Motorcycle Daily would like to thank the cast and crew of Munroe Motors for providing us with the demo unit used in this test. We also send healing thoughts to dealer principle Nick Hayman, injured in the May AMA races in Sonoma, California. Get well, Nickers!
Long, long ago, the Church of Motorcycling had a major schism. The cruiser people founded their own church, as did the motocrossers, roadracers and tourers. The commuters and scooter people went in their own non-denominational direction, but within each of these new churches, there was further fragmentation.
In the deep, hidden cells below a remote monastery, red-robed acolytes of the Church of the Great Ducati Superbike still practice their rituals, burning frankincense and rattling clutch plates in the hopes of bringing back their messiah, the 1994 Ducati 916. Since the first-generation bike last rolled off the assembly line in 2002, every following model has been dismissed by the True Believers, even though they have all been functionally much better than that original bike. The last iteration, the 2007-2011 1098 series, is an impressive ride: 160 horsepower at the crank (compared to the 916′s 115 or so) and around 435 pounds gassed up (the 916 was well over 470) . An excellent bike, but still based on that original 916 (which in turn used the basic frame and motor architecture of its 851 ancestor) from 13 years before. Had Ducati bumped up against a technical ceiling, doomed to forever churning out almost-as-good replicas for an impossible-to-please and shrinking crowd of orthodox zealots?
And then there was this crazy patent filing in 2011. It showed a liquid-cooled V-Twin (with hybrid chain/gear-driven cams) bolted directly to the swingarm, subframe and monocoque steering head—no frame in the traditional sense, trellis or otherwise. Say buh-bye to about 30 pounds and hello to 35 more horsies. But was this for a MotoGP bike? Or would it be a production superbike?
Spy shots of Troy Bayliss riding the new superbike answered that: production. And the roll-out at the Milan show revealed an all-business machine whose only nod to the 916 adherents was the single-sided swingarm and the blood-red paint. Rear suspension is a horizontally mounted shock working through an adjustable linkage. An S model is equipped with the latest in electronically adjustable Öhlins suspension, along with wheelie control, a quick shifter, electronically-assisted slipper clutch, ABS and multi-level traction control. It’s like owning your own space shuttle.
We here at MD like to ride fast, expensive things as much as the next editorial entity, so when the generous folk at Munroe Motors offered up their demo unit for testing, we snapped up the first opportunity. Here’s what we found out after three days of street testing.
Age: Eternally 40, Height: 6′ 2″, favorite Italian thing: Lucca’s Spinach ravioli
The Panigale is a legendary Italian bird of prey that has both the biggest brain and the largest testicles of any avian creature on the European continent.
Actually, I just made that up. But it’s fitting. You’ll see.
After researching this new model, I’ll admit I was apprehensive: this Duc is different. The brand’s trademark Desmodromic valve actuation remains. But gone is the steel trellis, and the familiar dry clutch, with its “klakka-klakka” soundtrack that sounds like a helicopter sawing through a chain-link fence, is also missing. Instead, the Panigale has a wet clutch like most Japanese literbikes. And there are no more cam belts to replace every three years, or arcane belt-tensioning procedures. The Panigale has low maintenance (every 15,000 miles), chain-driven cams. So I was skeptical. Would the Panigale be so refined as to be boring? Would it retain any of Ducati’s mechanically- focused character or would it mark the point at which Ducati becomes just another appliance manufacturer?
I showed up to Munroe Motors to grab my test bike. After a quick tutorial from salesman Mark Pearson, I turned the key on. The onboard display lit up in full color. Cool. The Mitsubishi engine control system allows for three riding modes, each with a multitude of engine braking, traction control and maximum (190 hp claimed) or attenuated (choked off to 120 hp) engine output settings to choose from. From an electronics standpoint, this is a very brainy bike.
My test bike was the 1199S, which adds Öhlins’ electronically adjustable (for compression and rebound) front and rear suspension. The “on the fly” suspension tuning is particularly cool. You could, ostensibly set your damping low so your freeway ride to the twisties doesn’t rattle your fillings so much. Once you arrive at the fun roads, you can change the mode to add damping to decrease fork dive or keep the rear from squatting under full throttle.
For the next few days, I rode my test bike around the streets of San Francisco as well as on freeways and local backroads. City riding is an exercise in throttle hand self- control, lest you double or treble the posted limit. In the twisties, the bike is one with the road. Transitions are effortless due to Ducati’s mass centralization efforts. Roll-on times from 60 to 80 mph are a fraction of a second.
