2013 Ducati 1199 Panigale R | First Ride

The Panigale Gets Prepped For World Superbike

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Andrew Wheeler, Milagro

They say: "The pursuit of perfection."
We say: "In this contest, perfection doesn't stand a chance."

Racing indeed improves the breed. Participation in last year's FIM Superstock 1000 World Championship (where Panigale-mounted Eddi La Marra finished second) and the Italian Superstock Championship (won by Ivan Goi, also riding a Panigale) taught Ducati some valuable lessons about the performance of its top-line Superbike. These lessons have been applied directly the development of the new 1199 Panigale R, the premium-spec version designed specifically to homologate the Panigale platform for its debut in this season's World Superbike Championship, where it will be ridden by Ducati Alstare teammates Carlos Checa and Aryton Badovini.

The primary improvements involve two points: more midrange power and more chassis adjustability. The Panigale's ultra-short-stroke Superquadro engine was unquestionably the most-powerful production V-twin sportbike engine ever made, but it traded away the Testastretta's legendary midrange for more top-end power. Racers wanted some of that midrange back. Racers also wanted the rear of the bike to squat more under acceleration, to improve rear grip, allow more aggressive corner exits, and also reduce tire wear, which was a big problem for Panigale racers last year.

The new Panigale R incorporates solutions for both issues. Inside the Superquadro V-twin, new titanium connecting rods and a lighter flywheel save almost three pounds, reducing reciprocating weight enough that engineers could safely increase engine redline from 11,500 to 12,000 rpm. This allowed the switch to shorter, 15/41 final-drive gearing to make torque accessible at lower speeds without sacrificing top speed. Ducati says there is now 10 percent more torque available at 85 mph and 18 percent more torque on tap at 125 mph, but because the engine revs higher, there is no corresponding loss of top speed. Revised engine mapping and ride-by-wire throttle settings in Race and Sport modes (Wet mode is unchanged) also electronically boost torque output between 3000 and 8000 rpm, though claimed peak figures of 195 horsepower and 98.1 lb.-ft. torque remain the same.

The major change on the chassis side is a new four-position swingarm pivot that allows the pivot point to be raised 2mm or lowered by either 2 or 4mm to alter the swingarm squat characteristics. With the pivot in the previous fixed position (now the baseline position on the R), the rear end tended to rise under acceleration, causing excess wheelspin and tire wear. The two lower settings increase squat for better traction and less tire wear, while the higher setting will make for quicker direction changes.

Not that the Panigale doesn't already steer quickly enough. The remainder of the "chassis" is unchanged on the R version, and that term appears in quotations because there is no frame in any conventional sense. The single-sided swingarm pivots directly on the gearbox while the subframe and a massive, monocoque airbox/steering head attach directly to the Superquadro's cylinder heads. This so-called frameless design is both super rigid and super light, making the Panigale a full 22 pounds lighter than the 1198 Superbike it replaced and, at claimed 417 lbs. ready to ride, one of the lightest sportbikes on the market.

This lightness is the Panigale R's defining characteristic, and delivers a handling character unlike any other motorcycle today. The R press launch took place at the amazing new Circuit of the Americas Grand Prix facility in Austin, TX, a smooth, fast, and very technical, 3.4-mile, 20-turn racecourse that highlighted the Panigale R's best handling and acceleration attributes. Directional changes are almost unbelievably light and instant, but coupled with stability that seems improbable for such an agile and reactive bike. The Panigale R is equally responsive on corner exits-you can always steer the bike to adjust or correct your line, even when you're on the gas-making this is a forgiving machine that's easy to ride fast.

Ducati General Manager Claudio Domenicali, who directed the creation of the Panigale, explained this unexpected combination of stability and agility like this: "That's the beauty of lightness. If a bike is heavy, you have to use very aggressive geometry to get quick steering, so a bike will be either agile or stable, but seldom both. The Panigale steering is light because the bike is light; then the geometry can be made to be stable."

Few bikes feel as planted and predictable as the Panigale R does upon corner entries, and few bikes are so indifferent to heavy trail braking as this one. Top-notch mechanical components including massively powerful Brembo radial-mount M50 monoblock front brakes, an Öhlins NIX30 fork fitted with Ducati Electronic Suspension (DES) that allows instant, push-button damping adjustments, and ultra-light, Marchesini forged wheels wrapped in super-sticky Pirelli Super Corsa SP rubber provide all the feedback you could desire. Further downstream, a seamless slipper clutch, three-level-adjustable Race ABS, and three-level-adjustable electronic engine braking underwrite rider confidence and make hacked-out corner entries and other late-braking heroics seem almost too easy.

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