The Ducati Diavel is a lot of things. It’s a cruiser, but it’s also a performance bike. It’s “a massive breach of brand trust and honesty,” but it’s also “the best bike Ducati makes.” It’s “a $15,000 motorcycle no one needs,” but it’s bringing new riders into the Ducati brand. It's Hasslehoff, but it also makes me look good. One thing it’s not, though, is a race bike. Surely you must be mad to try and road race one against 1098s and 999s, right? Let’s ask Dutch superhero Joost Overzee, pictured above with a memento of the experience. — Ed.
It must have been the most frequently asked question amongst Ducati and other superbike lovers: “Why on earth will you be racing a Diavel?!” My reply was equally simple: “Why not? Give me one reason not to.”
Exactly the same Q applied to my last race at the International Ducati Clubraces on the TT track of Assen, in the Netherlands, my home country. In a field of RSVs, Ducatis and BMW HP2s, “my” 175 horsepower, Öhlins and Brembo-equipped Harley-Davidson V-Rod was — as we say in Holland — “different cake.” For the last decade, my track tools have been a revamped Kawasaki W650 café racer, a straight-from-the-crate Cagiva Raptor 650 (Suspension settings?! Let’s race first!), a lousy Raptor 1000 with loads of horsepower but crap suspension. Oh, almost forgot about the race on the Daytona Speedway with a (amongst all superbikes) BSA Goldstar geared up to a 150 mph, and flown in by ABSAF, the Appingedammer BSA Fabriek, in the north of Holland, specialist in rebuilding “newstalgic” BSAs.
Joost racing the V-Rod in 2006.
Why is it that I'm always choosing the difficult, unpredictable way of racing and riding motorcycles? Is this deliberate choice for the underdog position due to a fear of losing, so there’s always the bike to blame instead of the rider?
Let’s say first that I happen to be a bike journo who has the privilege to blackmail factories with the excuse of publicity. Read: pages in magazines. So, money consuming experiments can be done. Furthermore, I do not care about losing because I never considered myself as a racer, but as a (fast, I guess) rider instead.
The real reason for the underdog preference on bikes “not for track use” is probably the silent protest against the perfection of most of the real sportsbike. Take a BMW S1000RR out on the track or a Street Triple R on the road and you'll discover no or hardly any flaws. Gorgeous, perfect machinery. If criticism can be made, it's limited to the “one click rebound damping” department and/or a question of personal taste. Personally, finding and fighting a bike's limitations is far more challenging and fun, also for the folks on and especially around the track. Sure, ground clearance on a V-Rod is virtually nothing compared to an RSV's, but that makes it a far bigger challenge to realize good lap times than on an Aprilia. You have to improvise constantly in order to face and fight a bike's limitations. An RSV4 APRC simply does not have limitations, unless you are Max Biaggi. The motorcycle is always better than you are. All these arguments apply to the only road motorcycle I own myself: a twelve-year old Yamaha TW125 Adventure Trailway with a genuine 11.8 horsepower at the crank. Probably the slowest motorcycle in the universe, but the most amusing one as well when used in the mountains, on holidays and all these kinds of inappropriate use.
The biggest compliment you can get while racing a motorcycle that's designed for any purpose except a race track, is that you're a total lunatic, nutter, weirdo etc. On an APRC you can only be mentioned slow, average or fast. Being a weirdo is a privilege, especially because you're immediately placed in the ultimate underdog position. And from that comfortable loser's place, you're able to surprise competitors. I mean, the rocket start on the Harley, passing two rows of wheelying sports bikes, is still legendary for those who saw it. And a pain in the ass for other competitors, like an astonished, laughing colleague on a HP2 afterwards: “... had a great start, but to my surprise there was some eikel passing me on a Harley-Davidson!”
With all this in mind, it may come as no surprise I (very) kindly refused the offer, three months ago, to do the International Ducati Clubraces on a 848 EVO, probably the best track tool of the moment. Instead, just coming back from the impressive Ducati Diavel launch in Spain and a Los Angeles trip on the Carbon as well, I dropped that devilish name for participation at the races and they said yes in a flash. “They” is Ducati Zaltbommel, the prime Ducati store of the Netherlands, collector of official Ducati factory prizes regarding servicing, sales and whatever, but at the same time an easy going family company.
I was (and still am) convinced a Diavel Carbon would be able to make impression on a race track with, as you know, strong points like huge 162bhp performance, phenomenal Brembos, DTC and enough grip at the rear. On the other hand, overall improvement would be required regarding ground clearance, wheelbase and cruiser style ergonomics. All and all, then, the perfect motorcycle to race.
