(Top) The 1199 Panigale continues to carry that lively, exciting and slightly wild Superbike experience that we’ve come to love from Ducati. (Bottom) The Panigale has the brightest and most functional head lamps of any liter-bike for night riding.
(Top) The 1199 Panigale is the most versatile Superbike Ducati has ever made. Here it is at this summer’s MotoGP race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. (Bottom) In stock form the rear end of the Panigale doesn’t have enough free sag equating to a harsh ride. We took out ½ turn of preload giving it a lower and plusher feel.
Ducati swung for the fences with its latest Superbike, the 1199 Panigale. Though there are many things we love about it, including its obscene power-to-weight ratio, more accommodating ergonomics than ever before, and of course, its mesmerizing good looks, the 1199 didn’t make as big a splash as we expected in either street or track Superbike Smackdown shootouts last year. Still, we’re curious if the results would be different if we could live with the bike for a more than just a couple of hours…
Fortunately, our wish was granted when we got our hands on a premium $22,995 S model in Artic White. This white Panigale entered the fleet in July with 1024 miles on the clock. Over the next three months we piled on another couple thousand miles with about 90% being accumulated on the street and the remaining strafing candy-cane curbing at California’s Buttonwillow and Chuckwalla Valley Raceways. And after getting to live with the Panigale we’ve really begun to understand what it likes, and what it doesn’t.
LIFE ON THE STREET
Compared to the previous 1098/1198, the Panigale is a more cooperative mount in some ways and less in others. The seating position isn’t as demanding and is actually pretty comfortable in the realm of liter-class bikes. It’s narrow between the legs, and most importantly has a low and friendly center of gravity. The control layout is well proportioned and will accommodate a wide range of riders. However, if you’re taller than six-foot, it might get a little cramped—as there isn’t a whole lot of room to scoot your butt rearward on the seat, plus the windscreen is a little short. Fitting a set of adjustable height footpegs and a thicker seat would do wonders for boosting comfort on long distance trips… but since we didn’t take the time to purchase those updates we did something even easier—adjusted the suspension.
The S models comes equipped with electronically-adjustable suspension from Ohlins, allowing the rider to tune the compression and rebound damping settings via a couple button pushes from the cockpit. However, spring preload still needs to be adjusted the old fashioned way—with tools.
Off the showroom floor the Panigale has an unbalanced ride on bumpy city roads. It’s too low in the front and doesn’t have enough free sag in the rear so we began by taking a half-turn of preload out of the shock (turning the bottom collar counter-clockwise). This gave us a change that not only made the rear suspension a little more comfortable and kidney-friendly over bumps but also made the motorcycle sit lower in the rear (which also turned out to be a nice plus on the track). Conversely, we added a turn and a half of spring preload on each fork leg.
One of the cool things about the Ohlins components is its range of damping adjustability. Since most of our miles on the street are spent running errands and commuting, it’s nice to have a plush set-up. Navigating the adjustment menu is easy enough but the software could be a little faster and the tactile feel of the handlebar-mounted trigger buttons could be improved too.
Preload: +1.5 turns from stock
Preload: -0.5 turn from stock
Power Mode: Sport
We settled for more open damping settings to allow the suspension to move freely over bumps as knee-dragging road handling isn’t what we were after. All in all it was impressive how nice the Ducati glided over the road without losing too much of its sporting appeal in moderate twisties. Another road-worthy feature is the Panigale’s ultra-bright headlamps, which do a marvelous job of illuminating the road ahead. The set-up could easily be the best and most functional in its class.
We’re not going to lie. We miss the turbo diesel-like low-end torque of the old 1098/1198 motor. What we don’t miss, however, is its vague and heavy-feeling dry clutch. The new oil-bathed set-up is far more responsive, making it easier to launch even without the 1198’s tidal wave of torque off idle. The clutch’s responsive action also pays dividends during careful lane splitting on congested California freeways as the rider can more accurately meter engine power in really slow traffic.
