Ducati 851

Ducati 851 Road Test

Ducati came of age in the late 80s, using ideas that the Far East thought as antiquated and as such not worth pursuing, the Italians enjoyed staggering race successes, and with it many sales to the public, motorcycling hasn’t been quite the same since. Chris Pearson samples the bike at the beginning of it all

Based upon the 1978 Pantah bottom end, the design was the first real modern day Ducati Superbike and successfully bridged the gap until the arrival of the 916 some seven years later. The first sight of the all-new Ducati road bike was caught at the Milan show in the autumn of 1987 although the prototype race bikes had provided more than their fair share of clues and insights into what was waiting just around the corner. Developed as a direct descendant of the Daytona winning twin from 1987, the production version of the 851 differed little from that prototype race machine. Ducati’s intentions for the new model were clear from the outset being offered in both Strada (road going) and Kit (race track) specification, for those wishing to put their 851’s directly on to the track. 200 examples of the latter were hurriedly assembled to satisfy the homologation required for the inaugural 1988 World Superbike championship, a roadster based race series that Ducati were more than keen to be a part of.

851 StradaSupply of key components hampered the initial version of the first “Tri Colori” 851 and a sixteen-inch front wheel was used on the road machine. This gave the otherwise stylish machine a hunched look with the tiny wheels being overpowered by the all-encompassing Paso inspired bodywork. The handling was quirky too, with the press of the day not too impressed with this latest sports offering from Ducati. The engine was strong though, and won many fans, particularly for its accurate throttle response, wide spread of power and torque. The Weber-Marelli system, based heavily upon their experience with the Ferrari F1 cars, initially records sixteen different areas of the rev range and then sets up the perfect fuel air ratios for these points, a computerised curve then smoothes this out further the result is impressive, with a silky smooth progression from tick over to red line no matter when you decide to open the taps.

The usual Latin sharp handling was restored in the latter part of 87 with the introduction of a 17-inch front wheel for the Strada, the end result being one of the best steering machines of the eighties. The colour scheme was changed too, the multi coloured scheme made way for the brilliant “Ferrari fire engine” red that became, like Kawasaki’s lime green, instantly recognisable as a Ducati. The Ducati design team refused to succumb to the onslaught of the aluminium beam frames, to this day a real Ducati has to sport a steel trellis frame before it can truly wear the badge. The idea is a sound one however and those spindly looking tubes are arranged in such a way as to provide immense strength while weighing in way less than the equivalent alloy chassis, holding the plot straight and true while the top quality dangly bits at each end dampen out the road irregularities adequately.

Ducati 851The lazy engine sound is deceptive, as beneath you is a ready and willing powerplant, the throttle response is better than the best normally aspirated machine from the period and for a while after it too, the close cooperation between Ducati and the nearby Weber-Marelli factory paying off nicely producing smoothest injection system to date. The big Duke just lifts its skirt and takes off, leaving you struggling to hold on to the galloping red stallion. Acceleration is breath taking, and yet all around is somehow calmed by the low frequency of the booming exhausts, even up near the red line the sound is not a manic scream, but rather a musical ensemble. With maximum power being developed at 9,000rpm one would imagine shifting gear at that point would prove the most effective and yet hanging on for another 1,000 revs appears to be no less powerful. This over rev is a handy facility to have especially between closely coupled S bends when an extra gearshift could either prove costly time wise, or just plain foot achingly unnecessary.

The sound emanating from the twin pipes transforms into a hollow throaty wind down on the overrun, the engine braking via the rear tyre can compete fully with the twin four piston Brembo’s hauling up the front end, no need for any rear brake here it simply isn’t as potent as the engine and far more control can be had, simply feathering the dry clutch to scrub off speed. Once settled into a corner the chassis comes into its own with sharp and predictable handling throughout, the steel trellis refuses to yield to any of the forces encountered. Hard on the gas and the wheels can get out of line, by 3500 rpm 85 % of the available torque is already being produced and this pushing power makes quite an impact upon the trajectory of a lightweight motorcycle, the first time it happens it feels like a mild form of clutch slip until you realise the bike has been leaving black lines out of every corner.

