Monday 18 February 2013

Ducati 916 SP/SPS - Ultimate Desmoquattro Superbikes - Part II

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One of the most famous pictures of a 1997 916 SPS, sold as a life-size poster by the Bullivant Gallery
 Part II of our profile of the Ducati 916 Sport Production series, the ultimate evolution of the Desmoquattro engine platform. 
Click here for Part I.

Ducati was no stranger to homologation specials, having built many versions of the 851 and 888 in various states of tune. Generally the formula was this: each year take some bikes off the production line and prepare them by hand to a higher degree of specification overall. Lightweight parts and carbon fibre bodywork would cut the weight, higher spec suspension and brakes would suspend it, and a massaged motor with hotter internals would fling it down the road. Maybe throw on some new Corsa spec parts to make them legal for the new season. Slap some lights on and get it homologated for street use in Europe (the US EPA was too strict in terms of noise and emissions) and bam, you’ve allowed your race team to upgrade some components for the new season. The 916 SP continued the tradition. It wasn’t as extreme as some of the previous specials (the 888 SPS was one of the most bonkers, vicious machines ever allowed onto a public road) but it was markedly improved over the standard Strada and was considerably more rare.

The SP was introduced in 1994 alongside the Strada. Most of the parts were shared with the standard bike – frame, front forks, brake calipers, wheels, most of the bodywork, and the cooling system were shared with the Strada. Outside of the motor the key difference were a smattering of carbon fibre parts, a Monoposto tail with a white numberplate paint scheme, a set of full floating cast iron brake rotors, and an Ohlins rear shock - which, as per Ducati practice at the time, might have ended up on a Strada anyway if that was all they had lying around in the parts bin on that day. If you were lucky and Giuseppe on the assembly line was feeling generous you might have gotten a carbon fibre airbox. Generally the specs of these mid 90s bikes vary quite a bit just because production was limited by parts supply, and the workers would use whatever bits were available to complete the day’s bikes. The 916 was more popular than Ducati could have imagined and production was stretched to the limit to meet demand, no mean feat considering a fire at the Bologna paint shop had forced them to move to temporary digs at the Cagiva Varese works.
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Note the smooth casting of the front cylinder head, poking through between the radiator and the oil cooler. This distinguishes the SP/SPS from a standard 916.
Ok, at first glance the SP wasn’t that special and could easily be mistaken for a standard model with a few parts from the Performance catalogue. It was only about 6 pounds lighter than the standard Monoposto. What was special was the work done to the motor. While it shared the gearbox, alternator and bore/stroke of the Strada motor, not much else was interchangeable. The crankcases were finished differently and had a rough cast texture, and inside you’d find reinforced main bearings. Look at the cylinder heads and you’d see they were based on the 916 Racing heads, cast without the usual “4V Desmo” text for an extra few millimetres of front wheel clearance. The clutch pack was unique to the SP, and the final drive was lowered with a 14 tooth front sprocket instead of the 15 tooth of the Strada. A high flow oil pump and forced lubrication to the gudgeon pins improved oil delivery at high RPMs. Con rods were Pankl titanium H-section. The crankshaft counterweights were lightened considerably. New pistons bumped up the compression ratio a smidge from 11:1 to 11.2:1. Valves were enlarged from 33/29mm to 34/30mm. Heads were ported from the factory. Up top you got G/A cams, some of the hottest camshafts ever fitted to a street legal Desmoquattro. The fuel injection throttle bodies were borrowed from the 888 SP5 and featured two injectors per cylinder mated to a P8 ECU, with a high-pressure fuel regulator to ensure adequate delivery at high RPM. The exhaust was unique, featuring 45mm headers ala Strada mated to a 50mm half system at the rear.
For 1994 the Strada was claimed to have 114 hp, while the SP had 126. Later revisions dropped the Strada to 109 and the SP up to 131, though no changes were made to either motor. In the real world you could expect the SP to knock out about 10 extra horsies at the rear wheel when put back to back with a Strada – standard 916s typically make 100-105 at the wheel while SPs knock out around 110-115. More important was how the character and power delivery of the motor was changed.

