THE PER­FECT SPORTS­BIKE

Too big to be a mid­dleweight, but not big enough to be a su­per­bike– so where does it fitin?

Motorcycle News (UK) - - This Week - By Emma Franklin PRO­DUC­TION EDI­TOR

Com­pro­mise is a word that should never be used about a Du­cati, and yet it’s hard to avoid it when you’re talk­ing about the 959 Pani­gale, a bike that seems to be the very def­i­ni­tion of an in­be­tweener. But its ge­nius is ex­actly the fact that it blurs the lines. We spend a week do­ing it all on the ul­ti­mate do-it-all sports­bike.

When it outgrew World Su­pers­port in 2008, Du­cati’s smaller su­per­bike was free to de­velop into an al­most per­fect road­go­ing sports­bike. No longer a poor re­la­tion to the topflight Du­cati su­per­bike, the 848 was a stun­ning ma­chine in its own right. The ideal blend of power, low-down torque, han­dling and beauty, it treated per­for­mance-lov­ing road rid­ers to an in­volved, to­tally ana­logue, me­chan­i­cal rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and left the high­tech giz­mos and pun­ish­ing power to its range-top­ping big­ger brother.

But time has a habit of mak­ing things ex­pand and, like so many waist­lines, Du­cati’s ‘small’ su­per­bike isn’t so lit­tle any­more. Just as 749cc grew to 849cc, in the past three years 849cc has swelled to 898cc, and now tips the dial gauge at 955cc in the new 959 Pani­gale.

Du­cati’s ‘Su­per-mid’ su­per­bike is now larger in ca­pac­ity than the orig­i­nal 916, packs al­most as much tech­nol­ogy as the firm’s top-of-the-range 1299, and costs about the same as a Ja­panese litre sports­bike. Then there’s the mat­ter of the im­mi­nent ar­rival of Du­cati’s 2017 939 Su­pers­port, a whole new breed of road-bi­ased sports­bike. So it begs the ques­tion, is there still a place for the midi-su­per­bike in Bri­tain’s Du­cati deal­er­ships? MCN spent a week with the £13,295 959 Pani­gale to find out.

Tor­ture town Mon­day 6pm

What have I done? It’s been a long time since I’ve rid­den a sports­bike on the road and I’m strug­gling. This feels ex­treme – race bike ex­treme. I’m perched high, prone and vul­ner­a­ble. My in­ner-city ride home from work is at com­plete odds with what the 959 Pani­gale wants to do; it sim­ply isn’t happy at low-speed. Its en­gine, a stroked ver­sion of the 899’s Su­perquadro V-twin, just wants to rev and there’s nowhere near as much bot­tom end as I was ex­pect­ing.

Caged by traf­fic the 959 feels tight and fran­tic, its at-the-wheel 144bhp is all het up with nowhere to go. At sub 40mph speeds with no wind­blast to sup­port me, I’m hav­ing to prop my­self up by lean­ing my left arm on the tank, and throt­tling off is like hit­ting a brick wall, slam­ming my body­weight fur­ther for­ward still. It’s a small mercy that the slip­per clutch with its self-servo mech­a­nism makes the lever ac­tion su­per light, while the part-throt­tle fuel in­jec­tion via the twin-in­jec­tor bod­ies is im­pres­sively smooth. But this ease of oper­a­tion doesn’t do any­thing to quell the fire that’s rag­ing be­neath me.

The traf­fic’s build­ing and the heat’s ris­ing, the Pani­gale’s tem­per­a­ture gauge is now into triple fig­ures and the cool­ing fan’s still not kicked in. My thigh is siz­zling next to the coiled-up ex­haust header be­neath the seat. This isn’t fun, this is tor­ture.

Yet, once at home with the garage door closed be­hind me, stand­ing and star­ing at the baby Pani’s glow­er­ing head­lamps and per­fect pearles­cent paint, all that pain’s some­how for­got­ten. Fit­ted with the op­tional-ex­tra Akra slip-on I can even for­give it that ques­tion­able ex­haust. This feels like love, this is Du­cati sports­bike own­er­ship.

