First Ride: Ducati 1299 Panigale

Yep, that’s exactly what we all thought the Ducati 1199 Panigale needed, another 100cc and more power. Are they all high over there in Bologna? But it turns out, whatever they’re smoking, it’s the right stuff – the 2015 update to the Panigale is a ripper, as we discovered on a stunning sunny Saturday in January at the Portimão circuit in Portugal.

January. Bloody January - we're stuck with drizzle and frost and Portugal gets this. Not fair.

January. Bloody January – we’re stuck with drizzle and frost and Portugal gets this. Not fair.

Things have gone a bit mental in the sports bike world these last few years, with new bike after new bike descending on us like a happy tyre-munching rain. All this development and competition has seen 200bhp become the expected power figure and claimed kerb weights nibbling below the 200kg mark. And electronic rider aids, once a clunky effort at keeping inexperienced riders from firing themselves to the moon, have become mind-bendingly sophisticated. And the latest version of the Panigale has followed this trend. Although with its monocoque frame and extreme over-square V-Twin motor, that’s the only trend it follows. The Panigale was a unique bike in design and riding experience when it came out; subsequent versions and updates have all worked to refine the package, adding a little power along the way. But the new 1299 is a much bigger step forward than its subtly-different styling suggests.

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So what’s new?

Obviously, the engine has changed, raising capacity to 1,285cc with even bigger pistons. Clearly this pushes it outside of racing regulations, so Ducati has opted to turn the ‘R’ version into a race-homologation model, retaining the 1,199cc capacity. But for the base and ‘S’ models we get the new engine with power up 10bhp to 205bhp and torque up to 144.6Nm. Remember those are crankshaft figures at the brochure so by the time those ponies reach a real life tyre, 10-15 of them will have wandered off. But 190-ish horsepower at the tyre is nothing to sniff at, especially in a 192kg (claimed, full of fuel and ready to ride) bike. And before the armchair experts start scoffing about reliability, I’d politely ask them to step into the 21st century. We at SuperBike have broken more Hondas than we have Ducatis in the last four years. And that ain’t because Hondas are unreliable now is it? Ducati is saying that their target for the new bike was for it to be the ‘most potent’ supersports bike on the market. Well, the old one was already that, maybe not in terms of actual power figures but certainly in the intensity of the riding experience. But the other challenge for this bike was to make it easier to ride fast – something that scuppered the old model in group tests against the torquey BMW S1000RR and the silky-smooth Kawasaki ZX-10R. A new exhaust system, along with the capacity hike has allowed Ducati to get a 15% increase in power from 5-8,000rpm, right where you need it most.

To contain the extra power the 1299 has had a digital makeover, adding wheelie control, clutchless down-shifting and cornering ABS to its already-stacked armoury. Oh, and the new Öhlins semi-active suspension that adapts the damping and the steering damper to the conditions as you go. It’s also programmable to offer a stiffer or softer action depending on whether you want lap records or happy testicles. In addition to the electronic changes, the fairings have had an aerodynamic tweak, giving more protection to the rider with a 20mm taller screen and wider nose cone. Better aero means a higher top speed, which is always a winner for us. Especially in pit lane Top Trumps. The chassis itself has been given a going over too, although rather more subtly than the engine. A steeper head angle (by half a degree) and 4mm lower swingarm pivot improve steering and make the bike hold a line better, so say the Ducati engineers anyway.

There are two versions of the 1299 coming to the UK late March this year; the £16,595 base model and the £20,795 ‘S’ version. If you cough the extra coin for an S, you get forged Marchesini wheels, LED headlights, handlebar toggle switches to tweak the electronics on the fly and the fancy pants Öhlins semi-active electronic suspension.

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On track.