(Top) As you can see the 1199 Superquadro engine loses low-end torque for high rpm horsepower. While we like it during track maneuvers the powerband isn’t as rider-friendly on the street. (Bottom) The S model’s electronic suspension is simple to adjust but we wish the menu system was a little faster and the buttons had a better tactile feel.
The ability to adjust the power delivery of the Panigale’s engine while riding is a handy feature, and for street use we recommend the Sport setting. This gives access to maximum engine power, but does so with a smoother and less direct throttle feeling. This will be a big plus for riding on really bumpy roads or for those that like to ride really long multi-gear wheelies as it just plain makes the motorcycle easier to control. In fact, unless riding on a smooth circuit with fresh, high-grip racing tires we prefer Sport mode to the Race setting.
We also prefer to run a middle of the road DTC setting (four) and ABS on Level 1. This ABS setting retains a degree of anti-lock on the front wheel, but still lets you mess around and loft the rear wheel in the air for show. It also disables the rear brake so you can lock-up it up, say, when you need to pull a quick U-turn out of a tight parking spot. We didn’t feel the need to alter the EBC out of the stock setting of 1, as that mitigated compression braking—keeping the wheels inline during a hard and fast emergency-style stop.
Considering the rev-happy nature of the 1198cc L-Twin, it’s difficult to keep from applying throttle away from every stoplight. So it isn’t a surprise that fuel mileage wasn’t anything special. We averaged 32 mpg, with a high of nearly 36 (highway) and low of 29 mpg (around town, stop-and-go). This nets a useable range of about 140 miles—but we never went further then 130 miles between fill-ups.
First year Panigales (2012) were subject to excess exhaust heat on the right side of the rider’s rear end. We’re happy to report that the updated part does a much better job of shielding radiated heat from the hot pipes. It still gets toasty when idling through stop-and-go traffic but it’s much improved.
(Top) The Ducati’s electronics help make it an easier motorcycle to ride however it still with its obscene power-to-weight ratio it is one of the more aggressive sportbikes made today. (Center) Tire pressure is one of the most important settings to check before heading out on track. (Bottom) The Panigale turns with agility and is very easy to put exactly where the rider points it.
PLAYING ON TRACKS
Where older-style Ducati Superbikes were one trick ponies the Panigale is perhaps the most versatile Ducati sportbike ever made—easily adapting from street to track without any other modifications aside from taping up the taillight, headlights and mirrors. It even comes stock with authentic track-grade rubber in the form of Pirelli’s Diablo Supercorsa SP. It’s our favorite mixed-use road tire with the only chink in its rubber armor being they don’t last more than about 2000 street miles—even less if you constantly accelerate hard on them. Since they still had about half tread life remaining we ran ‘em during a Let’s Ride Track Days event at Buttonwillow Raceway.
Next to making sure all of your bike’s bolts are tight and torqued, as well as making sure there is the right level of engine oil and coolant, it’s vital to check and set the tire’s air pressure before turning a wheel on track. One of the big attributes of the Supercorsa SP is its wide operating range, in terms of road surface, temperature and tire pressure. Pirelli recommends a cold (meaning ambient, without having been ridden yet) setting of 28 psi in the front and 24 psi in the rear. However, the numbers aren’t concrete and pressure can be adjusted either way based on grip and/or carcass flex.
We like using the Motion Pro Professional Tire Gauge as it gives a more precise reading than what a cheaper plastic pen-style gauge can offer. It’s important that the rubber plug atop the gauge be removed for a moment to equalize pressure to ensure an accurate reading. Normally, it’s a good idea to run tire warmers (to ensure that the tires are near operating temperature when you roll on track) but since the SPs have such a wide operating temp, not to mention a super-fast warm-up, we didn’t bother using ‘em.
Preload: -0.5 turn from stock
Power Mode: Sport or Race
Of the racetracks in California—none do a better job of replicating real world roads than Buttonwillow. Although its surface is pretty dilapidated (especially to European standards) it’s got a heck of an entertaining layout, making it an absolute blast to ride there. Since the asphalt is so bumpy it’s import to have suspension that isn’t overly rigid to soak up bumps and maintain tire contact with the asphalt. To measure how effective the suspension is working we wrap a zip-tie around one of the fork leg sliders to see how much travel is used during maximum load (braking over bumps). We can then tune the fork’s spring preload, and to an extent compression settings, netting a more favorable result.
