The ‘baby’ Panigale is now at a level where the best superbikes were from not that long ago...
Oh no, Manuel Poggiali would be my mentor. I’m so done. I’m so-freaking-done!
This guy is properly fast on a bike — any bike. Well, a two-time world champion ought to be I suppose. He’s beaten guys like Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo. But, as I discovered, Manuel is also a very cool, charming, and incredibly patient guy.
This was the press ride for the Ducati 959 Panigale. It’s the 899, only better. It’s the 1299, only lesser.
Turns 5-6. I wasn’t able to hold it flat around there. And seeing Manuel in front of me, sliding into corners and exiting at speeds that I’ve only imagined in my wet dreams, made it even more embarrassing. Only, it didn’t — because, let’s be honest, he’s a bloody racer. I am, on my best day, a buffoon.
We were going steady and getting faster with every lap. I was appreciated for my steady development, and that was just the ego massage that I needed. But, after the second session, Manuel suggested that we should spice things up a bit. In my mind, I was already at the threshold of my heroism without letting anyone on to the fact that I actually wanted to lock myself in a room and shiver in fear. You see, I haven’t been on a bike of any sort for a while – and I haven’t been on a track in even longer. The coming together of both those elements took some getting used to.
I was happy scaring myself in Sport mode around the absolutely awesome Chang circuit in Buriram, Thailand. It’s a super technical track, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out the right line around some of the corners. But it is truly a magnificent circuit. Even MotoGP has signed up for a few years, I hear.
So, by spicing things up Manuel meant that we shift into Race mode. Ducati has packed in a lot of electronic magic in the 959 Panigale — much like all the big players in the sport bike segment are doing these days. We were riding in Sport mode, with middling levels of traction control and ABS. In Race mode, conversely, all the settings get lowered to a default ‘are you kidding me?’ level. There’s also an option of ‘this is arse-clenchingly nuts’, but I happily stayed away from that the whole time. The settings can be set according to the rider’s preference. So I took up the sanity level, and the traction control went one level up and I dialled in ABS support at 2.
The bike makes the same amount of power in Race mode as it does in Sport — 156bhp – but it’s communicated to the tyres is in an angrier manner. Opening the throttle mid-corner isn't an intuitive practice — it’s a calculation of the percentage of risk you have of falling down. You’re doing mathematics in the middle of the corner! It’s uncanny. But, of course, you don't fall down — those computer nerds have done a wicked job with traction control and ABS. The 959 Panigale also gets a slipper clutch that prevents the rear wheel from locking by optimising the delivery of torque. Thank goodness!
On the mechanical front, Ducati has made some heavy-duty changes to the Superquadro engine. The stroke has gone up from 57.2mm to 60.8mm — which is the same as the 1299 Panigale. It also gets a new crankshaft, con-rods, engine head and casing, new timing chain, as well as a completely revised gearbox and lubricating system. The 12.5:1 compression remains the same as that of the 899 Panigale’s. The exhaust diameter has been increased from 55mm to 60mm, and the throttle bodies feature dual injectors. The chassis is largely the same aluminium monocoque two-piece frame that keeps the engine as a structural item, but the swing-arm pivot has been lowered by 4mm to enhance grip levels at the rear — especially when opening the throttle while exiting bends from full lean.
There are some cosmetic changes that help the 959’s aero package too — it gets a wider front fairing, taller screen and the mirror stalks have been shortened. There’s no getting away from the fact that the 959 Panigale is a properly attractive motorcycle — just the twin pipes spoil its overall aesthetic character. Ducati has engineered this exhaust unit to comply with both noise and air pollution levels. There’s a lot of debate happening on web forums at present, and most people don't seem to like it. Well, if you intend to buy the 959 Panigale, I think you ought to be able to invest in an aftermarket exhaust as well. In fact, the exhaust diameter is the same as 1299’s, so any aftermarket set for that will fit nicely on the 959 too.
Back to the bike — we finished our first session with Race mode dialled in. Now, I’m a guy who takes things gently before I start picking up the pace. Race mode surely felt a bit of an angry yob at first — attacking at even the slightest hint of provocation on the throttle. But there is a way to get around this ferocious response, and it’s not rocket science — be gentle and gradual. Simple!
I was riding the same way that I did when the bike was in Sport mode – and that was clearly the wrong approach. Getting more track time in Race mode started revealing this bike to me – and it revealed the 959’s capabilities. And mine too I suppose. Where I’d slow down to a walking pace in Sport mode because I couldn't get the power down fluidly owing to the heightened electronic interference, I’d go around the same corner much faster in Race mode because it set the limits that much higher and was far more forgiving when you pushed the limit. Also, I brought the traction and ABS levels a step lower, and in the next stint got it lower still.
Sport is good for in-town riding, but keep the bike in Race mode and play around with the electronics and it should be good fun all around. It was for me — and that says a lot about this bike’s sophistication and capability!
We got a few extra sessions of riding on the track, and while there are some vibrations that can be felt, there is no word on how the 959 will get on with the regular in-city duties — so more on that when we get the bike for an extended duration and try it out on our roads.
A couple of decades ago, 150bhp allowed mega bragging rights that came with the most powerful superbikes. Today, it’s the entry-level and is available on the ‘baby’ Panigale. But, back then, a 150bhp bike was one other thing — an entertaining way to commit suicide! Today, bikes like the 959 Panigale are really three bikes in one — a 600cc segment performance bike (in the wet, power is reduced to 100bhp and it gets full electronics), a 1,000cc super sport street bike, and a smile-giving racetrack tool. Phew!
Well, I guess times do change – sometimes in bizarre and brilliant ways.
- Ducati 959 Panigale
Engine: 955cc, Superquadro, L-twin cylinder, 4 valve per cylinder, Desmodromic, Liquid cooled
Power: 156bhp @ 10,750rpm
Torque: 105.6Nm @ 9,000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed with Ducati Quick Shift (DQS) and Slipper Clutch