The Best In Breed: Ducati Superbike Special

Published: 06 November 2015

MCN looks back at the Panigale family tree to uncover how Ducati has turned its once wayward V-twin into the superbike to beat.

he 1299 Panigale S is a bike that defies logic, not to mention physics. When you take an already extremely powerful, and often a little wayward, superbike the last thing you do to calm it down is give it even more power. That’s like injecting an already upset lion with steroids. 

But this is exactly what Ducati has done this year with the Panigale, and in doing so created its easiest going superbikes to date. How on earth have the Italian firm achieved this feat? MCN decided to gather together the latest generations of Ducati superbikes, and their owners, to see if they can shed any light on this question.


Child Of the Revolution 1098 S
New engine, sharper handling, classic looks – Ducati takes a giant leap

The 1098 is a far more significant bike for the Bologna firm than most people give it credit for. It was the first truly good looking machine after the 999 debacle, but more than that, this bike took Ducati to a new place. It embraced the Evoluzione engine and a whole new philosophy.

The 1099cc V-twin at the heart of the 1098 was designed to be the powerhouse of a new generation of Bologna V-twins as the Desmoquattro motor was on its last legs. Considering it had been the firm’s premier motor since the 851 in 1988, the Desmoquattro had a damn good run, but with the Japanese litre bikes upping their game, Ducati needed to catch up – needing more power and a radical rethink when it came to handling.

The phrase ‘long and lazy’ is so often used to describe pre-1098 Ducati models, but the 1098 was the first of the firm’s ‘Japanese handling’ bikes. While retaining its identity-confirming steel trellis frame, Ducati recognised that it needed to inject the same feeling of agility into the 1098 that the rival inline fours had. The results were, and still remain, incredibly impressive.

Returning to a 1098 is like catching up with an old friend. I’m a sucker for the whole 916 silhouette, but far from just looking pretty, the 1098 works beautifully and feels instantly familiar. And it is these two traits that make it such a standout model and a major advance from the 999.

The 1098’s riding position is open and spacious rather than cramped, allowing you to move about on the bike and position yourself for bends with ease, but it is the way the whole machine feels connected that will make you beam.

There is no effort when it comes to braking and turning into a corner, you just release the pressure on the strong but not grabby Brembo calipers and then roll towards the apex. Previous Ducatis models have always responded better to being ridden in a flowing fashion, but the 1098 takes this to another level by adding a quicker turn-in as well as a whole heap more drive.

With a claimed 160bhp on tap, it would have been so easy for Ducati to give the 1098 an on/off switch throttle. But, thanks to years of knowledge on how to best inject V-twins, the 1098’s throttle is super-smooth (helped by owner Dan’s ECU and exhaust modifications) and this makes it feel beautiful driving away from an apex. Power with control is always the holy grail and in the 1098, Ducati got it bang on. So, what did Ducati learn from the 1098? 

Lazy-handling is a thing of the past, what riders want is agility combined with a feeling of control as well as a traditional stonking V-twin engine. Although on the next generation, Ducati pushed the boat out too far.


A Step Too Far 1198 S
Get ready to climb a mountain of torque 
 

I’ve never really got on with the 1198 and I was interested in owner Adam’s thoughts on the bike. For me, the 1198 is too much of a good thing. Too instant in its drive and too aggressive when the torque kicks in, which ruins the natural balance of the 1098 and makes for an unpleasant ride. “Yeah, the 1198S can be a bit aggressive at low speed,” Adam admits, “In town it’s quite hard work and that’s why I altered the gearing. But it’s a great bike to ride once you get over the initial throttle opening…” And he’s right.

On track, the 1198 has all the fluidity of the 1098, but with an absolute mountain of torque to help it drive out of bends. After just a few laps I was feeling a pang of guilt about how harsh I’ve been on this bike over the years as it’s beautiful to ride on a flowing circuit. As long as you aren’t trying to be overly gentle on the throttle, the 1198 responds with all the balance of the 1098 and a delightful extra kick of midrange power that makes it really easy to ride flowingly. And even some electronic assists.

I was on the original launch of the 1098R homologation special and I remember just how revolutionary Ducati’s traction control system felt. That was in 2008 and things have moved on quite considerably. “I turn the electronics down really low, I like to feel that it is me making the bike go faster, not the computers,” is Adam’s take on the traction control system and when you ride the 1198 I see his point. 

It’s the last of the analogue Ducati superbikes and it’s such a beautifully balanced overall package. Well, on the track it is, on the road it can still be a pain in the arse. So, what did Ducati learn from the 1198? Midrange is good, but you can give riders too much instant grunt and, most importantly, electronic assists aren’t the devil’s work. Riders of superbikes embrace new technology if it will help them go faster, even if that means breaking from years of tradition.


