The 2018 Ducati Panigale’s V4’s glory is based on its MotoGP pedigree, never mind the 1,103cc displacement or Ducati’s long history in superbike racing. We loved the power, torque, and sound of the Desmosedici Stradale 90-degree V4 engine and excellent chassis performance so much, we named the V4 S Best Superbike in our annual Ten Best Bikes voting.
But every bit of the Panigale’s design and performance is focused on track dominance, and the 2019 Ducati Panigale V4 R is the short-stroke 998cc version that will assert this dominance on the World Superbike Championship stage. FIM homologation rules state that 125 V4 Rs must be produced prior to the bike’s first race, and a total of 500 units need to be made within two years. So even you could own a V4 R, provided you bring the $39,995.
What you get is a motorcycle Ducati touts as having the most powerful production engine the company has ever offered. That said, US noise regulations temper the North American R-model to a claimed 209 hp at 13,250 rpm. I suspect many Stateside owners will outfit the bike with the same accessory Akrapovic titanium racing exhaust and engine map as on the bike I rode, uncorking a claimed 234 hp at 15,500 rpm!
It was fitting our first ride of the Panigale V4 R came at Circuito de Jerez in southern Spain right around the time of a World Superbike test.
Rain the night before our ride day prompted Ducati staff to fit Pirelli Diablo Rain race tires to the bike for the first of our four 15-minute on-track sessions. Prior to riding, a technical presentation was conducted inside Jerez’s landmark hospitality space straddling the pit straight. Several R-model-specific components were set for display with chassis bits including the new Öhlins pressurized NPX 25/30 fork, TTX 36 shock, and manually adjustable steering damper.
A pair of forged aluminum swingarm pivot brackets featuring four-position eccentric adjustment begged the question of potential retrofitment to a V4 S. Sorry, no dice, said a Ducati rep. However, the R-model’s CNC-machined STM-EVO dry clutch is also available as a race-kit item that is compatible with the wet-clutch V4 engine.
The characteristic dry-clutch clatter is suppressed by the R’s noise-damped standard cover, but installing the accessory carbon-fiber half-cover realizes the aesthetic and aural appeal that many red-blooded Ducatisti desire.
Also displayed was a bare frame with surprisingly large holes cut from the main spars. These are said to “improve rider feeling in cornering phase,” but this R-model modification had only recently been finalized and wasn’t implemented on the preproduction bike I rode.
R-specific engine parts include visually stunning polished crankshaft and titanium connecting rods lending assurance that beauty lives beneath the surface. Friction-reducing two-ring (single compression and oil ring) forged alloy short-skirt pistons of box-in-box design, titanium intake valves, higher lift cams, larger oval-section throttle body, a shorter-length base stack on the two-stage variable-height velocity stacks draw through a high-flow race-kit air filter. Even the R’s drive chain has been downsized from #525 to #520 to save weight from both chain and sprocket. The diavel is in the details.
Third in the rider rotation, I noticed the rear tire was showing signs of abuse from the drying track as I climbed into the padded saddle. The crew had wisely dialed in conservative electronic rider aid settings with a combination of tempered Sport-mode throttle response, DTC (traction control) level 7 of 8, DSC (slide control) level 2 of 2, DWC (wheelie control) level 5 of 8, EBC (engine brake control) level 2 of 3, and cornering ABS active front and rear.
It had been a dozen years since I last rode the 2.75-mile, 13-turn layout, putting in heated laps at Master Bike, an annual sportbike comparison organized by Spain’s Motociclismo magazine. Following a couple familiarization laps aboard the V4 R, I picked up the pace and soon realized that the soft-compound rain rubber was doing us no favors as tread blocks deflected under load, inducing big-time butt-puckering instability and chassis weave. I’m relieved to report all handling ills were rectified with Pirelli superbike slicks spooned on for the three remaining track sessions.
