Ducati 959 Panigale – review.

There’s something just right about Ducati’s mid sized sports bike that has been striking the right chords with me since the 748. I once took part in a used bike group test where three of us chose a bike within an imaginary budget of £3.5k. I’ve never made James Whitham laugh as hard or for as long as he did when I pulled the covers off a baggy eyed import 748 that hadn’t seen a fork seal or a tin of chain lube in its entire life. It didn’t turn, it didn’t want to stop and it barely ran. I didn’t care, it was a 748 and if I’d had real money to play with it would have come home with me, rusty warts an all. When I got the Editor’s job at SuperBike and had my pick of long-term press fleets up and down the country, it was a shiny red 848 EVO that I pretended to pick by accident. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the 1299 almost as much as I loved the 1198 (SP, please), they really are as amazing as you might expect, probably better. But If I’m honest, I’m not good enough to fully exploit big Panigale potential on track. What’s wasted on track is even more wasted on the road, hence my fascination with the smaller engined SuperBike from Ducati. This 959 had better be bloody good because it only feels like yesterday that Ducati launched the 899, a bike that is in my humble opinion, the most perfect everyday sports bike Ducati has ever made.

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Pirelli rear squishing in and providing plenty of grip

Let’s get the exhaust out of the way now. I give not a single fuck about it. In fact, I quite like the new one, even in stock form. It was interesting to see so many expressing their disgust at the pipes when the bike was unveiled. I think if you’re in the market for a bike that costs over £13k, surely you have the brain capacity to understand you’re more than welcome to change the stock one for something more to your liking.

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It’s a Euro 4 compliancy thing and what with Ducati being in the VAG family, I’m pretty sure they’re going to want to be watertight when it comes to being compliant with legislation at the minute. The pipes on the 959 are larger than the 899. In fact they’re exactly the same 60mm diameter as the 1299, so an aftermarket exhaust that fits an 1299 will fit one of these. Simple, lets move onto other matters.

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The new 955cc Superquadro motor is the thumping heart of the new Panigale. An increase in stroke, new crank, pistons and additional injectors combine to conjure up 157bhp at 10,500rpm and a torque increase of eight percent to 107.4Nm. Though there is a slight weight gain over the 899 thanks to the Euro 4 shenanigans, the 200kilo ready-to-ride 959 Panigale has a power to weight ratio that’s two percent up on the old model and a four percent increase in torque to weight. The rider software package is impressive. The quickshifter, traction control, ride-by-wire throttle and multiple riding modes mean you’re sure to find a personal setting that suits exactly how you want to fire yourself at the horizon. The slipper clutch, multi setting ABS and engine brake control will all lend a helping hand to stop you falling off the end of the world when you get there. On the outside, the bodywork feels like a real evolution. It’s wider at the front and taller at the top. The width accommodates redesigned air intakes and the net gain of that taller screen is better airflow over the rider and reduced drag. The mirrors are new, as is the tail-unit, which is now a split piece. Bar the wheel design (which I’ve never liked), I really like the look of it. Even with the exhausts and the double-sided swinging arm. That swingarm pivot is 4mm lower than the 899 and the overall wheelbase of the bike is 5mm longer as well.

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The dash layout is logical and easy to read. It’s also both DDA and GPS ready, allowing the rider to chart performance in the comfort of their own laptop after a spirited trip to the shops. Cycling through the various modes and making the changes as you see fit is now as easy for me to do as it is for me to write this line. Obviously I’m very lucky in that I get to spend a lot of time riding various bike from the Ducati family, so I’m used to navigating my way round the settings. If you’re new to the brand, you might find it confusing initially, but it’s relatively intuitive and you won’t get frustrated while you poke and press your way around. In this Arctic white, the 959 Panigale looks like a pumped up 899. I saw the red one with my own eyes and the purist in me would go for the red over this white every time. Like a speed block yellow Yamaha or a blue and white GSX-R, a red Ducati just makes sense. Bizarrely, the red version is the cheaper of the two at £13,095. You’ll need to find another 200 quid if you want this white version.

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We tested the 959 Panigale around Valencia’s Circuito Ricardo Tormo. Home to the final round of this year’s MotoGP craziness. More importantly for me, it was also home to the first gen’ Tuono V4 launch four years ago, so I had at least some idea of which way to indicate at the first turn. It’s a beauty of a track, but a physical one. There are nine lefts, some of which are 100mph plus knee down and only four right-handers. The Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SC2s that we used were on for a pasting from the off. Air temperature was around 13° for the first session, rising to around 18° for the last one. Wind was gusting and the sky was blue. I’d call that just about perfect conditions for track riding.

