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Launch Control – We Have Ignition!

Words: Roland Brown | Photos: Milagro

For the greedy sportsbike fan, who can never quite seem to get enough – power, good looks, technology… Maybe the bigger, faster 1299 has matched your wish-list.

Few experiences in motorcycling approach the thrill of launching the 1299 Panigale S down the Portimao circuit’s start-finish straight. The Ducati growls out of the preceding long, downhill right-hander in fourth, accelerating hard from over 160km/h and indicating more than 200km/h before a nudge of the quick-shifter puts it into fifth as the red-and-white kerb approaches at the outside of the track.

As the Panigale straightens up and thunders onto the straight, there’s just time to short-shift into top and pull my weight forward — but the hard-accelerating Ducati’s front wheel still lifts as the track drops away slightly, and this awesomely powerful and light machine’s handlebars twitch as it rockets past the pits. With my head behind the bubble it’s still picking up speed with the digital speedo indicating over 270km/h when the 250-metre board insists that I sit up and squeeze the front brake lever for the fast-approaching first turn.

The Panigale is so fast, light, loud and exciting that this mass-produced roadster replicates many of the sensations of testing factory machines at the end-of-season World Superbike test days that were held at this Portuguese circuit a few years ago. Which is slightly ironic, given that the Panigale’s capacity of 1285cc means that it is ineligible for Superbike racing, so Ducati has had to homologate a separate 1199R for the track.

That must be slightly inconvenient, but Ducati’s thinking behind creating the 1299 is clear. In many respects the 1199 Panigale has been a success since its launch three years ago, in showrooms if less so on the track. But the ultra short-stroke “Superquadro” desmo V-twin engine’s fearsome 195bhp maximum output was balanced by relatively weak delivery at lower revs that made the bike demanding to ride.

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More is just better…

The 1299 Panigale has been created with two main aims in mind. The first is to improve pure performance; in Ducati’s words, to create the world’s “most potent, advanced and exciting superbike”. But the firm also wanted to improve the Panigale as a roadster, by making it more rider-friendly. Hence a bunch of chassis tweaks and electronic refinement , as well as the 87cc capacity increase from the old model’s 1098cc, achieved by enlarging piston diameter from 112 to 116mm.

That extra capacity allowed not only a 10bhp gain that takes peak output to no less than 205bhp at 10,500rpm, but also an even more substantial increase in torque through much of the range. The curves show the 1299 with a clear advantage over the 1199 everywhere above four grand, with a gain of 15 per cent or more between 5000 and 8000rpm. And while we’re talking impressive statistics, the Panigale has a claimed wet weight of just 179.5kg without fuel (dry weight 166.5kg; kerb weight 190.5kg), giving it an unprecedented power-to-weight ratio for a mass-produced bike.

One thing the Panigale has never been short of is style. The familiar slinky scarlet lines are subtly reshaped for the 1299, to incorporate headlights in the fairing’s air scoops, and a reshaped rear section with “split” tailpiece. It’s arguably even more visually stunning. The headlights are LEDs in the case of the Panigale S, the more expensive of the two 1299 models, which also comes with forged Marchesini wheels and a carbon-fibre front mudguard.

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More…More…

More importantly the S-model also replaces the standard 1299’s Marzocchi forks and Sachs shock with Öhlins latest Smart EC semi-active suspension. This is linked to the riding modes, of which both models have three: Rain (which cuts power to 120bhp), Sport and Race. The system combines 43mm diameter NIX30 forks, TTX36 shock and an electronically adjustable steering damper, and gives the option of either simple push-button adjustment or what Ducati call “event controlled” operation, by which all three units are continually fine-tuned automatically, according to parameters including speed, acceleration, lean angle, throttle position and revs.

This in theory boosts comfort as well as performance (because the suspension can be made soft when it’s not required to be stiff), and is not the only way in which the Panigale S has become a little easier to live with. The Ducati’s riding position remains resolutely racy. But its screen is taller by 20mm, the mirrors are wider and the seat is redesigned to be more comfortable. At 830mm it’s 5mm taller, though slim enough to be acceptably low for most riders.

