90 years of Ducati Anniversary blast

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…And breathe

It’s the fastest bike we’ve tested on track in 2016, but is the 1299 Panigale a serious road bike too? We blast it all the way back to the heavenly roads of Tuscany where it was developed on to find out 

inally, the clattering Superquadro falls silent for the day – and I breathe. I sit back and my wrists and back click in relief as they straighten for first time since, god knows where, Lake Geneva? Engine heat consumes me so I slide stiffly off the bike, away from its suffocating intensity and, ears ringing, drink in the view. 

The fairing and screen wear the speed-stained mask of a zillion splattered flies collected from the valleys and plains of France, Switzerland and Italy. The bike looks wild and right up for more, but I’m cooked. “OK,” I say. “You win. Ducatis are a proper motorbike after all.”

Not proper motorbikes? Ducatis? Ah yes, I need to quickly explain this one. Like many MCN readers I come from a time when Ducatis were not only exotic and desirable as they are today, but also something of a reliability gamble, especially if you needed your bike for transport. From the disillusioned neighbour who threw his non-starting 851 into a corner of his garden to rust, to the ex-soldier mate reduced to tears after pushing his Superlight home one time too often, I witnessed too many mechanical dramas to consider the sporting Ducatis much more than beautiful garage ornaments.  

Yet here I am, heading south across big old France under a big blue sky on the base model 1299 Panigale, the one with regular suspension instead of smart EC Öhlins, heavier cast wheels and a £4000 lighter price tag. The next 2500 miles of my life are pinned on this bike being so much more than desirable. It needs to be helpful and 100% reliable too – faultless transport in every way.

I know Ducatis are unrecognisable these days, with build and engineering off the scale compared to the late 80s and early 90s. Opinions, though, become entrenched and hard to shift, no matter how much things change, and the process of converting this Ducati sceptic only began 12 months ago when a long-term test 1299 Panigale S entered my garage. Predictably, I was seduced by its electronic wizardry and almost worrying lack of kilos, but the summer was truly defined by a succession of unintentionally smashed records to work, and levels of grip and torque so immense the tread pattern was wiped off a rear Bridgestone in just 400 miles.

Simply touching the Panigale’s bars before a ride flicked a switch in my head and slammed the shutters down on the outside world. Overnight I went from not getting Ducati sportsbikes to worrying I would become old and slow without one. If doubts lingered it was simply because I remember models as recent as the 999 as hard, painful places that spank you mercilessly if you drift too far from home, and the one thing I didn’t achieve on the S was a long and testing mileage.

As we fly past Reims today I’m asking for 90 to 100mph while the seat, superheated by the coiled exhaust inches below, is behaving like a swanky £500 accessory, warming my core while my fingers tingle with cold in the morning chill. Not so long ago seeing a British-plated desmo this far south was like seeing a jet-ski out in the mid-Atlantic – possible if bit of a surprise – but this very modern Ducati sporstbike couldn’t be more helpful. It is long legged and relaxed, thrumming at a constant 5500rpm like an exotic generator as the Sport mode’s soft power pulses fill the air. Nor could I wish for a more human-shaped riding position from a sportsbike; Panigale owners rave about its high and wide bars and relatively low pegs – the opposite of the old days – and I can see why. Things really have changed, apart from blurred mirrors, obviously. 

As we peel off for petrol the 1299 nails the French autoroute system’s flamboyant slip roads and lights up the forecourt, clattering in like the big event in town and demanding attention. My mountain of Kriega luggage, with my added water bottles and bungeed kit, adds to the show and I catch in people’s faces an appreciation of the Panigale’s potency, maybe even a momentary desire to be where I am. Trouble is, we are spending a hell of a lot of time in these places filling up. At today’s cruising speed it’s 100 miles to the fuel light, which means we are barely 50 miles out of one services before I’m beginning to look for another. I end up filling up 28 times in the round trip of 2478 miles.

I use fast locals as a shield against police speed traps before opening the throttle and blarping past, the V-twin hardening and shoving us into their middle distance. In tailbacks it dribbles between lorries judder-free, and we go peage, fuel, peage, fuel – averaging 68mph, which is quite efficient given the high number of stops.

Switzerland’s now on our left and proves too tempting to ride past, so I go in search of classic Alpine tarmac, but as we climb above 2000 metres the mighty V-twin starts to lose power. An hour later with my ears popping and the May snow line well below us, it feels 50 horsepower down – subdued and lazy too. I add 100-octane petrol but throttle response is now so erratic that decisive overtaking becomes impossible, so I cut short the Swiss deviation and drop back down into France and pick up the 100mph sweepers of the D1091 to Briancon.

Here the Panigale recovers its composure and its 116mm pistons pump out great dollops of reinstated torque. I short-shift at 6500rpm, rolling on and off through the left-right-left combinations without need for brakes. This is the Panigale in pure road mode: an unflappable platform that’s not hard to turn exactly but a different animal to when it’s burying its front wheel in the race track and turning hard. In this environment it’s more old school Ducati: accurate and carrying natural corner speed that makes me wish the road would last forever. Everytime I glance up at the view there’s another colour-drenched screensaver to deal with, too. We cruise through scruffy ski resorts, get diverted along a track that bounces my water bottles off the back and over a cliff, then climb again, drowning the villages below in sonic treacle.

Italy rushes up in a mesmerising series of tunnels and hairpins and fuel stops and more lost water bottles. I find the autostrada and gun it. The 1299, now punchy and eager again, knows it’s home all right and I feel relatively immune here, especially as the speed limit seems to depend on the colour of your vehicle – and red is clearly good. We work through more tanks of fuel, bomb past Carabinieri in sunglasses who could, I guess, lock me up if they felt so inclined, but my bet is that at least one of them has a Panigale in his garage. Tiredness, though, brings a creeping anxiety, so I drop my speed and the Panigale gurgles back at me comfortingly. Nearly there.

This long day is finally taking its toll on my bum, too. We fly past the Bologna factory and towards the Tuscany hills those prototype Panigales must have called home. With the light fading we enjoy one last riot of long hairpins and wiggles and flicks. With my judgement fading, I hold the brakes on too long, unsure if I’m activating the cornering ABS, and try not to think what’s on the other side of the Armco, before driving out on a life affirming wave of thrust that feels like it should twist the chassis into a corkscrew but simply buries the rear Metzeler Interact M7 with ruthless efficiency. The last few miles are the best I can remember, the air thick with desmo boom as I tuck in behind a trio of local Multistradas keen to show me how it’s done round here. As I peel off for my hotel in Borgo San Lorenzo I pat the Panigale’s tank and say, “You win.” Proper motorbike.

Words: Tim Thompson Photos: Joe Dick/Tim Thompson