First ride: Ducati 1299 Panigale S review

Ducati's new Panigale S breaks the 200hp barrier but is more user-friendly than ever

THERE are few bikes I can think of more visually striking than Ducati’s 1199 Panigale. It’s as much a motorcycle as a piece of art - in many eyes a perfect balance between form and function.

But I think it’s just got prettier. And better. 

To some, the new 1299 Panigale may look much the same as the old model but it’s had some noticeable visual tweaks, which include a new wider front fairing with more aggressively styled air intakes, a new tail unit, a larger screen and a new seat.

However, perhaps of more interest is the new engine, which is an even more oversquare version of the last Superquadro motor. The bore size was already an enormous 112mm on the 1199, but it’s been increased to 116mm which gives the engine its larger 1285cc capacity. The 1299’s pistons are now roughly the same size as a small dinner plate. Enormous.

Ducati claim 205hp at 10,500rpm and of torque at 8,750rpm - that’s 10hp more than the 1199 and an extra 10% of torque too. 

It may be boring to list off electronics but the new 1299 has an arsenal of them and they play a vital role in how the bike feels. As on the 1199, you get traction control, riding modes and Engine Braking Control (EBC), but there’s now wheelie control, a quickshifter that allows clutchless upshifts AND downshifts, and cornering ABS, too.

Dig a little deeper for the S model and you get semi-active Öhlins suspension front and rear, and an electronic steering damper added to your rider aid armoury. The S version also gets lightweight forged aluminium wheels and LED headlights, and is the model we rode at the International press launch in Portimao.

For those who don’t know Portimao, the circuit is full of off-camber blind corners, hairpin turns and heavy braking zones in steep downhill sections. It’s physical, and if you crash, it’s likely to be a fast one.

And yet, somehow, the 1299 Panigale made the track feel about as intimidating as a pillow fight.

You see, the 1199 had a reputation for feeling twitchy and stiff, making it difficult to ride quickly on track. The new bike, despite a noticeable increase in power, is far more user-friendly. It no longer punishes rider error. The change in feel comes from a slightly sharper steering head angle and a lower swingarm pivot point which has transformed the bike. The 1299 is not just a more powerful 1199, it offers a completely different riding experience.

That experience changes further depending on which rider mode is selected. There’s three to choose from: Wet, Sport and Race - each offering a completely different setup with varying levels of power. Unless the heavens have opened and you’ve already worn your tyres down to the belts, you’ll probably be more than happy to give Wet mode a miss and leave it in Sport. You still get 205hp but the power delivery is significantly softer and the electronics are much more eager to lend a helping hand. Throttle response and power delivery in Race mode is much sharper with last-chance traction control preset as standard. 

Most of the journalists on the press launch left the bike in Race. If you like setting up your own machine, all the electronics are individually adjustable via a simple control system on the left handlebar.

What quickly became apparent while hustling the bike around Portimao is the newfound torque. For one reason or another, riders all too often get their knickers in a twist over big horsepower figures, but I think they’re missing the point. Yes, it may pump out a few more horses on the dyno, but it’s where that extra power has gone that’s important. The 1299 has kept the fast-revving nature of the 1199 engine but comes with boosted grunt across the entire rev range. You no longer have to keep it on song in the upper echelons of the powerband - power is now everywhere.

You can short-shift and pull fourth-gear power wheelies to your heart’s content. In fact, the front end was heading skywards even in sixth at 150mph over a small crest just short of the main straight.

Following in the footsteps of Ducati’s 1098 line-up, the 1299 displays confidence-inspiring levels of stability just about everywhere on track. Put the bike on its side and it’s there to stay. It feels planted throughout turns but remains completely responsive to mid-corner tweaks if you need to tighten up your line.

Perhaps most impressive is the bike’s stability on down-shifts. Some might call it cheating but with the 1299’s well set-up slipper clutch, Ducati’s EBC system and the automatic throttle-blipper, it’s almost impossible to get the bike out of shape on corner entry. Even with the powerful Brembo M50 brakes on full attack, you’ll find it hard to get much more than a wiggle out of the back wheel.

Many will say electronics take the skill and fun out of riding, but it's an argument that I just don't buy. They let you safely explore performance that previously felt impossible to exploit.

One of the features that makes the 1299 such a good bike to ride is its lack of weight - Ducati claims it tips the scales at 190kg wet. It doesn’t matter how fast you’re riding, the new Panigale changes direction with unrivalled urgency. It’s one of the most quick-steering motorcycles I’ve ever ridden. 

And what’s best is the manner in which it rewards faster and smoother riding. At slow speeds the 1299 can occasionally be found guilty of feeling noncompliant. However, turn up the wick and ride within the 1299’s performance window and it starts to make all sorts of sense. The suspension feels more plush, the quickshifter works faster and the bike is much more eager to slice through corners with unmatched precision.

Standard fitment tyres are Pirelli's Diablo Supercorsa SPs, tried and tested rubber with silly amounts of grip on track. Our test bikes were shod with a stickier, more track-biased compound of the Supercorsa which highlighted just how hard you could push the 1299. Even with the rear shock firmed-up fully in Race mode, there was loads of feel from the rear on corner exit. Even after six sessions, when the tyres started to go off, the electronics package and feedback from the bike made it easy to lay down rubber on corner exit with long, predictable powerslides . And unlike the 1199, the 1299 can now be fitted with any tyre or have its final drive ratio changed without upsetting the bike's electronic brain.

Some Ducati's have been known to throw in an occasional false neutral but I didn't miss a gear all day. The gearbox is slick, precise, and has oodles more feel compared to BMW's 2015 S1000RR. There's always a definitive thunk as the box slots a new gear, eliminating any need to have a quick nosy down at the bright TFT dash to see if you're in the right gear.

It may sound cliche but the Panigale is also so much more dramatic than the RR, or any of the Japanese superbikes currently on the market for that matter. There's absolutely no denying: the Ducati looks incredible.

I doubt many non-bikers would stop in their tracks to take a second glance at the S1000RR. Ride the 1299 through a town centre and you'll be the centre of attention for all the right reasons.

Ducati's reputation for poor reliability and frequent servicing intervals has long been a thing of the past now too. Valve clearance adjustments for the 1299 are at 15,000 miles, the same as any Japanese inline-four superbike. 

The standard Panigale and S models are expected to arrive in the UK in March, priced at £16,695 and £20,795 respectively. 

If I were choosing, I'd buy a standard Panigale without the electronic suspension and use the left-over cash to bolt on the official 1299 Akraprovic exhaust system. It makes a world of difference to throttle response, engine pick-up, and gives the Panigale a sound that matches its fierce looks.

Model tested: Ducati 1299 Panigale S

Price: £16,695 for the base model, £20,795 for the S 

Engine: 1285cc L-twin

Power: 205hp @ 10,500rpm

Torque: 106.7lbft @ 8,750rpm

Kerb weight: 190kg

Tank capacity: 17 litres

Seat height: 830mm

Availability: March 2015

Watch Visordown's video review of the 1299 Panigale

Read our Ducati 1299 Panigale S vs Yamaha R1 back-to-back road and track test

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