Our man in Europe, Alan Dowds, spends a lot of time hanging around in Italy. Pasta, wine and Milanese honeys are the usual pull, but he occasionally gets lucky with bikes too. Like when he sneaked a leg over a genuine World Superbike Championship winning bike – Garry McCoy’s 2004 Ducati 999F NCR Xerox machine.
I’m not a racer. I never have been, and never will be. I put it down to the traditional self-deprecation of the west of Scotland, together with an innate laziness, too much dope and booze in my youth, and a severe lack of ambition.
This basically means that whenever I get the chance to ride a race bike, particularly a fancy one (like Gary McCoy’s Ducati), I always feel a teensy bit out of my depth. So as I’m standing in the pitlane at Adria raceway, near Venice, waiting for my turn on one of the best Superbikes in the world, my internal monologue is even more heated than usual. The typical mantra of ‘don’tcrashdon’tcrash’ is overlaid with various other, more high-pitched, nervous ditties. ‘Mindtheracechange’, ‘warmtheslicks’ and ‘wheredoesthetrackgo?’
It’s a miracle I’m here anyway. I left London two days beforehand with a full test of the 2005 Ducati 999, Aprilia RSV, and Honda RC-51 planned at Mugello, 120 miles south of Adria. The Italian guys had suggested a chance of a ride on the Xerox bike, but only if the Mugello test finished in time. I could only smile: the idea that the job would go to plan – on day one – in Italy – seemed so far-fetched as to be not worth considering.
But, with an uncharacteristic injection of organization, punctuality and some good luck, day two saw me driving the Audi rental car at Grand Theft Auto pace due north. Just after noon, I was hurrying into my leathers, slipping on my lid and battling my way through the milling crowds of Italian hangers-on. Today was the NCR team’s end of season sponsors-and-special-guests day, so I was lucky to even get in the door. But after some special pleading from my Italian buddies (and some bigging-up of my rep), the team manager agreed to let me on. A grim-faced race tech then signalled that I was next up on the bike.
The guy before me in the line pulls into the pit, the team technicians grab the bars. He gets off, I get on. I’m nervous.
“Five laps,” technician Valter Cussigh signals with a stern look. I nod, click up into first, and a new voice in my head screeches ‘DON’TSTALLIT’. I’d already seen a couple of guys stall embarassingly off the line, necessitating the starter trolley, paddock stand, and complex slipper-clutch locking procedure.
But I make it safely away and power down the pit lane onto the Adria track. It’s primarily a car circuit, and to be honest, it’s pretty **** (particularly on a bike). The track is fairly small, and a couple of the corners have nasty, almost decreasing-radius lines. There’s no gravel traps, just high-friction Tarmac and concrete walls – it’s like a bad-acid mirror image of the amazing Mugello track I’d ridden the day before (or the typical AMA Superbike track-Ed).
Happily, I’ve remembered that the gearchange is reversed in the GP style, and I’m gently feeling my way around. Surprise number one is how relaxing the 999F factory race bike is. The NCR 999F 03 is a full factory race bike from 2003, but to be honest, it didn’t feel any more intimidating than the base 999 model I’d ridden the previous morning on the Passo del Futta mountain road.
Lap one is down, and I start giving it a bit more gas down the short straights. Bang! The power comes in big, relentless pulses of grunt, like someone had snuk a small-block Chevy motor under the tank while I wasn’t looking. But the long, low 999 chassis is super stable, and there’s no uncontrollable wheelies or flapping from the front. The power is creamy smooth with nary a glitch or a hiccup anywhere – it’s a positively civilised powerplant, despite its massive power output of something in the way of 189 horsepower.
I remember the team telling me that the motor is high on miles, and the last thing I want is to break anything (these highly tuned motors aren’t designed for longevity you know). So I don’t wait for the 14,000rpm limiter, but change up (‘down!down!’) when the Marelli LCD dash shows about 12,000rpm.
At the end of the short straight it takes but a gentle stroke of the front brake and I’m slowing fast. The firm, yet plush, exotic Ohlins suspension barely registers the weight transfer as I turn in. The sharp profile of the slicks speeds up the steering over a standard bike, but the 999’s trademark stability and precision is still there through the bends.
There’s a hint of relaxation entering my tired shoulders now. I’ve just about worked out which way the track goes, and I finally start to enjoy myself. And as I came around the final bend on my final lap on the Xerox bike, the low, early evening sun glints off the screen and I carve a reasonable knee-down line around.
Once back in the pits I try to put the ride into context. There’s little point my trying to rate this bike in performance terms. Not only is it aimed at a rider leagues above my abilities, but the parameters of suspension setup, tyre condition, engine tune and even geometry are so variable that most analysis is kind of meaningless. Besides, this bike has proved itself where it counts – on the WSB circuit, where it helped Garry McCoy win at Phillip Island, Australia.
So what can I tell you? Well, to my mind, the whole point of the WSB series is for the race bikes to echo the production models – unlike the prototype blue riband machinery of the MotoGP paddock. And, despite the masses of development, huge engine tuning and extensive chassis upgrades on this world-class Ducati 999, the basic nature of the Bolognian road bike is still discernible. It’s a racer, yes, definitely. But the NCR 999R has exactly the same soul as the road bike you can buy in the showroom.
Ducati 999F 03
: Testastretta 90° V-twin desmodromic 8v DOHC, 999cm³Bore/stroke: 104x58.8mm Maximum power [email protected]
,500rpm Engine management - Magneti Marelli MF5 Magneti Marelli fuel injection, IWF1 injectors Top speed: 190mph
: Front suspension: Gas pressurised 42mm USD Ohlins race forks
braced aluminium swingarm, Ohlins race monoshock
16.5” Marchesini magnesium?
Front brakes: Brembo floating discs: 305mm, four-piston radial mount calipers
Brembo floating disc, 218mm
Leo Vince full titanium
Shell Advance fluids, Pirelli slicks, dry slipper clutch, Brembo adjustable brake and clutch levers
No, it doesn’t stand for National Cash Registers. Rather it’s Nepoti Caracchi Racing, set up in 1969 by the legendary Italian racers. Now run by Stefano Caracchi, the NCR team will run the official Ducati factory World Supersport team this year (2005), with the 749R, ridden by promising newcomer Gianluca Nannelli. The team will also be running a 999 Superbike in WSB, with the rider to be decided.
Words: Alan Dowds
Pics: Alberto Adria