Unlike the V-Rod, the Diavel did not need a complete makeover; even better, the Diavel Carbon the Zaltbommel family offered me was the honestroad version. Even the delicious passenger pegs were still on it.
Unfortunately, the thrilling full Termignoni system was cancelled and replaced by the standard set because of its 108 dB, where 104 dB is the ultimate limit to pass the technical control before the qualifying practices and race itself. Furthermore, Race Control hadn't forgotten the 101 decibel the Harley had been doing on tickover, a massive 116 dB (!) at 4,500 rpm, forcing the H-D team to create dB-killers and all that stuff they normally don't use for their American iron.
Just like earlier races on unpredictable motorcycles, the Diavel strategy is clear: no strategy. Friday the 13th (oh no) of May is dedicated to three free practices, twenty minutes each, Saturday had two qualifiers, Sunday is race day. Well, the only strategic moment to look forward to (since three months) is an ultimate rocket start at race day, just like on the V-Rod, while others in front are fighting to cope with wheelies and need some fractions of seconds to find the best rev range at the start. How many rows of riders will the Diavel, which demands nothing other than full throttle, annihilate?
Racing particular or unsuitable motorcycles requires one priority: you have to build up gently to get used to the motorcycle and the track. The GP track of Assen might have suffered a serious makeover years ago, destroying all the historical, amusing elements of a glorious past, even in the new, far less interesting lay out, it does not have secrets for me. Fitting the Diavel Carbon in it, causes more problems. As the first free practice underlines (as expected), a long wheelbased, relaxed sitting machine like this requires a search of wide, round riding lines to keep the bike rolling and avoid to the max razor sharp steering or sudden line corrections. Like the Harley, the Diavel rider needs to anticipate three corners ahead. But, contrary to the V-Rod, the Diavel feels far better as a package because of miles better mass centralization. You embrace the power plant underneath you, while maintaining a bit of contact and some feedback with the front tyre. Okay, it's not much, but the front tyre does give signals of grip.
Still, as speed is building up in the second and third free practice session, there's a little concern about the front Diablo Rosso II for the qualifying practices to come. Pushing hard into corners or accelerating out of them causes massive load differences because of the long wheelbase and transfer of weight from the front to the rear. The plan is to mount a Pirelli Supercorsa SP on the front, once the first qualification has been done, especially to give some extra mental confidence. And grip, possibly needed as (corner) speed will go up, especially in Assen's notoriously fast lefthander with the fearsome name 'Ram Corner'. Like the four footer, this bend can hurt. A lot.
Rising up speed very gently, improving lap times by tenth of seconds, the obstacles begin appearing: even with a max preload, ground clearance or, better, boot clearance, becomes a problem. Just before the apex, you have to fill up any minor space towards the engine, just to save your boot and foot. Nevertheless, after three 20 minute sessions, the sliders on my Alpinestars Supertech Rs have disappeared completely. Worse, from the outside, a small hole reveals the color of socks I'm wearing today.
Second limitation while building up speed: using the fierce Brembos from over 140mph causes a jumping rear wheel, pumping the monoshock. The only way to tackle this problem is pushing my legs and feet in motocross style and let the rear end do its thing under my butt. As long it's not sliding sideways, this rear end rodeo can be dominated with a lot of physical effort.
More rebound damping would surely help, but hey, isn't that a too serious measure for a bike that is showing fantastic manners? After all, it is a standard Diavel, no? We take the other, far better option: drinking lousy beer for the hours to come. Heineken, that is.
Next day, two qualifying practices and loads of motivation and strategies are about to happen. But it appears to be no way José. Third lap in the first qualifier, warm tires, an empty track in front, the moment to go for lap times. Suddenly, a yellow flag, I see someone falling ahead and before I can react properly, there's this
violent highsider and I crash like I'm being thrown out of a helicopter at full speed.
My hip gets the first brutal impact, followed by body parts you hardly ever damage during a crash. Damn, what a nasty one. As I'm finally lying still, on the middle of the track, I check my fingers and hands first. There's quite a few articles to finish, that's why. Vaguely, I see the track marshals waving combined red/yellow flags. Oh no, so there must have been a spill of oil or liquid of a rider in front, merde! Lying in the medical centre just before being transported, I hear a team member telling me that especially the rear tyre of the poor Diavel was bathed in oil. End of story. I do not care about my four fractured metatarsals, no way. The illusions, hope, team spirit and the Diavel, the motorcycle that should not be meant for track use according to the rules of product positioning, all in shatters. So next year a revenge on the Diavel? Nah, too predictable.