First Ride: 2016 Ducati 959 Panigale

European regulations forced Ducati to make the 899 over again, and it’s brilliant!

They say: The perfect balance for high-performance riding. We say: Yup, that’s about right.

Everything's relative. Just about 20 years ago, in 1996, Troy Corser won the first of his two World Superbike championships (and the sixth of Ducati's 17 riders titles) aboard the 996cc F96 factory race version of the iconic 916. This purpose-built machine delivered 157 hp at 11,800 rpm en route to dominating that year's series, with its riders Corser, John Kocinski and Frankie Chili winning 14 of the 24 races. Fast forward two decades. Now Ducati has launched what it terms the "supermid" version of its current superbike called the 959 Panigale, and it too produces 157 hp.

Ducati's midsized superbike has come a long way from the 87 hp 748 first sold in 1995, even if its creation has been forced on the company by the stringent new Euro 4 emissions and particularly noise regulations that the good-selling 899 Panigale introduced just two years ago was unable to meet. Ducati has succeeded in making sweet-riding lemonade out of the bitter lemon of bureaucratic intervention. Rather than rejig the 899 to make it compliant with the imminent Euro rules, it has effectively produced an all-new motorcycle that goes some way beyond that.

Inevitably, there are some downsides to doing this, but the worst is aesthetic rather than performance related, in the shape of the distinctly unlovely and much longer Euro 4 exhaust consisting of twin stacked cannon-type silencers equipped with dual lambda probes and a denser, heavier catalyst. In some countries—notably the US—where noise is not such an issue as in Euroland, the 959 will continue to be sold with the Panigale’s trademark underslung exhaust.

In cubing up the smallest member of the Panigale family’s Superquadro engine, by stroking it up from the 899’s 100 x 57.2mm 898cc dimensions to 100 x 60.8 for 955cc, Ducati has created a faster, more powerful, well balanced motorcycle that’s also easier to ride hard on a track day. he way that Ducati has filled in the midrange of the new bike is really noticeable. The 959’s revamped engine delivers 6 percent more horsepower and 8 percent better torque than the 899, with a broader spread of each, but more to the point, Ducati claims a 4 percent improvement in the torque-to-weight ratio that’s the key to this enhanced rideability over the peakier 899.

Don’t let the white color of the bike fool you into thinking you’re on an 899. While the quickshifter is crisp and precise, you must urge yourself not to shift gear unduly often, and so avoid using, say, second gear for the tight infield right-hander at Valencia, when third will do fine for a smooth but strong drive out of the apex. It’s a pity there’s no autoblipper for clutchless downshifts as on the 1299, and the fact you can’t even buy one as an option is a rare mistake for Ducati. It almost cancels out the fact they’ve finally replaced the 899’s shiny, slippery, cast alloy footrests with the 1299’s machined aluminium billet footpegs. At last! Throwing a leg over the Panigale’s high seat reveals the fairing to be slightly wider and the windscreen taller, together providing increased protection for the rider versus the 899.

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This improved engine package comes not only via the detailed mechanical changes and the 57cc increase in capacity, but also thanks to the extra refinement of Ducati’s electronics package. The feeling of security transmitted by this package of programs is very high, and will surely let even less experienced riders explore the bike’s limits with confidence. I started my time aboard the 959 using the Sport (really, Street) map as I dialed myself in, with TC on level five (out of eight), and ABS working on both wheels, but by the end of that first session I had the TC light on the dash flashing as I downshifted from sixth to third at the end of Valencia’s pit straight while running over the car-induced bumps entering this crucial turn. Same thing again at the other end of the lap, with the TC light flashing as I exited the last turn onto the pit straight, even if I didn’t feel any instability here.

I switched to Race mode for my second session, with TC level three and ABS only operational on the front wheel and rear-lift mitigation turned off. This let the rear wheel walk gently but super controllably as I applied the power to exit the last turn, but without any trace of movement from the front. Race mode had a sharper pickup from a closed throttle than Sport, but not sufficient to unsettle the bike.

