Ducati 1199 Panigale: First Ride
Our first impressions of the exotic and radically new Ducati 1199 Panigale straight from the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi
The trickiest part of the Yas Marina circuit for me was the blind uphill brow turning right coming out of pit lane and when tucked behind the tiny windscreen of the 1199 Panigale, there was no other way but to sit up and try and make a slow exit out of it before wringing that right wrist and hoping to ensure that the front end didn’t launch me to the stars! I needn’t have worried for the clever electronics and working in conjunction with the mechanical slipper clutch and the quick shifter mechanism was enough for the throttle to progressively lay down the ample 195 thoroughbred horses in easy manner and yet have the tacho blitzing its way over and above 11,000rpm! Yes, the new Superquadro (Italian for the large bore - short stroke cylinder dimensions) engine is truly one of the world’s most outstanding motors ever built and even though it yet marries the classic 90-degree Ducati vee-tradition along with the legendary desmodromic valve actuation system pioneered by Dr Fabio Taglioni, everything else about the motor and also the bike it powers is completely new and revolutionary.
The Yas Marina circuit was never built for motorcycles and while it has a great setting and spectacular vistas all around it while also some challenging corners, this mix of Monaco (section through the Marina), scary Macau (solid cement walls), kerb-lined fast flowing Jerez sweepers and a few wide painted blue and red run-off areas like Paul Ricard, is a real handful for fast motorcycles, and no wonder then that this was the first time a motorcycle event was held on what is truly an F1 circuit. The cars can be thrown from line to line in a jiffy but for the bikes they would always have to adhere to the ideal racing line and a slight mistake could land them into a hard wall or way of course. Making the mix even more heady was an atrociously aggressive wind which was blowing across the 1.2km long main straight with the central kink in it and on the racing line and just before heading to the braking area, if you weren’t careful the wind could blow you off line by as much as five to seven feet! It happened to quite a few of us but what really saved the blushes was how the 1199 Panigale behaved to make its pilots come out smelling like roses!
Out of turn one and heading out to the spectacular turn 2, the snappy acceleration as I shift into fourth is arm wrenching but with the sublime mass centralisation of the entire package, the simple expedient is to go as flat as you can on to the tank and the bike grips but continues to pull hard, both wheels firmly glued to the tarmac and now with even greater control but also with massively developing velocity! If that’s not all, the nimble ability of the bike as you just will it into turns rather than labour and heave to change direction is mind numbing in its effect. This is unlike any Ducati from the past where the easy way of the vee-twin speeding up was always so very predictable but on this bike the revs come on so strong yet so creamy and linear that the sensation of speed is heightened, more so considering the fact that the aerodynamics have been superbly sorted out. One can redline the motor more often than not in any of the top four cogs and even then maintain far more torque than ever before so that you rush out on to the straights with speeds in excess of 260km/h (Troy Bayliss, Neil Hodgson and Vittoriano Guareschi were nudging 290km/h!), the feeling is surreal as the bike wants to do more, much more!
All too soon you are at the braking marker for the left/right flick and as you go down the box, the clever electronics take over. The throttle butterflies in the Mitsubishi fuel injection system open when you back off the gas allowing air to bleed into the cylinders, thereby reducing compression and mitigating the effects of harsh engine braking. If that is not all, the 1199 Panigale’s rich roster of electronic bike aids further lends itself to making heroes out of amateur magazine riders and the EBC (electronic brake control system) working in tandem with the mechanical slipper clutch helped in making a smooth entry into the left hander and then picking up the bike so effortlessly to lean right into the following turn. Two things stood out for me, the first being the fact that even in excess of 11,500rpm when hard on the gas while on the straight, the ability of the motor and its transmission system to get down to near crawling pace was executed smoothly and without savagery and when one rode it like in an urban environment, in sixth, the bike could trundle along with nary a snatch or jerk! Amazing power delivery allied to great manners was what marked the engine and I had yet to run the full lap!
Another short sweeping back straight beckons and till now I always thought about grip and mass centralisation and great power delivery but the infield section form turn 12 onwards shows where the new Ducati really excels – in the way it steers! The mind was all about how planted the bike felt even with the fine sandy desert sand being blown on to the circuit by the strong gusty winds and this in turn made me marvel at the grippy 200-section Pirelli Diablo Super Corsa SP tyres with their unique dual compound construction (developed from the tyres used in the 2011 World Superstock championship race series). But this was nothing compared to the manner in which just a slight weight transfer and the bike could change direction without scaring the life of yours truly. In fact, because of its ability to try and lift the front wheel off the ground under hard acceleration (it happened even when giving it the absolute right hand treatment when shifting from second to third in the early laps), one felt the front end was light and vague but once I got more laps under the belt, the manner in which you could harness all the attributes – physical, electrical and mechanical – of the 1199 into one seamless progression was something to revel in.
Coming to the infield corners in the hotel section, I was afraid lest I lose the front end first because the Brembos gave me a fright! With their new monobloc design calipers hitting the anchors up front almost caused to me flip up and over but shift down the box and the slipper clutch plus the electronic engine braking were great allies to control not just the physical forces induced on oneself but also to help effect great bike control. Tipping the bike smoothly into the turn and then flicking it back up and powering it on is a delight, and the term I used, just willing it on, is pretty apt. What helps though is also that Ducati have acted to make the 1199 acceptable to a wider section of riders with differing skill levels but it is a fact of life that this doesn’t the disguise the main aim of making it a potent racer which is also a commendable road going tool! The riding position, adjustable for both track and street use, is key and the slightly higher placed but wider clip on handlebars working in conjunction with the slightly raised seat (for all out track attack) and that superbly crafted tank covers to tuck in those legs and also to get right down to the tank help give both control and ease of movement. The new cast aluminium chassis-engine-frame combo has also helped to shift the riding position a good three inches forward making for a slightly more upright stance which in itself has also helped in not getting the arms too outstretched thus making for better control without tiring out the rider. Maybe the only negative I could think of was the fact that the bubble could have been a bit more pronounced but then it would have shaded the aesthetics and also disturbed the air flow!
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