Ducati’s 916 is a timeless design. The sleek, shapely Italian supersport looked good when it was introduced in 1994, and it still looks modern today. With very little variation in its styling, it retained its sexy Italian lines through three generational upgrades, going from the original Desmoquattro-powered 916, to the 996 in 1999 and then finally, in 2002, with a new Testastretta engine under its fairing, to the 998.
I liked the way it looked so much I bought a new 996 in 1999. There were other, faster bikes available, and for much less than its $24,995 price tag, and although its performance didn’t match bikes like the then year-old Yamaha R1, it was fast enough around a racetrack to help me get a second place in Canadian Amateur Superbike and Open championships in 2001.
Ducati’s open-class supersport boldly strayed from its sultry origins with the Terblanche-designed 999. If the 916 was the hot cheerleader, the 999 was its athletic, butch sister. It was faster and handled better than the bike it succeeded (the 998) but it was about as easy to look at as Rosie O’Donnell.
Ducati was vindicated in 2007 with the introduction of the 1098, whose styling once again drew heavily from the 916. All was well in the universe again. And in 2009 it was followed by the more powerful, yet still 916 styling inspired, 1198.
Despite many technical upgrades throughout these generational changes, one thing remained a constant: the steel trellis frame.
This all changed last year when Ducati took another bold leap in its supersport design, replacing the steel trellis with an aluminium monocoque that also uses the engine as a stressed member. Few will dispute that the resulting 1199 Panigale is drop-dead gorgeous.
The latest iteration of the 1199 is the Panigale R, the highest-spec version of the model line, which also includes the higher-than-standard-spec S model.
When the folks at Ducati rang and asked if I’d mind riding the new 1199 Panigale R at the all-new Circuit of the Americas track near Austin, Texas, I was in my leathers before hanging up the phone.
And, boy, is it fast.
To understand what is new about the Panigale R, we must first take a look at the S.
The standard Panigale uses Ducati’s latest Superquadro, 1,198 cc V-twin, which claims a rather impressive 195 hp. Marzocchi provides the fully adjustable inverted fork, and the shock, also fully adjustable, is made by Sachs. It also uses lighter forged wheels,
Now, the Panigale S is a higher-spec version that uses the same engine, but the manually adjustable fork and shock are replaced by Ohlins’ latest electrically adjustable units. Suspension adjustments can either be made via the three ride modes (Sport, Race and Wet), or independently using handlebar-mounted buttons and the display screen.
The R version has all the S chassis upgrades, as well as a four-position adjustable swingarm pivot, which allows for fine-tuning of the chassis to alter handling characteristics for varying racetrack configurations.
It also uses a modified version of the Superquadro engine, with lighter titanium connecting rods and a lighter flywheel. These changes have reduced engine weight by 1.3 kg, and allow a 500-rpm increase in redline, now at 12,000 rpm.
Because of the added revs, two teeth have been added to the rear sprocket, which increases torque to the rear wheel (and therefore the bike accelerates faster) without sacrificing top speed, which is claimed to be a massive 320 km/h.
Although Ducati claims engine output (at 195 hp) is the same as the standard and S models, Ducati general manager Claudio Domenicali tells us during the technical presentation that it actually makes more. Press bikes are equipped with free-flowing Termignoni exhaust systems for our track test, and word around the paddock is that output is up around 205 hp …
Electronics include standard S features like adjustable traction control and race ABS, three ride modes and an electric quick shifter, as well as a GPS-enabled Ducati Data Analyzer (measures and records numerous parameters when lapping), which is optional on the S. Also, the ECU comes pre-programmed for the accessory high-performance Termignoni exhaust system.
The fairing is slightly wider and has a taller windscreen for improved aerodynamics, and various trim pieces are made of carbon fibre. The fuel tank sports a unique combination of brushed aluminum and paint, and aluminum fairing inserts are included to replace the mirrors for track use.
Astonishingly, claimed curb weight is only 189 kg (417 lb), which puts it right on par with current 600 cc supersport machines. The Panigale R, — with ABS — is actually three kilos lighter than the non-ABS Kawasaki ZX-6R. So, you can appreciate that the power-to-weight ratio is approaching real superbike levels.
