THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

Test­ing Du­cati’s new breed of su­per­bike

Cycle World - - Ducati - By ZACK COURTS / Pho­tog­ra­phy By MILAGRO

When Du­cati man­age­ment stood up and pro­claimed that the new Pani­gale V-4 was the “clos­est bike in the seg­ment to a Mo­togp ma­chine,” there were prob­a­bly a few sets of eyes rolling around the room. This is com­mon rhetoric from Du­cati—to lean on rac­ing lin­eage and how it re­sides in the pas­sion the com­pany de­liv­ers to the pub­lic. It taps into our ba­sic, ado­les­cent instincts about mo­tor­cy­cles: the more power, the big­ger the brakes, the louder the ex­haust, the bet­ter. I know the feel­ing well. I was a child once.

What I learned about Du­cati’s hunger for rac­ing, how­ever, by sling­ing my inner child around the Cir­cuit Ri­cardo Tormo near Va­len­cia, Spain, was not what I was ex­pect­ing. It wasn’t about pas­sion at all, or his­tory, or tro­phies. Du­cati found a way to trans­mit a new kind of per­for­mance in its su­per­bike. A new fla­vor of strength that I think was de­vel­oped on the world stage and isn’t in any of the teaser videos or brochures.

Some might ar­gue that the new fla­vor is ev­i­dent as soon as the en­gine turns over and fires. In­stead of the la­bo­ri­ous crank­ing of two huge pis­tons, the Pani­gale V-4 starter mo­tor taps its toes quickly to jump the twin-pulse en­gine into a typ­i­cal, lumpy, Du­cati idle. And re­ally, it’s much more typ­i­cal than you would think. Plenty of peo­ple will think it’s a twin the first time they hear it run in per­son. From the sad­dle, it’s quick to rev, and there’s more than a hint of per­for­mance in the raspy notes belch­ing out of the un­der­slung pipe. Like it wants to go fast.

In­stead, I trun­dled down pit lane to­ward the cir­cuit at a few thou­sand rpm in third gear and soaked up the ba­sic

feel of the bike. The dash is modern and fairly daz­zling, as you would ex­pect, yet in some ways much more tra­di­tional than Pani­gales of the past. The all-dig­i­tal screen is taken up by an ana­log-style tachome­ter on the right, with menus and data scat­tered around the rest of the dis­play. It’s com­pli­cated, with a touch of class.

The er­gonomics are much more like the out­go­ing 1299 than I ex­pected: lithe and com­pact, with an ag­gres­sive reach forward to the wide bars. While pre­vi­ous Pani­gales had no­tice­ably more legroom than other su­per­bikes, the V-4’s foot­pegs are 10mm higher, which makes it feel a lit­tle more con­ven­tional. More ap­pro­pri­ate, even. It’s still nar­row too, de­spite the “Des­mosedici Stradale” en­gine be­ing 1.7 inches wider than the 1299 mill.

A few laps of warm­ing up to the new en­gine was all it took. It’s in­tu­itive, lin­ear, and easy to use, which is more than could be said about the 1199 and 1299 Su­perquadro pow­er­plants. Plus, the ad­dic­tive midrange punch now leads to a 14,500 rpm rev limit in­stead of the fun end­ing a few thou­sand rpm ear­lier. The 1,103cc en­gine be­ing 10 per­cent larger than any other bike in the class doesn’t hurt, and be­cause it’s big­ger, it will surely set a new bar for power in the category. Iron­i­cally, the more I tried to ex­per­i­ment with the cos­mic power of the en­gine, the more I be­came trans­fixed by the han­dling.

Soon, I was lean­ing hard on the V-4’s tires and mak­ing the chas­sis work. The trac­tion-con­trol light was il­lu­mi­nat­ing on cor­ner ex­its, and even though I was go­ing faster ev­ery lap, I wasn’t miss­ing any marks. I felt a rhythm form­ing—some­thing that hap­pens only when the bike is work­ing with you and not against you. It was brilliant, and nearly ev­ery­thing I couldn’t do on a 1299. I went faster into cor­ners and threw the bike from side to side more vi­o­lently un­til I started to run out of en­ergy.

I tried my best to over­ride the bike, to get it to break its poise and un­leash a feral beast, but it never did. It simply de­liv­ered more and more per­for­mance, in ex­actly the quan­ti­ties that I re­quested, un­til I had to tap out. The ra­di­a­tor fan hum­ming and the ripped-up rub­ber on the edge of the tires were the only signs the bike had hu­mored me.

This isn’t a huge surprise in this age of sport­bike ca­pa­bil­ity, but it does rep­re­sent a mas­sive step forward for Du­cati.

Dis­man­tling this clin­i­cal dis­play of speed that the Pani­gale V-4 had de­liv­ered to me is pos­si­ble only with all of the se­crets that Du­cati laid into the mo­tor­cy­cle. We don’t have the whole recipe, but we know enough to de­ci­pher how the com­pany trans­formed its flag­ship su­per­bike from a manic-de­pres­sive rocket ship to an even-keeled su­per­bike on the cut­ting edge of the in­dus­try. From my per­spec­tive, it all goes back to co­he­sion.

Du­cati first went rac­ing with a V-4 en­gine in the Mo­togp World Cham­pi­onship in 2003, and his­tor­i­cally it has been about two things: speed and tra­di­tion. In the early days, there was a steel-trel­lis frame, 200-some­thing horse­power, and very lit­tle fi­nesse to be seen with the naked eye. Rid­ers wres­tled vi­cious ma­chines around the tracks, some­times smok­ing tires to a pulp or break­ing delicate pieces with sheer ve­loc­ity. Du­cati had some suc­cess with the fire-and-brim­stone method, win­ning races and even a cham­pi­onship. By 2010 the Mo­togp ma­chine was the epit­ome of light and fast and dif­fi­cult to ride.