Simply stated, the Panigale V4 R is without question the most confidence-bolstering Ducati I have ever ridden. I incrementally reduced the amount of electronic assistance over the remaining laps, which allowed me to comfortably arrive at minimal traction-, slide-, and wheelie-control intervention. The bike could do no wrong ridden at my chosen testing pace.
If there’s a gripe, it was occasional wheelie-control abruptness slapping the front down on the exit of second-gear corners, something I only experienced when DWC was set in the middle of its range. Reducing DWC to level 1 cured this and produced results that feel akin to a MotoGP slow-motion replay of low-trajectory wheelie action. Awesomeness.
A bit of bar wag exhibited as the front tire skimmed a ribbed exit curb out of the third-gear right leading onto the back straight was never cause for alarm. Could the steadfast recovery and planted feeling that ensued be those MotoGP-derived wings at work?
Stability was exceptional at the fastest point on the track, an indicated 170 mph in fifth gear on approach to Dry Sack. Slowing for this tight hairpin, regarded as the second hardest braking zone in the World Superbike series, truly is a test of courage when going for a time. I was happy to find a modest two-finger squeeze at the lever delivered all the braking force my senses could process. With auto-blip downshifts, slipper clutch, adjustable engine-braking, and superb front-end support and feel, I found every lap a realization that I could have gone deeper still. I experienced a similar sensation when trail-braking at corner entry. While I just can’t bring myself to explore the implied potential of cornering ABS, there felt to be plenty of grip in reserve the times I carried “light” braking while nearing the apex.
It’s been suggested that bravado comes much easier on your way out. To this end, I was much more prone to explore the strides Ducati has made with traction control. The V4 R offers further refinement to the DTC EVO introduced on the base V4, implementing a new predictive strategy that is described as providing intervention that’s faster, smoother, and reduces spin oscillation. I’m a believer. With slicks mounted I didn’t detect a hint of the slip ’n’ grip drama of old.
In fact, uncannily consistent and controlled best describes the subtle drifts the V4 R paints off an apex. The R also introduces “spin on demand” in DTC level 1 and 2. Without suggesting I exploited this feature anywhere near its full capability, I will say that adding throttle when the bike was already in a subtle drift was an amazing feeling. Heck, I would swear I was able to square an exit and get the bike more pointed up track. Even more to the point, after gaining trust and feel for the system I could repeat this feat without raising the hair on my neck.
As a Master Bike alumnus, I recall the importance lap time played in determining the final winner. Testers included journalists and active racers alike with a competitive air that helped extract the last ounce of performance from the bikes. Master Bike 2007 saw Frenchman Stéphane Chambon, a former World Supersport champion, set fast time of the test, clocking best lap of 1:52.53 on the Yamaha YZF-R1.
Despite being a bit rusty from about a year not riding a motorcycle and also lacking the purpose to lay it on the line like old times at Master Bike, I lapped Jerez several seconds faster than my previous best time, and even a tick quicker than the Frenchman’s flier. And this was at a pace I would describe as “comfortable.”
That’s one measure of progress for what it’s worth. Ducati claiming a long-overdue world superbike title is quite another. The V4 R is just the weapon to do it.
|ENGINE||998cc, liquid-cooled V-4, 4 valves/cylinder|
|CLAIMED HORSEPOWER||221 hp @ 15,250 rpm|
|CLAIMED TORQUE||83 lb.-ft. @ 11,500 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Öhlins 43mm NPX 25/30 fork adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping; 4.7-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Öhlins TTX 36 shock adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping; 5.1-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Brembo four-piston Monoblock Stylema calipers, 330mm discs w/ Bosch Cornering ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Brembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc w/ Bosch Cornering ABS|
|RAKE/TRAIL||24.5°/3.9 in. (100mm)|
|WHEELBASE||57.9 in. (1,471mm)|
|SEAT HEIGHT||32.7 in. (830mm)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||4.2 gal. (16L)|
|CLAIMED WEIGHT||425 lb. dry (193kg)|