Morn­ing scratch Tues­day 5.35am

Eyes open hours be­fore the alarm, pupils di­lat­ing as the thought of the 959 Pani­gale wait­ing in the garage spikes my blood­stream with en­dor­phins. Early morn­ing traf­fic-free roads are an op­por­tu­nity not to be missed and of­fer the 959 a chance to show me what it’s re­ally made of. Straight into leathers, quick cup of tea, then out of the front door for a pre-work buzz that’s bet­ter than a triple espresso.

On de­serted coun­try B-roads the 959 comes into its own. Wind­ing the throt­tle back from part-closed to fully

open, the in­duc­tion note changes as the Pani­gale gulps in the still morn­ing air be­fore the 955cc V-twin com­busts it into ca­cophonous chaos. Euro4 might’ve damp­ened the Du­cati’s me­chan­i­cal noise via sound-dead­en­ing fair­ings, ribbed cam cov­ers and those con­tentious shot gun-style cans, but they’ve clev­erly made up for it in other ar­eas. The howl of tor­tured air res­onates within the alu­minium mono­coque chas­sis air­box and ric­o­chets off sleepy cottages, rous­ing those who live their lives in the de­cid­edly slower lane.

With the sun only a few hours old I re­mind my­self that I should be tak­ing it easy on the cool early morn­ing tar­mac, so I close the throt­tle and lower the pre-set rider mode from Race to Sport, soft­en­ing the re­sponse and in­creas­ing the trac­tion con­trol and ABS in­ter­ven- tion. But the feel from the rear end is sub­lime enough not to need elec­tronic as­sis­tance, the 4mm lower-than-be­fore swingarm pivot help­ing gen­er­ate an al­most su­per­nat­u­ral con­nec­tion with the rear Pirelli. The 959 flits be­tween corners like a mayfly, ef­fort­less and re­sis­tance free. Those Euro4 reg­u­la­tions might have added an ex­tra 7kg to the smaller Pani­gale’s wet weight, mak­ing it heav­ier than 200bhp su­per­bikes like BMW’S S1000RR or Kawasaki’s ZX-10R, but you’d never guess. It’s a marvel of pack­ag­ing and weight dis­tri­bu­tion.

Ei­ther side of that work-of-art top yoke and grip­ping a pair of Showa Big Pis­ton Fork tubes, the Pani’s wide-set bars are giv­ing me ul­ti­mate con­trol, like a rodeo rider hold­ing on to a lit­tle white bull. Which on these bumpy coun­try lanes, and with the Du­cati-

typ­i­cal rigid rear Sachs sus­pen­sion, is a fair de­scrip­tion of how the ride feels. But that’s to be ex­pected, this is a thor­ough­bred be­ing gal­loped down lanes more suited to a don­key.

Hav­ing burned through 11 litres of fuel to the petrol re­serve light, I ar­rive at work elated and feel­ing like I’ve just done a track­day. Which, per­haps not co­in­ci­dently, is what I im­me­di­ately go and book for later in the week…

Damp­ened spir­its Thurs­day 2.15pm

They call it sod’s law. It’s not rained for weeks but as soon as you get a sneaky af­ter­noon off to do a track­day on a sub­lime V-twin like the Pani­gale the weather turns sour. Rather than buck­et­ing down cats and dogs, there’s an in­sid­i­ous mist in the air and it’s lu­bri­cat­ing the Snet­ter­ton track sur­face just enough to turn it into greased glass. Fit­ted with Pirelli’s awe­some fast-road Di­ablo Rosso II tyres I thought the 959 Pani­gale would shrug off the in­clement con­di­tions, but in­stead we just squirmed, fish­tailed and two-wheel drifted into and around Snett’s bends. Un­like the 1299 Pani­gale, there’s no cor­ner­ing ABS on the 959 – Du­cati have to save some pres­tige for their range-top­ping su­per­bike – but in con­di­tions like this it would be re­ally com­fort­ing to have.