Really, the session is over already? Balls. We’ve all had that feeling on a bike, whether it be a road ride or a track session, where everything goes all flowy and smooth and you’re out of good road/track time before you know it. When Ducati announced they would be launching the 1299 at Portimão, I didn’t for one second think I’d be using the words smooth or flowy. The 1199 is, frankly, nuts and Portimão’s wild undulations and crests are, equally frankly, equally nuts. The combination did conjure up images of blistered hands, bruised wrists and me begging for the checkered flag to come out. But on the 1299 within a couple of sessions I was zipping around happily in that zen-like state of calm. Obviously the reality involved wheelies, powerslides and the handlebars giving me the odd slap, but it never felt frantic or out of control. The extra mid range torque lets you run a gear higher, where on the 1199 you’d either be bogging down or revving the tits off it. This, in turn, allows you to drive smoothly out of a turn, with a much more linear delivery of power edging up to the comforting support of the traction control. Clearly it’s still an obscenely fast bike that makes a mockery of any straight it’s presented with, but now you can actually use it to go forward rather than to have a man v metal headbutting competition every time you touch the gas.

Madder, yet somehow less mad. Witchcraft I tell you.

Madder, yet somehow less mad. Witchcraft I tell you.

As I found with the electronic semi-active suspension on the BMW S1000RR, the feel as a rider is different to what we’re used to; not worse, just different. Because the system is constantly altering the damping parameters to suit what you and the bike are up to, it doesn’t always react how you’d expect it to. Say, for example, you’re trying to run a bit more speed into a turn – on one lap you come off the brakes early and coast in a straight line for a few yards before turning in and the front feels a little soft as you turn in. Then the next lap, you start braking later and carry the brake into the turn and the front feels perfect – that’s the semi-active suspension doing its thing. It’s a subtle difference and one that you get used to real quickly; in a way it’s comforting to be able to notice something happening. Especially if you’ve just forked out twenty grand for the privilege. And if you really decide you don’t like it, or if you want to compare like-for-like you can switch the active suspension off and have conventional dampers with electronic adjustment (replacing the need for screwdrivers) instead. The best thing about the Öhlins ES system is how easy and intuitive it is to use and set up. You can either pick presets (Wet, Sport, Race) or customize the settings yourself via the left-hand switchcube and the dash. They’ve not gone mad with a million different options either – if you want it a bit stiffer, just select ‘harder’ or ‘hardest’ in the menus. Easy.

Another feature that I loved on the Beemer and is every bit as good on the Ducati is the clutchless down-shifting. Ride up to a turn, hit the brakes and stomp the gear lever down the desired number of times. You don’t need to touch the clutch, you don’t need to blip the throttle, Mr Panigale just sorts it all out for you. This leaves you way more brain capacity to deal with more interesting things like how fast you can get into the turn, how far sideways is too far sideways and why I make a funny squeaking noise when I brake really hard. And then once you’re in the turn, tap on the gas and woooah, there’s that new mid range again. It’s bloody addictive. The cornering ABS will need a bit more investigation once we get one back in the UK – in Race mode, ABS defaults back to straight line only, front wheel only, letting you concentrate on getting the thing stopped as quick as possible.

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So the electronics are better and the engine is too, but what about the chassis? What about the old bike’s love for wobbling its handlebars and filling your pants on a bumpy road? In theory, Portimão should be a pretty stiff test of the Panny’s stability – the steep dips and rises are littered with bumps and you’re almost always hitting them hard on the gas. Some of the sharper bumps were causing a strong ol’ kick from the bars, but this never progressed into anything more – just a quick ‘ooh ya b*stard’ moment. And in the softer, less race focused riding modes this went away. Again, the acid test will require some ham-fisted throttle use on a bumpy UK back road, but for now things have definitely improved.

 

 

In a nutshell

The last session on the 1299 around Portimão summed it up perfectly for me. Exploding down the start/finish straight, hit the brakes and drop three gears, leaving the bike to sort out boring stuff like keeping the rear tyre in line. Flick into the first two fast rights and then brake again into the third, slower right. Lean, lean some more, move toes up the footrest and lean some more. Then pile on the gas, leaving the electronics to keep me out of hospitals and heading forward, flick into the uphill left hander, lean on traction some more and slide right out to the kerb. And repeat until bored, which has never happened yet. The new 1299 retains the manic edge of the outgoing Panigale, but adds in a generous spoonful of usability. More power where you need it, electronics that genuinely make you faster and the most user-friendly semi-active suspension system we’ve seen so far. Still bat shit crazy, but the 1299 knows to keep its trousers on when the parents are visiting. This’ll take some beating.

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The 1299 Panigale - simply astounding.

The 1299 Panigale – simply astounding.

Words: @superbikechaos Pics: Milagro

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