Dream Ducatis: Michael Neeves tangos with a trio of Superleggeras
Ducati’s Superleggera is a rare, exotic beast. Only 1500 have ever been built: 500 magnesium-framed 1199s in 2014, 500 carbon-framed 1299s in 2017 and new for this year 500 carbon-framed V4s.
They’re powered by tuned Panigale R motors, boast the most advanced electronics and tech available and have frames, swingarms, wheels, bodywork and even shock springs made from lightweight exotic materials. And of course, they’re all obscenely expensive.
Ducati Superleggera reviews:
Developed at Mugello, to be used at places like Mugello, you’ll rarely see a Superleggera in the wild, let alone three, but that’s what we have here today: all the generations and each are fitted with Akrapovic race exhausts for that bit more power and little less weight.
They all belong to the same Ducati Glasgow customer (including the Desmosedici RR included below) and he’s standing right here. No pressure, then...
Today isn’t about riding these rare beasts flat out on an Italian MotoGP circuit (we’ve already done that at their respective launches – check out our online reviews) or taking them to the Futa Pass, Ducati’s favourite testing spot, up in the mountains overlooking the Bologna factory. No, it’s better than that. We’re closer to home and these are the magnificent Ochil Hills just outside Edinburgh, a stone’s throw from Knockhill and the picture postcard town of Dollar, which is rather apt.
Firing up the glorious 1199
Under late summer skies that think it’s already winter, the Scottish roads coil, seemingly endlessly through greenery I don’t know the name of. But what I do know is this lumo orange, magnesium framed 1199 Superleggera (number 497/500) is so bright that even in real life it looks like it’s been photoshopped against the moody scenery.
It flows lava-like down through the twists and turns, like the force of nature it is and now the hills are alive to the ground-shaking, sonic boom of its race-bred V-twin engine. It cracks through its quickshifter like the sound of a distant shotgun and spits on the overrun as the electronic engine braking control does its thing.
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Ducati claim 155kg dry, which is pretty meaningless, but full of fuel and fluids it’s 177kg, which compared to just about anything this side of a 125 or dirt bike, is still otherworldly light. There’s little feeling of bulk in your hands as you thread the tarmac needle and the Ducati feels more like an empty Marlboro packet with a Pirelli Super Corsa SP-shod magnesium wheel at each and 200bhp in the middle.
Strangely for a machine so track-focused, the 1199 Superleggera, which cost £54k back in the day, is a half decent road bike. The seat is undeniably tough, but the clip-ons are wide, the racing screen is nice and tall and with such a high seat there’s plenty of legroom.
You get a front brake span adjuster to twiddle with your left fingers, so you don’t have to take your hand off the right bar and there are flappy paddles to adjust the wheelie, traction and engine braking control on the way to Tesco’s.
Insane appetite for revs
Being so light it’s easy to manage at low speed and needs the tiniest dribble of throttle to get you on your way. For the most part the 1199 Superleggera puts an arm around your shoulder and tells you not to be scared... until you dare to open it up, when all hell breaks loose.
It was an angry beast when we rode it at its Mugello launch six years ago and it’s even more so in the real world. With pistons like lightweight shoe polish tins the big V-twin has an insane appetite for revs and accelerates with the kind of ferocity this vast, cold Scottish playground can barely contain.
It slaps and weaves over bumps and wheelspins over damp patches – its basic eight-stage traction control barely catching it and keeping things in check. It might not have heated grips, but when you ride an 1199 Superleggera hard your palms generate their own small fires.
Dial-up the 1299’s 215bhp
Nothing quite sums up just how quickly things have progressed in the superbike world in recent years, than jumping on the 1299 Superleggera. Costing £72,000 it’s still a V-twin and looks just like the 1199, albeit with slightly darker red satin paint, but it’s getting close to how the best European superbikes have now become.
Predictably it’s more powerful, now up to 215bhp, but with its cleverer mapping, electronic rider aids and much more chassis flex in the right places, it’s so much easier to ride. It’s still a monster, but the 2017 machine has a more grown-up, less aggressive feel than its older 2014 sister.
It’s just as light in your hands and its riding position is the same as the 1199’s, but the whole thing feels softer, more damped and isn’t nearly as much as a handful over ruffled tarmac. It now has an autoblipper and power is calmer at the bottom end, but it hits so hard at the top of the tacho your brain can’t ever quite keep up with the force of acceleration on the road, especially in the higher gears. The 1299 Superleggera has a carbon fibre monocoque airbox frame, bodywork, self-supporting seat unit and wheels.
