Aidan O’Dowd

Ducati Gave Me A Panigale V4 S And This Is What Happened

A 916 devotee falls in love with a V-4 Ducati


he Ducati racing twin is dead. That’s three decades of legacy, three decades of rattly dry clutches, three decades of red memories, three decades of feeling—all consigned to the past. For me, Ducati’s formula of speed was solid ground to stand on when the world was trying to spin me off. When my personal chronology was fractured, Ducati superbikes were the reliable, familiar two-cylinder bridge between the corporeal present and the bewildering diffusion of memory. The Panigale V4 S has two too-many cylinders and it doesn’t have most of the characteristics that make a Ducati a Ducati. The 90-degree engine layout and desmo valve actuation are the only signature mechanical elements it really has in common with the Ducatis we all fell in love with. Sure, the Panigale V4 S looks brilliant on paper (214 hp at the counterrotating crank, twin-pulse firing order, Öhlins semi-active electronic suspension, the most advanced electronics suite on the market), but Ducatis made their name by defying spec sheets unable to convey their brilliance in the artificiality of two dimensions. It was never about the numbers. Did Ducati just leave me behind?

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S.Aidan O’Dowd

Riding the Panigale V4 S proves Ducati didn’t abandon dyed-in-the-wool V-twin-loving Ducatisti like me. It proves that looking back and looking ahead can happen at the same time.

There’s no such thing as moving on. But unity is possible on the road ahead.

Ducati took that road. And it brought me with it.

Ducati's Classical Period: On Two Cylinders, Trellis Frames, Dry Clutches, And The Soul Of Italy

The era loosley bookended by Cagiva and Texas Pacific Group ownership is the pinnacle of Ducati’s Classical Period. When the 916 was released in 1994, it defined the marque’s path for the coming decades by forging an identity that we still associate with it today. The world would come to know Ducatis as fast, red, exotic, and dead set on winning. They were what everyone wanted out of an Italian motorcycle.

Fabio Taglioni and Massimo Bordi's unconventional formula for speed proved successful on the racetrack, but it was Massimo Tamburini's iconic design that gave Ducati a face to go with the soul. The 916 transformed Ducati from quirky Italian racing specialist to household name.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Bliss.Aidan O’Dowd

Part of the appeal was that the 916 could only have ever come from Borgo Panigale in the '90s. It could only have been designed by engineers who grew up in Emilia-Romagna and built by preening, chain-smoking factory workers who took long lunch breaks and catcalled every woman who walked by. If regular union demonstrations disrupted the assembly line, "Allora…"

Its charismatic personality codified the formula to motorcycle enthusiasts: two cylinders, desmodromic valve actuation, 90-degree V angle, belt-driven cams, dry clutch, trellis frame, single-sided swingarm, underseat exhaust. It’s a formula that’s become one of the eternal verities of motorcycling.

High-maintenance costs, short service intervals, dubious quality control, and backbreaking ergos became the excusable expense of riding a single-minded, exotic racebike for the roads. Exceptional. Temperamental. Italian.

Legs roasted at a stoplight? Then don’t ride it in traffic. Sore fingers from the heavy clutch pull? It doesn’t bother Foggy. What are you, some kind of weakling?

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Some have complained that the V4’s aesthetics are too derivative of previous Panigales. It looks good in the flesh though.Aidan O’Dowd

The word everyone uses to describe riding a Ducati superbike is “character.” The explosive pops under deceleration, the bellow at full tilt, and the sibilant dry clutch create a raucous symphony that represent Ducati as much as wine and fashion represent the whole of Italy. The churning power delivery gives usable torque everywhere, enhancing the impression that speed is relative to sensation, not the other way around. It all seems almost crude except that it’s so damned effective. The trellis frame provides so much feedback that throttle inputs are palpable through every contact point between bike and rider. Lap times drop. Confidence rises. And it’s doing it all with such feeling, stirring the emotions at 10,000 rpm with an imagination-igniting vitality that ingratiates itself with the rider.

My 996 S is my all-time favorite motorcycle. Nothing I’ve ridden is as visceral, charismatic, or inspiring. I’m torn between wanting to enshrine it in my living room and wanting to ride it hard and put on as many miles as I can. So far, I’m doing the latter.

I was nine when the 916 debuted. From then on, I was obsessed with Ducati. Glued to the TV for every race; announcing twice a day, “Guess what time it is?! It’s 9:16!”; building my wardrobe around Ducati shirts, jackets, and caps; reading everything I could about it.

The 916 played such an outsized role in my childhood that discussing it feels personal. The 916 story, as funny as it sounds, is my story.

Maybe my nostalgia seems overly confessional for a motorcycle website (“another millennial talking about himself as though anyone cares”), but the truth is I’ve lionized my younger years because of tragedy. Just a few weeks after he bought a brand-new 1098, my dad was killed on it during an ordinary Sunday morning ride.

I was graduating college in a couple weeks. We were supposed to spend the summer riding the Duck and a new Suzuki GSX-R1000—his "touring bike." I never got a chance to ride either. The only thing I have of the 1098 is the spare key and the owner's manual. I keep them in my office bookcase next to the photo album of my wedding, the first issue of Motorcyclist my writing appears in, and the Kocinski-replica Arai I wore for countless miles riding behind my dad.

