2015 Ducati 1299 Panigale S First Ride Review

More power, more technology, and most importantly, more fun

Motorcycle riders are a greedy bunch. We want more, and quite naturally, we want it now; more power, more technology, more comfort, better handling, the list goes on. For 2015, Ducati attempts to deliver on all of these fronts with the 1299 Panigale, which we've just had the chance to ride in Portimao, Portugal during the Italian firm's official riding introduction for the bike.

This is, of course, not to be confused with another very recent test in Mugello, where Ducati test rider Allessandro Valia and the 1299 Panigale S made headlines by running within four seconds of a time Nicky Hayden set during development tests on Carlos Checa’s full-blown 1199 Superbike, back in 2013. This on a showroom-stock bike sporting a headlight, turn signals, license plate, and OE-spec suspension. More is definitely better. Or at least the reports from Italy were making it seem as such.

Even still, added horsepower always has the possibility of bringing about problems with handling and rideability, which, if this were the case, could easily offset the advantages of that added power. So the question remained: Could Ducati improve power output from its Superquadro engine without making the 1299 Panigale a merciless animal that only a guy like Valia, a former Italian Superstock 1000 Champion, could go quickly on?

Fortunately, here in Portugal, it appears as though Ducati has managed to do that, while only leaving a few areas for improvement, mostly in the electronics.

The Technology
The 1299 Panigale is a dramatic evolution of the Ducati Superbike lineup rather than what it at first appears to be, which is an 1199 that wound up on the work bench of some honing specialist. You wanted more, Ducati delivered with a stronger engine, new styling, updated electronics package with wheelie control, and reworked steering geometry. In Portimao, we rode the S version, which adds Ducati Electronic Suspension by Ohlins, an LED headlight, forged Marchesini wheels, and auxiliary buttons on the handlebar for on-the-fly changes to DTC, DWC, or EBC.

The 1299’s 87cc bump in displacement comes courtesy of a 4mm-larger (in diameter) piston that bumps compression just slightly to 12.6:1 and moves through a steel cylinder bore liner, which is actually heavier than the aluminum bore liner used on the 1199. “When the Superquadro engine was originally bored it was already at very tight tolerances in terms of the compactness, so here with the 1299 we needed to put a larger piston but we couldn’t increase the size of the cylinder bore liner. The outer diameter of the new bore liner is the same, however the inner diameter is larger, so in effect the liner had to become thinner. We had to move from an aluminum material for the cylinder bore liner to steel because aluminum doesn’t work at that thin of a tolerance,” says Ducati Product Manager Paul Ventura.

A 4mm increase in bore results in an average of 15 percent more torque from 5000 rpm to 8000 rpm. The engine is just slightly heavier than before, Ducati says. Bigger power requires bigger, stronger parts. Valve clearance checks remain at 24,000 km (14,900 miles)

There are other areas in which Ducati have updated the engine, but most of these updates were to accommodate the stress that came along with the additional power. All-new connecting rods have, for example, wider heads to accommodate larger bearings and are paired to a slightly updated crankshaft with wider rod journals and machined counterweights. “The engine is a little bit heavier than before, but when you’re dealing with more horsepower, you need a little more bracing internally to the engine. So there’s more weight added to the engine,” Ventura adds. Valve diameters and timing are as they were before, but exhaust header pipes grow in diameter from 56mm to 60mm and are matched to an all-new silencer.

While Ducati’s 1199 Panigale is famous for its peaky power delivery that was a drastic change in direction compared to the previous twin-cylinder engines coming from Bologna, the 1299 engine is intended to be much more flexible, with increased torque output through the midrange for not only improved performance on the track but also added versatility on the street. The bike makes a claimed 205 horsepower at 10,500 rpm and roughly 107 foot-pounds of torque at 8,750 rpm. Interestingly enough though, Ducati is even happier to talk about the 15 percent increase in torque between 5000 and 8000 rpm. The average street rider probably will be too. After all, good luck putting that 205 horsepower to use on the local highway.

To better manage the 1299’s power—because let’s be honest, your wrist can’t truly be trusted with 205 unadulterated horsepower when you do get to the track—Ducati has enhanced its electronics package via an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that measures acceleration in relation to three axes and calculates the bike’s angle of roll and pitch. Ducati Wheelie Control, Cornering ABS, and on the S model, Ducati Electronic Suspension, use the information provided by the IMU to continually adapt the bike’s performance based on the conditions. Or in other words, to save you in those instances where you somehow run the bike ungodly deep into a corner and quickly run out of talent.

Auxiliary buttons on the handlebar for on-the-fly changes to DTC, DWC, or EBC. Before riding, you have to select which system you want to be able to adjust.

Interestingly, Ducati has tweaked its traction control system to account for the 1299’s power characteristics, but not updated the system’s hardware or function by joining it to the IMU and using lean angle information. This is, essentially, the same traction control system the manufacturer has had for years.

