IS BIGGER BETTER?
Ducati’s 1299 Panigale beats the 959 on paper in every category, but the battle isn’t fought on paper, itõs fought on the road...
It wasn’t many years ago that riding a full-blooded Bolognese V-twin with commitment challenged riders to adapt from their usual style. The 916 was like that; so was the 999 and 1098. Rangy, tall, light and aristocratically haughty, you had to come to a Ducati sportsbike; it wouldn’t come to you.
But as the 1299 S and 959 Panigales ping and ting, contracting and cooling in the fading glow of this year’s last sunlight, the truth is these days, the doors to Ducati’s range of sportsbikes are wide open.
But which door to pick?
The 1299 S is at the top of Ducati’s sportsbike range (exotic Superleggera and 1199 R aside). Its 1285cc V-twin is still at a 90° V-angle and the valves are still actively closed by Desmodromic levers, but belts and pulleys are now camchains and sprockets, steel trellis frame is now monocoque aluminium, and the once untameable power, stiff suspension and resultant chattering truculence are distant memories on this machine.
This morning, as we clatter through the early morning Lincolnshire countryside, the 1299 was domestic bliss. Its riding position is compact but not cramped, and provided the Ducati is moving forward at anything above 50mph, it’s even close to being comfortable – the chest-level wind blast takes weight off wrists. Touring might be a stretch, especially with the fuel light coming on at 100 miles (13 litres to refill, so a full-to-empty range of just 130 miles). But there aren’t many places in the UK outside a 1299 Panigale’s comfort range.
But the real treat is how smooth and manageable the motor is – it’s still less flexible than an inline four; you can’t pootle about in top at 30mph; but you no longer have the bone-shaking, teeth-rattling drivetrain lash of previous sports Ducatis if you drop out of the motor’s happy place. And the big Panigale’s throttle control is perfect – it’s easy to meter in exactly the right dose of gas without an on/off chasing around looking for the sweet spot.
“It’s not what I was expecting,”
reckons James, whose last Ducati sportsbike outing was a 1098 with a bad attitude. “It’s still a Ducati – there’s nothing like the way it blasts when you open the taps – but it feels intuitive and... well, normal, really.”
The 1299 comes armed with every toy in the box; Öhlins semi-active, integrated with traction control, ABS and engine braking management into customisable Race, Sport and Wet modes. It’s simple to switch, pushing and holding the indicator cancel button – but it bothers me I might double tap it by accident.
In Race mode the 1299 belts out its full 190-odd bhp but delivers the extreme high performance with such civility it’s almost illegal to think it, let alone access it. Massive midrange thrust is a given, but there’s no snatch or unusual delicacy required to make the motor work. In Sport, power is also maxed but throttle response is rolled back, while in Wet the throttle is softer still and power is dulled to 120bhp. All other electronics are automatically adapted to suit.
But away from button-pushing, the 1299 is a booming, blustering riot to press on with – alive, chiming, and resonant with an easy-going charm. And boy, it’s good to look at too – beautifully-crafted and packed with aluminium loveliness. Unlike most current Japanese superbikes, the 1299 comes with a high metal-to-plastic ratio, which makes ownership so satisfying. It’s still got foibles though; the damping chambers on the top of the shock stick in my left leg, and while the underseat heating of the exhaust routing is welcome as the sun goes down, it would be too hot in summer traffic.
At a midday coffee and fuel stop, James and I swapped keys and did a quick double-take as we walked towards the bikes from the garage. The 959 Panigale is the spit of the 1299. The differences, aside from the motor’s displacement and 142bhp power output, are Showa and Sachs springs instead of the Swedish option, lowerspec Brembos, a plastic hugger instead of carbon, LCD dash, non-imu electronics, 10-spoke wheels and a doublesided swingarm. Both share rake and trail figures, wheelbase varies by a few millimetres, and the smaller bike actually weighs 7kg more than the big ’un. That’s because much of the 959 is the same as the 1299 – same frame, engine
‘There’s nothing like the way a Ducati blasts when you open the taps’
cases, gearbox, gear ratios, bodywork and tank – but, unlike the 1299, the 959 is Euro 4 compliant so it’s had to make room for a bigger catalyst.
This 959, however, has £4000-worth of extras. These include an Akrapovic exhaust and the necessary bellypan to accommodate it, a taller screen, trick brake and clutch levers, and a comfy seat. It also has an extra tooth on a rear sprocket, bringing its gearing back to the same as the 899 Panigale’s.
The result is pure joy. Louder than the 1299 S, so it sounds more like it means it, the higher-revving, freeer-spinning 959 also feels lighter and more flickable (even though it’s actually heavier). Set-up with more weight over its nose and a narrower rear tyre the Minigale comes alive as soon as you get on it. It feels just right – a better balance of power and chassis than the 1299. The motor’s performance is more accessible more of the time and is just about right for a proper flogging, cracking through the gearbox, quickshifter banging and popping with more appetite than the lazier 1299, but for the same road speed. It makes full use of its lowered gearing with the odd off-the-crest wheelie, and could probably happily spin an even larger final cog – at 90mph in top the 959 is revving at 6600rpm compared to the 1299’s 6000rpm, but it’s so smooth there’s next to no difference. Which is no bad thing. This 959 is also a bit easier on the muscles with its taller screen too – it looks a bit 1950s racer, but when the wind’s against you it’s appreciated. Two Ducatis that are useable and you don’t have to ride like a WSB rider to enjoy them, or feel like you’re doing them justice. What a revelation.
Smaller in capacity, but certainly not lacking in ability Advanced electronics make 190bhp feel civilised. Well, almost... A shared chassis means the 959 is a match for the 1299 on most roads
Lower-spec brakes have ABS but aren’t angle sensitive The 959’s dash is less flashy, but is still nice and clear Cornering ABS and Brembos, it doesn’t get any better The full colour dash’s display mode can be varied Don’t be fooled by the yellow spring, it’s not Swedish No need to break out the screwdriver, just push a button Weight 201kg (Kerb) Wheelbase 1431mm Weight 190.5kg (Kerb) Seat height 830mm Wheelbase 1437mm