2012 Ducati Panigale 1199S ridden in Sepang
My right knee slider is pressed hard into the tarmac. I am trying to concentrate on the exit and prepare for the upcoming slow left at the same time. I'm screaming myself hoarse inside the helmet. With happiness, with adrenaline and with fear. Sounds bizarre? Rewind less than half a minute. Leaned over as far as it will go around the last corner at Sepang I hold the throttle open just a couple of degrees, fully aware that the bike is in second. I open the throttle very carefully for the exit, and the very next instant the front end goes weightless in my hands. Before I can blink or react, the shift lights flash furiously. I shift up, feeding it gear after gear and sooner than you can finish reading this sentence it's time to downshift and brake for the turn one. Just before squeezing the front brake lever I steal a glance at the speedo. 270kmph. Say hello to the Ducati Panigale 1199S. One of the most lethal machines I have ever straddled.
As a motorcycle tester I get to ride some of the best motorcycles you and I can imagine, but the Panigale I have been waiting to ride like nothing else. It is the most exotic piece of machinery from Borgo Panigale. It had just been announced when I was in Italy last year riding the Streetfighter 848. And I finally got to ride it here during the Ducati Riding Experience at the Sepang International Circuit as part of the Asia Ducati Week 2012. I was a bit nervous - riding one of the most powerful machines on the planet commands some serious respect. I have read enough about the Panigale's manic power, and it has been a while since I last grappled with a superbike on a race track. I registered for the intermediate level, so that we got familiarisation' laps on the Streetfighter 848 before we were handed the Panigales. You know, just to get the cobwebs out of my head and to get a handle on Sepang. Sepang has some high speed corners and a few slow ones but it is fairly easy to learn unlike the Buddh International Circuit, which is a lot more challenging.
And then it was time. I had been admiring the machine since morning. To be honest, images do not do justice to the technological marvel that the Panigale is. There's so much to talk about that I could write pages about just the design and technology and still not be done.
Ducati's biggest advantage over inline-four engined superbikes is the compactness its V-twin offers. Which is why in flesh, the Panigale is only slightly larger than most 600cc supersport machines. It's scarily tiny. But does that mean it is cramped? No. I am an inch under six feet, and there were taller riders with us but none had an issue.
The overall design is typical Ducati, even though the language is new. The lines are sharp, and not as curvy as several other sportsbikes, but the Panigale oozes sensuality. Just like a svelte, sharply dressed Italian bella. The sharp design of the twin headlights and compact flyscreen make for a rather small front end and it makes the mirrors look almost too large. The LED headlights look futuristic, and give the bike a very aggressive stance. The TFT display is a first, and the array of colours and amount of information it offers reminded me of MotoGP machines. The stepped seat with the air scoops that begin behind the rider's perch, and end next to the tail light looks great. The tail light is another visual treat, and makes for a very attractive derriere. The beauty of the rear end though is the gorgeous alloy wheel mounted onto a stunning single-sided swingarm. The Italians sure know how to make their bikes look good. The Panigale is the best looking motorcycle I have ever laid eyes on. It may not have the cachet that comes from being a classic. But that's just a matter of time.
Part of the appeal is its focus. For example, this is no two-seater. No biposto is expected. Ever. Ducati are very clear about their newest superbike being a pure track machine. It doesn't get a pillion seat or pillion pegs. Which means you cannot take your girlfriend out for a ride. And honestly, that crowd can go potter about happily on a Harley. Today I don't give a damn. This is the purest form of a superbike you will ever see.
The spec reinforces this. The Panigale boasts of the most oversquare engine on a production motorcycle yet with bore and stroke being 112mm and 60.8mm. Power output? It's a massive 195PS. You might think that's in the same league as most new generation superbikes, but the Panigale is a lot lighter. Its closest rival, the BMW S1000RR produces 193PS and weighs 180kg dry while the Panigale tips the scales at 164kg dry. Its torque rating is higher too - 132Nm as compared to the BMW's 112Nm. That makes for an astonishing power to weight ratio of 1189PS/ton. The bike also packs in an unbelievable electronics package, considered to be the most advanced deployed till date. State of the art riding modes with Ducati Traction Control (latest generation), the latest generation Ducati Data Analyzer and ABS with controllable levels - this bike has it all. The chassis is a monocoque, drawing inspiration from Ducati's MotoGP machine and the engine bolts in as a stressed member.
The bike I got was in race mode, and I did not want to move down to sport for obvious reasons. In race mode ABS functions on the front wheel only, and traction control and the suspension are adjusted accordingly. The display changes as well - the rev counter and lap timer become more prominent, while the speedo readout moves down and becomes smaller.
The V-twin sound was very Ducati-ish, but the snarl was a lot more urgent. I rode out and spent the first couple of laps getting to grips with its insane power delivery. It takes you by surprise, every single time you open the throttle and in every single one of its six gears. There's no way the bike will not wheelie in the first three gears, and every time I exited a second gear corner - specifically turns 2 and 4, the front wheel was pawing high in the air. Nothing scary here though, as the front wheel comes up smoothly and a very light dab on the rear brake lever is enough to bring it down.
Then there's the Brembo monobloc caliper brakes and specially developed Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tyres - there's so much braking power and so much grip that it feels unreal for a production motorcycle. The bike is immense fun to ride, but is certainly not a machine for inexperienced riders. The power delivery and handling are a revelation, and to push this motorcycle around a race track, you need immense strength, fitness and skill. The seamless but instant power delivery calls for immaculate throttle control, and I was glad I first rode the Streetfighter 848!
The handling is as precise as it gets, and the Panigale's agility is simply mind numbing. There's so much ability in that chassis that you really need to be a pro to extract the best out of it. On each lap, the main straight disappeared in a flash - exit the last corner, and the front wheel is off the ground through half the straight. By the time you brake for the first corner you are well past 250kmph and freaking out. Then the Brembos save your skin. Every single lap. In the excitement, it is easy for forget the gearbox. The quick shifter is standard so you shift up or down without backing off the throttle or touching the clutch. The slipper clutch evens out the back torque so you can be stable and planted even during multiple downshifts from high speeds.
Just a few fast laps on the bike, and I could feel my energy levels dropping. You really need to be fit to push this motorcycle around a track - the Panigale feels like a superbike on steroids. It is without a doubt one of the best motorcycles in the world, and one that trounces most of its competitors with contemptuous, fluid ease.
Not many will ever be able to extract all of the Panigale's potential but if you don't want one in your garage, you should check your pulse - you may not be alive. Getting one in the garage though is another matter. At Rs 32 lakh for the S in India, it's as unaffordable as it is out of this world.