According to Ducati, yellow superbikes from Bologna only sold during springtime when daffodils were in bloom. While I do miss the slightly unorthodox yellow Ducatis, I wasn’t fussed about pantone specifics on the approach to Valencia’s super-fast turn one aboard the new 959 Panigale. Or that exhaust.
In a world where willy-waving litre bikes have forged a stranglehold among the sportsbike fraternity and manufacturers’ priorities, Ducati’s persistence on developing their ‘supermid’ is refreshing. With no racing allegiance, there’s infinite scope for elaboration. No racing on Sunday and selling on Monday. No rules, no boundaries, which is why the 899 was such a prolific and prevalent road bike and why the 959’s upgrades are so impressive – even more so given its lack of true rivals.
This is a bike – perhaps the first – that’s been truly rogered in the botty by Euro-4 emission laws. Powered by snarling Superquadro motors, the Panigale family has never been a mild, meek, submissive collection, and its belligerent facets don’t (and were never meant to) appease such strict laws, hence the almost afterthought exhaust. Only fugly GSX-R cans have caused such uproar during a launch process. Incidentally, the bellypan getaway is more to do with noise rather than dirty emissions themselves.
Despite the visuals, this isn’t simply a rehashed 899 with different numbers stamped on the fairing. We had to coax a spread of unspecified changes from Ducati staff during the world press launch. This is what you need to know…
Engine: although it says 959 on the fairing, Ducati has lengthened the Superquadro’s stroke and results in 955cc. To cope with the extra oomph, there are new pistons, con-rods and a crank, as well as a new timing chain, gears and guides. The exhaust diameter is upped from 55mm to match the 1299’s 60mm, and Ducati has added a much-needed slipper clutch. There’s also the introduction of secondary injectors that fire juices around 9,000rpm (although dependant on gear, throttle position and revs), plus a racier air filter. Gearing has been altered slightly – a 44-teeth sprocket has been replaced by a 43. Boo. Hiss.
Chassis: the 899’s fundamental chassis geometry remains, although Ducati engineers have lowered the swingarm pivot by 4mm to increase rear-end traction. As a consequence, the wheelbase is 5mm longer. European market bikes also feature a shock that’s 2mm longer to offset the weight distribution changes caused by the Euro-4 exhaust. Wider, sharper front fairings pinched from the 1299 Panigale grace the 959, and thanks to that exhaust, it weighs 7kg more than the 899.
Electronics: pretty much identical to the 899’s, so you get traction control, engine braking control, ABS and a quickshifter along with three riding modes, although the algorithms have been tweaked for the 959. No auto-blipper due to cost and development. Tech spec here.
Jumping onboard the 959 doesn’t, initially, underline anything groundbreaking over the 899. You’re greeted by identical cockpit surroundings, dash, switchgear, fork tops and seat height – but the previously slippy-slidey seat has made way for the ‘performance’ saddle of old. Aside from the digits on the side of the fairing, only machined (and grippier) pegs distinguish the fresh model. Not even the wider frontal area is truly acknowledged. It’s markedly quieter at tickover, both engine noise and exhaust note. That inherent metallic angriness has been blunted somewhat, although it’s still very much a Panigale with a muted Desmo soundtrack.
Ducati insisted we experience the first session in Sport mode: a less aggressive throttle and power delivery, backed up by more intrusive electronic intervention. Having previously experienced the 899’s ABS ruining track activities, my renegade streak shone through and I toggled back from ‘3’ to ‘1’. But this first session wasn’t a taster for the 959’s electronics or new-fangled motor, more of a hint at its handling upgrades and new-found fluidity.
There’s no escaping the 899’s mysterious lack of pace on track – often two or three seconds slower than more refined 600cc screamers on identical rubber and trickier to connect the dots. It was often in between gears and lacked fluidity among the corners with momentum easily lost. You could split any corner into four or five segments, staccato in its actions, though the 959 couldn’t be any different.
And this is partially down to the introduction of a pukka slipper clutch. While faultless on the highways, no matter how adept you thought the 899’s electronic Engine Braking Control (EBC), it never had the skills to contain committed track speeds and corner entry.
Head down, bum up, seconds after clicking 6th, you’re faced with Ricardo Tormo’s aforementioned turn one. Scrubbing off speed at 150mph and losing three gears would have been a bum-clenching, awkward, stuttering rigmarole riding the 899. Despite being bereft of an auto-blipper, there’s no exaggeration when I say the 959’s corner entry tactics absolutely transform handling and dictate the rest of the turn – the only negative consequence is we’d like a bit more stopping power and initial bite from the lever. The brakes were never an issue with the 899, but 959’s willingness to barrel into a corner with added apex speed and less mechanical engine braking means the Brembos get more of a workout.
The slipper clutch not only soothes braking and downshifting but allows you, the rider, better manual control of entry and apex speed. Off-the-throttle liberty taking and trail braking heroics are now substantially heightened over the 899, with more confidence to abuse the front-end.