Using a gear higher in several turns at Valencia was possible because of the 959’s well-balanced chassis, which has been subtly improved versus the 899. You can put a lot of confidence in the front tire to keep up turn speed, in pursuit of a higher top speed down the following straight—well, there’s really only one at Valencia—down which I eventually saw 161 mph on the monochrome dash before braking hard and late for the third gear Turn One. It was without drama thanks to the 959’s new slipper clutch and by Ducati’s EBC/Engine Brake Control. EBC is adjustable to three levels. Level one has such strong intervention that it practically stopped the bike dead when I backed off the throttle for tighter turns, but level three proved ideal. I’ve always preferred to keep the EBC deactivated when I’ve ridden other Panigale versions. This system is designed to reduce the amount the rear wheel chatters on the overrun by opening the throttle to reduce rear wheel lock-up, but I’ve been riding big twins all my racing life, and on other Panigales this feature had me missing the entry apexes of turns as the engine pushed me on past them. But Ducati has obviously invested serious time in developing this program and it’s now sufficiently improved in aiding you getting stopped that I’m a believer. Better with it than without it.

That degree of assistance with controlled engine braking helped compensate for the slightly less ferocious response of the M4.32 Brembo Monoblock calipers Ducati has fitted here, which offer good feel but don’t have such a strong initial bite compared to the 1299’s M50 items. But really, it’s better this way as being more controllable over the greater variety of road surfaces that a real world sportbike is likely to face. Handling is on balance with the power and braking, the 959’s narrower 180/60 rear tire helping it change direction quicker and easier than the 1299 with its massive 200/55-17 rear tire. But the 959 steers easily into turns with minimal rider input, with the only slight downside to the steering the slightly sticky feel to the non-adjustable Sachs steering damper. The 43mm Showa Big Piston Fork fitted compensates for that slightly by being lighter than a conventional upside down fork, and it did a good job of ironing out the few ripples on this MotoGP racetrack, especially under braking.

But it’s that lovely motor that makes the 959 Panigale stand out as the best of both worlds—torquey and forgiving when needed, as well as fast and furious when you want it to be. The 955cc engine’s reserves of torque allow you to hold a gear for long stretches of tarmac, running it to the 10,750 rpm soft-action rev limiter in intermediate ratios, which in fifth or sixth gear is raised to 11,500 revs.

Ducati is hoping the 959 Panigale will appeal to those stepping up to sportbikes from naked bikes, as well as riders of Japanese 600cc supersports who feel ready for a bike with increased performance, prestige, and character. They’re also looking at attracting crossover customers who are set to replace their 1,000cc Japanese superbikes, but balk at paying the steep premium for the 1299 Panigale. In doing so, Ducati has set out to produce a bike with accessible performance on street or track that you can enjoy Sunday morning blasts on along Racer Road, as well as ride to a circuit, spend a day lapping it (and recording the data on the optional DDA data analysis system), then ride home again—all without changing tires, gearing or electronics. Ducati has taken the overall format and so-cool styling of the bigger-engined Panigales and, with a 955cc engine, made it more of a road bike without losing its track focus. So let’s give thanks to the bureaucrats in Brussels who dreamed up the Euro 4 regulations, for without those the 959 Panigalina might not have been created.

tech SPEC

EVOLUTION
Ducati’s latest “supermid” sportbike melds the lithe form of the 899 and the power and technical content of the Panigale 1299.
RIVALS
[Aprilia RSV4][], [BMW S1000RR][], [Honda CBR1000RR][], [Kawasaki ZX-10R][], [KTM][] RC 8, [Suzuki GSX-R1000][], [Yamaha YZF-R1][]
TECH
PRICE N/A
ENGINE 955cc, liquid-cooled 90-deg. V-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER 158 hp @ 10,750 rpm
CLAIMED TORQUE 77.9 lb.-ft. @ 9000 rpm
FRAME Monocoque aluminum
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Sachs shock adjustable for spring preload, rebound and compression damping; 5.2-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 245mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/3.8 in.
WHEELBASE 56.3 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.5 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 440 lb. wet
AVAILABLE February 2016
CONTACT [ducati..com][]
VERDICT
More cubes, more torque, more tech for Ducati’s superbly balanced midsized superbike.
2016 ducati 959 panigale review
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