First ride: Ducati 959 Panigale review

Is the baby Panigale still a baby? Or does Ducati now make two superbikes, one big the other massive? Read the first full and considered review of the 959 Panigale.

I KNOW what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘what in the world is with that exhaust?!’

I can’t sit here and be an apologist for Ducati but I am sympathetic to their dilemma. Meeting a European emission standard is hardly the most romantic brief for a new motorcycle but the looming Euro 4 regulation is the reason Ducati have had to take the 899 Panigale back to the drawing board.

So the evolution of the 899 to the 959 has been different to the normal process of shaving off a bit of weight and finding a few more horsepower while striving for a better lap time.

Ducati have battled two issues: noise and emissions. Surprisingly, noise being the biggest hurdle. The noise tests measure from the centre of the bike and that includes the sound emanating from the engine internals, so bolting a new exhaust to the existing 899 Panigale wouldn’t have cut the mustard.

Aside from the exhaust, the next most obvious change is the capacity hike, up 57cc to 955cc thanks to a longer stroke. The heavily revised Superquadro engine features new heads and engine casings, a new timing chain and a fully revised gearbox, all of which add around 1.5kg to the weight.

The new exhaust fulfils two roles. It not only reduces emissions thanks to the extra length and space for a revised catalytic converter but it also moves some of the noise away from the centre of the bike. Knowing this, I looked at the exhaust in a new light. It’s a clever exercise in technical innovation even though the final aesthetic is slightly harder to appreciate.

Of course, Ducati could have made these changes and kept the capacity the same but then they’d have produced a new 899 Panigale that’s less attractive than the existing model, both in terms of looks and performance. That would have been an own goal. The bitter pill any prospective 959 owner has to swallow is that in the US they don’t need to meet the same emissions standards as us and so for now, they get their own 959 Panigale with the underslung exhaust.

So far there’s a lot of stick and not a lot of carrot. While the shotgun-style exhaust adds 3.5kg to the Panigale’s overall weight, the new motor, at 157hp offers 6% more power and 8% more torque. The 959 features a new crank, pistons, cam-shafts and con-rods. It also features a secondary ‘showerhead’ injector, as used on the Panigale 1299R. The exhaust diameter is larger too, up from 55mm to 60mm – exactly the same as the 1299.

While the peak power and torque figures are up, a look at the dyno chart to shows the bigger picture: the new motor trumps the 899 almost everywhere.

The other changes include a slipper clutch, while the swing-arm has been relocated 4mm lower and there’s a ‘performance’ air-filter. Inherited from the 1299 are the larger air intakes, a wider fairing and taller screen, machined foot-pegs and shorter mirror stalks. Then there’s another slightly counter-intuitive change - the gearing is taller- and so a 43-tooth rear sprocket replaces the 44-tooth used on the 899.

Five seconds is all you need on the 959 to tell you just about everything you need to know about the bike and see where the major improvements lie. At Valencia in Spain, where the bike was launched, those five seconds start as you approach Turn 1.

Reaching 155mph in sixth gear at the end of the straight, one thing is clear: while the 899 was highly questionable as a ‘supersport’ class bike, the 959 is absolutely in another league. It’s blisteringly fast and it would definitely no longer be fair to pitch the 959 against rivals whose engine capacity starts with a six.

Nor does it feel right to call it an ‘entry-level’ superbike, a supersport or a baby Ducati. With ever increasing engine capacity - from 748 to 749 to 848 to 899 - the introduction of the 959 is the end of the entry-level Ducati. There are now two Ducati superbikes, one big the other massive.

The 959’s brakes are Brembo M4.32 four-piston radial monoblocs, exactly the same as those on the 899. They offer good feel but don’t have a strong initial bite. The important thing is they offer plenty of stopping power, which is welcome as you approaching Turn 1 at 150mph.

A big squeeze of the front brake lever, then clutch in and down three gears before letting the clutch straight out and tipping into Turn 1 at 100mph. To say the rear end steps out would be an overstatement. It nudges sideways ever-so-slightly as the slipper clutch works its magic and helps scrub off the final 10mph needed to make the apex. There’s no doubt the slipper clutch allows you to concentrate on braking and hold a tighter, more confident line. While the 959 features a revised DQS (quick-shifter) which is incredibly slick, it would be great if it also had the auto-blipping downshifter of the 1299. Alas, it doesn’t.

Hitting the apex at around 85mph, the 959 is a pin-point, laser guided, everyone’s a winner, cornering god. Prod it in the right direction and it pretty-much does the rest.

The suspension is almost identical to the 899’s. The front forks are 43mm Showa Big Piston fully-adjustable and the shock is a Sachs fully adjustable unit. The only change is that the rear shock is 2mm longer, setting the bike slightly higher to compensate for the heavier exhaust.

The only current production bikes I can think of that hold a candle to the 959 in the cornering stakes are all supersport machines, which makes the 959’s cornering ability even more impressive. It’s got litre-bike rivalling punch with supersport rivalling handling.

The 959 is stable too and has great natural traction. I had the bike in Race mode, which sets the EBC (Engine Braking Control) at level one of three, the DTC (Ducati Traction Control) at three of eight and the ABS at one of three. On that moderate setting, the traction control light only flickered on a couple of times during the lap and mainly under hard acceleration out of slower corners.

On the exit of Turn 1, at 85mph and on the side of the tyre, you’re wary that tapping on the power could cause a high-side or at least an out-of-the-seat moment, but I found myself picking up the throttle earlier and earlier each lap and the 959 responded in the best possible way: by digging in.

Despite the longer-stroke motor, the bike feels like it revs just as freely as the 899, long gone are the days when a twin plodded along with dollops of torque. This one fires into the 11,500rpm red line.

Valencia’s tight and twisty layout is the ideal proving ground for the 959 Panigale. It’s hard to imagine how the MotoGP gods wrestle 240hp monsters around here for 30 laps. At times the 959 was flighty, especially over kerbs and sometimes during quick changes of direction, but it’s easy to take for granted what you’re asking of the bike each lap. Never have I spent so much time on the kerbs as I did at Valencia on the 959, so it’s no wonder I had a couple of head shakes each session.

The only point I’m left pondering is who precisely the 959 Panigale is aimed at. Experienced riders may still dismiss it as a ‘baby’ compared to its 1285cc bigger brother. For those who want a baby Panigale, I wonder whether the 899’s performance bar needed to be raised like this, even if 959’s electronics and longer-stroke motor make its 150hp more accessible and usable.

No doubt the additional capacity and power will increase insurance costs and move the ‘entry-level’ Ducati further from the grasp of newer riders. In contrast when the 749 was launched I saw that as a genuine first step on the superbike ladder. Unfortunately, that first step just got higher.

Whoever the target buyer is, I don’t doubt it’ll be a bigger seller for Ducati UK, just as the 899 was.

Deservedly so. You can blame the European Parliament for that exhaust, but you can thank them for the 959 Panigale; it’s the most accessible Ducati superbike I’ve ridden.



Model tested: Ducati 959 Panigale

Price:  Red £13,095, White £13,295

Engine: 955cc Superquadro L-twin, Desmodromic liquid-cooled

Power: 157hp @ 10,500rpm

Torque: 79lbft @ 9,000rpm

Weight without fuel: 176kg

Kerb weight: 200kg

Frame: Monocoque Aluminium

Tank capacity: 17 litres

Seat height: 830mm

Colours: Red or White

Availability: Orders being taken now

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