After several café con leches, our second session was aboard the full-fat 959 in Race mode. Even exiting the pitlane it felt naughtier, more eager on the sumptuous throttle and within a lap, the cubic upsurge was apparent.
Regardless of cubes, the inherent rev-hungry characteristics are generations apart from your archetypical booming v-twins. And the 959 is no different. Is it faster? Yes, but it isn’t smack-in-the-face faster and it’s difficult to quantify or pinpoint enhancements. As with the 899, it thrives on redline activity and only truly starts to make sense on circuit above 7,000rpm, where the Superquadro spins and revs in a frenzied state. The whole top-end now hits harder and drives with more vigour, hankering for another gear and chewing them sooner than the 899 – my botty dyno reckons 140bhp a the rear wheel, correlating to Ducati’s claimed 157bhp. And back to that exhaust, the aftermarket Akrapovic pictured shaves 1.6kg over the stock peashooters but does little to power or noise levels.
Being honest, I would have loved to revel in some more midrange, a smidgen more punch on tap just to energise corner exit. With a realistic 4k rev parameter for circuit sorties, it’s a bike that thrives on momentum and never really feels overly debauched, punishing mistakes throughout a lap and gear selection is still as crucial as ever. Valencia’s myriad of 2nd/3rd gear bends were sometimes confusing: endure peaky revs in 2nd or get bogged in 3rd. Rarely did the traction control dash light illuminate due to manageable power delivery, and how well connected the throttle and rear wheel are. Despite the extra power, it never seems to bother the chassis unlike its sadistic bigger brother.
Valencia’s main straight is the only moment for rest, even when straddling 140 ponies: no wonder so many riders compare the Ricardo Tormo circuit to a karting track. For a morbidly obese, nearly-six-footer having spent a season desperately attempting any excuse for a slipstream whilst campaigning an 899, the 959’s wider nose and fairing arrangement is tangibly more accommodating with limbs less exposed.
But thoroughly screwing my preconceptions, it wasn’t the motor that got me aroused lap after lap. It was the additional cornering talent, emphasising just how effective subtle deviations can be. I rang Carol Vorderman after a few sessions, gave her some random factoids and stats, who then calculated the 959 is around 10% sexier in any given corner. It now feels like a sorted race bike that you’ve been riding all season, providing insane levels of mechanical grip at either end, and I didn’t (and didn’t want to) touch a clicker on the unchanged Showa/Sachs suspension duet. The whole bike feels plusher, more useable and superiorly surefooted.
All too often, a new model’s added weight over a predecessor is routinely frowned upon despite obesity now being socially embraced globally. How dare you weigh more? That can’t be right. Though I can comprehensibly state the 959’s 7kg increase over the 899 matters not in the slightest. In fact – in combining with the chassis changes – it now handles more conventionally. Both ends now feel more unified, working better together in harmonious conjunction. Dare I say it, the chassis behaves like less of a cock – a monocoque – which is no bad thing.
Baron gorges on the phrase ‘spanking,’ but it couldn’t be anymore apt for the 959. It becomes magically more embroiling the harder you spank it, and there’s no way we could have got away with these piss-taking heroics on an 899. It’s difficult to praise individual features as the 959’s tweaks augment its glossier package. The 899’s shock had a tendency to pump under acceleration, giving the traction control unnecessary work to do, but there’s none of those shenanigans in the 959’s arsenal.
Despite weight being shifted to the rear, the front-end is provides better feeling and a more planted stance, while the rear-end’s stability and acceleration grip is also enriched. The only slight negative is the reduced ground clearance, so duck-footed riders will be punished more.
One of the most commonly asked questions before the launch was, ‘is it worth trading in the 899 for a 959?’ If trackdays boss your calendar, then yes, absolutely. As an everyday road bike? Unless you constantly ride like you’re being chased by Donatella Versace brandishing anal sex toys, its chassis upgrades are going to be less beneficial and we’ll have to wait until the end of the year before making a UK appearance. Gathering thoughts and snippets throughout the 959s press launch, it was never meant to revolutionise the entry-level Panigale, instead constant evolution that we expect from Ducati. And at £13k, it’s an expensive evolution from the 899.
Someone raised the question the other day: when does a supermid no longer become a supermid? Granted, Ducati has brought its middleweight closer to the 1299, yet no closer than Japanese 600s to their 1000cc bigger brothers, nor an MV Agusta F3 800 to the F4. It’s a deeply involving, super-sexy middleweight that offers something completely unique to the sportsbike market and the 959 has another dose of outright pace heading into 2016.
The exhaust doesn’t bother me. I’m all about the ride, and couldn’t really care less if it had phallic extrusions or syphilis. Hopefully we’ve answered most of the pre-launch questions posed in this very review, but myself and Baron will be bringing you audio visuals next week…
Words: F4G4N Pics: Milagro