Despite its brawn, this bike is easy to ride. Though Ducati claims a massive 98 ft.-lbs. of torque, it gets underway as effortlessly as a moped and the throttle is crisp and manageable. Once underway, power is prodigious, and the bike accelerates from low speed to the 11,500 rpm redline with seemingly increasing acceleration. This thing moves like a starship with a freshly rebuilt hyperdrive.
Ducati owners traditionally blow a few thousand bucks for a Termignoni full exhaust immediately after buying a new Duc. The Panigale’s stock exhaust system looks, works and sounds so good, you’re much better off saving your cash for upcoming legal defense as those speeding tickets pile up. Mechanical cues come from the bike’s fierce midrange exhaust snarl as well as the cacophony of clattering desmos and whirring gears, audible at any speed. I almost didn’t miss the old noisy dry clutch. My fears were all allayed. The Panigale is not only 100 percent Ducati, it is probably the finest sportbike the Bologna factory has ever produced.
This is not to say that the Panigale is perfect. Imperfection is, after all, a Ducati hallmark. The under-seat exhaust, despite its shielding, made for a great bunwarmer in the crisp Bay Area weather—in warmer climates, it might not be so welcome. Above 50 mph, the mirrors turn objects behind you into abstract expressionist artwork. You will never see a police observer behind you until (unless?) they finally catch up. The turn-signal cancel switch, which I have a nervous habit of hitting repeatedly, doubles as a mode-select switch, so the bike thinks I’m trying to change modes when I’m just making sure my turn signals are off. Our test unit also smoked consistently for a few seconds after startup, which I’m told is normal. Finally, gearing is astronomical. At one point as the tachometer needle swung past 9000 rpm, just three-quarters of the way to redline while going at 80 mph in second gear, I had a simple thought: “Where on Earth would you ever get past third gear?”
In conclusion, Ducati’s new flagship motorcycle, the 1199 Panigale, would be a singularly effective backroads bike, trackday terrorizer, or daily driver. It has brains and guts as well as massive, bulging cojones. This big Duc succeeds in seamlessly shifting the Ducati superbike paradigm without grinding gears. It’s very simply a market-leading, world-class sportbike.
Age: 47 Height: 6’2″, Favorite Italian Thing: Monica Bellucci
It’s so sexy. It’s so sleek. It is such a complete departure from traditional Ducati engineering language that I am not surprised that there has been extensive buzz about this bike. Having had an entirely too-brief encounter with it, I can say definitively that the buzz is warranted. It is clear that the Panigale is, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, a race bike with lights. Undoubtedly, the sole agenda for this bike is winning races.
Like other racers, the bike is physically tiny with high pegs and low bars. Surprisingly, the suspension is not overly harsh on the street, a very difficult thing to achieve with such a light bike. The seat is wickedly uncomfortable, and the bodywork designed to slice through the atmosphere. If you’re not in a full tuck, you’re doing it wrong.
Slip the key into the ignition and the paperback book-sized full color digital dash lights up and does its little startup dance. Sitting still in the parking lot of a Taco Bell, flipping through the electronics package menu was pretty much the last time I could afford the attention for an extended look at the gorgeous display. The main attraction on the street (sadly, we did not have the luxury of track-testing) is the motor. It’s like a shark: it’s only happy when it’s lunging forward, using the power to inhale ribbons of asphalt, and passing slower vehicles like eating those damn cheddar guppy crackers. One is never enough, let’s go for three. If you trust the Panigale electronics, you can pass motorhomes, downhill, in third gear, with the wheelie control causing the power to stutter slightly, just by pinning the throttle. Maybe this isn’t the intended or best use of the electronics, but it sure is memorable and satisfying.
Restrain the Panigale, and it is not amused. There appears to be no rpm range at which it will behave nicely if the rider is obeying the law. One of the most mind-boggling aspects of this engine and power train is that it really only needs two gears in the United States. You’ll see 85 mph well before the rev limiter damps your enthusiasm in second gear. Third gear at 55 mph puts the motor at about 3500 rpm, and the throttle is a bit touchy. With so much power “a bit touchy” translates into an unpleasant jerkiness. Slipping into higher gears—and the ratios are mountainously high—doesn’t improve the situation much. Sixth gear at highway speed has the motor at very low rpm, and it protests mightily if you try to accelerate without downshifting. Clearly, the path to Nirvana is to never ride the Panigale like a citizen or use it only on the track.