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I’ve never for a moment blamed Ducatis—or motorcycles in general—for my dad’s death. But in an attempt to maintain a semblance of continuity in life and to keep my dad close, I’ve made certain childhood memories sacrosanct. Maybe they’d have meant as much to me without his passing—that I’ll never know—but I’m acutely aware of how they define my present identity. With my life so divided, I’ve endeavored to grasp any connection with the life before his loss; a connection between a life of seeming wholeness and a life with an overwhelming, unfillable vacancy.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Tiptoeing in slow, off-camber corners. Simple on the Panigale V4 S.Aidan O’Dowd

The traditional Ducati superbike qualities make for a wonderfully charismatic motorcycle. But for me, they're more than that. They're important. They're a source of continuity, of memory made present. The sound of a Ducati racing twin at full tilt diminishes time as a prime mover.

The Ducati Panigale V4 S possesses very few of those trademark Ducati qualities.

A New Era Dawns: Riding The 2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S

I’m braking into a left-hand sweeper. I drop two gears with an affirmative tap without touching the clutch. I stick my knee out and shift my body weight to the inside and the bike dips into the corner. The semi-active Öhlins suspension compresses. I feel the tires adhere. Hitting the apex, I wind on the throttle, transferring load off the front to keep it settled over the ripples in the pavement. The bike stands up. I’m in third gear and I have the throttle pinned. By 10,000 rpm, I’m doing triple digits and the torque wrenches the bike onto its rear wheel, even though wheelie control is set at 4. The amber traction control indicator lights are full-on. I approach a gentle crest in the road more rapidly than I ever have before. With such speed, I realize I can catch air over this thing.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Cold pavement, sticky tires.Aidan O’Dowd

Every rise in the road becomes Ballaugh Bridge; every series of bends, Scarperia and Palagio. The Desmosedici Stradale’s nasal whine and the blip of the quickshifter are the sound of MotoGP.

Only a four-cylinder can rev this quickly, be this ferocious, be this exhilarating. If it weren’t for the breath guard on my AGV Pista GP R, the inside of my visor would be covered in nose smudges. Each time I open the throttle, the V4 holds my license hostage.

The V4’s power is unrelenting; it’s speed insistent. But between the new frame, counterrotating crank, forged Marchesini wheels, Öhlins suspension, and grippy Pirelli Diablo Supercorsas, the handling doesn’t play second fiddle. My problem with literbikes has always been that regardless of how great the thing corners, prodigious power always gives the dominant sensation. On the V4, the handling is so impressive that it doesn’t let horsepower steal the show.

It provides so much feedback through the corners, I take them faster, but, more importantly, with more confidence. I feel more relaxed. I have to remind myself to actually hang on. Until I open the throttle—then I have to remind myself to not close my eyes. The Panigale V4 makes me feel like a better rider even though I’m vastly unworthy of it. It makes everything easy. It makes everything better.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Dainese, AGV, Ducati: Italy in Upstate New York.Aidan O’Dowd

Riding it, I’m reminded of a Walker Percy excerpt: “But the hawk was not of two minds. Single-mindedly it darted through the mountain air and dove into the woods. Its change of direction from level flight to drop was fabled. That is, it made him think of times when people told him fabulous things and he believed them.… The hawk…could fly full speed and straight into the hole of a hollow tree and brake to a stop inside.… It was possible to believe that the hawk could do just a fabled single-minded thing.”

Single-mindedness has defined Ducati superbikes since the original 750SS Imola replica. Yet never has a single-minded Ducati superbike been so undemanding. For a race-replica superbike, it’s an amazingly comfortable, easy-to-ride motorcycle. I’ve done 300-mile days on it and not hated myself.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
Smiling behind the dark shield.Aidan O’Dowd

So the Panigale V4 is brilliant, but does it have character?

Well, not exactly like a Ducati of the classical period, but it does, yes. The mechanical noise of the desmo valve train is present at low rpm and perfect primary balance gives it that Ducati feel in the seat of the pants. The exhaust note of the twin-pulse firing order is the sound of the New Ducati Superbike. And I'm in love. The V4 unquestionably has a thing; that indefinable, it's-more-than-just-fast Ducati thing. The V4 isn't the modern incarnation of the 916 lineage like subsequent superbikes have been, but it's quintessential Ducati.

When I ride my 996, I can't help but think to myself, "Now this is a Ducati." When I ride the Panigale V4 S, I can't help but think, "Now this is a motorcycle." It doesn't sit in the shadow of its predecessors. It's a new era of Ducati. Informed by its past, respectful of it, but not beholden to it.

I’ll always own and cherish a Ducati of the classical period because it was indeed a special, defining time for Ducati. As it was for me. Trellis frames, dry clutches, and two cylinders are part of the Ducati story, but they aren’t the whole story. The Panigale V4 S doesn’t change the narrative, it adds to it. It proves that the best way to honor the past isn’t to linger in it, but to build on it.

2018 Ducati Panigale V4 S
A motorcycle worthy of contemplation.Aidan O’Dowd

Eleven years beyond my dad's death, his loss has become an integral part of my story and of who I am. I honor the past by caring about aspects that defined it. But I'm not only who I was. I'm also who I am, and who I will be. The more of time I witness, the more I can contextualize change; the more I perceive change as a function of both fate and will; that change accentuates the beauty and value of what came before.

If my dad were here now, he’d be riding a Ducati Panigale V4 S. But since he isn’t, I’ll ride it as though he were right in front of me. “Stay with me,” he’d think as he accelerated into the distance.

Right behind you, Dad.