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The first session was an exciting one. Rather than taking my own advice and taking my time with the first track session on a new bike, I instead opted to push as much as I dare within a few corners of exiting pit lane. I’m usually the guy that takes it quite steady early in the morning and lets the track come to me. But, having ridden here before and really enjoyed myself, I wanted to try and get up to a respectable speed sooner rather than later. I’d spent some time adjusting the span on the front brake lever to suit my stupidly short fingers and was still getting a feel for the brakes as I hit the long start finish straight for the first time. I sailed past the garages pinned in fifth gear having a jolly old time, popped up out of the bubble and promptly popped off the edge of the circuit instead of peeling into turn one in third gear as planned. It wasn’t a heart in mouth moment, I just knew that in forcing myself to ride quicker than I normally would, I’d stepped out of my (very comfortable) comfort zone.

I snuck back into line like a kicked dog. The bike was in Sport mode for this first session, essentially a road riding mode with plenty of traction control and ABS. Assistance was almost imperceptible, but it was actually pretty bloody hard work to gel with the bike in this mode. The ABS was activating, forcing me off the line I wanted to be on. This was having the knock on effect of pushing me wide coming out of turns and the session became quite a physical one. I didn’t get any of the headshake in a straight line that I’ve experienced on the bigger engined Panigales and the power delivery felt linear and easily accessible. I just didn’t seem to click with the bike and thought I’d be in for a tough day at the office. That said, the 959 changed direction beautifully, the right left flick onto the long last corner proved just as easy if you went in in second and short shifted to third as it did doing the whole thing in third. Although in the Sport mode, the motor didn’t feel willing enough to really drive off the slow right in third. Self preservation had me almost walking round those few right-handers, I just pictured how little work that side of the tyre was doing and how easy it’d be for things to get away from me. As shameful as that is to write, it did mean I got to rip the throttle to the stop coming off them and not once did I feel like the bike was tying itself up.

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As my pace around the rights increased, I decided that I couldn’t quite judge the gap between second and third gear, sometimes finding myself nailing the limiter on the short straight in second rather than shifting up for a fraction of extra drive, only to have to come back to second for the next corner. Again, in figuring out which gear to take for certain sections, I ended up spending long periods of time either at the top of one gear which showed how clean and useable the power of the bike is, or at the bottom of another gear which highlighted how useable the torque available is. Whether you think a 955cc bike is too big to be a little brother anymore or not, there’s no questioning the usability of this motor and I have little doubt it’ll work just as well on the road as it did out here on track.

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After the first session, we put the bikes in Race mode. Muted traction control, less ABS and more aggressive power delivery made the bike feel much more in tune with itself. The brakes felt miles better heading into turn one, working perfectly with the slipper clutch and allowing me to focus on hitting the apex and driving off the corner. Corner exit was improved as the bike felt much more willing to rev. This mode and these settings made the bike less physical to ride, I was going much faster than I did in the first session and I wasn’t working anywhere near as hard. I made sure to brake later than I did on the lap where I ran off the end of the track and had absolutely no problem nailing my knee across the paint into turn one. If there were a lesson to be learned here, I’d say it’s about comfort zones and taking your time to push them. I’m glad I did though because it meant that I was able to tuck straight into the bike on the better settings. If you end up owning a 959, make sure to set the riding modes up to suit what you’re doing and don’t be afraid to turn the assistance down if you’re doing track work. The rewards are obvious and you won’t end up having to work as hard.

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That taller screen and the slightly wider fairing feel ideal on track, getting tucked in on the start finish straight was easy and I was able to concentrate on ringing the bell in each gear before tapping in another one on the smooth quickshifter. I also think the aerodynamic improvements will make long slogs on the motorway slightly easier on the top half of your body. The pegs on this bike are from the Superleggera and are a thing of beauty. They work really well and look properly trick at the same time. If this were my bike, I’d add some Stomp grips to the tank, I would of liked to have been able to brace my body a little more on the brakes with my legs. By the end of each session, my arms felt like they’d had a proper workout. Sharing the workload with my legs would reduce this feeling, I’m sure of it. Each session was a chance to push a fraction harder here and there. Where early in the day I was sitting on the limiter in second, I was now deep into third, the increased drive now much easier to manage thanks to increased feel and faith in the brakes. This bike is fast. We got to try accessorised and standard versions and to be honest, those pipes that everyone else other than me seems to hate sound plenty trick enough to me.

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Beautiful and uninterrupted (by traction control) drive from the bottom of second gear corners, carrying lean and running over paint, was testament to the quality of the fueling, electronic assistance and the tyres. The transition from throttle to brakes an easy one and the way the bike turned in all felt perfectly in tune. What I said in the opening words about this size of Panigale being a better-suited bike to my track riding talents than its big brother is still very much the case. This is by no means a slow bike, it just doesn’t feel as rampant as the 1299 and that suits me fine. The 848 and 899 were best sellers for Ducati. This 959 version deserves just as much of your attention and rewards with a riding experience that is every bit as exciting as they were. Some might still view it as the little brother, but it’s had a growth spurt and found a few new muscles to flex. You should definitely check it out.

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Click here to find your nearest Ducati retailer and to find out more about the bike.

Words: Johnatsuperbike Images: Milagro with a hint of Steinhardt