Screen apart, the 1299 felt like a typical Panigale as I reached forward to the clip-ons, took in the details of the Thin Film Transistor digital display (which automatically changes info depending on riding mode, as before, and adds a lean-angle display), and pressed the button to bring the motor to life with a cacophonous, improbably loud sound from the low-slung twin silencers ahead of the rear tyre. The Ducati felt very light in the Portimao pit-lane and it kept that feeling on the track, as it tipped into turns and accelerated out again with a wondrously effortless, neutral steering feel.

The extra grunt was obvious straight away. Even in Sport mode in the first session the Ducati felt super strong, punching out of turns from as low as 6000rpm with an urgency that the 1199 just couldn’t have matched, and taking several bends a gear higher than the peakier smaller engine would have demanded. This was useful when relearning the track and would be even more of a boost on the road, where the 1299 would be quicker with fewer gear changes.

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Full Suite

Not that those were remotely a problem, thanks partly to the new quick-shifter that operates on both up- and down-changes, and which worked flawlessly all day. As with BMW’s S1000RR, I found the auto-blipper function really useful in freeing my mind to concentrate on more crucial things like tyre grip while braking hard and changing down into bends. Another very handy addition is the Ducati Wheelie Control, which did exactly what it said by gently cutting in to keep the front wheel near the ground and the bike driving forward.

And boy, was that useful as the ultra-light and torquey Panigale ripped out of the turns and charged over Portimao’s crests, and even as it hammered onto that long pit straight and managed to pick up its front wheel in fifth gear, in a way that I thought only factory racebikes could manage. The DWC is adjustable through eight settings and worked so smoothly, allowing more or less wheelie, that it was difficult to be sure exactly when it was cutting in.

But I was glad to have it, as I was to have the revamped and similarly adjustable DTC traction control system, either of which can be adjusted while riding via the pair of thumb/finger buttons below the left clip-on. You have to choose which function to adjust on the move before setting off, and I found the change slightly erratic, but I suspect I’d have got the hang of it with a little more riding time. The latest systems are so sophisticated that it hardly seems possible that it was only six years ago that Ducati’s 1198S, also launched at Portimao, became the first mass-produced bike with traction control.

Chassis performance is also significantly updated, by electronic and conventional means. The Panigale chassis remains based on a monocoque design that uses the engine as a structural member and adds an aluminium front section that doubles as the airbox, contributing to the bike’s light weight. The 1299 has half-degree steeper steering geometry (at 24 degrees), and follows the race-oriented 1199 Panigale R in having a 4mm lower pivot for the single-sided swing-arm, for improved grip under acceleration.

The Ducati steered brilliantly, its light weight and sharp geometry allowing quick changes of direction along with great precision. I was really impressed by the Öhlins set-up, which firmed up the front end to allow fearsomely hard braking, yet was compliant and gave excellent feedback once the stopper was eased off into a turn. The front end, in particular, felt fantastically planted and controllable, doubtless helped by track-ready Pirelli Supercorsa SC tyres that are even stickier than the Supercorsa SPs with which the Ducati comes as standard.

The system gives the option of turning off the event-based control to leave conventional electronically adjustable suspension, but when it works as well as this the semi-active system makes plenty of sense. That said, the Panigale took some setting up, and initially shook its head on the way out of a few turns, including that last high-speed run onto the pit straight.

In event-based mode the Smart EC gives five options for forks, shock and steering damper, with each unit’s default, middle setting flanked by harder, hardest, softer and softest; and all the settings getting progressively stiffer as you go from Wet mode through Sport to Race. Being tall and quite heavy (1.93m, 87kg) I stiffened all three from standard to the harder setting in Race mode, which helped but didn’t cure the wobbles. It was only when I firmed-up front and rear to the hardest setting for my last session that the Ducati was miraculously calmed, and barely twitched. Ideally there would be more settings, some stiffer still, to increase the options for large riders in particular.

There was no such caveat with the brake system, which was not just good but surely the best yet seen on a streetbike. The Brembo M50 Monobloc calipers, 330mm calipers and Bosch’s latest 9.1MP ABS system gave a stunning blend of power and controllability. And the Panigale system also incorporates an even more refined version of Bosch’s brilliant cornering ABS system.