Standard 916s are quite peaky for a big twin. They don’t have much power below 5000 rpm and only really come on the cam around 7000. They are reasonably tractable and can be ridden leisurely, but to make real progress they need to be flogged a bit. The SP is far worse. With lighter internals and very high lift cams, it is a motor that needs to breath hard to make power and it spins up much faster than a Strada. Compare dyno graphs and a standard 916 is far more linear and will beat an SP up until about 6000 rpm, and things get interesting at 8000. That’s when the SP wakes up and takes off like a scalded cat up to redline. It's just like a normal 916, but turned up to 11. It makes for a more frenetic riding experience, but it also makes the SP feel a bit disappointing in everyday riding. It doesn’t feel considerably faster than a Strada/Biposto until you hammer it into the higher revs, and the everyday rideability is compromised by the extreme camshafts and lighter internals. 
Handling is otherwise more or less the same as the standard bike. The Ohlins rear shock was a big improvement over the standard Showa unit and helped to improve roadholding and compliance quite a bit, but the basic characteristics of the 916 remained intact – which is good, because it was one of the finest handling machines of the time. Braking was improved slightly by the cast iron rotors, but the SP1 retained the mushy rubber brake lines of the Strada - later years got stainless lines to improve feel.
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1996 SP3 - note the numbered plaque on the triple tree.
310 SP1s were produced in 1994. 1995 saw the production of the SP2, which was largely unchanged - some sources claimed the expensive titanium con rods were dropped in favour of steel items, but this wasn’t universal. Another 401 examples were built. 1996 was the final year, with 497 SP3s rolling off the line. Thus the SPs are considerably rarer than the already scarce 916. Approximately one out of ten 916s produced between 94-96 was a SP. Finding one today in clean condition is miraculous, after a 15 years of attrition and track-bike conversions.
The rarest SP of all is the 1996 SPA (Sport Production America, sometimes called the 955SP), built in a run of 54 examples to homologate a set of 96mm pistons/barrels for use in AMA Superbike. Some sources quote a modified crankshaft and crankcases as well, but details are scarce. With the 2mm overbore capacity was 955cc, and engine numbers are modified to suit – a true SPA will have a ZDM955 engine code, an important thing to note because there are hundreds of “955s” that are simply 916s with aftermarket overbore kits. 50 were sold to the public, making it one of the rarest Ducatis of the 1990s. Aside from the pistons and barrels it is a standard SP3 with a decent power boost – Superbike magazine tested a genuine 1 of 50 SPA in 1996 and it made 122 hp and 74 lb/ft of torque on their dyno with a custom exhaust and a remap. 
Few are aware of how special 916SPs are, mainly because in 1997 the legendary 916 Sport Production Special (SPS) was introduced and the SP faded into relative obscurity.

The SPS was released to homologate the new 996cc engine for Superbike competition. The previous 916 crankcases had been maxed out at 955cc, and had problems with cracking and stress fractures under racing conditions. New reinforced crankcases were needed, and to accommodate a displacement closer to the 1000cc limit for twins in Superbike the case mouths needed wider openings and wider stud spacing to match. Thus the barrels and heads were new, made wider to match the new cylinder stud spacing. Bore was now up to 98mm, with the same 66mm stroke as before. The heads had larger combustion chambers and bigger valves. Compression ratio was now 11.5:1. Inside you a lighter crankshaft with tungsten plug balancing. The high-pressure double injector fuel setup with P8 ECU was carried over from the SP.
A new set of camshafts was introduced, using principles learned from racing Desmoquattros. They had nearly the same lift as the G inlet cam (and more than the A exhaust cam) but with much shorter duration. The new motor retained the frantic, free revving character of the 916 and SP, but with a stout midrange punch. They were still high lift cams in the end, though, and low speed running, idling, and clean emissions were not the motor’s forte. Especially when you factor in the much lighter internal parts and their momentum. Lighter crank and rods makes for a motor that spins easily and builds revs faster, but with the lessened flywheel effect it won't idle particularly well. 

As such the SPS got a reputation as a thundering, maniacal motor that felt way stronger than the dyno numbers would suggest, with a barely-contained fury at lower speeds that made it a bear to ride in slow traffic. Every review reported stalling at idle. Just like any good 916, then. If you meet a 916 owner who claims they are smooth at low speed and easy to ride in traffic, they are either lying or in the process of having a stroke.

To reduce strain on the primary gears a new lower ratio gear set was introduced. Transmission was now a close-ratio box, shared with the smaller 748. First and second were the same as a 916, but third though sixth were lower – so much so that 6th on the close ratio was the equivalent of 5th on the standard box.

In terms of chassis, it was more of the same. The standard Showa forks were retained, as was the Ohlins rear off the SP, ditto the Brembo brakes and cast iron rotors. Wheels remained triple-spoke Brembos. A full 50mm exhaust system was standard, and a set of “off road” Termignoni carbon fibre slip-ons were included. The same smattering of carbon fibre bits you’d find on a SP were present – which included the front fender, chain guard, front V-cowl, exhaust heat shield, under tail tray, license plate hanger, and (sometimes) the airbox. So much like the previous SP, the chassis, weight and handling were not far off from the standard bike but the motor was markedly improved.
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Reviews were stellar. While the SP was a bit disappointing to testers when they weighed the extra cost against the standard 916, the SPS was clearly a winner and worth the extra investment – if you could afford it, or even get your name on the waiting list. Price tag was around $24000 USD (1998), a healthy premium over the $16500 Biposto and nearly double the price of a 748, both of which were already expensive propositions. Regardless of the price tag, there was a lot of demand for the SPS. 404 examples were built in 1997, some being squirreled away by collectors without ever turning a wheel in anger.

