TWELVE months ago the superbike class was in danger of looking a little tired. A little lacking in recent significant development. So it’s nice to see that it’s gone absolutely stupid again, with enough new models to make a new stupid club: the 200hp+ club.
You’re looking at two of the stupidest members.
Yamaha’s R1 makes a claimed 200hp and weighs 199kg with a full tank. That’s 2hp more and 5kg less than a BMW S1000RR. It’s got a MotoGP-derived electronics package with traction control, slide control and ABS, all of which adapts to lean angle.
The Ducati Panigale is even more powerful and lighter, at a claimed 205hp and 190.5kg with a full tank. The electronics package doesn’t come with quite so many acronyms but it does include traction control, engine braking control and full-on cornering ABS, which lets you grab a handful of brake mid-corner without washing out.
These are not just two of the fastest production motorcycles ever made; they’re two of the safest.
We were probably a little unfair on the R1, because we borrowed a 1299 Panigale S for our back-to-back road and track test instead of the base-edition. The S version comes with semi-active Öhlins suspension front and rear, which automatically adjusts damping to riding conditions. To get semi-active Öhlins you must buy the limited-edition R1M, which costs £18,499. Except it doesn’t because you can’t buy it because it’s sold out.
So base R1 it was, with fully-adjustable KYB shock and upside-down fork. It costs £14,999, compared to £16,695 for the base-edition 1299 Panigale and £20,795 for the S.
A big price difference. Is the Ducati worth the £5,800 extra?
Of course both these machines are astonishingly fast. On a track day on Silverstone’s national circuit, nothing could answer them on the straights. The only thing that came close to either one was the other.
The R1 isn’t as torquey as I expected. On the road, at 4,000rpm in fourth gear, which is about 40mph, opening the throttle doesn't unleash overwhelming acceleration, even in the sportiest riding mode.
But the top end is outrageous. In track mode the rev counter only shows from 8,000rpm up. You're not even riding if you're not up there, it tells you.
When you get there the front lifts and the bars wobble as the revs tear towards the 14,000rpm red line. Shift up without shutting off, courtesy of the quick-shifter, and it does the same light-headed wobble again, and again, and again. Other riders can see when you change gear because every time you do, the R1 gains more ground on them.
The Ducati’s quick-shifter lets you change up and down. The R1’s only lets you go up, but I found the Yamaha’s system more useful. On several occasions, shifting up from fourth, the Ducati did something odd. It was as though it found a false neutral instead of fifth, then reverted to fourth, unsettling me and the bike. Visordown’s Kane Dalton, who also rode both bikes, ran into the same issue.
Upshifts on the R1 were more consistently smooth and as a result the system felt more intuitive, natural and confidence-inspiring.
When it came to clutch-less down-shifts on the Ducati, I wasn’t entirely convinced of the benefit to a rider of average ability like myself. Knocking down a gear without shutting off takes a greater leap of faith than changing up. It worked well but I doubt it made me faster, or helped me to focus on the business of riding.
Where the R1 is peaky, the 1299 S has a linear power-delivery, with immense strength everywhere in the range. It’s at least as merciless, reeling in other bikes with every upshift, but it feels more stable than the R1, less ready to shake its head. Both have electronic wheelie control but Ducati’s can keep the front end on the ground where R1’s only affects rate of lift.
On either machine you need a lot of braking power as the end of a straight nears, and both have it.
The Ducati’s more sophisticated suspension gives it a stability advantage here too. The R1 felt squirmier under hard braking, even with a couple of clicks of preload added to the fork. A couple of times the rear wheel locked in response to aggressive downshifts, despite the slipper-clutch, which is intended to reduce that tendency. The R1 also has Yamaha's ‘Unified Brake System’, which should aid stability by adding a bit of rear when the front is applied.
The Ducati has a slipper-clutch, engine braking control and an automatic throttle-blipper, and between them they make it more difficult to accidentally lock the rear on corner approach.
Despite that, I still felt more at home on the R1. It's a smoother experience than the rumbling mid-range of the Ducati. The R1's crossplane-crank engine has a rumble of its own compared to other four-in-lines but not compared to the Panigale. The drive builds more moderately, but still quickly enough to transform into that devastating top-end as you exit a corner.
It’s extremely compact. The Panigale is narrower at the tank but the R1 is shorter, with a wheelbase of 1,405mm compared to 1,437mm. The bars are close and the screen and clocks right under your nose. It’s a position for focussing on riding.
Several other riders on the track day complimented the sound of the R1. It's just as involving a noise as the Ducati makes but the volume is lower, and the relative quietness liberated a little bit more of my attention to concentrate on the job, on getting to the right part of the track at the right time, and braking and turning at the right moment.