Everything else is titanium, magnesium, billet aluminium, oil and rubber. It’s such a collection of lightness that the crankshaft is the single heaviest component on the whole bike and number 252/500 here is also fitted with those titanium underseat 'wheelbarrow handle' exhausts seen on Chaz and Shakey’s factory superbikes back in the day.
With a morning’s worth of 1199 and 1299 Superleggera action under my Astars, they’ve become strangely familiar. I’m thinking less about what would happen if I threw them into a field full of sheep in front of their owner and more about enjoying the rare privilege of riding them like normal motorcycles.
These lightweight V-twins stop, turn, lean and accelerate with the violent grace of factory WSB racers, but you know deep down they’d rather be on track.
Into the modern era: V4
They’re a handful, if I’m honest and probably better to look at on a poster, or ride at a sunny European trackday. I’m happy to park these irreplaceable beauties, tap them on their fuel tanks and move on to the new 90-grand, 221bhp (231bhp with race pipe) Superleggera V4.
If the Superleggera trend were to continue it should be a barely controllable animal of a thing. It certainly looks it with its aggressive, cartoon-like stance, double decker wings, slots, strakes and darker, bloodier, satin red paint. But with its extra two cylinders, a more conventional carbon fibre beam frame, more refined mapping and rider aids, the V4 is the complete opposite.
This morning the hills were alive to the booming, clattering sound of recalcitrant V-twins, but now they’re wailing like Dovi’s MotoGP racer as the Superleggera V4 floats from curve to curve, gathering speed on the bits in between with the ease of a computer game in cheat mode.
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It’s like the tarmac has been magically stretched, drum skin-tight under the Ducati’s carbon wheels and red walled Pirellis. It’s so sure-footed and gives you so much feel and confidence the Ducati has no limit on the road whether it’s wet, dry, bumpy or smooth. It’ll rev to an insane 16,500rpm and scramble your senses, but for normal riding the power couldn’t be easier to control, its suspension any plusher, the brakes any more tactile, the gearbox any slicker and electronics any more refined.
Italian exotica is usually pretty useless at being normal, fully functioning road bikes, but the Superleggera V4 is a pleasure to ride at low speed, around town and even has 15,000-mile valve service intervals and a two-year warranty. If you were to be picky, you’d say the wings, which produce 50kg of downforce at 186mph are a gimmick at anywhere other than a fast track and it leans so far over on its stand that you think you’re about to drop it, but that’s about it.
This really is how all sportsbikes should feel, but simply never can. The Honda Fireblade SP, BMW S1000RR M Package and even a Ducati Panigale V4 R can only dream of the Ducati’s easy speed and refinement. This afternoon has taught me that we’d all be faster and happier on a Superleggera V4 – it’s just a shame there’s £90,000 between the dream and reality.
Ducati Superleggera V4 takes on a legend on track
Ducati’s Desmosedici RR was something special when it broke cover in 2008. Based on the 2006 MotoGP weapon (raced by Capirossi, Gibernau and Bayliss) it had a 'long bang' 989cc V4 GP- copycat motor, claimed to make 200bhp, carbon bodywork, racy parts like flip-up brake and clutch levers and Öhlins gas forks.
It also had a 16in rear magnesium Marchesini wheel to mimic the 16.5-inchers seen in GPs, although that limited tyre choice to just one: the Bridgestone BT-01R.
Like a noughties 999 this light, bright orange number 593/1500 Des sits long, low and its deep V4 bark, bellowing out from its race pipe and echoing around Knockhill’s pit garages gets the pulse going. It quickly makes me wish the Desmosedici RR hadn’t just missed out on the electronics revolution, especially at a cold track evening.
It’s a surprise to rediscover that the power is actually pretty calm. It’s perfectly fuelled, tractable all the way to its 14,000rpm redline, has a sweet gearbox and although it’s undoubtedly quick it feels more like 160bhp than the double ton. No matter, because today is less about being a hero and more about savouring one of Ducati’s most decadent moments.
By comparison the Superleggera V4 is like hitching a ride on a spaceship. It actually feels weightier with slightly heavier steering, but with its flexy carbon chassis it’s so much more plugged into the tarmac than the MotoGP rep with its ultra-stiff steel trellis.
Modern tyres, brakes and suspension also give a more damped, less raw feel, so instead of tiptoeing around and getting in everyone’s way, it’s Superpole time.
It grips without a hint of drama and even lets you hold it flat-stick against the electronics – rear tyre gently slipping through the fast left of Hislop’s before braking for the hairpin, where Popeye would struggle to hang on.
Until now the carbon framed BMW HP4 Race was the fastest, most flattering production bike you could ride around a racetrack, but the new Superleggera V4 has raised the bar and then some.