God… those awful Ducati 916 things… ten a penny if you ask us: and ugly as sin.
OK, OK, we’re joking. Kinda! But check out the beauty here before you. It’s not a flowing, gorgeous machine like the Massimo Tamburini-penned 916 or later MV Agusta F4, we know that. But it has a kind of brutal beauty. A, simplicity of line, shall we say. It’s the reason why that – for many Ducatisti – the 851 and 888 liquid-cooled Desmos are still seen as the pinnacle of the Bologna factory’s 1990s’ output.
We are talking about the 851 and 888 here, but the later machine is perhaps the ultimate expression of the breed. Yes, some may label it a tad agricultural – even in race trim compared to the Japanese exotica seen on race tracks in the 1980s and 1990s – but it was also a massive extended middle finger up to the mighty Japanese factories who perhaps presumed they would have things all their own way in production-based superbike racing…
The 851 first came out in 1987, developed from the earlier F1 machines and this was really the machine which forged Ducati’s reputation in production bike racing. At the time don’t forget, Honda and Yamaha were also developing/building the likes of the VFR750R RC30 and FZR750R OW01and the 851 and later the 888 would be of similar purpose – just to go and win at racing…
The 851 itself was a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected development of Ducati’s air-cooled machines, but with Massimo Bordi’s head design, featuring Desmodromic valve operation, where valves are closed by cams, not springs. The reason the 851, RC30 and OW were being developed was for the soon-to-come World Superbike championship, a series where modified/hotted-up streetbikes went head-to-head on the track, ridden by both young guns and grizzled former GP stars alike on some pretty iffy circuits. It all promised plenty of spectacle!
The rules of WSB stayed the same for the first seven years, and they were: four cylinder 750cc machines of 165kilos versus twins of 1000cc and 140 kilos. With this room for development in terms of capacity, the 851 became the 888 on track in 1989 and 1990, before the road bike became the 888 at the end of the 1991 model year. This meant that the road-going 888 was only around for about two years before the introduction of the (OK, we will admit it) the gorgeous 916.
So yes, it was the 888 which first rubbed Japanese noses in it. Honda’s Fred Merkel and the RC30 may have taken the first two WSB titles in 1988 and 89, but ex-GP rider Raymond Roche took the 1990 title and this heralded a dominant spell for the Bologna factory.
American star Doug Polen and the Fast by Ferracci Ducati blitzed the Japanese opposition in 1991 and 1992 taking both titles and Britain’s own Carl Fogarty was close to lifting the title in 1993 on his 888. Only the brilliance and consistency of Scott Russell on the Muzzy Kawasaki ZXR750 (and a cancelled round due to safety concerns) saw the Japanese bike take the honours overall that year.
Out on the race track, even after the introduction of the sublime 916 in 1994, the 888-shaped machines would be used by some pretty handy privateers for a season or two. Internally, the holes in the motors of both the 888 and 916 would grow to 926 and even 955cc, with the later 916-shape bikes going out to 998cc in the early noughties.
If it’s a road bike you’re after, Ducati – like the Japanese – did some very special versions of the 851/888.
So, pay attention. As we’ve said, Ducati won their first WSB title with Roche and the 888 in 1990 then the road-going 851-badged (but 888cc under the fairing) SP2 came out later on in 1990, with around 110bhp at the rear wheel. The following year (1991) saw the SP3 debut, with racy white number boards on the tail unit and improved brakes. 1992’s SP4 was the last of the Ohlins suspended SP models in the 888 range, with some aesthetic changes. Next along was 1993’s SP5, which had more mid-range power and better brakes, steel tank as well as a new version of that signature trellis frame.
Many experts reckon that the SP4S – also known as the SPS – is the coolest of the lot, with only 100 SP4S machines made before the final 400 ‘standard’ SP4s came on line. The ‘S’ supposedly had a carbon-fibre fuel tank, Ohlins suspenders and a Corsa race motor, allegedly based closely on the 1991 race machine.
Anything with 888 on the tank is more expensive than later 916 models, it seems. A triple eight will start at around £8-10,000 for a basic model, rising through £15K for an SP3 and onwards to £30-£40K for any model with ‘little’ miles and ‘lotta’ provenance. Yes, that’s mint RC30 money, but we reckon the 888 is rarer even than Honda’s V4.
Ducati 888 (1991-1993) Stats;
Price new: £16,650 (SP4S 1992)
Price now: £8000-£40,000 (depending on spec/history/model)
Engine: 888cc, liquid-cooled V-Twin, four-stroke.
Power: 120bhp @ 10,500rpm (SP4S)
Weight: 183kilos (SP4S dry)
FOR: Sound, performance, history…
AGAINST: Cost, rare, need TLC!