Ducati's new 959 Panigale is the firm's new middleweight sports bike, taking off from the brilliant 899 Panigale. It features a 955cc L-twin motor, a monocoque chassis and a dry weight of 176kg. Hot off the press, we rode it at the tight and twisty Valencia race track earlier today.
Ducati 959 World First Test and Review
This might be Ducati's entry-level sport bike, or what Ducati calls a Super-Mid level bike, but it's no toy.
The new Ducati 959 Panigale is a full-on £13,000-ish grown-up Ducati sports bike and packs 157 Italian thoroughbred horses and a pretty much all-new 955cc motor. Like the rest of Ducati’s range of Panigale’s it’s an absolute legend in the styling stakes and oozes that Italian design class. For the 959 Panigale there's new styling with Panigale 1299-inspired fairing and air intakes, a wider front-end, a new tail unit, a lower seat, and a quick shifter. The motor also gets new rods, crank, pistons and an extra shower fuel-injector to improve throttle response, plus ribbed cylinder head covers and ribbed engine cases to help keep the engine noise down. And a servo-powered slipper clutch. It’s essentially a new motor.
20 years ago, Ducati's top-flight sports bike was some 39cc smaller. It was called the Ducati 916 and that changed the world. But that only had 104bhp or so. Yet it's from that grand royal heritage and style that the family tree of Italian superbikes over the last 20 years have evolved into the fantastic lineage of ultra-modern, rapidly fast and capable superbikes for the road. It’s that blood red brand that keeps us all dribbling and wanting.
Where the smaller Ducati's like the 748, 749, 848 may always have been considered second class to some Ducatisti, you could never accuse the 899 or the 959 Panigale of being anything but full-blown Italian superbikes. The harder you ride it the better it becomes. The more you work the front, the better it feels, and the earlier you get on the gas the more it digs on and loves it.
Since the Ducati 959 Panigale was unveiled last week at the Milan Show there has been controversy online around the twin exhaust silencers. Looking more like a couple of bolt-on cans rather than the sleek under belly pan exhaust that copies the 1299 and the 899.
My theory is that Ducati even parked it on stage in Milan last week so the pipes were pointing away from the audience. But Ducati had no choice but to meet the new rules, and this is how they got round it. It works much better when you see it than in pics. Trust me on that, or go and see it at the NEC for Motorcycle Live on the Ducati stand next week.
A Ducati spokesman told us that they could have easily kept the 899 in the line for a year or two more but Euro 4 forced their hand and they chose to go over and rework the whole bike along with Ducati’s ethos of improving the breed.
Those cans may be compatible for Euro 4 noise and emissions but it still sounds every bit the angry Ducati we've come to know and love with the 899 Panigale. The exhausts are now 60mm pipes instead of 55mm too.
But there's more. It's more refined, hits a touch harder At high revs it sounds angry and still sounds every bit the booming 955cc Ducati it is. And in the metal, the cans look great. You'll be pleased to know there's also a set of Akrapovic slip-on cans, and a full race exhaust system available as options from a Ducati dealer. The Akrapovic slip-ons feature a neat grill which blues up nicely after use. It looks MotoGP-spec.
When I started testing bikes way back when the Ducati 916 was the pinnacle and a big bike back in its day. My first day working for MCN had me dreaming of a big Ducati and all that meant as the first 916 in the UK sat tinking as it cooled down.
But forward to 2015 and the Ducati 959 Panigale has almost 50 per cent more power and shows how far bikes have come in the last two decades. Now, with modern chassis technology, the latest spec electronics, modern tyres and engineering, the Ducati 959 Panigale is the starting point for Ducati sports bikes. It’s another world to the 916.
It may be almost 1000cc but has lost none of the rev-happy charm of the 899, and like the bike it replaces, it's so engaging to ride and oh so thrashable on track. The 899 was a treat, this is even better. It's not a big jump up but it is a good step-up in terms of performance, refinement and rideability all-round. Yet still has 7500 miles between service limits and valve clearance inspections every 15,000 miles. Impressive.
On the surface all the 959 Panigale's changes are similar to those made to the 1299 Panigale last year. This is all about bringing the mid-size bike in line with the family. So it gets a new upgraded motor, new styling, mirrors on shorter stalks, a wider front fairing, new air intakes, a 4mm lower swingarm pivot to improve handling and rear tyre grip, and a quickshifter is also fitted as standard. The Showa front forks, Brembo Monobloc brakes and Sachs rear shock (but 2mm longer) and monocoque chassis which uses the engine as a stressed member are taken from the 899.
They're all conventionally adjustable with a good old-fashioned screwdriver rather than the superfly semi-active set-up on the £21,050 Ducati 1299 Panigale S, or the similar conventional set-up on the 1299 Panigale at £17,025.
But it handles better thanks to steeper geometry, a 2mm longer rear shock to give more ride height. and the swingarm pivot point sitting 4mm lower. There’s now 24 degrees of rake, though it’s also longer by 5mm on the wheelbase at 1431mm.
