The international introduction last week of the new Ducati superbike, the 1199 Panigale, at the Yas Marina Circuit turned into a turbulent, tempestuous affair, though that had nothing to do with the fiery tempers of any Italian mechanics. Holding a media test of a 195hp superbike during one of the worst sandstorms in the past year was not only unfortunate timing but it meant it wasn't going to be easy for the 20 or so assembled press riders from around the world to push the Panigale to its limits. The Ducati officials were visibly nervous.
But perhaps the blustery weather was a sign; an omen, in fact. Because the whole thinking behind the 1199 Panigale (that name, by the way, refers to Borgo Panigale, the region in Bologna, Italy, that's home to Ducati) was to take the motorcycle industry by storm. Fitting backdrop, no?
Ducati engineers were given a blank canvas to design the lightest bike in its class with the most horsepower. To do it, they used the previous-version 1198 along with the BMW S1000RR and the Aprilia RSV4 as benchmarks and, after a day's ride on the Panigale under these blustery, sandy conditions at Yas, it's fair to say they've produced a new benchmark themselves in the litre-bike category.
Oh, it's a beauty, all right, but you'd expect that from an Italian manufacturer. The aggressive front end looks both sleek and bulbous compared with the slim rear, and, in a first for any production vehicle, all the lights, including the headlamps, are now LEDs. To make it more comfortable, the bars are slightly higher than the 1198 and the seat is lower, but there's still no mistaking this for anything but what is tantamount to a street-legal race bike.
On an engineering level, the 1199 is nothing short of amazing. No effort was spared to reduce its weight and, at 164kg dry (188kg with all the fluids), it's a full 10kg less than the 1198 it replaces; in fact, it's also 17kg lighter than the BMW S1000RR. The engine now forms part of the chassis, just like Ducati's MotoGP racer; the front, cast-aluminium monocoque structure, which bolts to the engine's cylinder heads, does double duty as the airbox. The tank and rear seat support are now aluminium, the front sub-frame that supports the lights and instruments is magnesium, and Ducati engineers even went so far as to incorporate an automatic decompression unit in the engine, just so it can use a smaller starter motor and battery. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed; the Panigale has the best power-to-weight ratio of all the big superbikes, and its diet programme gives the bike an agility on track comparable with smaller, 600cc rockets.
The engine is, of course, all new - it had to be to get 25 more horsepower than the 1198. Sure, it's still a 90 degree V-twin, but the cylinders are now over-square, hence the "Superquadro" name for the engine. It still has the Desmodromic valvetrain (which both opens and closes the valves mechanically, as opposed to relying on valve springs), but the timing is now controlled with a chain instead of a belt - better for both higher rpms and increasing its service intervals. The exhaust now sits under the engine instead of behind it, lowering the centre of gravity and using less pipe (again, saving weight). An interesting feature is the oil pump, which keeps the crankcase in a vacuum to lower atmospheric resistance for better efficiency. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call attention to detail.
The suspension, as well, is all new. The Panigale S and Tricolore models come with front and rear electronically adjustable suspension. The front forks have a sealed and pressurised damping system and are wider apart for better brake cooling while the rear suspension, with the shock unit on the left side of the bike instead of under the seat, can be adjusted for progressive or flat rates of travel, depending on whether you have a passenger or are riding to the limit on a track. The rear swingarm is now die-cast aluminium and 39mm longer than the 1198.
Along with the mechanical innovations, the Panigale now has a raft of electronic upgrades. And with 195hp, they are almost necessary for a lot of riders to control the bike at its limits. ABS is optional, and the bike now comes with three mappings for traction control: wet, sport and track. The changes are registered on a new TFT gauge package in front of the rider, which is not only crystal clear but also changes from white to black automatically depending on ambient light. Of course, this goes along with Ducati's Quick Shift (DQS) system, which allows upshifts without throttle or clutch input.
All of these engineering tidbits sound very dazzling on paper but, on the track, it comes together even better. The biggest shock, however, are the brakes. A new Brembo front calliper not dissimilar to the MotoGP bike will practically stand the bike up on end with just a light tap of the lever. That won't happen with the ABS on though; it has different levels of interference and will distribute the brake force front and rear differently, depending on what mode you're in, combined with a sensor to detect rear-wheel lift. Ducati made the Panigale's brakes - in both brawn and brains - match the power of the new engine. If you think you're good enough, you can also turn it all off (along with the traction control) but you'd better be good enough, because this is a bike than can bite you hard.
Surprisingly, on a circuit with the longest straight in F1, there are quite a few low-speed, second-gear turns - 12, in fact - and this is where the agility and traction control come in. The low weight is easy to feel as you toss it back and forth - easily, its best attribute, and what will probably make it faster around a track than the other bikes. In fact, some riders new to the Panigale might cut their first few corners short, surprised by how quick it can change direction. But the traction control works almost invisibly, even when accelerating hard out of the corner. Only a few times during the day did the rear end slip with both hard throttle and sandy surface and, even then, it came back quickly.
And there is plenty of acceleration from this new engine. The Superquadro has 132Nm of torque, but it delivers it at a higher rpm than the 1198's engine did. That may sound like a detriment but, in fact, it makes the bike easier to ride. The benefit of having those two humongous pistons is that you don't need to crank the engine up to 6,000rpm just to get out of the pits, like you might with a four-cylinder Japanese bike. Shortshifting at around 4,000rpm still has enough torque for quick takeoff when at speed and is ideal for around town, but wait a bit until it hits 7,000 or 8,000rpm and you feel a shocking rush of power; the Panigale will easily lift the front wheel in 5th gear at more than 200kph, a speed not advisable with gale-force winds coming headlong at you down the long straight of Yas. But even in this wind, speeds in excess of 260kph are possible before you have to hit the brakes.
If you haven't already got the point of this story, there isn't much to dislike about the Panigale. I even found it fairly comfortable after a long day of track riding.
While it is the most expensive of its segment, it has the best power-to-weight ratio, agile track handling and a list of useful electronic features that would spin the eyes of most engineers. The BMW S1000RR may have had a fair run on top of the superbike heap lately, but I think it's about to finally topple off with a very muscular push by the 1199 Panigale.
The Panigale is set to arrive at the Ducati showroom in Dubai's Motor City in June, but you won't be able to buy one just yet: the first allocation has already been pre-sold. The base Panigale starts at Dh87,900, going up to Dh139,900 for the special S Tricolore version. Riders in Abu Dhabi can try the new showroom in Mussaffah, which is set to open in April.