Suspension on the S model is composed of an Ohlins Smart EC semi-active suspension system that's similar in design to what comes standard on the 2015 Yamaha R1M, but with Ducati-specific settings. With this system, Ohlins divides the riding into different events instead of looking every millisecond at what the chassis is doing and making continuous adjustments. In developing an ideal damping curve for each event (braking, cornering, acceleration, and other events that the company refuses to discuss), they can provide a proper setup for nearly every riding scenario while also maintaining lap-after-lap consistency. Essentially, there's a specific damping setting that Ohlins and Ducati have determined work well for braking instances, and that exact setting is applied to the suspension when the bike recognizes that you are braking. This is different in that it does not adjust the damping based on how hard you are braking for a given corner, and so when you go to brake for that same corner on lap 2, you will get the same setting and feel regardless of whether or not you brake harder or softer.

Ducati wants the 1299 to be a more versatile motorcycle than the admittedly uncomfortable 1199. An 899 Panigale-culled seat helps here, as do the suspension settings in the less-aggressive riding modes. Notice the new split tail section, used to help distinguish the 2015 model from the 2014 model.

Hardware for the suspension includes a TTX shock and NIX-30 fork, versus a 50mm Marzocchi fork and Sachs shock on the standard model. Also worth mentioning is that if you feel you can do a better job at bike setup than an Ohlins technician who has spent the majority of his life working on valve stacks, you can run the Panigale S suspension in a fixed setting, which allows you to set the suspension settings manually. These settings will remain as you ride.

Additional electronics on the Panigale include an eight-level (plus off) Ducati Wheelie Control system borrowed from the Superleggera, a Ducati Quick Shifter with auto-blip function for upshifts and downshifts, as well as an adjustable Engine Brake Control system that helps with engine management as you get into a corner. On the S, paddle shifters allow on-the-fly adjustment for DWC, DTC, or EBC, though you have to pre-determine which system you’d like to be able to adjust prior to going out and riding.

A few other pieces are borrowed from various Panigale models, like the grippier footpegs (thankfully) from the Superleggera, and seat from the 899 Panigale (which was basically a Ducati performance seat before that). Similarly, Ducati has taken what it learned from the 1199 R swingarm pivot options and lowered the swingarm pivot on the 1299. The position is fixed, but technically in the same location as the R swingarm when set to the -4 setting, a setting its superbike riders have praised since the inception of the Panigale R.

Ducati says that if it's new Scrambler is the land of joy, then that the 1299 Panigale is the land of speed. It's one fast motorcycle, that's for sure, with more grunt off the corner.

The new swingarm position technically provides less anti-squat. To recap, anti-squat is when the suspension extends under acceleration as a result of the forces from the chain and swingarm. Less anti-squat allows the suspension to compress more, which Ducati has found to increase grip in the early stages of corner exit. The risk, of course, is that the bike will squat excessively and be unable to finish a corner. Additional chassis changes include a .5 degree steeper rake (24.0 degrees versus 24.5 degrees on the 1199).

From afar, these mostly well-concealed updates make it difficult to tell the 1299 apart from its predecessor, but take a second glance and you’ll notice a handful of styling updates that are intended to not take the design too far from the original concept but also provide some distinction and also added performance in terms of aerodynamics. Most notably, the front fairing (and air intake section) has been enlarged, and the screen lengthened by 20mm. Mirror stalks are shorter for a better view of your shoulders (oh, you’ve been working out, huh?), while out back, you’ll find a new split design tail section, plus that new 899-culled seat for “increased comfort.”

The 1299 Panigale S adds an LED headlight, forged Marchesini wheels, Ducati Electronic Suspension from Ohlins, and an auxiliary button for on-the-fly changes to DTC, DWC, or EBC. Interstingly, it weighs the same as the standard model (420 pounds without fuel).

The Ride

Having been to Portimao once before, we had an idea of what we’d be in for once finally able to open the 1299 up. A 0.6-mile-long front straight connects 15 corners that range between really slow to really, really fast. To add to the madness, there’s massive elevation changes and table-top-like rises that demand the most from electronic systems like traction control and wheelie control.

Even with aids like these and more, the Panigale is still a demanding and challenging motorcycle to ride. It’s fast. Incredibly freaking fast, actually, but also stiff and sensitive to inputs, so extracting its true potential requires your utmost attention and for you to ride hard enough to load the chassis like it was designed to be loaded, lest the bike doesn’t work as well. The reward is, of course, well worth the effort. Especially so on the 1299, which is noticeably more flexible than the 1199 thanks to that added midrange torque, and thus, wider power band. Off-corner performance depends ever so slightly on the selected riding mode (we tested Sport, which has slightly less push below 5000 rpm, and Race), but in either mode you can feel the bike jump off the corner with more aggression than the 1199.

The Panigale's chassis still rewards an aggressive riding style. Load the bike with aggressive braking and equally aggressive steering input, and it responds. Feedback and feel is still not quite what it is on a bike with a conventional frame, once the bike is on the side of the tire.

The other benefit of the larger powerband is that you aren’t having to work the transmission nearly as much as you are on the 1199. With that engine, you had to be careful with gear selection so that you always kept the revs within that narrow window where the power was, but with the 1299 you have the choice to run a gear lower or higher and not worry about the bike falling out of that sweet spot, because it’s that much wider. While the 1299 is more like the torquey Ducati twins of yesteryear than the peaky 1199, we still saw top speeds of around 299 km/h (185.8 mph) on the Portimao front straight. That’s scary fast for a production bike, and quite honestly we couldn’t see you wanting or needing more.