When I finally plucked up the courage to squeeze the front lever while cranked way over in a second-gear left-hander, the Ducati simply stood up slightly before resuming its course. I didn’t hear the tyre squeak, so wasn’t 100 per cent sure that it had skidded. But I wouldn’t have fancied pulling the same stunt on any other sports bike I’ve ridden, and the system looks like boosting superbike stopping ability to new heights. By default the cornering ABS doesn’t work in Race mode, but you can choose to activate it with a button-press or two.

Cornering ABS will arguably be of more use on the road than the track, especially in bad weather, and the Panigale’s other rider-friendly features will also be beneficial. Its screen is substantially taller and easier to shelter behind; the mirrors seem to work; even the footrests are machined to negate the common complaint that Panigale pegs are slippery. Only the sidestand adds a slightly discordant note, being too tucked-in to be easily used.

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And the Point Is?

So the 1299 Panigale looks like being a notably superior streetbike to its 1199 predecessor, and equally importantly it will surely prove significantly quicker on the track. Those power and weight statistics are mighty impressive, and the Ducati feels every bit as fast as they suggest it should. More importantly still, its state-of-the-art electronics will help riders of all levels maximise its, and their, potential.

One or two of the Panigale’s rivals are probably more accommodating but a perfectly dialled-in 1299 might well prove the quickest of a stunningly quick bunch. When you add to that its drop-dead looks, captivating V-twin character, improbably belligerent exhaust note and even its new-found rider-friendliness, the result is something truly special. For me it’s Ducati’s best new superbike since the 916.

Cristian Gasparri, Ducati Head of Vehicle Project Management

“The aim with this bike was to improve the Panigale for road and track. When we launched the 1199 it was a completely new area for us. Now we’ve gained experience both in competition and at the top of our range with the 1199R and Superleggera, and also at the entry level last year with the 899.

“We wanted to join this experience to make the best package. To make a bike that has extreme performance not only for professional riders on the racetrack, but to raise the level so all customers could enjoy the ride – both with the performance and by improving their control and making the bike more agile and easier to use.

“One problem we had was that the main engine components must be stronger because of the engine’s capacity, which puts more force on the pistons. So we had to completely redesign and test the reliability of the bike. And some components are heavier than the previous ones, so we had to work a lot, especially on the exhaust and ABS system, to delete this gap.

“The bible for Ducati is that a new bike must at least maintain the same weight as the previous model. Actually the rule is that every single component must be lighter than the previous one, but the engine’s bigger capacity makes this impossible to achieve. The engine itself is a little bit heavier – less than a kilo – and we had to work on the components to achieve this target.

“Materials are very expensive, for example titanium alloy costs more than ten times as much as steel, so that’s why we use [design] solutions instead of materials to reduce weight. Also the 1299 is a real mass-production model so we need technologies that suit mass production. We can’t use much carbon-fibre, for example, because you can only make about one piece per day. To make hundreds of parts per day we’d have to invest in hundreds of tools.”

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Specs

Price: TBC

Engine type Liquid-cooled 90-degree V-twin

Valve arrangement DOHC, eight valves

Displacement 1185cc

Bore x stroke 116 x 60.8mm

Compression ratio 12.6:1

Carburation Mitsubishi injection system, elliptical throttle bodies

Maximum power 205bhp @ 10,500rpm

Maximum torque 144.6N.m @ 8750rpm

Clutch Wet multiplate slipper

Transmission 6-speed

Front suspension 50mm Marzocchi usd [43mm Öhlins NIX30], 120mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping [electronic compression and rebound adjustments with semi-active option]

Rear suspension One Sachs [Öhlins TTX36] shock, 130mm wheel travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping [electronic compression and rebound adjustments with semi-active option]

Front brake 2, four-piston Brembo Monobloc M50 radial calipers, 330mm discs with cornering ABS

Rear brake Twin-piston Brembo caliper, 245mm disc with cornering ABS

 

Dimensions

Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast [Marchesini forged] aluminium

Rear wheel 6.00 x 17in; cast [Marchesini forged] aluminium

Front tyre 120/70 x 17in Pirelli Supercorsa SP

Rear tyre 200/55 x 17in Pirelli Supercorsa SP

Rake/trail 24 degrees/96mm

Wheelbase 1437mm

Seat height 830mm

Fuel capacity 17 litres

Weight 179.5kg without fuel (dry weight 166.5kg; kerb weight 190.5kg