That Ducati makes very elegant and functional superbikes cannot be denied. Starting from the Tamburini designed 916 from the mid-90s, up to today’s Panigales, Ducati knows how to make a superbike that not only looks good, but goes well. No, we’re not going to speak about the Terblanche 999.
Something that should be noted is that 20 years ago, the 105 hp 916 was considered to be Ducati’s top-of-the-line superbike, with the entry-level machine being the 748. Today, with 955 cc and 157 hp, the 959 Panigale is a sports rider’s first look into the world of Ducati superbikes.
With decades of racing pedigree, Ducati was, once upon a time, the undisputed king of World Superbikes, and ruled with the Desmoquattro V-twin. The evolution continued with the Testastretta engine, and now with Superquadro, Ducati looks to bringing a new generation of riders into the delights of V-twin engines.
Developed from the 899 Panigale, and drawing DNA from the bigger 1299 Panigale, the 959 Panigale – the name coming from the quarter of Borgo Panigale in Bologna where the Ducati works is located – is the continuing evolution of Ducati’s “baby” superbike.
We were given the opportunity to put the 2016 Ducati 959 Panigale to the test in Buriram recently, courtesy of Ducati Malaysia. As part of Ducati Ride Experience (DRE), riders are given the chance to ride one of Ducati’s motorcycles at the track, and are also given ride clinics by Ducati’s team of ride instructors and racers.
As Ducati’s entry-level superbike, a lot was done to make the 959 Panigale as easy to ride fast as possible, without losing any of the legendary Ducati handling manners and humungous torque from the V-twin. Using the Superquadro 90-degree twin, displacing 955 cc, the 959 Panigale puts out a claimed 157 hp at 10,500 rpm and 107.4 Nm of torque at 9,000 rpm.
These numbers actually match the Ducati Corse World Superbike Championship (WSBK) machine from about 15 years ago. And in the 959 Panigale, those numbers are used to good effect, as we found out later on the track.
As part of the DRE, participants are paired up in small teams with Ducati riding instructors. During the whole-day DRE, riders were encouraged to ask questions, and gain insight from the instructors, who would then provide tips, pointers and drills that could be used to improve riding technique.
After a techinical briefing on the 959 Panigale, highlighting the changes made over the previous 899 Panigale, including the ride modes and traction control, we were allowed to approach the 959 Panigale in the pitlane of Buriram circuit.
We found the bike to be somewhat diminiutive, with a comfortable 810 mm seat height. Swinging a leg over the seat, and the rider is perched into the almost quintessential Ducati racing position.
The arms reach forward to the bars, and the pegs are short, almost as if the 959 Panigale is designed for the typical Asian body-shape. Without being overly padded, the seat was fairly comfortable for the four track sessions given to the riders.
Starting up the 959 Panigale gives that familiar “will it start, won’t it start” feeling as the starter tries to spin the 12.5-to-one high-compression pistons. The V-twin bursts into life fairly quickly, and settles into that Ducati idle. The sound of a dry-clutch basket rattling like a pair of skeletons fornicating inside a metal filing cabinet is missing though, as the 959 Panigale gets a wet clutch.
Not to worry, because the mechanical cacophony of the engine timing chain driving timing gears more than makes up for it. If you’re a big fan of the symphony of engine noises that emanates from a Ducati, then you’ll be right at home with the 959 Panigale.
With the Ducati mechanic giving a tap on the shoulder to signal departure from the pitlane, snicking the 959 Panigale into first is a no fuss affair, engagement being precise and light. For the first session, our group was partnered with Manuel Poggiali – 2003 World 250 cc Champion.
Taking the 2016 Ducati 959 out on Buriram circuit was an easy and confidence instilling experience, with Poggiali showing the fastest lines around the track. Dropping the 959 into turn two – pitlane exit bringing you into the straight at the exit of turn one – showed the superbike had a tendency to drop into a corner without effort.
For the first session, the 959 Panigale was set to ‘race’ mode, and ABS was set at one as a safety cushion. This meant that the ride aids were effectively zero, and, we’ll put it this way, chasing down a world champion on a track we’d never ridden before was hard work, even when said champion was only riding at maybe 70%.
Pushing the 959 Panigale through the corners revealed that the bike made transitions very easily, belying its 200 kg wet weight. The wide-set clip-on bars gave enough leverage for making quick direction changes, and didn’t tire the rider out unnecessarily.
