Alan Cathcart writes.....

about the Ducati Test


June 3, 1978 is a day that has gone down in motorcycle history, with enough words written about Mike Hailwood's legendary return to the TT that Manx summer day exactly 20 years ago, to fill several books. Mike the Bike's fairytale Isle of Man comeback, in which he rode to decisive victory at record speed over the works Honda team in the Formula 1 TT race aboard his Sports Motorcycles Ducati 900 V-twin, eleven years after he last raced on the Island and seven since he rode a bike of any kind in international competition, is rightly considered one of the most remarkable feats in the history of motorcycle racing, and is deservedly now part of the folklore of our sport.

If on that day you'd told me, as I hung over the fence on the outside of the Creg in the Manx sunshine and watched my greatest hero winning his comeback race on my favourite bike, that almost exactly 20 years later to the day I'd be thrashing round Mallory Park on that very same motorcycle, I'd have reckoned that a potent combination of the atypical warmth and the Manx ale had got to you. Yet thanks to the generosity of the present day owners of Hailwood's TT-winner, American brothers Mark and Larry Auriana, and the man who made Mike's feat possible by providing him with the bike in the first place, Steve Wynne, that's exactly what happened: thanks, guys. In doing so, not only did the dream of every ducatista - to ride Mike Hailwood's TT winner - come true, but on a personal note I answered some questions that had been left unresolved for two whole decades. See, back at the start of practice week in that '78 TT, Mike the Bike had boomed past me on the Duke going into Schoolhouse Corner in Ramsey, waving a nonchalant left hand to an unknown, much slower rider, as he cruised to a ton-up lap on his desmo V-twin. The earth moved - my hero waved at me!! Then, as I grappled with the weave caused by the dip in the road surface just as I peeled into the left hander, I realised that his Ducati had thundered through there as if on rails, shrugging off such minor inconveniences as the Manx road system could throw at it. "Wow, wish I was riding that!", I remember thinking: well, now I have done. . .

Perhaps because of the supportive presence at the '78 TT of factory mechanics Franco Farne and Giuliano Pedretti, many have felt that Steve Wynne received less than his due credit for not only preparing but also developing the TT-winning Ducati, into a works Honda-beater. Especially when they jumped on the promotional bandwagon with such alacrity by bringing out the best-selling Mike Hailwood Replica street clone later that same year, the Ducati factory always managed to convey the impression that Hailwood won the race (and, in so doing, Ducati's first-ever World championship) on a 'tricolore'-painted full works machine - but while it's true that the engine fitted to the bike at the last moment for the race was indeed an Italian-built one, this is far from being entirely the case. Not only did Wynne have to agree to buy the two 900TT1 bikes for Hailwood and his teammate in the Sports Motorcycles team, Roger Nicholls, to ride, but it was he who painted them in red and green colours in recognition of Hailwood's main sponsors, Castrol! What's more, by the time they reached the Island the Sports Ducatis incorporated a host of Wynne-developed improvements to their original semi-works specification, which Mike's bike today - exactly as raced by Hailwood to his follow-up short circuit victory in the Post-TT Meeting at Mallory Park a week after his TT win - still incorporates.

Ducati didn't actually have a Reparto Corse in the factory back then, so both machines were in fact constructed in the Scuderia NCR race shop, a long stone's throw outside the Bologna factory front gate, as modified versions of the NCR900 Endurance racers, complete with special, sand-cast, old-style round-case crankcases, one of 20 such pairs made with internal stiffening webs, as then permitted under F1 rules. These were also modified to accept a Pantah-style screw-in oil filter, and fitted with a close-ratio gearbox and all-metal dry clutch, with magnesium outer cover. But on receipt of the bikes late in '77, Wynne followed what was by now standard practice and dismantled them both to the last nut and bolt, before rebuilding them to TT1 specification, with many modifications. These include boring out the beautifully-polished standard rods and flywheel webs to accept a larger diameter crankpin and oversize rollers, to overcome what had repeatedly proved to be the engine's achilles heel: rev a bevel-drive Ducati big twin much over 8000 rpm on a standard big end, and you'll shorten its life drastically. Next, the 86mm bore NCR pistons were junked in favour of a set of 87mm American-made Venolias, obtained from Cook Neilson who earlier in 1977 had scored a landmark victory in the Daytona Superbike race over the Japanese multis, riding his 'California Hot Rod' desmo V-twin. These Teflon-coated pistons give increased 11:1 compression and are much stronger than the NCR parts, as well as delivering a slightly larger engine capacity of 883 cc. After rebalancing, these mods ensured the engine would be reliable up to 9500 rpm - though Mike claimed to have used 1000 revs more in his epic Post-TT Mallory Park race, where he once again took on and defeated the best of the four-cylinder Japanese opposition on a track much more suited to them than the long, lean, lazy-revving Ducati. With peak horsepower of 87 bhp at the rear wheel at 9000 rpm on the Sports dyno, it was an impressive testament to the value of desmo valve gear, as well as Steve Wynne's engine preparation, that nothing ever broke on the bike in all the miles Mike covered on it....

