First Ride: Ducati 1199 Panigale S review

Take a successful formula that's worked for over two decades then throw it in the bin and start again, from scratch. Welcome to the Italian way of thinking.

I'M SURE you won't have any sympathy when I tell you I could have done with more time on Ducati's new 1199 Panigale S at the Yas Marina F1 circuit in Abu Dhabi.

That's not to say I didn't have enough time to review the Panigale in the four sessions we had but with each session under my belt the Panigale just felt better and better. In the spirit of past Ducati superbikes, this is a proper rider's bike.

Before we go into how the bike rides, I want to run you through some of the technology involved because, even though electronics aren't widely accepted as being a good thing, they play a vital part in how this bike feels. First there's DTC which is Ducati's Traction Control. Don't get this confused with the DTC of old, this new iteration is so much smoother the the last. Then there's DQS, which is Ducati's Quick Shift, it helps you feel in gears with such speed you wonder whether it's actually cheating. Then there's EBC, which is Ducati's Engine Brake Control, designed to help keep the rear wheel behaving on rapid downshifts. EBC wasn't my cup of tea but it definitely contributes to the bike's feel.

Barely three corners in and what stood out to me - and continued to stand out throughout the day - was the engine. Not how much power it makes - although it does make a lot - but how it delivers its power. It is so smooth off the bottom and feels completely different to the 1198SP. The 1198SP, although a good bike, just isn't as usable in lower gears as you'd like it to be. To be honest, I thought the 1199 Panigale was going to be more extreme but it just isn't. It has precisely the amount of drive you want, not need, but definitely not such an excess that you wince every time you open the throttle out of a hairpin.

It doesn't feel like a twin but it doesn't lose the characteristics that I love about twins; torque, usable drive, the narrow riding position and the noise. The noise!  It is so smooth and revs so quickly that if someone told you the Superquadro powerplant was actually a v-four, I'm not sure you'd disgaree.

I know that comparing the Panigale to the 1198 isn't really fair, but the 1198 typifies a lot of the characteristics of Ducati sportsbikes harking back to the 916; you feel like you're sat on them rather than in them, they feel firm and they demand effort. Lots of it. There is so much about the Panigale that's different, it's no longer just another bigger faster version of a bike that 15 years ago was a 916.

Again, all the hype leading up to the Panigale's launch left me thinking it was going to be more extreme than the 1198 the but riding position is really comfortable. You feel like you're sat in the bike, not on it. The reach to the footpegs is roomy and that's not something I'd have ever said about a Ducati sportsbike (just look at the picture on the right for proof). The bars are wide and are set in a more open position but Ducati's design makes them look light on switchgear, further enhancing the race-bike feel. That extra room makes all the difference and the riding position feels natural, definitely not extreme. I daresay that, although the Panigale looks smaller than the 1198SP, it would suit taller riders better than most superbikes.

A lot of the areas where the Panigale benefits are to do with user feel and confidence. The old Brembo monobloc calipers, as used on the Hypermotard EVO 1100SP, 848 EVO and 1198SP are fantastic brakes, amazingly powerful and with the right master cylinder, give good feel. However, I can't forget the first time I used them: it felt like someone had shoved an iron bar in the front wheel. The old monobloc's bite is incredible and starts off being something you fear rather than embrace. Brembo and Ducati have worked together to revise the monobloc calipers on the Panigale and the result is brakes that no longer have the iron bar feel. Some sportsbikes are guilty of being under-braked and having brakes that fade on track, not this one.

I mentioned DQS earlier, Ducati's Quick Shift. Well it's not strictly DQS that makes all the shifting difference, it's also the new gearbox. It's slick and precise, like slotting bullets into a rifle. On some Ducati models the gearbox has a habit on throwing in a false neutral, often between fourth and fifth but I didn't miss one gear today, partly down to the new 'box and partly down to the DQS, which lines up another gear at the merest whiff of pressure. No backing off, no clutch, just bang, bang, bang in they go. Like I said: it feels like you're cheating.

Ducatis and handling go together like bees and honey, right? Right. Sat here now, I've only just realised that not once today did I think about Rossi's front-end woes with the GP bike's monocoque chassis. Put simply, it works and it works amazingly well. Sure, the Ohlins NIX30 and TTX36 on the Panigale S that we were riding definitely help, but the standard Panigale's Marzocchi forks and Sachs shock are unlikely to disappoint. The Panigale flicks from left to right with the eagerness of an R6, it's not a bike that requires effort to get it turned, it's not slow to steer like some big Ducatis but at the same time it's not flighty and nervous. The only drawback is Ducati's new technlogy EBC, when it's in its most intervening mode..

The EBC system applies a measured about of throttle opening to stop the rear tyre from moving around so much under heavy braking. Even coming off the back straight, flat in 6th, grabbing the clutch, heading to second and dumping the clutch doesn't faze it. It is so hard to get the Panigale to step out of line under heavy braking, so the EBC definitely works, but when you tip in late, still 'dragging' the rear wheel (even though you'd never notice it) the system does notice it and applies a tiny amount of throttle.

So what's the downside? Well, in a slow 1st or 2nd gear chicane or hairpin, when you've tipped it in, the throttle opening takes you slightly off line. It's like when you use someone else's computer and end up tapping the wrong keys on a keyboard you're not used to. Luckly, EBC can be turned off, but, like the keyboard, you quickly get used to it. If I was looking for faster lap times, I'd turn it off because I like to be as connected as possible to the bike, I'm happy with the rear moving around on the approach to a corner but not everyone is.

There's no denying the Ohlins factor, but the bike's naturaly stablility, both on the brakes and mid corner is one of its real strong points. It feels so settled mid corner it begs you to get on the gas earlier and often lures you in. Or at least, that's my excuse.

Now, I'm a huge fan of traction control, but only when you can't feel it. Some systems cut the power aggressively which can make you almost headbutt the top yoke. I'm not naming any names, Mr Original BMW S1000RR. When it's good, like Kawasaki's lastest ZX-10R then it's exceptional and massively improves my enjoyment of the bike.

I don't buy the argument that if it's got TC then it obviously doesn't handle properly but traction control and good handling are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to the Panigale, it really feels like the DTC is woven into the bike, not just bolted onto it. I couldn't begin to tell you how many times the traction control was cutting in around the Yas Marina circuit, but it doesn't matter. What does matter is that it works, you can trust it and it'll help you and the Panigale gel. You really feel this is a bike that wants to be ridden hard but also wants to help you get to a place where you can.

I feel like I've not talked enough about the engine or more specifically, the outright power it makes. To be honest with you, I wanted to make it through this review without mentioning outright horsepower figures at all because at no stage do you feel like the power is an outrageous excess that needs taming. It's not being waved in your face as is the case with the 1198SP and yet the Panigale is claimed to produce 25bhp more. It sure is quick, but it's quick in a much subtler way than any v-twin I've ridden. If at one end of the scale you have an inline-four and at the other, a v-twin, then somewhere along that scale, closer to the inline-fours is Yamaha's cross-plane R1 engine. Well, the Panigale sits on he scale a mirror image of the Yamaha. It's got a hint of four-cylinder smoothness.

When it comes to superbike-class v-twins, Ducati are really in a class of one. So it seems indulgent, almost perverted, that despite the success of the 1198 - not least in the hands of Carlos Checa in World Superbikes - Ducati decided to scrap this successful formula and try another angle. Most manufacturers wouldn't have taken that gamble. I salute the fact Ducati have, because the 1199 is something an evolved 1198 could never have been.

Long live the Panigale.

Click for our Ducati 1199 Panigale S onboard video lap here.