Power claims were, as per tradition, all over the place. Ducati initially claimed the SPS made 134hp (with the “illegal” pipes that came with it), then later revised it to 123. Or maybe that was 120? No wait, this source says 121. But wait, it couldn’t be down on power compared to the 916cc SP, could it? Dyno sheets proved the mettle of the new engine by showing a nearly 20 horsepower boost over a standard 916, which was a 5-10 hp boost over a SP – provided you had installed those slip-ons and the accompanying EPROM chip, and then promised not to ride it on the street.

More important was that the torque was up significantly across the board, so the SPS wasn’t as gutless in the lower revs as the SP was. Some independent testers were able to crack 170 miles per hour with the Termi kit fitted, a stunning speed for a twin with “only” 120-odd horsepower at the wheel on a good day. All that and it sounded apocalyptic. Testers waxed lyrical about ridiculous shunt at any revs and second gear power wheelies, and a ferocious character that demanded and commanded respect. That merciless power delivery and snappy torque was enough to push the limits of the chassis and scare a few testers straight. 916s in general do not respond well to ham-fisted riding. With a violent motor and instant tire-shredding torque, SPSs are downright murderous if you don't treat them with the necessary respect. You have been warned. 

Despite being down on power compared to pretty much all the competition it felt stronger and faster than anything else on the road. It was the ultimate Desmoquattro and the best Ducati you could buy until they shoved a hot Testastretta motor in for the 2001 996R. 
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1998 SPS, note the simplified graphics and the modified front brake mounts with wider bolt spacing.
1998 saw a slight improvement in the form of a new, lighter frame that had a bit more flex engineered into it. The steering damper was now an Ohlins adjustable unit. A new set of brake calipers were introduced with wider axial mounts and more pad contact surface. Titanium con rods were now standard. The old Cagiva-era graphics were gone in favour of the new "Vignelli" decals, part of the the “out with the old” tweaking being done by new parent company Texas Pacific Group. Under TPG production was increased while quality control and component quality was improved. The SPS remained much like before, but in 1998 1058 machines were produced. Exclusivity was compromised, but quality was steadily improving.
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The infamous US-market 1998 SPS paperwork, including the original waiver and off-road-use-only MSO.
Problem was that the SPS was road legal in Europe, but not in the US. Ducati couldn’t be bothered to neuter the SPS enough to meet strict EPA noise and emissions regulations. But there are plenty of road-registered SPSs in North America, so what gives? A nice little loophole that allowed Ducati to sell the SPS as a track-only bike, not legal for road use. Despite the fact it had full street equipment. And a title. And a 17-digit VIN. Ducati had it all figured out – you could buy an SPS in the US of A as long as you signed a legal waiver that stated you promised not to register it for road use, despite the fact you totally could but you really shouldn’t because the EPA said so. And if you did do such a silly thing, you absolved Ducati of all legal responsibility for you riding a bike on public roads that hadn’t passed EPA testing. Butts. Covered.

