A game-changing sports bike from Italy
When a motorcycle company starts with a clean-sheet design, there are so many ways to go wrong. Often it's best to wait for Version 2.0. But Ducati has knocked one out of the park with its sensational new 1199 Panigale, the first ground-up mass-production model from Ducati since the 1979 Pantah.
While a definitive verdict will have to wait until we test the 1199 on home soil, our short time aboard it at the fantastic Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi was enough to confidently predict the Panigale is one of the finest sportbikes ever made and is a leading contender for our annual Motorcycle of the Year award.
There is no area of performance it doesn't excel in - power, handling, braking, electronics. It has everything you could want in a modern liter-sized sportbike, including sharp styling that blazes a new design trail. Compared to the outgoing 1198, the Panigale rocks 25 extra horsepower while weighing 22 lbs less.
Ducatis have long been known for sexy Italian style, but rarely for implementing cutting-edge technology. The Panigale blows that perception away.
Key to its design is its unique monocoque frame which uses the V-Twin engine as a major component of its chassis. A cast-aluminum section weighing just 9.3 pounds provides the steering-head support for the fork and, like clever engineering solutions, also doubles as the engine's airbox and aluminum fuel tank base. The alloy structure bolts to the engine for the chassis's core composition, simple as that. Supporting the seat and tail section is another lightweight (just 4.6 pounds) aluminum piece that bolts to the engine's rear cylinder and rear edge of the steering box. A magnesium structure up front weighs just 1.3 pounds and supports the upper fairing, headlights and gauges.
Unlike any of the dozens of racetracks I've been to, the 3.45-mile Yas Marina Circuit is accessible by walking directly from our hotel, the visually spectacular Yas Viceroy, to the same paddock that annually hosts the exclusive Formula 1 series. Ready in the garage is a phalanx of gleaming red 1199 Panigales that appear even more sinister than they look in pictures. They come across as chic and contemporary but without being derivative of anything else. Even my mom, who had her 77th birthday on my ride day and dislikes motorcycles, would be able to recognize the Panigale is a special machine. Anyone who's thrown a leg over Ducati's 1098/1198 models will be pleasantly surprised by the 1199's revised ergonomics. It's seat is moved more than an inch closer to the handlebars, and the bars are raised 10mm, which add up to a layout much less stretched and significantly more comfortable. Slinging a leg over its diminutive tail section is easier than the 1198's that had two heavy exhaust canisters stuffed under it. The Panigale has its mufflers placed under the engine, Buell-like, for mass centralization. Its seat is said to be at 32.5 inches but seems lower, and its tank feels nicely narrow between the knees.
Thumb the starter button and the 1199cc V-Twin comes to life with an authoritative bark. A clever, cam-mounted decompression device allows a much smaller starter motor and battery, saving 7.3 lbs of weight. A twist of the throttle has the massive 4.41-inch pistons rising in revs quicker than the 1198 and makes its rider smile to the angry exhaust note. The new wet clutch has a moderate pull and engages without the grabbiness of the former dry design.
Pulling the throttle hard at 5500 rpm is a little disappointing compared to the 1198's lump, as the most over square bore/stroke ratio of any production motorcycle would lead one to think. But the mild disenchantment is entirely forgotten once past 7500 rpm when the Superquadro engine piles on revs with ferocity previously unknown from any V-Twin.
Peak torque arrives 1000 rpm later than the 1198 at 9000 rpm with a stonking 98.1 ft-lb of force (measured at its crankshaft). From there, horsepower builds viciously to its 195-horsepower climax. It's worth noting the Panigale's rating is a pair of ponies more than BMW's scintillating S1000RR, although we'll have to strap it to a dyno to prove if its horsepower actually reigns supreme.
The Superquadro's love for revs is distinct from any other liter-size Twin. Significantly larger intake and exhaust valves, still desmodromically actuated but now with titanium intakes, let the engine breathe in the upper revs allowed by the short-stroke design, screaming all the way to 11,500 rpm. The 1199's engine designer, Marco Sairu, says the Panigale's ultimate piston speed of 22 meters/second is nearly identical to the four-cylinder S1000RR. Despite all this new performance, a switch from rubber cam belts to a chain-and-gear cam drive nearly doubles valve adjustment intervals to 15,000 miles.
My first session on track was spent in the ECU's Sport mode that enables all 195 horses but with suppler throttle response than in Race mode. The Panigale's ride-by-wire throttle allows the two fuel-injecting throttle bodies to operate independently, using computer brain-power to best deliver what a rider's wrist is asking for. There are two injectors in each throttle body, the one closest to the intake tract employed at lower revs, while the upper showerhead-style injector engages at high rpm.
This sounds more HAL 9000 than it feels, as response from the throttle is surprisingly direct and intuitive. Reaction in Race mode is quite a bit sharper than in Sport but still quite manageable. A secondary-air system can inject air into the exhaust ports for more complete combustion, allowing a richer intake charge while still meeting emissions regs and eliminating the on-throttle abruptness caused by lean mixtures.
After becoming accustomed to the Superquadro's gobsmacking top-end wallop, I realized the Panigale is undoubtedly the most agile Superbike-series Ducati ever made. Rake remains at 24.5 degrees while trail is lengthened a nominal 3mm to 100mm. Despite a traction-enhancing longer (by 1.53 inches) swingarm, the 1199's wheelbase is up just 7mm thanks to Sairu's thoughtful tight arrangement of transmission gears.
