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Private Preview 2003: Two-Wheeled Italian Appeal

Fluto Shinzawa

The British motorcycle writer sat in the tent at the Misano racetrack in northern Italy, propping his cast-covered left leg on a chair. During a road test a few hours earlier, he had dumped his Ducati 999 and broken his ankle and several fingers, yet failed to draw sympathy from most of his peers. While an ambulance sped the Brit to the nearest hospital, Ducati officials closed the track for more than half an hour to clean up the wreck’s remnants and await the return of the ambulance. “I came here to test bikes, not wait around,” a spiky-haired Dutch writer complained as he stomped around the pits.

Although the writers shrugged off the spill as a mere occupational hazard, it did bear evidence of the power of the new Italian motorcycle; its Testastretta engine cranks out 136 hp at 9,750 rpm. Ducati’s World Superbike team provided much of the data and technology from the racing circuit that were applied to the 999. The bike even includes a lap counter with an optional infrared system that tracks lap times, maximum revs, and average speed.

The highlight of the 999, however, is its versatile design, which gives you the option of switching seamlessly from racing to cruising. While some sportbikes are notorious for being unforgiving and uncomfortable, Pierre Terblanche, Ducati’s chief designer, says the 999 is a more user-friendly model than the previous-generation 998, and it adapts to its rider instead of the other way around.

You can adjust the footpegs to one of five settings and move the seat approximately an inch forward or back. The rear of the tank is narrow and rounded, giving your knees a more comfortable resting position against the bike. The seat is half an inch lower than the 998’s, improving the motorcycle’s center of gravity. “This bike is easy to ride into town,” says Terblanche. “We wanted to make it as good on the road as it is on the track.”

Not only is the 999 more comfortable than its predecessors, it’s also more stable. The double-sided swingarm increases the bike’s stiffness and allows you to accelerate faster from low speed without worrying about a wheelie. (That didn’t stop one writer from popping a 140-mph wheelie down Misano’s back straightaway.) Angry-looking vents slashed into the front fairing take air off the front wheel, reducing drag and turbulence.

Aesthetically, the 999 puts its forerunners to shame. It has a windswept, slicked-back look even at rest, and the curves of the tank and tires mesh smoothly with the crisp lines of the front fairing and the seat. “This is the most beautiful bike Ducati has ever built in its factory,” says Carlo Di Biagio, Ducati CEO.

While Ducati states that the 999 will arrive on time (later this year and early 2003), MV Agusta is taking the opposite approach. The Italian company’s Brutale Oro was originally scheduled to be a 2002 model, but production was delayed, pushing its American introduction back a year—not that its holdup has affected sales. “If you wait for them to arrive in the showroom, it’s almost guaranteed that you cannot make a purchase until the following year,” says Matt Stutzman, general manager of Cagiva USA, MV Agusta’s North American distributor.

The Brutale Oro’s delay is not surprising, given that MV Agusta President Claudio Castiglioni says he will never rush to build his exclusive motorcycles. MV Agusta was late in releasing several of its earlier models, which initially frustrated many owners who had placed orders for the bikes. Stutzman recalls an angry phone call from one owner. “I’ve waited for a year and a half,” he recalls the customer saying, “and you still can’t tell me when it will get here?”

When Stutzman told him he didn’t have an answer, the customer told him the wait was excruciating and then hung up the phone. Several months later, after the owner had taken delivery of his MV Agusta, he called Stutzman again. “Now I understand why I waited so long,” he told Stutzman, and then placed an order for another model.

The Brutale Oro should prompt similar reactions. The company is building only 300 motorcycles, and Stutzman is expecting 40 or 50 bikes for American dealers. The bike, which weighs 393 pounds, has a carbon-fiber body, and the wheels are made of magnesium. The engine cranks out 127 hp, which powers the bike to an electronically limited top speed of 155 mph.

Such passion sounds familiar to Andrew Wright, president of Superbike Inc., the Georgia-based U.S. importer of Benelli bikes. The 600 models of the Benelli Tornado Tre 900 that were allotted for the United States are already sold out (they are scheduled to arrive stateside at the beginning of October). Benelli, however, might increase production and release more models for U.S. purchase in 2003. “All the people who have bought it are discerning enthusiasts of motorcycles,” says Wright. “They’re buying these bikes because of their beauty, technology, and performance.”

The Tornado (pronounced Tor-nah-doe) is a 3-cylinder, 375-pound machine that churns out 143 hp at 9,500 rpm. Benelli, which was founded in 1911 and had not made a production motorcycle since the late 1970s, is making a comeback with the Tornado, a carbon-fiber, magnesium-studded antithesis of the 25cc mopeds the company used to produce.

Designer Adrian Morton installed a unique cooling system that places the radiator, normally located at the front of the engine, underneath the seat. A tube carries air alongside the front fairing and into the radiator. When the engine reaches 176 degrees, a switch on the engine automatically activates two fans positioned at the back of the seat, and the fans extract the hot air from the radiator. “Bikes have pipes that blow exhaust heat onto the radiator and make the coolant even warmer,” Wright explains. “This way, the radiator is not subject to exhaust heat. It’s an ingenious and very advanced way of cooling the bike.”

It seems appropriate that Benelli conducted wind tunnel tests on the Tornado at the Ferrari facility in Maranello. After all, the bike shares some common charac-
teristics with its four-wheeled counterpart from Italy: speed, styling, and exclusivity.

Ducati, www.ducati.com
MV Agusta, www.mvagusta.com
Benelli, www.benelli.com

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