Ducati 1199 Panigale S | First Ride

Not Evolution—Revolution

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Milagro

During a season when many Arab nations were upset by political uprisings, the otherwise stable United Arab Emirates was rocked by a revolution of another kind: the release of Ducati’s 1199 Panigale S at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. Every few decades a bike appears that is so bold, so original and so utterly effective that it can only be called revolutionary. Ducati’s Panigale is that bike.

Not since the original 1985 GSX-R750 have we seen a machine so completely reject conventional sportbike wisdom and blaze off in a new direction. Ducati has done away with the frame entirely, replacing it with a monocoque structure attached directly to the V-twin engine. Inside those structural cases is the most radical production motorcycle engine ever built. The biggest bore, biggest valves and highest engine speed of any sporting V-twin produces a claimed 195 horsepower. A suite of sophisticated technology—including electronically adjustable suspension, plus traction control, race ABS and more—makes the Panigale S more adaptable than any bike before. And it flat-out works, brilliantly. This is what a revolutionary sportbike looks like.

In a segment accustomed to incremental advances—a little more power here, a few less pounds there—the Panigale is a remarkable leap forward. Ducati’s outgoing 1198 was already the lightest superbike. The Panigale is said to weigh 22 lbs. less. The 1198’s 170-horsepower Testastretta engine was singularly strong. The Panigale’s Superquadro twin piles another 25 horsepower on top of that. Ducati believes it has created a new benchmark superbike. After riding it, we’re ready to agree.

Ducati’s superbikes have always been stunning designs, and the Giandrea Fabbropenned Panigale is the best one yet. It maintains the 1198’s land-shark silhouette (also by Fabbro), but a sharper nose and tail make it more sinister. Compact, all-LED lighting—an industry first—let head- and taillights disappear almost entirely into the fairing vents, so the Panigale looks like a pure racebike from many angles. Details like the see-through tailsection tunnels, peekaboo exhaust routing and sculptural swingarm make the Panigale pure pleasure for the eyes.

Aside from red paint and a few vestigial styling cues, nothing carries over from the previous generation—not a single part. The Panigale is a clean-sheet design, and Ducati’s first truly all-new Superbike since the 851 was built 25 years ago. Just a few fundamentals like the 90-degree V-twin, desmodromic valvetrain and the essential Ducati sound and character were retained. Everything else was reimagined. The result is unmistakably Ducati, yet utterly unlike any Ducati that has come before.

The riding position is the first sign that the blueprint has changed. The old torture-rack position, with a high, flat seat and low,close-set bars, is banished. The saddle has been pushed forward 30mm and the handlebars raised 10mm and set 32mm further apart, creating a more upright riding position that opens your upper body and gives you a commanding sense of control. It’s smaller than before, not quite tiny but probably tight for anyone over 6 feet tall. The new position is much more comfortable for average-sized riders, however, and makes the bike far easier to ride than before.

Thumb the starter for more new sensations. The thunderous Superquadro is instantly identifiable as a desmo twin, but it sounds deeper at idle and nastier when revved. And with a bore/stroke ratio of 1.84:1—more aggressive than any other production bike, by far—the Superquadro loves to be revved out. According to Ducati supplied dyno charts, the 98.1-lb.ft. torque peak matches the Testastretta but arrives 1500 rpm later, at 9000 rpm. The Superquadro’s horsepower trace, however, towers over its forebear everywhere above 8000 rpm. Where the Testastretta ran out of steam at 9750 rpm, the Superquadro produces thrust right up to 11,000 and barely falls off before the 11,500-rpm redline, which is 1000 revs higher than before.

Such a milestone machine deserves a magnificent debut, which is how we ended up at Abu Dhabi’s exclusive, perfectly manicured Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit. The 3.4-mile, 21-turn layout—including a wide-open, .7-mile back straight that puts you deep into sixth gear—was the perfect showcase for the Panigale’s many attributes. Even an ill-timed sandstorm with 30-mph winds dumping a fine layer of Arabian silt over the track surface couldn’t conceal the Panigale’s pure performance prowess.

The Superquadro doesn’t have the same steam-catapult thrust at lower revs as its predecessor, but more manageable midrange makes it much easier to ride fast. You often had to ride the old bike a gear high, especially at tight tracks, to keep it from stepping out mid-corner or wheelying and running wide. The Superquadro’s less violent midrange helps it off corners, while the manic upper-rev rush delivers ferocious forward motion when the bike is upright. With a claimed lightest-in-class curb weight of just 414.5 lbs. and a power-toweight ratio unmatched by any other super-bike, acceleration is eye-opening. The Panigale wheelies hard through the top of second gear—there is no wheelie control—and the front end dances every time you tap the standard-equipment electronic quick-shifter, all the way to 175 mph.

Lighter makes everything righter, and deleting 22 lbs. improves everything from acceleration to braking to handling and stability. You’d never describe previous Ducatis as neutral or forgiving, but the Panigale is both. It feels almost twitchy at first. High, wide bars give lots of steering leverage, while a low center of gravity and even lower inertial moment make it dart into corners, especially at a slower pace. The chassis can be easy to upset when you move around, so you quickly learn to hang off less and use the ample available lean angle to turn, just like a MotoGP bike. The Panigale is impressively stable even at very deep lean angles, aided by the latest-generation Ducati Traction Control that remains smooth and predictable even in the lowest settings that allow significant tire slip.

Rear end feedback is outstanding. A sausage-sized, 200mm-wide Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP, now with 24 percent more slick area than before, mounts to a longer swingarm supported by a super-responsive Ohlins TTX shock. The rear end feels solid when it’s gripping and progressive and controllable after grip goes away. The front end feedback is just as good. Fork offset has been reduced 6mm (to 30mm) and trail increased 3mm (to 100mm), making the Panigale more responsive to steering input without sacrificing stability. The 1198 could be hard to turn. You had to hang way off and pull the bike down into corners, especially at high speeds. Just a push on the inside bar puts the Panigale right where you want to go.

New Brembo M50 brakes, exclusive to the Panigale, are the best brakes we’ve experienced on a production bike—ever. These are as strong as the BMW S1000RR’s benchmark binders without such an overwhelming initial bite, and even more effective due to the Panigale’s light weight and reduced forward weight transfer. The Panigale sheds an amazing amount of speed in a remarkably short distance, especially when utilizing the optional ($1000) Bosch race ABS. A supremely effective slipper clutch and three-level-adjustable Engine Braking Control combine to make the Panigale unbelievably stable and calm even during the hardest corner entries. Confidence, defined.

The Panigale is a brilliant update of the classic Ducati superbike, smoothing away all the hard edges and adding even more speed and soul. Reinventing an icon was a huge undertaking for Ducati, and an enormous risk. So much could have gone wrong, but the small firm from Borgo Panigale, Bologna’s “Motor Valley,” succeeded in every way. It’s lighter, faster, more capable and more accessible than its predecessor—and likely its competition—and it’s still viscerally, unmistakably a Ducati. The next sportbike revolution starts now, and the 1199 Panigale is leading the way.

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