After a few laps on track the location of the zip-tie helped demonstrate that spring preload was in the ballpark, however, the chassis transfered weight very fast during hard acceleration and braking. We cured this by flipping through the colorful menu and adding damping to the fork and shock. This slowed the weight transfer for a more stable ride.
(Top) Fitting a zip-tie on the fork leg allows you to monitor how much travel the front suspension is using. (Bottom) Fork preload can be adjusted after removing the electronic plug-in atop the fork leg. We would end up maxing out the setting on the track.
Although Ducati and Ohlins take pride in making racing-grade suspension for the street, since the Panigale is designed as a road bike, compromises are made in terms of damping and it’s clear that the shock has a springy/fast feel to it that couldn’t be fully tuned out with the available settings. The engine’s aggressive and hard-hitting powerband certainly doesn’t help either, with it creating a load similar to the snap of a rubber band on the rear suspension when the power hits. It actually made it really fun to ride since it was crazy simple to get the rear tire spinning and the shock pumping to match, making it feel like you were riding a pissed-off bull. Fortunately Ducati’s Traction Control helps keep things from getting too hairball—but the only problem is it doesn’t offer confidence to fully trust and dial-in full throttle while leaned over. However, year after year the coding continues to improve and we were surprised on how well Ducati’s TC performed on a wet and unfamiliar track (see the 2014 Ducati 899 Panigale First Ride).
For our final ride we hit Chuckwalla Valley Raceway for a Racer’s Edge Performance track day the Thursday before the opening round of this fall’s CVMA club racing series. With just over 2000 miles on the odometer, the wear bars on the SP tires were just about gone. So we spooned on a set of race takeoffs from CT Racing. As opposed to brand new race tires, takeoffs are a great way to experience a high-grip rubber without paying the price of a brand new tire. We got a set of Pirelli Diablo Superbike SC1 slicks in sizes 120/70-17 at the front and a gigantic 200/60-17 rear.
(Top) We swapped out the well-worn Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tires for SC1-compound slicks. (Bottom) Add fuel and race slicks and the Panigale is a potent and entertaining track bike.
One of the best features of Pirelli tires are its versatile profile that performs well with every motorcycle brand’s chassis. That mean’s you don’t have to mess with ride height or other forms of steering geometry after fitting on a different version of its hoops. In most cases it’s as simple as bolting ‘em on and melting knee pucks.
Compared to Buttonwillow, Chuckwalla is a vastly different circuit. Not only is it way smoother, it has a much more consistent surface. Despite not having such heavy braking zones, because we were running slicks and didn’t have to deal with pavement irregularities, we were able to brake much harder. After each session the zip tie on the fork slider was buried at the bottom of the fork leg. So we continually added a turn of preload to both springs until we couldn’t add anymore.
If track days are your thing than a set of stiffer fork springs will be a worthwhile investment. Another minor issue we noticed was that immediately after pulling off track, the suspension adjustment menu would sometimes ‘lock-out’ not permitting any adjustments until the bike cooled for a few minutes.
Although some suspension work is required to take things to the next level in terms of handling on track, we can’t argue with Panigale’s turning manners. It steers nimbly and is pin-point accurate making it easy to place where you want.
- Surprisingly comfortable with soft suspension settings
- Fantastic head lamps for night riding
- Electronics make damping adjustment easy
- Suspension might need internal tweaks for serious track day riders
- Spring preload requires manual adjustment with tools
All told the white Panigale performed without any major mechanical hiccups aside from the bolt that keeps the sidestand in place backing itself out. Although the warranty covers this, the fix is so simple we just did it ourselves.
After getting to live with the Panigale for a few months we really came to appreciate what Ducati has done with its latest Superbike platform. Not only is it a more comfortable and effective sportbike on the street it continues to deliver that charismatic (and slightly wild) performance that we’ve always loved about the Italian brand. And with some internal suspension tuning we have no doubt that it could run up with the best of the best in the class.