Regardless of the barely altered geometry, the Panigale responds with eagerness the 1198 could only dream of. It's less unwavering than the freight-train-like 1198 but not unstable. Its enthusiasm to tip into corners is due in large part to its higher and 1.26-inch wider handlebars that deliver more leverage, but credit also its lighter weight (415 lbs with its larger fuel tank full) and mass-centralization efforts that lower the inertia moment around its roll axis. Also, the S version of the 1199 we tested is shod with lightweight forged and machined Marchesini wheels that are nearly 1 lb lighter than the forged wheels on last year's 1198SP.
But there's more to judging a bike's handling than just fervent tip-in behavior, and the Panigale's mid-corner feedback and composure also impress. Its weight distribution of 52/48 F/R is identical to Ducati's World Superbike, and is advantageous for front-tire loading as compared to the previous 50/50 balance. The ergo layout makes it easy to hang off in corners.
It was a windy day in Abu Dhabi, bringing in an unwelcome dusting of sand on the track. Clouds of rooster-tails burst from the tires of bikes ahead and brought major anxiety for adhesion levels. But a combination of a grippy track surface from aggregate shipped in from England to pave the track plus Pirelli's excellent Supercorsa SP street tires yielded much more traction than expected. The rear Pirelli's size is the new 200/55-17, and its 24% larger naked (no tread) edges feature a softer compound to provide tenacious grip. The front donut is molded with a single compound in a traditional 120/70-17 spec.
Strong drive out of corners is aided with the safety net of an updated version of Ducati Traction Control available in eight settings. I rode most of the day in Race mode which has a default DTC setting of level 3, and it proved to be unobtrusive and engaged discretely. An orange light at the top of the gauge pack shows when it's cutting in. If you're TC-phobic, it can be completely switched off.
Hard on the gas, the Panigale hurls itself out of corners, piling on revs voraciously and demanding quick upshifts as indicated on the prominent sequential shift lights. Standard on all 1199s is the Ducati Quick Shifter which briefly interrupts the ignition to allow full-throttle clutchless upshifts. The bike gathers speed with S1000RR-like alacrity, pulling up its front wheel over a slight rise even when in fifth gear. At the end of Yas Marina's 1.2-kilometer straight, the speedometer of the Termignoni and up-spec-kitted version I rode saw an astonishing 296 kph! That's 184 mph for the metric-disinclined.
Bleeding off speed is the responsibility of a potent set of brakes. New Brembo M50 monoblock 4-piston calipers up front are 7% lighter than the 1198's and are exclusive to the Panigale. Biting on 330mm discs, the petite clampers deliver a perfect blend of power and sensitivity. Lots of feedback encourages trail-braking to corner apexes, but the bike is modestly reluctant to tip in fully with the brakes still on, so it's best to release them slightly before the apex.
We tested the optional Bosch antilock system that uses four channels of info (one at each master cylinder and one at each caliper) for the utmost in precision. Forget whatever you thought you knew about ABS on a racetrack, as this is one smart and powerful system that gives up nothing in performance and adds only 5 lbs. Levels 2 and 3 link the rear brake to the front lever to varying degrees, but level 1 does not and disengages rear ABS to allow stoppies when braking hard. And if you're feeling brave, ABS can be disabled.
Fears of braking zones are also assuaged by the slipper function of its back-torque-limiting clutch and new Electronic Braking Control that cracks open the throttle butterflies when decelerating to reduce the engine's compression-braking effect over three levels or disengaged entirely. I kept EBC on Level 1 and had no issues with the back tire dancing around during the hardest braking I dared to explore.
Yas Marina's smooth surface did little to test the electronically controlled Ohlins suspension, but we're confident the high-quality Swedish dampers are fully up to task. I didn't touch the taut settings that are programmed in the ECU's Race mode because they felt ideal.
To anyone noticing this has thus far been a sugary-sweet review, you might doubt this author's objectivity. However, the Panigale really is this good. In fact, it's the most impressive new sportbike I've ridden since the debut of Yamaha's landmark R1 in 1998.
As for negatives, they are few and minor. Its windscreen provides only modest protection, and its clutch pack sticks out far enough to interfere with a rider's right calf when at a stop. Heat from the engine might be excessive when ridden at low speeds, though likely no worse than the 1198 and probably better.
Otherwise, the Panigale is a thoroughly entertaining superbike for the street with more technology than any sportbike on the market. Even its mirrors provide a moderately useful view, which is something unprecedented from Ducati's superbike series.
Riders of diverse abilities were highly impressed with the Panigale. Rishad Cooper, our correspondent from India who rarely rides such powerful machines on a racetrack, had only glowing comments about the bike. At the other end of the spectrum is AMA Superbike racer Chris Ulrich, a guy typically not averse to speaking negatively about street-compromised bikes, who said he had no performance issues with the Ducati.
Simply put, Ducati's Panigale astounded me with its sheer performance and its high level of refinement, plus it is mouth-wateringly stunning. The 1199 is a superb machine that had several jaded motojournalists considering buying one for themselves. It might even be the best sportbike ever made.