When the Ducati 916 was released in 1994, it made everything look antiquated, large, and clumsy while also handing ever other manufacturer a lesson in dynamics and drama. It’s was a formula so successful it remained relatively unchanged for ten years, so as a head of product at Ducati HQ it would’ve been criminal to mess with the formula which brought so much success from a brand, competition, and sales perspective.
Between 1994 and 2001 the 916 series had won 6 riders titles between Carl Fogarty, Troy Corser, and Troy Bayliss, and 8 Manufacturers championships. Prolific is the word, cementing the 916 series as one of the most important in Ducati’s history.
Eventually though, the 916 would need to be replaced. The 2003 World Superbike rules had also changed to accommodate 1000cc four cylinder bikes, the primary domain of the Japanese manufacturers. This meant the successor to the 916 needed to be better in every way. No easy task.
What’s a designer to do?
Pierre Terblanche was appointed Director of Design at Ducati in 1997 with the unenviable task of designing a new bike to replace the Massimo Tamburini designed 916. He had previously worked under the old master and spent time designing bikes for Ducati and Cagiva delivering redesigns and clean sheets, such as the Supermono, a highly regarded single cylinder masterpiece which served as inspiration for the 916 all those years ago. So who better equipped to influence Ducati’s future?
As a designer or stylist, a virtual clean sheet of paper is a lifetime opportunity. It would have been logical for Terblanche and his team to gentle evolve the 916 design into a more modern bike, but that would’ve been too easy, lazy even. What Ducati needed was a radical departure, something so removed from the 916 that comparisons, which surely would’ve come off as less favourable, were simply not invited. Moving Ducati into the modern era was the order of the day.
And so the 999 was born, radical departure and all, and it was an atomic bomb of a release upon Ducati faithful and casual observers alike. Gone was the single sided swing arm, gone were the lovely twin lenses, gone was the lovely delicacy which so defined the 916.
In its place was new design language, new ideas. The 916 was bettered in every single way by the 999, apart from—subjectively—the visual aspect. Everyone with access to a keyboard voiced their dislike of the new design including yours truly, calling it an abomination, a blasphemous expression of what a Ducati should be. Where was the beauty? Where was the desire? Only a few saw past the shock, welcoming the fresh ideas and recognising the need for progression. The world simply wasn’t ready for something so removed from something so loved.
The engineering of the 999 was very much in line with racing requirements. The single sided swing arm was only there originally for endurance racing purposes. However, by losing the single-sided swing arm it stripped one of the most recognisable and visually appealing points of difference for Ducati superbikes.
This was a designer’s bike.
Technology hadn’t advanced to provide the lighting solutions that LED or halogen lights provide today particularly when considering their creative application. Choices were restricted either a slimline setup as on the 916 or stacked as on the 999. But like any good designer, rather using a lens cover, Terblanche turned the design constraint into a feature, the twin stacked lights taking on a raw industrial appearance leaving a smooth frontal area either side. The most contentious part of the motorcycle now became the most striking.
The frontal blades on the side fairing disrupted the visual flow of the bike but allowed air to pass through, with this theme applied to the front cowl and rear seat cowl.
Whereas the 916 had more visual rake, kicking its tail up, the 999 was more linear in the way it flowed from front to back, accentuated by the lower cowling which extended right back to the rear wheel, giving the bike the perception it’s long and low.
In the car world, one other designer whose work was criticised at the time but is only now being fully appreciated for his contribution is that of Chris Bangle. Bangle designed some polarising cars when Chief of Design at BMW from 1992 to 2009, yet now they are becoming highly sought after for their distinctive themes standing apart from other cars of the era.
The effects of the backlash against the 999 resulted in an evolutionary take on the 916 with the 1098. This was the ‘true successor’ in the eyes of many, retaining so many of the features of the 916, just engineered and designed in a more contemporary way. Back was the single sided swing arm which remains to this day on the current Panigale. Gone was the letterbox exhaust with the twin pipes making their way onto the bike.
Cast aside, the 999 was left to play in the corner by itself.
A racing success
It’s worth noting however, that since the inception of the World Superbike series which arguably elevated the status of the 916 to greatness, only the V-twin Panigale released in 2013 has failed to win a riders or manufacturers world championship.
Yes, the 999 proved it’s worth on the circuit in the hands of Neil Hodgson, James Toseland, and Troy Bayliss delivering 3 Riders and Manufacturers World Championships. This is significant, particularly so for collectors who may consider racing pedigree as a big tick in what makes a particular bike desirable. That Ducati only made very few 999Rs, of which who knows how many remain, starts to make the most expensive 999 very desirable indeed.
Time has been kind to the 999, and only now is it starting to come into its own. As the world is wrapped up in ‘hidden’ LED lights and swept tails the 999 stands out distinctively with its bullet train headlight set up. The side fairing winglets, now look contemporary. The letterbox exhaust so odd at first glance looks bespoke today, especially when shrouded in the shorter ‘R’ spec single seat cowl.
As years progress, the 999 continues to stand out as something unique, something to be celebrated. Evolution or revolution? It’s always a difficult choice even for the most accomplished business leaders. Perhaps the 999 was too revolutionary for its own good, but is now finally getting the love and recognition it deserved. Bravo Pierre!