Our test bike was the “S” model, which has Öhlins electronically-adjustable damping and ABS brakes. The suspension is a technological jewel, both for the novel design, which relocates the linkage and shock to the left side of the bike, and for how well it seems to work. In our “real world” test, we simply could not work the suspension hard enough to identify its strengths and weaknesses: I know that even in my heyday of racing, this bike is so much more capable than I was, (it’s even better than I think I was) and it’s vastly better than I am now, especially on the street. I can tell you it feels light and precise, and goes exactly where you point it, without any sense of instability or over-reactiveness. Any further pontification on the suspension or chassis would be conjecture on my part. Regarding the brakes, they are powerful without being abrupt, and like the suspension, I never probed their performance envelope.
The technology and engineering that went into the suspension is nothing short of a milestone in the evolutionary change in the state of the art of motorcycling. Damping changes by wire are brilliant. Electronically-adjusted damping is the first step toward true active suspension that adapts to instantaneous road conditions. Aside from making reading the owner’s manual an absolute must, all of the electronics constitute a massive advantage for riders of this thoroughbred.
It was a privilege to ride the Panigale, and I feel, sadly, that unless a benevolent legislator sponsors a get-out-of-jail-free card in which the holders can ride as aggressively as they want, whenever they want, wherever they want, the Panigale has limited function as a street bike. As a track bike it would be absolutely incandescent, a joyful exercise in controlled violence, to fulfill its true calling in life: shaving seconds off lap times.
Age: 43.05, Height: 4’9″, favorite Italian thing: Not paying taxes
I’m going to come right out and say it: I am not a fan of open-class motorcycles. On the street, they make no sense whatsoever, unless you have a death wish and a traffic attorney on retainer. There just isn’t enough room to get out of third gear, let alone really test the capabilities of one of these. On the racetrack, they make even less sense, unless you are at the very highest level of skill and ability, in which case somebody else will be buying your racebike and you won’t care what we think. If you’re not at that skill level, do you really want to work on your skills with 170 hp threatening to toss you into the weeds?
Yeah, yeah, I know…motorcycles aren’t really rational purchases. And even in that context, a $22,995 Ducati Panigale S is still a solid-gold life preserver. But man, o man is this a fantastic motorcycle. I feel hamstrung by the limits of the boring old written communications media I’m chained to—the Panigale needs to have Norse Epics written about it, operas, maybe an AMC drama series. But I’ll try.
Is it fast? It’s not the fastest thing I’ve ridden (although it’s pretty close), but the motor is torquey, responsive and though not so fun at lower speeds, incredible when you open the throttle. People on ordinary sportbikes really don’t have a chance—just twist and dispatch them. You have God-like powers.
Does it handle nicely? Well, it doesn’t feel like any Ducati superbike I’ve ridden. Sure, you know it’s related—predictable, progressive steering and dead stable leaned over—but it really feels more like a very dialed-in (and insanely fast) Japanese supersport than a humungous V-Twin superbike. I do wish the suspension had electronically-adjustable preload like the Multistrada S, as the damping is so fun and easy to adjust, but what are you going to do? Complaining about having to use a screwdriver to adjust the preload is like complaining that Joanna Krupa takes too long to get undressed.
Is it comfortable? This surprised me—yes, it is. Sure, the seat is hard and of course your ass gets roasted by the exhaust, but the compact seating and humane bar placement make it at least as comfortable as some of the less-comfortable Japanese sportbikes—and if you’ve ridden a 916 you know that’s really something. And with 15,000-mile major-service intervals and observed fuel economy around 40 mpg (at steady highway speeds), it’s even vaguely practical.
But is it easy to use? That’s the mind-blowing reveal before the last commercial break on this reality show. Yes it is. From the smooth fueling to the simple-to-use electronics package, the Panigale is designed to be ridden and doesn’t assume you have both an FIM license and a PhD in software engineering. All the electronics onboard are enough to give you a nosebleed, but they work so well together you don’t notice them. It makes going fast—and I mean so fast there really is nowhere to use this thing on public roads, so book a full season of trackdays—so easy Senator Danforth would probably burst into flames if he found out about it.
Finally, should you buy one? Fockin-A you should. If you can afford it and you love motorcycles, this is the next best thing until the next next best thing rolls along, and seriously, it could be the pinnacle of internal-combustion motorcycling. It will be a classic—not because it’s as good looking as a 916 (and it isn’t), but because it works as a sportbike better than anything Ducati (or maybe anybody) has ever made.