Thus most every SPS imported into the US somehow got registered despite all those owners promising they wouldn’t. Oh well, it wasn’t Ducati’s fault - see, they have all these signed waivers. Not their problem.
In 1998 Ducati needed to homologate a new frame with a lowered cross brace to allow a larger airbox. Called a Kyalami frame, as it was introduced in the middle of the 1998 season at the Kyalami WSB race in South Africa, it allowed more room for a bigger airbox design that reportedly boosted horsepower considerably. To make the frame race-legal they needed to sell a street version, so the UK-only 916SPS Fogarty Replica was released. 202 were sold in Britain in honour of WSB rider Carl Fogarty; aside from the new frame, you got a set of five spoke Marchesini wheels and a race-replica paint scheme, as well as a few Foggy themed goodies, but otherwise it was standard SPS. Street bikes didn’t even benefit from a larger airbox. Why 202? Because one went to Fogarty and one remained in the factory museum, the remaining 200 were sold to the public. A second Foggy replica was released in 1999, this time 150 examples were made available in Europe, and a third run in 2000 of 147. The Foggy SPS was never officially sold in the US, but we did get the Foggy Monster S4 in 2001. 
The SPS begat the 996 Biposto and Monoposto models in 1999, which used a detuned version of the 996cc engine with Strada cams, a standard ratio gearbox, heavier crank and rods, a 1.6M computer, and a new three-phase 520-watt alternator. It was the bike that the SPS would have been - had it been forced to meet EPA standards. The 996 offered a midrange boost over the outgoing 916, but horsepower was only up a few ponies and it was nowhere near the level of the magnificent SPS, despite sharing the same displacement, crankcases, heads, valves and pistons. In Europe, you could still buy a 996SPS (note the name change) from 1999 to 2000, with steady component improvements over the years. A few were imported into the US as well but as before they aren’t technically road legal. The European spec 2001 996S also received the much-loved SPS mill, but the US version had to make do with a standard 996 engine.   
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1999 996SPS
  Today the SPS is one of the most desirable Ducatis of the modern era and command a big premium over standard models (but still far less than their original MSRP, unless you find an as-new never-ridden example). SPs are rare to the point of obscurity and are often overlooked in favour of the more common SPS, but are still very much worthy of consideration. They represent the pinnacle of the original Desmoquattro engine architecture, which was superceded by the more refined, reliable and powerful Testatretta engine in 2001. Bordi's design was in production for a remarkable 20 years, more impressive was that it was winning races from 1986-2000 despite always having a significant power deficit against the competition. It's a remarkable legacy, and the 916 SP and SPS remain impressive machines that command respect and demand finesse. In the right hands, on the right roads, or on a racetrack, they are astonishing machines.
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2000 996 SPS, the final year of production
Interesting Links
Kevin Ash's 1994 review of the 916
A low mileage 1996 916 SPA for sale in the UK
An as-new, never ridden 1998 916SPS that was auctioned on eBay's 1998 comparison of the 916 SPS against the Yamaha R1
Performance Bike review of the 1997 SPS
Can't afford the real deal? How about a life-sized poster of a 1997 916SPS?


  1. Awesome article, great read - thanks!

  2. Have a 95 model in mint condition, just been fully serviced and rode it last week for the first time in ten years.

    What a beast. I'm still in love with it.

  3. It's really a nice and helpful piece of info. I'm happy that
    you simply shared this useful info with us.
    Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

    Here is my blog post - Mitchel

  4. Just wanted to know iff you are sure about 1058 pieces made for the 916 sps.My number is 1059 ?
    Thanks for your reply.

    1. Production figures are taken from Ian Falloon's "Ducati 916" book so I can't comment on your case. Interesting though. I wouldn't be surprised if Ducati fudged the numbers.

  5. My Ducati 916 SPS was produced on1997.
    Eng No: ZDM996W4000324
    Chs No: ZDMH100AAVB000245

    Pls anybody can search for me the pleque number on the triple clamp.

  6. My SPS eng N 000304- frame Nr 000327 Must have been on the same production line

    1. Mine 1997 is:

      Engine: 000315
      Frame: 000401
      Plaque: 365

  7. An EXCELENT read thanks OddBike! I am in possession of one of the 955SP's rare steeds. I have owned it for close to 15 years. There is no doubt in its authenticity and its performance. It's cranky & temperamental, but a complete blast to ride. I look forward to reading more from you.

  8. 1996 SPA Value?

  9. Great read Jason, I liked it so much I went out and bought a 98 SPS

  10. What a great read Jason, very informative. I have now owned a UK 1999 996 SPS for 3 years and couldn't agree with you more about riding it in traffic, it's a pain! But out on an open road what a ride! and the sound from the carbon 'Termi' cans is absolutley glorious. It is however an expensive machine to maintain! but well worth it re performance and piece of mind, i.e. belt changes, valve checks, oil changes etc. And wherever I go on the bike I always get comments on how beautiful it looks and how good it sounds. It's also nice to actually own something that is only appreciating in value, looks so stunning and gives so much pleasure.

  11. We have the rare 1997 916 SPS for sale. It's in the U.K. and has been loved and cherished for years. All original and no issues. Contact for full PDF spec sheet and pics.

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  14. Nice Share

  15. Loved the read.
    I own SP3 # 439, it came with Ohlins steering damper and carbon airbox along with all the other SP goodies.... this bike is my most loved of 7 Dukes. It's awesome, and a whole lot more enjoyable than 999 and 1198 siblings.

  16. Thanks a lot for the information,always nice to read about ducati and its history.i own a 97 sps but it has no plaque on the triple,i wrote ducati about it but no reply regarding the plaque.can anyone tell my if this is just mine or are there other sps without the plaque?its a genuin sps frame and engine with all the right parts verified by ducati.thanks a lot

  17. In feb 2017 I purchased a 2000 yellow 996. The bike has been fully worked over by Tim molnar of perfect motion and city Ducati. The bike sings through its range and sits brilliantly on Victoria's peninsula roads. It is hard to believe this bikes was designed between 1988 and1994. Your articles are a brilliant digest for enthusiastic owners. I also own a bevel authenticated by Ian falloon. As a guy that grew up in a sidecar on family holidays in the classic club it just doesn't get any better that one of each of these other worldly machines.