There’s really nice machined billet aluminium footrests too. It sounds like a small thing, but you can really feel your boots digging in to them finding grip. The peg design started life on the Superleggera and have finally found their way down to its smaller brother.
Unsurprisingly, the 400cc difference between the super-mid and the superbike means it feels very different to ride to the big monstrously powerful 1299 Panigale. Where that is all about getting it in to a corner and getting it settled before using every single sinew in your body to hang on to the brute force torque and 200bhp power force it delivers. The 959 Panigale never feels that fast, but you know it's getting a move on and a good rider on an 959 wouldn’t get left behind by a 1299 rider. You have to work it, rev it, make it and you work for your lunch but when you do it pays you back. Big time.
Because of the heavier Euro 4 pipes and sound deadening inside the fairing the bike is actually slightly heavier than the 899 at 176kg, compared to 169kg for the older bike. But it makes up for it with an extra 6 per cent more power, which translates to 157bhp. The 899 made a claimed 148bhp. The 1299 weighs in at 166.5kg dry and uses a single-sided swingarm.
This is a rev-hungry beast with an increase in stroke from 57.2mm to 60.8mm and the same bore of 100mm as the 899, which means on the track at least it spends most of its time chasing the 11,000rpm redline and the red shift lights on the new TFT black and white dash. It’s a full colour TFT screen on the 1299 Panigale S.
The track at Valencia, or the Circuit Ricardo Tormo as it’s officially called, is tight and twisty and the 959 Panigale laps it up. Get it from 8000rpm and it pulls cleanly off the corner with a nice feeling to the rear tyre, what feels like a smoother power curve, though it’s subtle, and a more linear feeling from the throttle. Not mentioned in the press details is that they have lengthened the gearing with a new rear sprocket.
The motor feels subtly more punchy on track, but it's on the road where you'll really notice the changes to the extra torque and horsepower. Unfortunately we couldn’t get to ride the 959 on the road but I’m sure the changes will be even more noticeable.
The new 955cc motor (yes, 955cc!) is keen to rev, and you soon find yourself pulling out of a corner at 8000rpm in second or third gear before shifting at 11,000rpm when the light flashes. The straight is entered in second gear at relatively low revs, but by the end of the straight it's pulling 260kmh if you're brave on the brakes for turn 1. The new fairing is noticeable when you're tucked down on the straight and on a windy day in Valencia you can feel the difference. It all feels a touch more roomy, though some riders were scraping the footrests, my toes scraped a couple of times. But on the road it should be easier to live with and more comfortable.
Cook it in hard at the end of the straight though and you'll feel the Brembo Monobloc brakes aren't quite up to the spec you'd like. Maybe a change of pads would help? But I felt they sometimes lacked the power I was looking for and a few times there was a lot of lever travel. Upgrading to the more expensive Brembo M50 calipers would cure this. It’s never bad, but could be improved, and as the rest of the bike gets better and faster the brakes could do with a tweak too. Also, the bike features electronic engine braking which helps the bike settle into a corner to run faster corner speed. This gets rid of some of the natural effect of a big V-twin’s engine braking, and stops the engine slowing you down rapidly on the overrun, allowing you to run into corners hotter.
Combined with the great new slipper clutch and it's all about running in hot and getting away with massive corner entry.
But corner speed is where this bike lives. It allows elbow down lean angles with the Pirelli Super Diablo Rosso Corsa SC2 front and rear tyres letting you get away with murder. Standard bikes will have slightly harder road-spec Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres.
It feels easier to hold a line than than the old bike, and some of the guys here who are more experienced with the 899 Panigale reckon the riding position lets you get your elbow down easier. It certainly worked for me, giving me the confidence to get my elbow down for the first time in 20+ years of testing bikes!
But when you're in the corner it feels great and you get a great connection with the rear tyre from the throttle when you're in Race mode.
This setting allows the ABS at the rear to slide slightly, and the traction control is turned down so the tyre takes the work. You can get the traction warning light flashing but it never faults what you are already trying to do on the bike. It allows the 959 Panigale to feel free, loose and able to put it where you want. Squeeze more brakes and the rear wheel will lift under braking if you want on this setting too. It feels more connected, more feel and gives a better, faster lap.
The first session in the morning saw the bike set to Road mode. where big handfuls of throttle would make the traction control kick in and make it bog coming off corners. But, it was on the setting you'd use on the road to give us a feeling of what that might be like.
Later, on the Race setting the more you ride the bike harder, get it stuck in on its nose and feel the front-end, the more involving it feels and the faster you can ride it. As I got braver you can really take liberties with the electronics package too. The ABS never cut-in, and on Race setting the traction-control never got in the way. It allowed a bit of slide at the rear, and the front to lift off corners in a wheelie as it powered out. There’s no adjustable wheelie control like on the 1299 Panigale, and it also lacks the auto-blipper downshift system, which is shame, but keeps the price down a touch.
Front and rear suspension was set somewhere between a road setting and a track setting, so further playing round with suspension would improve the feeling even more.
On the road this bike is going to be a real weapon on the kind of roads a mid-level sports bike should thrive.
