First Ride: Ducati 959 Panigale

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There are lots of questions to answer about the new £13,250 Ducati 959 Panigale. Does it now go like a superbike with its bigger engine? Why has Ducati replaced the 899, anyway? And the biggest question of all: what’s with the pipes?

Al these questions and more were answered at the 959 Panigale’s world track launch at Valencia.

Ducati have had to completely rework the 899’s Euro 3–designed engine to meet new Euro 4 noise and emission laws, which arrive in 2017.

They’ve battled to maintain and improve performance, efficiency and reduce engine and exhaust noise. So here we are with a stroked 955cc motor, with 9bhp more power, 6.2ftlb torque, slipperier internals, new secondary injectors, quieter cam chains, ribbed cam covers (quieter for the Eurocrat’s pleasure)…the list goes on.

And of course the biggest Euro 4-enforced change is the exhausts. So wave goodbye to the 899’s sexy underslung twin silencers and say hello to the 959’s new side-mounted shotgun-style cans. Pipe diameter is also up from 55mm to 60mm – the same as the 1299 Panigale’s.

The new pipes account for around half of the Panigale’s 7kg weight gain and the other half comes from sound-deadening inside the engine and fairing panels.

Fortunately, the 959 isn’t noticeably quieter and still booms-out its mechanical twin-cylinder tune when you’re on-board having fun. The motor is still revs free and hard, the throttle is smooth and the 959 Panigale still has the power to embarrass superbikes on the smaller, narrower circuits we have in the UK.

The 157bhp 955cc Superquadro engine delivers a delicious spread of power and torque, but it doesn’t give you the sledge-hammer-to-the-stomach acceleration you get from a big superbike – it’s more subtle than that.

But Ducati’s baby Panigale (not such a baby now, granted) has always been less about brute power down the straights and more about speed and momentum through the corners.

The motor might have grown, but the 959 Panigale is still a supersport bike at heart. Think of the 959 Panigale as a big Moto3 racer, where corner speed the key to unlocking the ultimate lap time. Just like the out-going 899, the 959 is the thinking rider’s sportsbike. It rewards smoothness and bravery, as you barrel into corners faster than you could ever manage on a superbike.

But riding the 959 in isolation here on track, it’s tricky to notice the extra cubes or grunt. You’d really need to ride old and new Panigales back-to-back to feel the 2% power-to-weight ratio gain, especially with the 959’s one-tooth (down from 44 to 43T on the rear) taller gearing.

The 959 has the same cast aluminium ‘airbox’ chassis as the 899 and the same Showa suspension, wheels and Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa rubber.

Brembos are unchanged, but they aren’t as strong and consistent as you’d like but they never cause any scares. It would also be better if the 959 was just a little lighter and faster steering, but just fitting race exhausts (which most will do anyway) would improve agility.

But the superb new slipper clutch lets you glide into turns faster and with less rear wheel-hopping drama, which is an improvement over the 899. The clutch lever action is lighter, too.

Ducati claims the 959’s 4mm-lower swingarm position improves rear grip, which seems to work. But with the rear of the bike set low, the bars can kick in your hands under hard acceleration, especially over bumps and during fast direction changes. 

Just like the 899 Panigale you get a lot of kit for your money, like traction control, racing ABS, riding modes, a quickshifter, a multi-function dash Brembos, Pirellis and fully-adjustable suspension. Build quality is up there with the best, as are the tasty satin metallic white and (£225-cheaper) gloss red paintjobs.

And despite the 959’s extra capacity, power and torque, service intervals remain an impressive: 7500-miles for an interim service and 15,000-miles to check valve clearances.

Ducati has reworked the motor, breathed on the chassis, tweaked the styling and swallowed the bitter pill of fitting those exhausts for Euro 4. It all adds up to a truly sensational sports bike, but those changes are subtle. That might sound like a backwards step…but what Ducati has actually done is saved the 899 from extinction.

Photos: Miagro

Michael Neeves

By Michael Neeves

MCN Chief Road Tester, club racer, airmiles millionaire.