A dry-enough line de­vel­ops for me to at least re­vert back into Race mode then sling­shot around the third-gear right-han­der onto the Bent­ley straight, the Pani­gale’s use­able 74ftlb of torque and vel­vet-smooth de­liv­ery giv­ing me the con­fi­dence to pin the throt­tle at the apex. I fold my­self down be­hind the screen; my now hor­i­zon­tal fore­arms slot­ting per­fectly into the sides of the Pani’s sculpted tank, its ride-by-wire throt­tle open wide as the dig­its on the dig­i­tal dash spi­ral up­wards. Bike and rider are as one as the 959 glut­tonises the gears I’m spoon-feed­ing it via the per­fect quick­shifter. This is ut­terly in­tox­i­cat­ing.

A blur of red and boom­ing ex­haust to my left snaps me out of my trance, it’s a track­day in­struc­tor on his 1299 Pani­gale. I imag­ine the rush he must be feel­ing cling­ing on to that ex­tra 40 or so bhp, the su­per­bike try­ing its best to buck him off with every new cog. Ex­hil­a­rat­ing but hard work. I catch up with him later in the pits to quiz him on his choice of bike, why he opted for the fire-breath­ing 1299 rather than the smaller, cheaper al­ter­na­tive.

“That’s easy,” he grins, “when it comes to Du­cati su­per­bikes, for me big­ger is al­ways bet­ter. It’s the pin­na­cle of en­gi­neer­ing and elec­tronic devel­op­ment, and the feel­ing you get from tam­ing it, or at least at­tempt­ing to tame it, just can’t be beaten.”

That’s all well and good if you spend plenty of time on track, as you would as a track­day reg­u­lar, in­struc­tor or racer, but for those of us whose time on track is pre­cious we have to make sure we can hit the ground run­ning and the easy-to-use 959 def­i­nitely al­lows that to hap­pen. It makes go­ing fast ex­tremely easy, re­gard­less of your skill level. Not to men­tion the fact that, un­like its un­der-slung ex­hausted big­ger broth­ers, it sails through track­day noise tests with ease. It’s a fact that plenty of the world’s sports­bike rid­ers have cot­toned on to, be­cause out of the to­tal 9788 Pani­gales sold in 2015, 5806 of them were the smaller 899 ver­sion. Less some­times re­ally is more.

De­spite my soggy socks, I de­cide to take the long way home via the north Norfolk coast and Hun­stan­ton for a cel­e­bra­tory cup of tea as the sun goes down. My joy tainted only by the fact that af­ter 300 miles in the sad­dle, I’ve just had to stop for petrol for the third time that day. Thirty eight miles per gal­lon and a sup­posed 17-litre fuel tank that some­how only takes 11 litres makes for an an­noy­ing 91 miles be­fore the fuel light comes on. As is of­ten the case with Du­catis, the re­serve light is des­per­ately ner­vous, and comes on way too early.

‘Bike and rider are as one as the 959 glut­tonises the gears I’m spoon-feed­ing it via the per­fect quick­shifter’

Younger brother’s big chance Fri­day 2pm

With my week with the 959 Pani­gale com­ing to a close, there’s still one ques­tion float­ing around in my head: where does the mid-sized Du­cati sport­ster fit in? At 955cc it’s now big­ger in both ca­pac­ity and power than the orig­i­nal 916, so it’s no longer a tra­di­tional mid­dleweight in the same way as a Suzuki GSX-R750 and Tri­umph Day­tona 675. But re­tail­ing at £13,295 it costs about the same as a Ja­panese litre bike, like a Fire­blade SP. So how does it com­pare in terms of per­for­mance? A quick blast to Brun­ingth­orpe Prov­ing Ground would test the 959’s met­tle, and for ref­er­ence I took along its older (but now smaller) brother the 1996 Du­cati 916 SP, as well as Honda’s range-top­ping su­per­bike.