This horsepower is delivered with the help of flowed, ported 60-degree factory cylinder heads (stock bevel-drive Ducati heads have a 72-degree valve angle), fitted with oversize 43.5 mm inlet valves (compared to 39 mm on a stock 900SS) and 39.5 mm exhausts (36 mm standard), plus 'Super-Imola' factory camshafts giving 12.5 mm lift on the inlets - though Wynne added extra keyways in the bevel gears to vary the valve timing at choice. He also fitted a Lucas Rita electronic ignition to overcome the notoriously fickle nature of Italian electrics, running 36 degrees of advance at 6000 rpm, while standard PHM40 Dell'Orto pumper road carbs are employed, as then required under TT1 rules, but with about half the plastic bellmouth cut away to obtain optimum intake length, and the accelerator jets removed, to deliver smoother running at part-throttle openings such as are commonly used in the Isle of Man. And after Roger Nicholls lunched the clutch on the startline of the Brands Hatch international in October '77, soon after Sports got the bikes from Italy, the clutch springs were replaced with 450 single-cylinder components, and the three backlash dogs on fourth gear ground away to overcome the perennial Ducati problem of jumping out of gear. That didn't cure it, though, so using Mike Hailwood's connections with F1 racing car gearbox specialists Hewland Gears, a complete new close-ratio gear cluster was manufactured incorporating many detail improvements, which proved trouble-free thereafter and is still in the bike today.

In spite of owning one myself at one stage, I always had a slightly jaundiced view of the MHR road bike, as being a triumph of styling over true race-replica engineering: an SPS version of the stock 900SS, it assuredly wasn't, in the way that the first 750SS was a street-legal version of Paul Smart's works Imola-winner. Now, though, having ridden the bike it was derived from, I have to qualify that opinion, because the most remarkable thing you immediately notice about the 900TT1 is how normal it feels to sit on and ride. Save for the substitution of an oil cooler for the headlamp you might expect to find in front of you, and the classical white-faced Veglia revcounter staring back at you, this could be any Ducati V-twin roadburner with a fairing ever made: definitely a Modified Production battletwin, rather than a twin-cylinder period Superbike racer! This is scarcely surprising, really, given that although the chassis is a specially-made lightweight chrome-moly frame, it was built by Verlicchi on the same jig as the street 900SS, though the seemingly-stock swingarm is actually wider than standard to slot in the wider rear wheel, which might have been shod with a treaded Dunlop as ridden by Mike, but for the fact that it's Avon who make the benchmark race-quality 18-inch tyres today - so that's what were fitted for the test. The advent of 13-inch Girling gas shocks like the ones Sports swapped to almost at once, replacing the shorter and less compliant Marzocchis the bike came with, were a godsend to those of us racing Ducati V-twins in mid-'70s Production events, because not only did they improve handling and help jack up the back end to remove ground clearance problems, in doing so they steepened the effective head angle and sharpened up the steering - well, made you less aware of the stretched-out 1500mm/59 in. wheelbase, at any rate. The lower mountings for the rear shocks are copiously drilled, though, to offer a choice of preload positions.

Though the clipons on Mike's bike are surprisingly steeply dropped - almost like a 125 GP racer - they do at least allow you to tuck elbows and shoulders well in behind the comparatively all-encompassing fairing, while the long shocks mean you sit a little higher off the ground, slotted into that comfy, well-padded seat. The riding position isn't quite as stretched out as the 750SS I've been racing on and off for the past 25 years, though, because the fat backpad that wedges you in place also helps push you forward a little, to offset the inherent 48/52% rearwards weight bias of the air-cooled 90-degree V-twin by using the rider's body weight to compensate. But the footrests feel lower and a little further back than usual on a racing Duke, testament perhaps to Mike's crash at the Nurburgring in '74 which ended his F1 car racing career, causing permanent damage to his right leg and foot that made even walking sometimes painful, and meant that after a classical career of right-foot shifting, for his comeback he had to learn how to use a left-foot one-up racing gearchange, here neatly installed on the Ducati via a linkage through the swingarm pivot shaft. I have to admit being rather glad of that myself - for my Mallory outing on the bike was actually my first time on a race track since breaking my right leg in a race crash three months before, and finding such a historic racer tailored to suit was an added bonus! Except - the low footrests may be more comfy, but in winning the Mallory race Mike ended up dragging his right foot hard enough on the tarmac to wear away the boot leather and finish with a bloody foot. Never having been brave enough to encounter a similar problem with any of the several big Ducatis I've owned and raced down the years, I surprised myself by emulating the master at Mallory - even Kushitani-san's effective toe scrapers couldn't prevent 40 laps of cranking round Gerards and the Esses delivering a severely chamfered right boot. No blood, though - sorry: obviously not trying hard enough. . .