Much of that seemed to be trans­mit­ted to the Pani­gale su­per­bike. It was of­ten 15, 20, or even 30 pounds lighter than the com­pe­ti­tion, with just as much power, more elec­tronic op­tions, and all of the best com­po­nents. But it was un­for­giv­ing to ride, es­pe­cially on a race­track. The en­gine was peaky and hard to man­age, the elec­tron­ics seemed a step be­hind, and the chas­sis flexed in a way that mere mor­tals strug­gled to con­trol.

Early sketches of the V-4 showed the shock mounted on the side, à la 1199 and 1299 Pani­gales. But for pro­duc­tion, it’s tucked in be­tween the en­gine and rear wheel, like most mo­tor­cy­cles. When I asked the de­signer, Julien Cle­ment, he told me the side-mounted shock was getting in the way of the test rider, so they moved it. He even said he pro­posed a sys­tem to pull on the shock in­stead of push, but it was “too tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult to re­al­ize and with no real ben­e­fit.” So it be­gan: a whiff of prag­ma­tism.

Over the past 15 years, Mo­togp has be­come more about con­trol than power. Du­cati’s ap­proach in the past few years (cer­tainly in the time­line of the de­vel­op­ment of the V-4) has fol­lowed suit. The team has adopted an alu­minum frame, for one, much more sim­i­lar to con­ven­tional bikes. The ma­chine has be­come more con­sis­tent and re­li­ably at the front of the pack. Even still, it was re­ported that Du­cati rid­ers were es­pe­cially tired at the end of a race.

On the Pani­gale V-4 at Va­len­cia, so much of the pre­ci­sion and ease of use seemed to come from the bike’s abil­ity to change di­rec­tion and hold a line. Com­pared with a 1299, it felt like it was on tires half the width or was 25 pounds lighter. It seemed the back­ward-ro­tat­ing crankshaft was mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, can­cel­ing out some of the in­er­tial mass of the spin­ning wheels, ro­tors, and tires. “Ev­ery team in Mo­togp has a counter-ro­tat­ing crank,” Kevin Cameron ex­plained when I asked about it, “and do you think they do that be­cause it’s fash­ion­able?” No sir, I do not.

Un­less speed is fash­ion­able. Then you could ar­gue that it’s sexy to take ad­van­tage of the en­gine’s di­men­sions to stretch the swingarm and ex­tend the wheel­base by 1.25 inches.

Or to re­fine the front-rear weight dis­tri­bu­tion. Or shape the fuel tank so it runs back under the seat, keep­ing weight as low as pos­si­ble. The en­gine is still a stressed mem­ber of the chas­sis, but now there’s a frame to con­nect the rider’s seat to the rest of the bike. It’s not flashy stuff, but it mat­ters.

Last, the im­pos­si­bly com­plex net­work of elec­tronic rider as­sists. The high­est num­ber or most ad­vanced isn’t the story here, but rather how they work to­gether. Up to this point, Du­cati’s elec­tronic systems re­ally have been use­ful only in sav­ing the rider from a cat­a­strophic mis­take. Now, the Pani­gale V-4 elec­tron­ics have been re­fined to within a mil­lime­ter of the state of the art. Trac­tion con­trol, wheelie con­trol, slide con­trol, ABS, en­gine-brak­ing, and yes, even the steer­ing damper, are ad­justable and work so well to­gether that you could for­get the menus are there. Which is the whole point.

On the Öh­lins-equipped S ver­sion that I rode, the NIX30 fork and TTX36 shock read and ad­justed the com­pres­sion and re­bound damping as I rode, as of­ten as 100 times ev­ery sec­ond. It is mirac­u­lous, ex­tra­or­di­nary tech­nol­ogy that I turned off and could barely tell the dif­fer­ence. In part be­cause Mo­togp tracks are smooth, but also be­cause even though the sys­tem made changes as large as 50 per­cent of the range of ad­just­ment while I rode, it did so covertly. Plus, let’s be hon­est, that many thou­sands of dol­lars in sus­pen­sion is bound to work pretty well, even when the set­tings are static.

As amaz­ing as the elec­tronic sus­pen­sion is, you could ar­gue it’s a gim­mick. Same goes for the huge, beau­ti­ful dash. The sus­pen­sion also comes at some cost, in­ci­den­tally, with the mid­line S ver­sion (which Du­cati ex­pects to be the main seller) priced at $27,495. For­go­ing the forged wheels and elec­tronic Öh­lins for the Showa- and Sach­se­quipped base model will add 2 pounds of weight to­tal and save $6,300, ring­ing in at $21,195.

They are dif­fer­ently equipped, and while I haven’t rid­den the base bike, I think any ver­sion of the Pani­gale V-4 cra­dles deep in its core the most im­por­tant value at­tained in Mo­togp com­pe­ti­tion: pre­ci­sion. This new ma­chine is the most pow­er­ful Du­cati su­per­bike I’ve ever rid­den, but that’s not why it’s the most im­pres­sive. If any­thing, Mo­togp learned about emo­tion from Bologna. The les­son Du­cati learned from Mo­togp is one of co­he­sion. Fo­cus­ing all of that pas­sion in the right di­rec­tion at the right time—that’s what de­fines this new su­per­bike hori­zon.

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