Winding the throttle open on the straights, power delivery was smooth – aided by the Ducati quick shifter (DQS) – but came on with a rush in the upper reaches of the tachometer. With Buriram only having only one long straight, a brief touch of 228 km/h was seen before braking hard for turn one.
This is in no way implying the 959 Panigale’s engine didn’t have the legs. The power plant felt at all times that it was capable of delivering more, but we were constrained by DRE rules of no over-taking the rider in front, so pace was dictated by the instructor’s speed, and however brave the rider in front was.
Five laps in the first section was enough to determine that without the ride aids, the 959 Panigale was a little edgy. While in no way threatening a low-side – the standard fitment Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres seeing to that – at turn 5 we managed to get the 959 into enough of a state to threaten an incipient high-side.
Upping the pucker factor was getting the frame and suspension twisted into knots chasing Poggiali down the back straight, with the bike squirming and twisting under us. While used to behaviour like this from the rider’s personal Ducati 916, it somehow didn’t feel right with a sportsbike developed with technology 20 years later.
Pulling into the pits after the first session, Poggiali sat down with us and explained that the 959 is a very physical bike. He demonstrated what he meant by getting on a static 959 in the pit and showing us how to make body change positions quickly, and how rider position on the straights made a huge difference on the bike’s handling.
A conversation the day after with Poggiali saw him saying the the 959 is a very physical bike, and rider position is very important in getting the best out of the machine. This was borne out in the second session, when we were given a 959 set to Sport mode.
In this mode, the 959 still gives the full 157 hp, but the power modes are set in place to ensure the bike doesn’t launch the rider into orbit. The second session allowed riders to practise the drills given by the DRE instructors, and one of the lessons this rider had to implement was body position on corner entry due to the lack of mobility in the left foot, and braking drills.
One of the DRE instructors said that we were “coming into the corner too fast and over-braking”, with an over-reliance on the Brembo Monobloc M4.32 4-piston calliper brakes, and lack of use on the rear-brake. A quick one-to-one with “Top”, a DRE instructor from Thailand, showed that the 959 Panigale performed best with an 80:20 front to rear ratio on hard braking, a reflection of current racing style.
At no time did the Brembos feel like giving up the ghost, enduring several hard braking drills down the short back and long front straights with no signs of overheating or fading. Catching another rider hard on the brakes with the traction mode going full whack did not see ABS kicking in at all, an indication of the power contained in the Brembos and the traction of the Pirellis.
Another session before lunch allowed us to put the lean angle and traction of the 959 Panigale to the test. With no signs of any weave or wallow when heeled over in the corners, a deliberate attempt was made to try and upset the suspension with a mid-corner body position change.
The result was a slight weave, a small shake of the bars, and the 959 settled down very quickly, allowing power to be put back on. The rule of the day was no wheelies, with Ducati chief instructor Dario Marchetti emphasising that none of the DRE instructors would be impressed and they truly had seen it all on the track.
At the final session,each rider was given a hot lap of the Buriram circuit, and we had a quick chat with one of the Ducati Thailand mechanics about the suspension settings. The front Showa BPF fork was left alone by the mechanic after listening to our feedback, but the compression damping was set back a notch, giving the rear Sachs shock absorber a little more compliance for the uphill ‘S’ section of the track.
Taking the opportunity, we let the Ducati 959 fly, and Top following closely behind. With the lessons learnt throughout the day, and applied, the 959 behaved impeccably, letting us flow through the circuit almost seamlessly. Stitching the corners together, a fairly quick lap of Buriram was done, with Top remarking later at dinner, “you are a very fast rider.”
So, what did we think of the 2016 Ducati 959 Panigale? Full verdict will be reserved till the official Malaysian launch of the bike, said by Ducati Malaysia to be after the arrival of the 959 in August 2016. At the moment, calling the 959 Panigale an “entry-level” sportsbike would be a misnomer.
Although the 959 was docile enough and wouldn’t scare a rider unexpectedly, a careful hand on the throttle and proper body position in essential to get the best out of the bike, especially when things get fast and furious. Ducati Malaysia has said that the 2016 959 Panigale is expected to arrive on our shores in late August, with pricing yet to be determined.