Steering on the 1299 is light as it’s ever been thanks to the bike’s low curb weight (the S weighs the same since the standard model’s LED headlight and electronic suspension offset the weight saved by the forged aluminum wheels), and thanks to the stiff chassis you can crank the thing from one side to the other with absolute aggression, ultimately speeding transition times without upsetting the bike. In fact, the deeper you brake, the harder you throw the bike into the corner, and the more aggressive you are off the corner, the better the 1299 works.

If the Panigale S doesn't already have enough bells and whistles for you, Ducati also has available a long list of performance parts for the 1299, such as an exhaust, levers, and taller windscreen.

The suspension responds moderately well to those inputs too, though you can tell that the 1299’s default settings were intended more for comfort than performance. Bigger riders riding closer to the edge will almost immediately make the jump up to the Harder or Hardest setting for the Event Based setting, or adjust the Fixed settings to their liking. We ended the day with the Hardest front setting and Harder rear shock setting, noting that the default settings for the rear feel a bit more firm than the default settings for the front. Still, because the chassis is so unique (and stiff), it’s a bit difficult to find a setting that works flawlessly. And, to get the same sensation from the Panigale as you would from a bike with conventional chassis is a bit of a challenge, both at the entry and exit of a corner.

Where the Panigale will face stiff competition is in the electronics department, and here's where the bike both impresses and has room for improvement at the same time. To start, the Ducati Quick Shift with auto-blip function for clutchless upshifts and downshifts is phenomenal, better even than the shifter we just recently tested on the 2015 BMW S 1000 RR, which was not as predictable lap after lap. We didn't miss a single shift on the 1299, and the blip function works well to not upset the chassis as you set up for the corner. Even at pit lane speeds, it seemed to work seamlessly.

The new three-mode Bosch 9.1MP (versus 9ME) anti-lock brake system with Cornering ABS function is also an improvement over before, with no cycling sensation as the system comes on—just smooth control of power. In level 2 of 3, you can certainly feel the system pulling back power as you try to increase brake pressure, which robs you of some confidence and feel, but in level 1 that sensation all but disappears and the brake force you ask for is what you get, providing a more natural feeling with still some protection. In Race mode (the mode we used most), there’s no Cornering ABS function, but it’s unlikely we’d have wanted to clamp on the brakes hard enough while at lean to test the system anyways.

We did get to try the eight-level (plus off) Ducati Wheelie Control system while climbing over the many rises at Portimao, but unfortunately ended up on the other side of those same rises rather disappointed and also with some damp boxers. The problem is that the system is inconsistent, so over one rise it acts one way and you are okay, and then when you go over another rise it acts differently (i.e., points the bike’s nose straight to the heavens) and you are, well, not okay. The thing with wheelie control, like traction control, is that you need to be able to trust the system 100 percent so that you can stay on the gas over rises and get the best drive possible, but with DWC in either of the modes we tried (3, 5, and 7) that was not the case and we felt like we could better manage power with our right wrist. What the system reminds us of, as a matter of fact, is a first-generation traction control system that needs a few years of fine-tuning. Maybe in a year or two Ducati will have a more seamless option?

The Ducati Traction Control System gets the job done but will have a hard time going up against systems from BMW, Aprilia, and Yamaha. What seems like the biggest difference, at least compared to the new BMW system, is that DTC is trying hard to manage grip but not working with you to help with the drive and putting power down. We ran in level 2 with semi-worn tires, and with each additional lap could feel the system pulling more and more back on corner exits. This is, of course, absolutely huge from a safety perspective, and the cut is smooth that it doesn’t hinder the chassis. It’s still interesting though that Ducati has lean angle info but does not use that info for traction management, as we think this would help with outright performance.

Regardless of the small areas where the 1299 has room for improvement, Ducati feels like the 1299 is the most elevated Panigale model they have yet built. They have taken what they’ve learned since it started with the Panigale project years ago and massaged the platform to come up with a bike that they can be 100 percent satisfied with. “Now, it’s possible to deliver to our fan the most capable product,” they say. And the 1299 Panigale really is that, the most capable product Ducati has in its lineup, with fewer areas for improvement than before.

More, is definitely better.

2015 Ducati 1299 Panigale S
MSRP: $24,995
Type Liquid-cooled, DOHC V-twin, 4 valves/cyl.
Displacement 1285cc
Bore x stroke 116.0 x 60.8mm
Compression ratio 12.6:1
Induction Mitsubishi EFI, elliptical throttle bodies with 67mm equivalent dia., dual injectors/cyl.
Front Tire 120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear Tire 200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail 24.0 degrees/3.78 in. (96mm)
Wheelbase 56.57 in. (1437mm)
Seat height 32.7 in. (830mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.5 gal. (17L)
Claimed wet weight (no fuel) 420 lb. (191kg)
Electronics DTC, DQS up/down, DES, EBC, Riding Modes, DWC, R-b-W, Cornering ABS, auto tire and final ratio calibration

Related articles: