Why size doesn’t matter: Yamaha R6 v Ducati 959 Panigale on the UK’S toughest test route
Sporty middleweights serve up miles of smiles, but which of these two smart-looking screamers takes top honours on MCN’S super-tough test?
News just in. Buying a new sportsbike doesn’t have to mean blowing the equivalent of your teenager’s university fund. Nor do you have to choose a 200bhp animal, a creature so fierce and removed from the normal world it can only be ridden with the help of clever electronics. No, there is another option: an old fashioned and almost forgotten class that continues to champion relative simplicity and manageable power. Step forward the sportsbike middleweights of
the moment: Yamaha’s YZF-R6 and Ducati’s 959 Panigale.
Launched in 2017 Yamaha’s new-ish R6 is the only Euro4 compliant supersport 600 on the UK market, albeit one with its wings clipped by the latest emissions regs. Unfortunately, the process of cleaning the rev-happy inline four reduced its peak power from 122bhp to 116bhp and peak torque from 49.9ftlb to 45.5ftlb. To compensate, Yamaha added traction control, reduced the weight slightly with an aluminium fuel tank and improved the handling with a new front end, including forks and brakes from the R1.
Like Yamaha, Ducati had to make sacrifices to conform to Euro4. In 2016 the Italians launched the 959 Panigale, essentially an updated 899 with cleaner fuelling and an ugly twin exhaust and a seven kilo weight increase. The engine is a ‘stroked’ 899 Superquadro, now 955cc, which churns out 157bhp and 79.2ftlb, which is considerably more than the R6. This might be Ducati’s middleweight sportsbike, but there’s no hiding the fact its capacity is nearly 1000cc or that it makes nearly as much power as Ducati’s 2007 1098.
The Panigale is stunning. Ducati produce timeless classics time and again, and those exhausts are the only blemish on an otherwise exquisite bike (our test bike’s aftermarket Akraprovic twin sidepipes are more appealing than standard, but will cost you £1205 on top of your £13,999 initial outlay).
Yamaha’s R6 has also risen in price over the years to a giddy £11,499, an eye-watering ask for a standard 600. Our test bike was laden with Yamaha extras such as paddock stand hooks and a racy rear sprocket, which pushed the price to a £12,521 and, just like the Ducati, it’s stunning.
Riding the R6 for the first time is like going on the world’s shortest stag party. You immediately become over-excitable, go racing around and slightly crazy before sobering up and calming down again; all inside 15 minutes. Yes, for the first few miles of the MCN250 test route I didn’t change gear until 15,000rpm, only used the first three ratios, and hit every apex as if it were my last. Then I realised this was a one-way
ticket to disaster and started to ride normally. And this is when you’ll start to dislike the R6.
At normal speed there’s nothing below 6000rpm. Tester Bruce said it was like riding a two-stroke, while above 7000rpm there’s at best a glimmer of urgency. You really need to get the engine spinning above 10,000rpm to get into the sweet zone where, infuriatingly, Euro4 constraints have strangled the power and left it gasping for air, like you’re riding at 20,000 feet.
I know from past experience that a full race pipe transforms the R6 but in standard form it’s a little disappointing, especially on the road. Every overtake on the busy MCN250 was met with frustration as I danced grumpily on the gear lever in search of power.
In contrast the Ducati was easy. I hopped on board the V-twin after our stop at the Super Sausage Café and was taken aback by its supply of power and torque. As Bruce on the YZF was performing the River Dance, I was surfing waves of manageable torque; I’d almost forgotten how usable a big twin is. In fifth gear it will pull smoothly from nowhere, making overtakes effortless. The easy torque meant the ride along the B4525 and A422 was a pleasurable breeze: quick but manageable.
By Stratford, though, I started wondering if at the age of 40 I have outgrown the sporting middleweight. Both bikes are uncomfortable, bordering on painful after 100 miles. Above 40mph the windblast lifts you slightly, taking weight from your wrists, while at motorway speeds both bikes were surprisingly easy. But, below that, in town especially, no thanks.
After Stratford and our first fuel stop I was back on the R6 and looking forward to attacking the twistier sections of the MCN250. There’s no denying Yamaha have improved the front end, which is an impressive result given that it was already class leading. The steering is light and accurate. Look at the apex and you’re on it, like a cat pouncing on its prey, so it’s a shame the rear end doesn’t match the front, especially when you throw a few bumps into the mix. The suspension is too harsh and jolts over
‘Surfing waves of torque; I’d forgotten how usable a big twin can be’ ‘Look at the apex and the R6 pounces on it like a cat’
bumps and, on showroom settings, there isn’t enough sag in the rear spring. On a smooth race track, it just about works, but on the smaller roads after Fish Hill my spine took a beating.
By contrast the Ducati was planted, hungry for corner speed and filled whoever was on it with confidence. It turned slightly slower than the R6, but was more predictable, which let me enter corners with more lean and speed.
The Milton Keynes GP highlighted a weak point of the Ducati: its Brembos. They’re more than OK but date back to 2013, and lack bite on the limit. The R6 stopped with more urgency and loved to be flicked from one roundabout to the next.
But Bruce still wasn’t loving the R6. He said: “It wants you to ride it hard, but you can’t. The standard Dunlops and set-up, plus the small matter of the law of the land, just don’t allow you to ride it like a race bike on the road (which, essentially, is what it is).”
After running an R6 for a year, I know it’s a phenomenal bike once its minor gripes are rectified. Allow the engine to breathe with a full race exhaust, change the standard tyres and tweak the suspension and it becomes a completely different bike.
My properly set-up R6 would have smoked the Ducati on a track session, but we’re not testing what could have been. The thing is the Ducati doesn’t need changing or fixing or modifying. It works superbly from the start.
DUCATI PANIGALE 959 £13,999 (OUR TEST BIKE £15,543) YAMAHA YZF-R6 £11,499 (OUR TEST BIKE £12,750)
The booming Ducati is so much easier to get on with