After a full day riding Ducati’s radical new 1199 Panigale around Abu Dhabi’s sun-drenched Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit—an Arabian version of the famous Monaco track, lined by six-star hotels and glitzy high-rises—it’s hard not to conclude the Italian manufacturer just shot every other sportbike clean out of the water. The Panigale is the new benchmark not just for twin-cylinder superbikes, but the entire superbike category. Forza Italia!
Just throwing a leg over the Panigale demonstrates how different it is from every other Ducati superbike built in the past 25 years. It’s less stretched-out, with the seat moved forward 30mm compared to its 1198 predecessor, putting less pressure on your arms so it’s less tiring to ride. An even bigger difference is the weight: The Panigale is 22 lbs. lighter than the 1198, and the weight is carried lower too, so it changes direction with much less effort. Attacking Yas Marina’s many chicanes is easy, despite the fat, 200mm--wide Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP rear tire that is specified for its larger contact patch. You want as much rubber on the ground as possible, in order to lay down the additional 25 bhp Ducati says the Panigale produces compared to last year’s Testastretta-powered 1198.
The amazing new Superquadra (“oversquare”) engine is unquestionably the star of the show. Thumbing the starter button unleashes a New World Symphony of desmodromic music, higher-pitched and less gruff than before thanks to the ultra-short-stroke (112 x 60.8mm) engine dimensions. This produces an impressive 195 bhp (claimed) at 10,750 rpm—just 4 bhp less than Carlos Checa’s 2011 World Superbike title-winning 1198, Ducati says—with an appetite for revs that’s frankly addictive. Torque peak remains unchanged at 97 lb.-ft., though now arriving at 9000 rpm, which is 1000 rpm later than before. There isn’t the same massive low-rev hit as before, so you can’t grab any gear and go. The new bike asks you to rev it right out to redline—which is foreshadowed by an infinitely more-legible shift-light on the new dash, followed by a soft-limiter at 11,500 rpm—without any appreciable drop in power, and then use the standard-fitment quick-shifter to bang into the next gear.
Ride-by-wire throttle control enables three riding modes—Race, Sport and Rain—each incorporating pre-programmed settings for other rider-aid programs including traction control, engine-braking control, ABS and electronically adjustable suspension. Fortunately, all of these programs can be individually adjusted so you can precisely tailor the performance to your unique riding style and experience. For example, the default engine-braking control setting (Level 3) had those of us accustomed to riding big twins and expecting huge engine braking actually blowing some corners when the engine pushed past the entry point. Switching to the minimum (Level 1) fixed that, and underlined the importance of adjusting these high-tech electronics to your own needs.
The claimed dry weight of just 362 lbs. gives the Panigale an incredible power-to-weight ratio, which allows fierce acceleration and also exceptional steering agility, so it easily flicks from side to side with none of the heaving required before. And there’s absolutely no vagueness or front-wheel chatter like Valentino Rossi has complained about on Ducati’s 800cc MotoGP machine that used a similar “frameless” design, with the front and rear suspension and subframe attaching directly to the engine. But the Bridgestone control tires Rossi & Co. use are significantly stiffer than the Panigale’s Pirellis, which communicate exceptionally good front-end feedback, especially during deep trail-braking. Light weight and peerless Brembo radial brakes means the Panigale stops hard, too. Default suspension settings Ducati selected for Yas Marina were stiff for such a smooth, F1-friendly surface, but the Ohlins suspension fitted to the 1199S testbikes allow more than enough adjustability for patient owners to find a softer setting.
The radical new engine, innovative chassis and sophisticated, MotoGP-derived electronics combine to create awe-inspiring performance that is nevertheless accessible and intuitive. The Panigale is almost unbelievably fast: I saw 175 mph down the long Yas Marina main straight, before chickening out at the 200-meter mark to brake for Turn 1’s second-gear chicane. The Panigale is also remarkably sophisticated: Ducati General Manager Claudio Domenicali says there are six individual ECUs on this bike, to run all the various electronic systems. In the high-stakes game of World Superbike chess that nine manufacturers are currently playing, where the challenge is to outmatch each other in producing the fastest, sexiest and most capable high-performance motorcycle money can buy, Ducati’s Panigale shouts, “Checkmate!”