In­cred­i­bly, de­spite be­ing 20 years newer and boast­ing a 39cc ca­pac­ity ad­van­tage with at least 40bhp more power, the 959 Pani­gale can only match the Du­cati 916 SP’S 0-60mph time of 3.62s. The Pani­gale gets into its stride higher up the speed range, pip­ping the 916 to 100mph by 0.2s be­fore top­ping out at a Gps-ver­i­fied 172.8mph. The 916 hits its lim­iter at 166.91mph.

Mak­ing 66ftlb torque at just 6500rpm, the older bike fights back by be­ing an en­tire two sec­onds quicker from 40mph to 120mph in our top gear roll-on test. Sur­pris­ingly, the orig­i­nal Du­cati su­per­bike with its cast iron discs also man­ages to brake from 70mph to a stand­still half a me­tre shorter than the 2016 ma­chine (with its ABS turned off.)

When it came to the four-cylin­der might of the Fire­blade, both Du­catis are taken to task in straight-line and top-speed per­for­mance tests, with the Blade tak­ing just 5.7s to reach 100mph be­fore top­ping out at 179mph. How­ever, for all the Blade’s power ad­van­tage, ear­lier this year MCN dis­cov­ered that the sweet-han­dling 959 Pani­gale could lap a tight, twisty track a whop­ping 1.5 sec­onds quicker than the Ja­panese ma­chine, proof of its su­pe­rior han­dling and high cor­ner speed-in­spir­ing ride.

The 959 Pani­gale’s got that X-fac­tor; the mys­te­ri­ous par­ti­cle float­ing around in its molec­u­lar struc­ture that just can’t be quan­ti­fied; a strange by-prod­uct of its su­per­nat­u­ral side-of-tyre sta­bil­ity, fast but use­able en­gine, ex­otic beauty and all the lat­est elec­tronic bells and whis­tles. More ag­ile and tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced than a Fire­blade, the 959 Pani­gale trumps both the Ja­panese bike and its older 916 brother when it comes to main­te­nance too, amaz­ingly only re­quir­ing ser­vic­ing every 7500 miles, with a valve in­spec­tion com­ing at 15,000 – dou­ble that of the Fire­blade and 916. In­cred­i­ble con­sid­er­ing how hard it revs and how racy it feels.

The 959 ticks all the boxes with­out mak­ing you feel like you’re set­tling for sec­ond best, a fact that’s re­in­forced by the smaller Pani­gale ac­count­ing for 59% of the Du­cati su­per­bike fam­ily’s world­wide sales. Sub­lime on the road, dev­as­tat­ing on track and a heart­breaker in the garage, it’s the full pack­age. Just don’t ride it slowly through town on a hot sum­mer’s day, for that you’ll need to wait for next year’s 939 Su­pers­port or buy a pair of as­bestos un­der­pants.

In­ner city com­mute? Sod that, time to find some back roads

How else do you eat break­fast when there’s a Pani­gale beg­ging to be rid­den? Town rid­ing is a work­out for the wrists while heat from the en­gine soars Typ­i­cal, you book a track­day and the weather switches from sun to dis­mal driz­zle As the track dries it’s time to switch back into Race mode. It’s ut­terly in­tox­i­cat­ing These roads might be more don­key than thor­ough­bred but the 959 Pani­gale still of­fers ul­ti­mate con­trol

Snet­ter­ton’s sur­face is glassy with mois­ture, time to switch to Rain mode with softer power and more trac­tion con­trol

Noise test­ing is al­ways a wor­ry­ing pre-track­day mo­ment…

…but with the 959 there’s no dif­fi­culty get­ting the sticker

‘Watch out for seag­ulls, I’m off to grab my­self a cuppa’

Life can’t be all track­days, but the 959 de­vours A-roads too

0-60 in 3.62s is rapid but the old 916 matches it

Emma teams up with MCN’S data ex­pert Bruce

Honda’s four-cylin­der Fire­blade storms to the ton in just 5.7 sec­onds. Im­pres­sive

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