The Ducati 899 Panigale is the successor to the best selling superbike that Ducati ever made. Just how good do you have to be to beat the best?
This isn’t any kind of rain, this is mountain-kissed, upside down, fill your boots from both ends bouncing-off-the-floor kind of rain. If you were a rain spotter, this would be a day to cut out and stick to your fridge. It’s early October so I shouldn’t be surprised, but after travelling over a thousand miles, I expected our Italian Imola playground to be slightly dryer than a halibut’s moustache. It wasn’t. Arse. Nonetheless, I certainly wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to get out and try a bike that in my mind could well be the perfect Ducati Superbike. More powerful than the outgoing 848 but without the jagged edges that the 1199 threatens with. Pass me my water wings and watch this.
People buy Ducatis because they’re just as beautiful to look at crammed in a shed next to a lawn mower, as they are gracing a sun-stained hairpin. If you think that’s a cliché, you’re not a potential Ducati customer. Yet.
The 899 Panigale is as pretty as the 1199, which in my opinion makes it prettier than the 848 and the 749 before that. The initial criticism of the double-sided swing arm was something that I was aware of, rather than in agreement with. Face to face, I don’t think that anyone could turn their back on this bike on the basis that you can’t quite see all of the rear wheel. On that note, I don’t think the wheel design is a particularly good one on the 899. The slanted design reminded me of the old dogleg design that Escort RS Turbos used to run when I was a kid. As I always say, looks really are a matter of taste, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you like it. Obviously I have impeccable taste and I think this bike is a stunner.
The 899 is actually an 898. The motor design is based on that of the 1199. A different bore and stroke, coupled with reworked inlet and exhaust valves, plus reprofiled camshafts equals 148bhp. Not much more than the 848 EVO’s 140 on paper at least: more on that later. The clutch cover, the sump and the cam covers are cast in aluminium, rather than the more expensive but lighter weight magnesium that the 1199 motor uses. The 90° V-twin mirrors the stressed member theory that the bigger monocoque Panigale works off. The front cylinder is positioned 21° over horizontal. This helps the 899 optimise weight distribution between front and back at 52% front and 48% rear. In comparison to the outgoing 848, this bike makes more power and torque at any part of the rev range, Ducati also claimed that this translates to 20-25% more vehicle speed during comparable RPM as well.
The beauty of sharing DNA with the 1199 is that things like the DTC, EBC, DQS and ABS have all found a home on the 899. The ABS part comes as standard, the traction control, engine brake control and quick shifter are all worth the extra cash if track riding is part of your ownership plan. The fact that you’ll need to flick through a basic LCD screen (rather than the TFT swank that the 1199 has) to find your ideal setting doesn’t detract from the experience in any way.
The 899 uses fully adjustable Showa BPF, coupled with a Sachs steering damper at the front and a fully adjustable side-mounted Sachs shock at the rear. Thanks to the rain, we ran softer settings than standard, we were also advised to run the first session in Wet mode, which meant 100 horsepower, stacks of TC and ABS turned up. I’ll get on to describing why that was a great place to start in a minute, but before I do it’s important that you note the tyres. We ran Pirelli race wets, rather than the Diablo Rosso Corsas that you’ll be kicking at the NEC show. All of the suspension settings and electronic set-up is available to owners whenever they want it, but you’ll need to ask your local Pirelli man to find you a set of these wets if you want the bike to feel how it felt for me.