Ducati 851 Model history

Ducati 851 StradaFor almost thirty years, following Fabio Taglioni’s recruitment to the Ducati concern in 1954, he had been largely responsible for most of the companies’ designs. Things had stayed the same for many different reasons, firstly the two valve engine was a great design that hung around far beyond its original shelf life would have suggested it should, and secondly the mid eighties saw a lack of money within the Ducati camp to seriously develop any thing else but the old engines. With Taglioni’s retirement clearly on the horizon a replacement was sought and found in Massimo Bordi, the two worked very closely together between 1978 and 1982, when Taglioni finally bowed out. In 1985, Cagiva, having had strong links with Ducati since the early 80,s took overall control of the brand and with this new injection of cash came a whole new series of machines.

During Bordi’s early student days, he forged strong links with many important people in the engine world, among them Cosworth and much of the early work and assistance for his latest engine design came from the UK race engine builder. Although Cosworth provided much useful information concerning valve placing and cylinder head design they were reluctant to go any further meaning Bordi had to undertake much of the development work himself, Cosworth were already of the opinion, albeit mistakenly, that desmodromic valves were of little use for the future having tested their own to little effect many years previously.

The basis of the 1987 spec Ducati 851 lived on until the end of 1993, gradually growing in capacity up to the 888cc model of 1992, proving so dominant on the rack that the planned update, the iconic 916 series, was held over for more than a year finally making its debut towards the end of 93 ready for its full onslaught in 1994.

Ducati 851 Strada Specifications

          Engine – 4-stroke, water-cooled 90-degree L-twin-cylinder. Double overhead camshaft, 4 valves, desmodromic systemCapacity – 851cc
          Bore/stroke – 92 x64mm


            Power – 104bhp @ 9000rpm


              Torque – 52.5ft-Ibs @ 7250rpm


                Carburation – Weber-Marelli electronic fuel injection


                  Transmission – 6-speed, dry-clutch, chain final drive


                    Frame – Tubular steel trellis


                      Suspension – 42mm Marzocchi telescopic forks adjustable damping. Single rising rate rear shock adjustable pre load and compression damping


                        Brakes – 320mm discs Brembo 4-piston-calipers. 240mm disc Brembo 2-piston-caliper


                          Wheels – 120/70 x 17 180/55 x 17


                            Weight – 185kgs


                              Top speed – 155mph


                                Wheelbase – 1460mm


                                  Fuel capacity – 20ltrs


                          Ducati 851 Strada Timeline

                          A prototype Ducati water cooled race machine was entered into the Bol d’Or, to the surprise of many it lasted most of the distance.

                          The prototype 851 ridden by Marco Lucchinelli wins the Daytona battle of the twins race and is demonstrated at the Italian GP later in the season, the Milan show of that year saw the launch of the roadster version.

                          The first production machines appear in dealer showrooms, the Strada being the standard road machine while a Kit version came bristling with go faster parts, around 500 were assembled that year, (300 Strada and 200 Kit). The Kit model came with a 17-inch front wheel while the Strada made do with the smaller diameter item. Marco Lucchinelli won the very first WSB race on the race version.

                          The Strada was graced with a 17-inch front wheel greatly improving handling. 29 race replicas of the Lucchinelli machine was also made available to the public.

                          A new dual seat 851 was introduced and the single seat version became the Corsa, while the hotter spec SP2 used Ohlins suspension at each end.

                          The SP3 was introduced with high level exhausts; it featured a larger capacity 888cc engine too.

                          The basic 851 was restyled with more room for a pillion and foldaway grab rails, a cheaper steel item replaced the alloy tank.

                          The 851 finally makes way for the 888cc engine to be utilised throughout the range, which in turn grows into the legendary 916 series in 1994.