Okay, so shoot me for using the “p” word when discussing something Italian, but Ducati really is a passionate company. Take my mechanic for the day at the 1199 Panigale launch, Walter Ansaloni. As he was swapping tires on the S models we were riding, he told me about his history with the factory, which included working on the Vance & Hines Ducati team while Ben Bostrom and Anthony Gobert were racing (circa 2000), and more recently wrenching for James Toseland when he won the World Superbike championship in 2004. “I work on his bike so much, I rebuild it a thousand times. The bikes are my babies. Even now, every time I go to the museum and I see his bike, I cry.” Ladies and gentlemen, he cries, this musclebound, tattooed Italian mechanic. I am sure there is weeping at other manufacturers’ museums when their respective mechanics get their occasional viewing, but Ansaloni was so emphatic and genuine that he immediately renewed my appreciation for the passion at Ducati.
The other reminder came after my first few laps on the 1199 Panigale S at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit in the United Arab Emirates, site of the worldwide press introduction for Bologna’s latest bullet. I was almost weeping at the experience. There was no doubt I was riding a Ducati, but the Panigale is a huge leap forward from the 1198. This all-new, nearly frameless Italian superbike is a complete reinvention of Ducati’s sporting motorcycle. Its V-Twin makes power like no two-cylinder engine before it, and the way the chassis behaves, the way the bike feels, blows the performance window wide open and obliterates the memory of past Ducati superbikes. Add to this the most impressive electronic rider-aid package ever offered on a production machine (three riding modes, TC, engine-braking control, optional ABS and electronic suspension adjustment), and the Panigale is really more like a MotoGP Twin that’s been licensed for street use.
The billiard-table-smooth, FIA-approved Yas Marina circuit (yes, there is a boat marina inside the track!) was a great place to test the Panigale. There are 21 turns in 3.4 miles, and the longest straightaway is 3/4 of a mile, allowing for more than 170 mph on the Panigale S. Well, a great track for the bike except for the lack of runoff in some key places, such as at the end of that long straight! The sandstorm on our riding day didn’t help visibility or traction, either. And it couldn’t have been good for the paint.
The 18 hours of flying to get to Abu Dhabi gave me loads of time for anticipation buildup. So, it was a thrill to hear the big V-Twin fire up for the first time in the pit garage at this amazing racetrack. Maximum claimed power for the all-new engine is 195 horses at 10,750 rpm, 25 more ponies delivered 1000 revs higher than on the 1198. It is probably not a coincidence that the peak number is 2 hp higher than what BMW claims for the S1000RR.
A few snaps of the ride-by-wire throttle reveal a very quick-revving mill, thanks in part to the Superquadro (means “oversquare”) bore and stroke. In fact, the defining parameter at the beginning of the engine design process was a large bore size. According to Engine Project Manager Marco Sairu, at the outset of the project, parallel engine simulations were run by racing and street groups. The bore-size range they were given was 108 to 116mm, and after much work, they decided the best compromise was a giant 112mm. “We had two piston suppliers competing for the job, and they were very surprised by the size,” said Sairu.
The size of the piston may matter, but it’s also how you use it. Ducati is using these well. After a few laps getting up to speed, I found power wheelies came swiftly and easily, the front end maintaining a low float with surprising regularity in the bottom three gears, even though peak power arrives farther up the rpm range than on the 1198. The show really gets going after 7500, with drive near the 11,500-rpm limit fierce and accompanied by a bass-weighted-yet-strangely-high-pitched wail unlike any other Twin I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. This is a really fast superbike.
With a bore so large, getting smooth and consistent part-throttle running at low revs is a challenge, but exhaust-port air injection allows a richer mixture in that wide, flat chamber, which helps stabilize combustion. Further, the ride-by-wire throttle bodies are independently controlled to balance running between the cylinders at low speeds. Showing incredible discipline, I did a few “street simulation” laps, and the Panigale ran well at small throttle openings, with much less driveline snatch than on the 1198. Pretty impressive, especially considering the racy 42 degrees of valve overlap.
Twin injectors per cylinder also help here. The injector responsible for low-speed running is below the throttle butterfly, right near the valve, to reduce the amount of fuel that sticks to port walls and “minimize cycle-to-cycle variation,” said Sairu. At high revs, showerhead injectors over the gargantuan oval throttle bodies (same intake area as 67.5mm round) allow high fuel volume and sufficient time at speedy intake velocities for the fuel to atomize.
“Of course, this is a racing motor, and at high revs it is perfect,” said Sairu. Okay, I’ll give you that one, Marco.
As huge a departure as the engine is from those of past Ducatis, the chassis is an even bigger revelation. The almost-frameless monocoque design was decided upon early because it was the only way Ducati felt it could hit the aggressive weight-loss target of 22 pounds vs. the 1198. So, a superbike era ends: no more steel trellis. Claimed dry weight is now a remarkable 362 lb. (367 with ABS).
It feels every bit this light on the track. Forget about the heavy steering and stretched-out riding position of the old bikes; the Panigale changes direction with remarkable ease. Wider, higher bars, with the seat more than an inch closer to the front of the bike, give the rider a better position to apply steering inputs. Even at 6-foot-2, I fit this incredibly compact motorcycle very well and felt comfortable right away, although I could definitely use more fairing! But I am a taco short of being two Pedrosas… As my pace rose at a slightly faster rate than my knowledge of the track, perhaps the most impressive thing was how easy it was to correct my lines midcorner, even while aggressively trail-braking, with no protest from the bike. All that work to centralize mass paid off in a big way.