So, how did it feel? Very good, actually. I know my way around Imola thanks to the very recent SBK test and the 848 EVO launch that I did here a few years back. It’s a good job I knew where I was going as it was one less thing to think about. Standing water, running water and a mix of porous and non-porous track surfacing offered a real challenge to the rider. Thankfully the bike was very easy to get on with. It immediately felt easier to ride than the 848. The two bikes share the same seat height at 830mm, and that’s where the similarities end. Remember I ran one for a year last year in the magazine, so this isn’t some distant comparison based on launches and road tests alone. On track you may remember me writing about the struggle I had in finding a set up that worked for me. Getting an 848 to tip into a corner on track when the thing is set up for the road isn’t very nice, or easy. On the 899 everything felt more in tune with itself. The Brembo brake calipers aren’t the ferocious M50 monsters that you get on the 1199, here they’re ABS backed M32s, softer initially and definitely less aggressive, I had no problem hanging on to them as I sploshed my way into the deep end. I think that combination of Showa BPF and friendlier Brembo brakes will work wonders when Japanese sports bike owners come knocking for test rides, as that is what I was reminded of. Rather than that reluctance to go where I want, when I want (like the 848), the front end followed my input with instant agreement, much like a Kawasaki ZX-6R or Honda CBR 600RR. A quick chat with SB road tester and 848 Challenge race winner Chris confirmed that this was a good thing for prospective owners, despite Chris’ love of the sweeping riding style that the outgoing bike required.
What I got into in that first session was a series of breath stealing braking zones, followed by full throttle corner exits. The DTC and ABS glossing over any cracks in my story with little more than a flashing light and the odd judder. I’ll be honest, those electronics made me feel like a bit of a hero, something that never used to happen on track on my 848 EVO. Finishing the first session on a soggy high, I decided that the bike needed more power. Two minutes later I was heading back out with the other 48 horsepower on the table. Multiple riding modes are ace. Despite not using all of the extra horsepower, having it there if I wanted to made easier work of slower speed corner exits was ideal. Plus, it helped to get the bike singing in the steeper sections. The 898 motor runs the perfect blend of what makes a Ducati engine great. Unlike the 848, I found I had useable torque to drag me off the uphill second gear corners, unlike an 1199 when this bike gets to 7,000rpm it doesn’t try and smash my face in. Don’t get me wrong, I love the power punch that the bigger Panigale has, but I bet it has lost Ducati more customers than it’s won them. I found I wasn’t revving the bike out in the lower gears, something else that I found myself doing here on an 848. Mind you, I also had to wear sunglasses and replace my toe sliders on the 848 launch so maybe the weather has more to do with my riding style than I thought.
I didn’t have time to care about the lack of single sided swinging arm, if anything, the double sided one only helped convince me that I was riding a Ducati designed to feel like a Japanese sports bike. I spent ages looking over the bike in the pits, trying to find things I didn’t like or would change. I found two things. Practically, the foot pegs are a waste of time. In the wet it’s really hard to keep your feet from slipping off them. Sometimes this is a pain in the bum, sometimes this is really dangerous. My 848 was like it, so I took a hand file to the balls on the ends of the pegs, it helped a little. I’d also want to change the wheels, for no other reason than I just don’t like the way they look. You might, I don’t.
If you’re noticing a bit of a theme as we go through this bike, one where I keep highlighting the fact that this is clearly a better bike than the 848 at the same time as being every bit as good as the 1199, then you’re reading between my lines perfectly. It was a real shame that the rain soaked this launch, but it clearly didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of me or any of the other journos as we wrung our gloves out at the end of the day. I need more miles on this bike before I can paint the full picture and give a rounded opinion, but I left feeling that Ducati has stolen just enough of the good stuff from the bigger bike, and left behind everything that let the 848 down. The guys from Bologna have created a beautiful bike: they’ve created the perfect Panigale.
No heavy petting
By the time you can buy an 899, there’ll be exactly the same difference in years as there is in engine capacity between this and the original 916. They both share Showa front ends and 320mm Brembo brakes. Coincidence? Hardly. King Carl Fogarty himself was guest of honour on this launch. After a brief ride, even he struggled to liken one with the other. An 899 would drop a fresh 916 like a toilet seat if you put them back-to-back. Traction control, ABS and all of the other riding aids at my disposal were barely a technical twinkle in the eyes of anyone at Ducati in the early nineties. One thing that hasn’t changed though is Ducati’s ability to create beautiful bikes, reserve a spot in your shed, you won’t be disappointed.