All of these racing goodies bring the price up to $31,995, but before you cry foul, take into consideration the price of my 996, which I’d mentioned earlier. That bike made 112 hp and weighed 198 kg (437 lb) dry. The year I bought that bike, the equivalent of the Panigale R, the 996 SPS, produced 124 hp and sold for just under $40,000. With that in mind, you can also appreciate that the performance-to-dollar ratio is well below real superbike levels.
I set off on my initial sighting laps of the Circuit of the Americas racecourse — a technically challenging, 5.5 km circuit with 20 turns — and soon realize I should have selected a ride mode other than Race for my first session. Race mode overrides ABS at the rear wheel, minimises traction control intervention and sets the throttle mapping to what can only be described as “holy shit!”
It’s not the ideal setup to help me adapt to a new machine and learn an unfamiliar track layout.
Fierce acceleration turns the straights into blurry tunnels and makes it seem like the track is trying to hurt me by throwing turns at me. My saving grace is the Panigale’s responsive chassis, which allows very deep trail braking, and readily accepts mid-corner corrections.
I spend almost the entire first session entering Turn 6, a decreasing-radius right-hand sweeper, with too much speed, using the front brake to slow down tighten up my line – and the bike doesn’t put up a fight.
I enter the paddock at the end of the session, and the high speeds and tunnel vision make my recollection of the six or seven laps as hazy as if I were coming down from a morphine-induced stupor.
Regardless, I gather my scattered thoughts and better prepare for the second session. The bike stays in Race mode (it’s kind of like taking part in an orgy: it’s terrifying and extremely gratifying at the same time – and it gives me a woody), I relax and begin to connect with the machine, and speeds increase as a result.
The racetrack has a combination of medium-fast sweepers, tight hairpins and flowing esses, and although the Panigale transitions through them with surgical precision, it demands a high level of concentration to ride.
I’m more delicate with the quarter-turn throttle this time around, especially at corner exit, where the Ducati has a tendency to point its headlights skyward. After several laps I resort to short-shifting at corner exits just to keep the front wheel from constantly defying gravity
There are only two motorcycles I’ve previously ridden that accelerated harder than the Panigale R: The Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle Destroyer — a purpose-built, closed-course dragster — and Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha YZR-M1 MotoGP racer.
I catch a glimpse of the Panigale’s digital speedometer on the back straight and see 286 km/h, but I do so only once. Being that multitasking is not one of my most endearing qualities, at those speeds I prefer to focus my brainpower on the brake markers. My hosts cut the fun off after four track sessions, which is a good thing because by now my heart is pounding harder than Neil Peart on a bass drum.
The 1199 Panigale R is visceral, it’s forceful, and it’s angry. Simply put, with 600-class weight and superbike power, it’s the highest-performance, street-legal motorcycle money can buy.
If I bought one, I wouldn’t even put a licence plate on it. A machine of this calibre should be dedicated to the racetrack, where you can exploit its potential to the fullest. Just make sure your riding skills are up to the task or the orgy will go S&M on you in a split second.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
|Bike||2013 Ducati 1199 Panigale R|
|Engine type||Desmodromic L-twin, four valves per cylinder, liquid cooled, titanium con-rods|
|Power (crank)*||195hp (143kw) @ 10,750rpm|
|Torque*||98.1lb-ft (132Nm) @ 9.000rpm|
|Tank Capacity||17 litres (4.5 gallon US)|
|Tires, front||120/70 ZR17|
|Tires, rear||200/55 ZR17|
|Brakes, front||Dual 330mm semi-floating discs, radially mounted Brembo Monobloc M50 four-piston calipers, ABS|
|Brakes, rear||Single 245 mm disc, twin-piston caliper|
|Seat height||825mm (32.48 in)|
|Wheelbase||1437 mm (56.57 in)|
|Wet weight*||189 kg (416.7lb)|
|Warranty||Two years, unlimited mileage|