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.

In addition to the hardware changes, Ducati engineers also made some ergonomic adjustments on the R model to improve both aerodynamics and rider comfort, especially beyond triple-digit speeds. Included "wind wings" attach to the upper fairing to reroute airflow around the rider's hands and shoulders while an optional taller race windscreen (which should be considered mandatory) creates a larger bubble of still air than the marginal protection afforded by the stock piece. Also, a special saddle with a firmer pad and a toothier cover improve the rider's primary point of contact. Still, the Panigale remains a very small bike, with a tiny waist and a short front-to-center distance that will make anyone over six feet feel cramped. Such is the price of speed.

Improved aerodynamics are especially appreciated on COTA's super-long back straight where, if you get a good drive out of Turn 11, you can watch the speed readout on the easy to decipher thin-film-transistor (TFT) instrument display go blank after it passes 186 mph. (MotoGP rider Nicky Hayden, who also attended the launch and who presumably gets an even better drive out of T11, tells us the Panigale R continues to accelerate even after the screen goes blank, suggesting that Ducati has opted out of the gentleman's agreement that electronically limits top-speed to 300 kph, or 186 mph.)

"Seems fast enough for any streetbike," Hayden says, and we agree. The Panigale was already frightfully fast, but the revvier R version with quicker crankshaft acceleration and even shorter gearing absolutely rips through the rev range. Thankfully, there's an electronic quickshifter-in fact, there's not a single racing gadget the R isn't equipped with-so you don't have to bother the clutch for upshifts. Instead, you can concentrate on gripping the wide, flat clip-on handlebars to keep your weight forward in a vain attempt to keep the front wheel in contact with the ground. Thankfully, there's also an adjustable Öhlins steering damper to manage the slight headshake that accompanies any bike this light, this stiff, and with such a tenuous relationship between front tire and tarmac.

What would any exclusive, R-model Ducati be without some added bling? We're wild for the brushed-metal "graphics" on the fuel tank, fabricated here from super-light aluminum. And of course the R has been fed a steady diet of weight-saving carbon fiber, in the form of fenders (front and rear), inner fairing panels, the ignition surround, rear shock guard, heel guards, and a large swingarm cover. Also made from carbon fiber is the new and now-much-larger exhaust heat shield, which will hopefully alleviate some of the punishing radiant heat that plagued riders of last year's bikes (for which this new shield is an available retrofit). And, if you're going to the track, know the Ducati Data Analyzer + (DDA+, with GPS functionality for automatic lap timing and circuit mapping) is standard equipment here.

And the racetrack is really where this bike shines. Sleek, responsive, blistering fast, and uncannily stable even at footpeg-dragging lean angles, the 1199 Panigale R feels more like a dedicated racebike than any other production bike we've ridden. If its World Superbike debut this season at Philip Island is any indication-Carlos Checa qualified on the pole and turned a lap time (on qualifying tires) fast enough to place him on the front row of the last year's MotoGP race-Ducati has hit its mark with this bike.

EVOLUTION
The WSBK homologation version of Ducati's superbike adds titanium rods, a lighter flywheel, and an adjustable swingarm pivot.

RIVALS
Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC ABS, BMW S1000RR HP4, MV Agusta F4RR

TECH 
Price$29,995
Engine typel-c 90-deg. V-twin
Valve trainDOHC, 8v
Displacement1199cc
Bore x stroke112.0 x 60.8mm
Compression12.5:1
Fuel systemEFI, ride by wire
ClutchWet, multi-plate slipper
Transmission6-speed
Claimed horsepower195 bhp @ 10,750 rpm
Claimed torque98.1 lb.-ft. @ 9000 rpm
FrameAluminum monocoque
Front suspension43mm Öhlins NIX30 fork with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspensionÖhlins TTX36 shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brakeDual Brembo M50 Monoblock four-piston calipers, 330mm discs with ABS
Rear brakeBrembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc with ABS
Front tire120/70ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rear tire200/55ZR-17 Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP
Rake/trail24.5° /3.94 in.
Seat height32.5 in.
Wheelbase56.6 in.
Fuel capacity4.5 gal.
Claimed curb weight417 lbs.
ColorRed
Available: Now
Warranty: 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Ducati North America,
10443 Bandley Dr.,
Cupertino, CA 95014,
408.253.0499,
www.ducati.com

VERDICT 4.5 out of 5 stars
If you're looking for the perfect off-the-rack track bike, the 1199 Panigale R is tough to beat. It's different, and once you understand those differences, better.

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