘new market segments’ or ‘cheaper technology’ the projects hit the wall of ‘bureaucratic resistance’…

Ducati has had many racing successes and created many great racing bikes. The first was in 1954 when Ducati Mecchanica was ambitious to win races and hired Fabio Taglioni with the assignment to develop a new motorcycle capable of winning the 1955 Motogiro d’Italia.

The result was instant success with the 1955 100 and 125 Gran Sport, although better known under their nickname ‘Marianna’. This was the first Ducati to have a bevel driven overhead camshaft engine. It lay the basis for further development of all future Ducati single cylinder models until 1974 and, one can argue, also for the bevel drive twin engines until 1986. Fabio Taglioni shaped the future for Ducati by engineering this great engine. The Gran Sport was later developed into the 125 Bialbero with a double overhead camshaft for the 1956 Grand Prix season. Where the Gran Sport ‘Mariana’ was available in limited numbers for private racing teams, the Bialbero was solely meant for the factory racing team.

Already in 1954 Taglioni started experimenting with desmodromic valve actuation. A system using opening and closing rockers for the valves instead of the usual opening rocker and valve springs for closing. The advantages of a desmodromic system over a conventional spring system is the precision in valve timing at high revs and the prevention of valve float; an adverse condition where the valve does not stay in contact with the camshaft lobe during closing.

In 1958 the 125 Desmo was officially enlisted in the Grand Prix season and was moderately successful in the forefront of the fight, driven by Bruno Spaggiari, Franco Farnè and Dave Chadwick.

The Gran Sport was succeeded by the 125 Formula 3 in 1958 as a catalogue production racer. The basis of the Formula 3 was in fact the Gran Sport, but the racer featured enclosed valve springs. It later became available as 175 and 250 Formula 3 models as well.

By 1965, Ducati’s racing department was developing at the limit of the single-downtube frame they had been using for so long. The racing version of the 250 Mach 1; the 250 SC (for Sport Corsa) was the first to have a double downtube ‘cradle’ frame to cope with the increased power output of the modern engine. The engine had to be adapted to fit the new frame and it was clear that a new frame and engine was needed for road going bikes as well.

As is often the case with new Ducati designs, the new ‘wide case’ single was born on the race track. In 1967, Ducati introduced the 250 and 350 Sport Corsa Desmo (SCD) incorporating the new crankcase design which later saw its way to the road.

By the late ‘60’s, it was clear to Fabio Taglioni that the single cylinder engine was at the limits of development. He combined two bevel drive single cylinders on a common crank-shaft that led to the first, nowadays so characteristic, Ducati trademark, the L-twin. When in spring 1970 the drawing-tables were cleared for other designs and ideas, the first prototype was tested in July. And with success, because only sixty days later the first Ducati 750 GT struck the Italian press like thunder. Though sporty looking, the driving characteristics were more those of a touring model.

Racing success was further encouraged by the new Ducati management and so in 1971, the idea to develop a racer for the Imola 200 Formula 750 was taken. Taglioni immediately went to work, taken the stock 750 GT as a basis. Although the outside of the engine may look strikingly similar to the standard 750 GT engine, the inside featured desmodromic valves, a lighter crankshaft, revised con-rods, a close ratio five speed gearbox and higher compression pistons. It was further fitted with 40mm Dell’Orto carburetors and crankcases were sand-cast. Power output was around 84 bhp at 8,800 rpm. The frame also was taken from the production line, but was heavily modified as well.

On race day, April 23rd 1972, the 750 V-twin proved to be a great success. With Paul Smart finishing first and team mate Bruno Spaggiari second, it was the racing success Ducati was hoping for. It made the racing world take Ducati serious in producing large displacement racing bikes and provided a way to produce and sell many large sporting machines for the road in the decades following this event. It meant pivoting success for Ducati.

With two-stroke engines increasingly dominating the international races, Ducati only saw possibilities to win be competitive the field of endurance racing. Taglioni ‘unofficially’ developed the 863cc works endurance racers, later used in both the Works Endurance Racers and in the NCR tuned NCR 900 Formula 1. The latter was further developed by Steve Wynne into the 1978 Formula 1 900 NCR that Mike Hailwood rode to victory in the Isle of Mann TT of that year. The factory commemorated this event with the introduction of a race replica: the Mike Hailwood Replica, introduced in 1979.

As a true racing company, Ducati had a tradition for making small numbers of hand-build racers available for customers. This was done in 1982 with the 600cc TT2, based on the Pantah engine. With a highly tuned engine and a purpose designed Verlicchi frame, the TT2 and the later 750cc TT1 were among the best racers of their time and still are considered among the best racers ever build in Borgo Panigale.

Gianluigi Mengoli started working on a double overhead camshaft four-valve per cyilinder desmodromic cyilinder head in 1986. The result was the 758 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.

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.

In 1993 the Supermono was introduced as a single cylinder version of the 888 Corsa to enter 500cc racing classes. The general idea was to take the vertical cylinder off the standard racing engine, but leave the titanium con-rod in a counter balancing mechanism to combine the great balance of a twin cylinder with the direct power output of a single. The result was the fabulous Supermono engine , producing up to 81 horsepower at 10,000 rpm. The frame was specifically designed for this racer and was made by Cagiva Telai in Varese. It features and extreme center of gravity. A total of 67 Supermono’s were built to compete in the hands of private racing teams.

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 to date.

References (recommended further reading)

Falloon, Ian (2002) Ducati Racers, Sparkford: Haynes Publishing