Dark skies and rain-soaked roads awaited my arrival in Bologna, Italy, for the international press launch of Ducati’s new-for-2014 899 Panigale. A natural successor to the 848 EVO sportbike, the mid-displacement 898cc V-twin faithfully delivers the cutting-edge styling and technology of its 1199 superbike sibling to a broader audience.
Ducati market research has distilled the 899 buyer down to an affluent and active male professional in his 30s, one either stepping up from a mid-size Japanese supersport (a guy coming off a naked bike with a desire for the image and performance of a premium sportbike) or stepping down from a Japanese liter-class superbike because he’s attracted to Ducati character and performance.
At 51, I may be well outside the target demographic, but decades of sport riding and the occasional track day mishap, together with all that rain during our single-day track test, caused me to be attracted to the savings a 899 ($14,995 in red, add $300 for white) offers relative to the 1199. Ducati North America projects that the new 899 will account for 60 percent of all Panigale sales in 2014.
Our itinerary promised five, 15-minute riding sessions at a renowned race circuit located 30 miles from the Ducati factory in the town of Imola. The 3.05-mile, 17-turn Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari is rich in motorcycle racing history. Opened in 1953, Imola has witnessed its share of Formula 1, motorcycle Grand Prix and World Superbike events. It was also home to the Imola 200 of the 1970s, an annual Formula 750 race inspired by our own Daytona 200. Don Emde, a former Daytona 200 winner, participated in the Imola 200 Revival in 2011 and covered this gathering of legendary riders and classic racebikes for Cycle World.
The night prior to our test, Ducati staged a welcome dinner in its lavish MotoGP hospitality tent erected in the circuit paddock. Seated to my left was Alan Cathcart, a British moto-journalist of many years experience. Sir Alan expressed reservations about riding Imola in the wet, saying it’s famously slick. To my immediate right: Carl Fogarty, the fiery Brit regarded as the most successful World Superbike racer of all time, with four WSBK titles aboard factory Ducatis to his credit. Foggy shared that his own Imola experience amounted to about three test laps years ago and that he has ridden very little since the career-ending crash back in 2000. I asked if he had ridden an 1199 Panigale and was astonished to hear the fearless former Isle of Man TT lap record holder say it was too quick for his rusty reflexes.
And that helps underscore what this 899 Panigale represents. It’s a more user-friendly and accessible platform tuned for road and track. With the 49cc bump in displacement comes a spread of torque that’s much broader than in the 848 EVO. The rev limit has been extended to 11,500 rpm, the additional 500 rpm allowing lower final gearing (adding 5 teeth to the rear sprocket) without adversely affecting the top-speed potential. Benefits of the shorter overall gearing are improved acceleration and easier pull away from a stop.
Although the 899 shares many common components with the 1199, Ducati sought to visually differentiate the models. Since a new swingarm was deemed necessary to reduce the 899’s wheelbase (it’s 0.43 inches less than the 1199’s) the opportunity presented itself to go with a double-sided cast aluminum part to lend the 899 an obvious look of its own. More technical details covering the engine, electronics and chassis are provided at our recent First Look at the machine.
In preparation for the wet conditions, the standard fitment Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa radials (120/70-17 front and 180/60-17 rear sizes) were swapped for World Superbike-spec Pirelli Diablo Rains–a soft compound, heavily grooved full wet race tire. Suspension settings were also adjusted softer to suit the wet conditions.
Steady rain fell as I headed onto the circuit for my first time. The bike’s engine map was set to Rain mode, with Ducati Traction Control at level 7 of 8 sensitivity settings. Rain mode dramatically tames the ride-by-wire throttle response while also restricting the throttle plates from fully opening for reduced maximum power output. It felt as if the hand of God was holding me back while driving full throttle off corners. A yellow DTC indicator light in the top of the LCD instrument pod flickered almost constantly, offering a visual cue that the electronics were maintaining total traction on Imola’s glassy road surface. After a few laps, I wanted to reduce DTC sensitivity while remaining in Rain mode, but, as a safety measure, this adjustment can be made only via a ride mode setup menu accessible only while the bike is stopped. A thumb button on the left bar allows on-the-fly toggling among the trio of ride modes (Race, Sport and Rain), so it’s possible to mirror the settings of Sport and Race, then set a unique DTC level to each as a crude workaround.
Prior to the second session, I made alterations to the Sport mode’s factory defaults. While this mode provides full power output, the throttle response default is medium/sporty as opposed to the more aggressive direct throttle mapping of Race mode. A DTC setting of 6 allowed me to ease into it while experimenting with reduced engine braking control (EBC) at the minimum braking effect setting of 3. I hadn’t detected any ABS intervention during the first session with the anti-lock brakes set to level 1 (a track setting that eliminates rear ABS and anti-rear lift control), so I changed this to level 2 of 3–a more street-oriented setting that enables ABS front and rear.
This configuration produced much stronger drives off corners and a more connected feeling between my throttle hand and power applied to the rear contact patch. Here again, after a couple of laps, I was looking for even more unadulterated exit drive, even though DTC felt smooth in operation. Sticking to a plan of incremental increase, my only alteration for the third session was reducing DTC to 4. All was coming together now. The power delivery felt fluid as the throttle was rolled on steady and smooth. I was impressed by grip this tractable V-twin on rain tires could muster, and there was only an occasional flash from the DTC.
Thanks largely to electronics, corner exits were a cakewalk, while the quick-cycling Bosch ABS acted as an effective safety net for the Brembo brakes, which provided enough feel that I rarely triggered an anti-lock intervention. Having those key areas under control allowed me to focus more on mid-corner grip and ultimately knee-dragging lean by the end of the session.
While I looked forward to sampling Race mode following our two-hour lunch break, it was not to be. With increased rainfall into the afternoon, our hosts decided to cancel the remaining on-track sessions. While the wet conditions made getting a meaningful assessment of the 899 Panigale handling capabilities impossible, I realized that I had just ridden quicker, yet more comfortably, in the rain than ever before in my riding/racing career. When we get a new 899 Panigale testbike back in sunny Southern California, we promise to thoroughly wring it out for you.