I'd expected the TT-winning Ducati to have a muscular, meaty power delivery down low, even with those high-lift cams, and it didn't disappoint, the higher compression ratio helping it pull crisply and cleanly out of the hairpin or chicane from very low revs, with no transmission snatch or hesitation. It's as smooth and tractable as a road bike down low, and almost as measured in the way it builds revs up to 7000 rpm, when suddenly things start to happen a lot faster, as the exhaust note hardens, engine acceleration picks up and the Veglia tacho needle scoots off towards the five figure zone. But at any revs the big twin motor feels very loose and free-revving, with notably reduced inertia compared to any other bevel-drive desmo I ever rode, even Paul Smart's Imola 200-winning 750, which had not a lot less power but definitely wasn't as torquey as the Hailwood machine, nor - in spite of being smaller in capacity - had such an appetite for revs. Nepoti and Caracchi of NCR must have done a lot of work in refining the internals of the bevel-drive motor, which further benefitted from Steve Wynne's careful preparation. Really, any gear you throw at this bike is the right one, and even with the vastly improved shift action of the Hewland gearbox whose precision makes light work of clutchless upward changes, you really don't need to work the gearbox as hard as you'd expect. Yet even with the very high bottom gear that allows you to scoot out of the Mallory hairpin and into the chicane without changing up, acceleration is strong enough to leave modern 600 Supersports weighing only a little more than the Ducati's 166 kg. half-dry in your wake, with 750 riders taking a closer look at this thundering, cobby-looking timewarp racer as they have to work their engines a little harder to pass right on by. That 87 bhp is delivered to the back wheel in a forgiving, yet still deceptive manner: make sure you get the Ducati lined up right before you pull the trigger on it, because unlike any other big twin desmo I've ever ridden, it'll fast forward the surrounding scenery above that seven grand power threshold, in a way that's undeniably impressive.

Riding the Ducati in what Steve Wynne terms 'something approaching anger' at Mallory Park only increased my appreciation and awe at Mike Hailwood's achievement in winning the F1 race there against the better accelerating, shorter wheelbase fours, even without the chicane that nowadays disfigures the track. The long wheelbase chassis feels ultra-stable round Gerards, especially with the Kawasaki steering damper mounted below the right clipon to stop the front wheel flapping over the bumps on the exit, but that doesn't prevent the front end pattering there as the Marzocchi forks do their best to iron out the bumps, while there's pretty dramatic power understeer on the exit both here and again at the Esses, where you have to work hard at muscling the Ducati back on line. Just back from the TT after my best-ever fifth place finish back in '78, but needing to work on preparing my bike for the next race, I couldn't get to the Post-TT Meeting to watch Mike the Bike do his stuff one more time, but I do vividly remember watching the BBC's live TV broadcast and seeing the way Hailwood threw the bike on its side at the hairpin each lap, en route to an unlikely victory. I remain as awestruck today after riding the same bike round the same track 20 years on as I was back then. Mike's relatively unsung Mallory victory was arguably an even greater achievement than his TT win, because this motorcycle is fundamentally unsuited to such a relatively tight though deceptively fast track. Hero material....

One factor would have helped out, though, and that's the way the Ducati brakes, compared to the heavier fours of two decades ago. For a start, the Italian bike's cast iron Brembo discs and two-pot black calipers were the benchmark stoppers back in 1978, and though you must squeeze pretty hard by modern standards to make them work well, they do stop the bike OK on their own. However, add in the ingredient of desmo engine braking, and now you have the potential to outbrake modern Supersports into a tight turn like the Mallory hairpin, all without the concern of possibly tangling a valve, thanks to Ducati's trademark positive valve operation: thanks, Dr.T (as in Taglioni...)! Just remember never to use the hefty rear disc, so as to avoid locking the rear wheel on the overrun as you do so: no slipper clutches in those days! Considering Steve Wynne says Mike also never used the rear brake, it's a bit of a surprise that he didn't save a lot of unsprung weight by fitting a smaller, lighter rear disc - or perhaps this was a factor in helping the back end to sit down as well as it does over bumps? Whatever, with the Girlings set to their softest setting, the Ducati must surely have been a great ride by the standards of the day over a bumpy course like the Isle of Man's, as my close-up encounter with Mike at Schoolhouse Corner seemed to confirm. Now I know that is indeed the way it was. . .

Back in 1982, a year after Mike's tragic death with his young daughter in a particularly needless car crash he was in no way responsible for, I helped organise the Tribute to Mike Hailwood meeting at Donington on behalf of track owner Tom Wheatcroft, which brought massive support from star riders whom Mike raced with like Read, Taveri, Anderson, Surtees (for whom of course Mike raced cars successfully, too) and many others, as well as assembling a huge selection of exotic machinery that Mike had been associated with. But the one bike I tried hardest to arrange to come there proved elusive: you guessed it - the TT-winning Ducati stayed locked up tight in Japan. But now, on the 20th anniversary of what the majority of his fans will agree was Mike Hailwood's finest victory, thanks to the generosity of the Auriana brothers the motorcycle that made that possible will be seen and heard again in action on the TT Course. Mike the Bike would have thoroughly approved. . .

 

© Alan Cathcart. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

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