Braking stability was awesome, as were the new Brembo M50 Monobloc front calipers (lighter, with a design mimicking those used in MotoGP and World Superbike). Effort at the lever was low, feel at the limit high and the (too?) sharp initial bite of the previous setup has been softened a bit, which is a needed improvement in my book. The 330mm discs are set wider from wheel centerline to stick them out in the breeze to aid cooling.
Shifting with the new six-speed gearbox was fantastic, up or down, and the light clutch with excellent feel made it easy to complete clean, rev-matched downshifts, or to go down two gears and toss the clutch out to the engagement point to sort of drag the rear of the bike into the corner. Either way, I never worried, or even thought about, missing a gear.
The question of the hour was, of course, the failure of Ducati’s 2011 MotoGP bike and its similar frameless design being blamed for lack of front-end feel. Sairu countered that the carbon-fiber upper section of the MotoGP bike was far stiffer than the cast aluminum piece used on the Panigale, and that the front end and specifically the Bridgestone spec tires used on the Desmosedici were also far, far stiffer. I am no Valentino Rossi and have never ridden any Desmosedici, but the front-end feel on the Panigale is as good as on any sportbike I’ve ever tried.
Obviously, well-designed hard parts are where the magic is, but the fairy dust sprinkled on top are the electronic rider aids. Ducati was an early adopter of TC on streetbikes, and, naturally, that is atop the list for the Panigale (eight levels, as before). New this year are standard three-level engine-braking control, plus optional “sport-oriented” ABS/combined braking (front activates rear in some riding modes) and electronic suspension adjustment. Ducati Quick Shift is standard, and the Ducati Data Analyzer+ (incorporating GPS to build track maps and trace your lines on every lap) is optional on the base and S models.
The dash is like MotoGP meets smartphone. The only thing missing is that the Thin Film Transistor display is not touch sensitive. But the bright colors (with selectable and/or light-sensor-switched white or black backgrounds to aid readability) and high resolution coupled with intuitive menus make it easy to fine-tune each aspect of the rider-aid package. The bar-graph tach is also very easy to read, and you can’t miss the shift lights.
There are three basic riding modes: Race, Sport and Wet, and they can be switched on the fly. At a stop, all the individual settings within those modes can be altered and, if you like, saved as a custom profile for each of those settings.
While the standard $17,995 Panigale gets a lightweight, manually adjustable Marzocchi fork (now with aluminum sliders) and Sachs shock, you’re definitely going to want to pop for the $22,995 S to get that electronically adjustable damping on its Öhlins units (plus lighter forged Marchesini wheels). Not only is the push-button convenience of damping adjustment awesome, overall performance from the NIX30 fork and TTX36 twin-tube shock is class-leading.
Even with e-suspension, spring-preload and rear-ride-height adjustment are still manual. Also, the shock linkage is easily swapped from progressive (good for street/two-up riding) to essentially a flat ratio, which works better on the track by keeping the suspension more supple under heavy cornering loads, leading to better traction. But it is incredibly cool to be able to pull into the pit, never get off the bike and change compression or rebound damping and any of the other electronic parameters.
The Panigale represents a complete and wholly successful rethink of not just the V-Twin superbike, but of superbikes in general. Power, handling, fit and finish, overall design, ease of operation—everything feels like a big step forward in the class. We should have a definitive answer by the time bikes are expected in dealerships in May.
Bottom line? If they aren’t already having emergency meetings in Germany and Japan about this new Italian superbike, they’d better get some on the schedule.
Fast facts about the Ducati Panigale:
- The smooth and effective Ducati Traction Control system functions through ignition retard and fuel-injection cuts.
- New Brembo M50 Monobloc calipers are exclusive to the Panigale. In Race riding mode, the $1000-optional ABS works only at the front, while in Sport or Wet modes, front application also activates the rear brake and the overall settings are less aggressive. Like the other electronic rider aids, the ABS can be switched off.
- Three-level engine-braking control makes a big difference in the bike’s feeling on corner entry. Setting Three offers a near-two-stroke-like lack of engine braking.
- Full LED lighting, including headlights, is standard.
- From the under-engine mufflers to the repositioned, stressed-member engine, the complete repackaging of the Panigale has concentrated mass nearer the roll and yaw centers, leading to easier directional changes and better handling.
- The only items deemed mandatory for this clean-sheet redesign were desmodromic valve actuation and a 90-degree Vee. Everything else could be, and was, changed. The major service interval is 15,000 miles.
- Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tires are said to be “road-going replicas of the official World Superstock 1000” rubber. A 120/70ZR17 front is complemented by a 200/55ZR17 rear. Their performance at the track test was excellent.
- Wet slipper clutch features hydraulic actuation and mechanical servo assist under load to keep springs, and therefore lever pull, light.
- Multifunctions save weight: Aluminum front frame section that bolts to the stressed-member engine also forms the airbox. The airbox “lid” is actually the bottom panel of the aluminum fuel tank, with a rubber seal between the two.
- The $27,995 Tricolore model gets all options, plus Ducati Data Analyzer+ (with GPS mapping), fancy paint and a titanium muffler kit.