A New Era 1199 Panigale S
The first monocoque Ducati sportsbike changes the rules
 

Riding a 1199 Panigale S after a 1198S you would never believe the same company makes them as they are chalk and cheese. One is a laid back V-twin which rewards flowing lines, the other is an aggressive little bastard who needs to be taken by the collar and shown the right path.

“The Panigale has a spirit and feels alive, it has the thrill factor,” is owner Gary’s assessment. “It has the character and spirit of a fighter, which I really like.” There is no denying the original Panigale is a stunning bike, but by the same token it is an awkward machine to live with – both on the road and track.

Even pulling out of Rockingham’s pit lane the Panigale feels alien after the reassuring 1098 and 1198. The riding position feels tall and as if you are perched on top of the bike, while the engine is really aggressive and instant in its response. However, that is nothing compared to the brakes.

Approaching the first corner and a gentle stroke of the front lever feels like I’ve shoved a stick through the front wheel. Compared to the lovely and progressive Brembo monoblocs on the older bikes, the new Brembo M50 calipers are shockingly fierce. Then, expecting to gently turn towards the apex, I’m startled to find I have to really pull the Panigale down towards the apex and hold it there before wrenching it upright and opening the gas. Once under power, the drive is another surprise as it’s anything but 1198 midrange smooth, instead it’s slightly hesitant before building up into a ferocious rush that is enough to make the chassis become a little agitated. I’m used to relaxed and flowing riding when on a Ducati, but this bike is anything but chilled-out. The Panigale feels like a thoroughbred race bike that demands to be ridden as such. It’s not happy at being ridden at a fraction of its potential, and neither am I.

Upping the pace seems to pacify the Panigale slightly and as soon as you start to push the monocoque chassis seems to relax and divulge a bit more in terms of feedback. But such is its on/off nature I’m finding the suspension is beginning to also protest on Rockingham’s bumps, kicking and lacking the plush feel of the 1198’s Öhlins. It may be the same kit, but the wild nature of the Panigale’s chassis isn’t allowing it to do its magic and its new electronic response is only limited to fixed damping rates. The 1199 is bristling with new technology, it’s just that it is in its very infancy and isn’t yet totally able to deal with the sheer brutality of the Ducati’s power.

Rawness is the overriding feeling you get when you ride the 1199 Panigale. 

It’s a rough diamond, a race bike with lights, and one that Ducati learnt they needed to harness and control in order to make it appeal to the masses.


Lesson Learnt 1299 Panigale S
The most technologically advanced Ducati sportsbike ever arrives 


The 1299 Panigale S is a culmination of all Ducati’s superbike experience. The same M50 Brembo calipers as the 1199’s bite with real aggression but the refined chassis turns sweetly into bends just like the 1198 and holds a beautiful line mid-corner with no hint of protest. 

Hit the apex and the initial throttle pick-up is 1098 silky smooth with a lovely soft initial power input before a thrust of 1198-style mid-range drive chimes in with a turbine-smooth build up of power. Any hint of a wheelie is brought under control automatically and all you need to do is hang on, flick up the gears as the quickshifter removes the need to touch the clutch or back off the power, and then revel in the spirited little kick in power at the very top of the rev range. 

Hit a bump mid-corner and where the 1199’s suspension would protest, setting the chassis into a wobble, the semi-active units smooth out the imperfections and allows the tyres’ feedback an uninterrupted path of communication back to your brain. It’s all very impressive, however what every one of the owners, and myself, were so impressed about was the fact that as stunning as the 1299 is, it still felt very much a Ducati at heart and not just another muted electronic sportsbike.

“Owning a Ducati isn’t always a rational decision, but they do something to you,” Adam sums up. “When I had a BMW S1000RR it was incredibly good, but it didn’t have that special something and that made it feel sterile. The 1299 Panigale S with its clever electronics and smooth engine manages to give riders of any ability access to incredible levels of power and performance, but it still retains that special Ducati feeling.”


THE LAST WORD


Ducati shouldn’t have been able to cram 205bhp into a bike that weighs 166kg and yet still make it feel completely accessible. That’s not possible. The 1299 should be a complete animal to ride. It should scare you senseless at every opportunity and should only be able to be tamed by a brave few. But, thanks to incredible electronics, not to mention learning from its mistakes in the past, Ducati have built a relative pussycat and that’s why it is the firm’s most accomplished superbike to date.

Without having to fight a vicious power delivery or wayward handling, riders can exploit the full depth of Ducati’s racing knowledge that has gone into making this bike so outstanding. It’s the first Ducati to take on, and beat, the Japanese inline-four litre bikes in direct comparison tests.

What a machine.