I love big power bikes but they're always slightly terrifying on the road, where the 959 always feels manageable and gives you the impression you're riding it, and you’re in charge rather than it riding you like the 1299 sometimes can if you’re not on your game.
It’s the 1299’s naughty younger brother, the one that gets in trouble at the back of the class, and the one that would wind up plenty of 1000cc four-cylinder riders with its immense corner speed and mid-corner feel. It’s a class act and every bit a beautiful, stunning and ultra-desirable Ducati super bike.
Ducati 959 Panigale Technical Spec:
Ever more restrictive European emissions rulings meant that Ducati had no choice but to try and squeeze more power out of the 959 Panigale. So, it appears we have the Eurocrats to thank for the new 955cc motor. It features a longer stroke increased from 57.2m to 60.8mm, and the bore stays the same as the 899 at 100mm and more power, measuring in at 157bhp and with increased torque at 115ft-lb at 9000rpm.
There are new con-rods and new pistons along with a ribbed design on the two cylinder heads to reduce mechanical noise, a large part of adhering to Euro 4.
Crankcases come from the 1299 Panigale and are vacuum die cast to reduce weight.
The 959 also gets new larger valves and like the 899, uses a ride-by-wire system for the throttle bodies. There’s a six-speed gearbox and a 1299-Panigale derived oil bath clutch with a self-servo mechanism to give a light clutch feel. The same mechanism also acts as a slipper clutch on downshifts. Service intervals remain the same as the 899 at 7500miles, and 15,000 miles for valve clearance inspections.
To get all that power out there’s a new twin silencer exhaust system for some markets, including the UK. In the USA, Australia and Mexico the 959 gets the same nice-looking side exit exhaust near the belly pan as the current 899.
Yes, the new pipe is controversial and I can’t imagine for a minute anyone at Ducati was happy about signing it off, but let’s face it, there’s rarely a Ducati on the road with a standard silencer.
As you might guess from a modern Ducati, the 959 gets riding modes to adjust the level of power, traction control, and the fuel maps for each different setting. There’s race, wet and sport to choose from. The wet setting drops the power to 100bhp with a calmer fuel map.
Sport gives full power but in a less aggressive way, and Race is every pony as fast as you can get it and traction turned right down to allow a bit of slip and the rear to lift slightly on the way in to corners under extreme use. There’s also adjustable engine brake control and a quick shifter. There’s no downshift blipper like on the 1299 Panigale though.
The 959 Panigale gets a black-on-white LCD display with three different levels of backlighting. Everything can be adjusted through the left handlebar switch. There’s also a stopwatch function which records lap times and the maximum speed and maximum revs achieved each lap. Additionally, the Ducati Data Analyser with GPS is available as an optional extra. This system uses GPS to record lap times every time the bike crosses a circuit finish line. It also record throttle opening, speed, revs, gears, engine temperature, laps and lap times. A new feature includes the amount of wheelspin, allowing you to dial in or out more traction control.
Like the 1299 Panigale, the 959 uses the engine as a stressed member, bolted to a die-cast aluminium monocoque at the front of the bike.
The 959 now has 24 degrees of rake and 96mm of trail. A double-sided swingarm features a 4mm lower swingarm pivot and a wheelbase of 1431mm to sharpen the handling.
SUSPENSION AND WHEELS:
Showa Big Piston forks at the front are fully-adjustable and feature radially mounted Brembo monobloc calipers on a set of 320mm discs. There’s a Sachs shock at the rear that’s also fully-adjustable and a single 245mm disc with a single Brembo caliper.
Hanging it all together are lightweight 10-spoke wheels with Pirelli Diablo Ross Corsa tyres using a 120/70 x 17 at the front and a 180/60 x 17 at the rear.
The 959 Panigale comes in for some 1299 Panigale updated styling treatment with a wider nose and screen to improve aerodynamics and new mirrors mounted to the top fairing. There’s also new larger front air intakes and a split rear tailpiece. Aluminium billet footrests continue the improvements.
It’s available in red with black wheels or white with red wheels. The red bike costs £13,095, or £13,295 for the white bike.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE MIDDLEWEIGHT DUCATI
With the launch of the new Panigale 959 it’s worth remembering Ducati’s ‘junior’ superbikes have always had both a strong identity and following ever since the first 748, which was effectively a smaller capacity 916, in 1994.
Launched a year after its superbike sibling, the first 748 was an instant hit thanks to a rolling chassis virtually identical to its bigger brother, performance (98bhp compared to the 916’s 109) that suffered little and a revvier, more sprightly character (due to slightly narrower tyres) many actually preferred on the road. Adding further to the appeal were, as with the 916, performance variants such as the 748SP (1995), SPS (1998) and R (2001) which were true exotica in their own right.
The formula was repeated with the 916’s successor, the 999, to create the 749 in 2003 which put out 103bhp (compared to the 999’s 124). This time, however, the appeal was broadened further by not just adding higher spec S and R variants, but also, again in 2004, a lower spec Dark version which became Ducati’s most affordable ‘superbike’ ever.
The cycle continued. Just as the 999 was succeeded by the 1098 in 2007 (plus 1198 in 2009), then the first 1199 Panigale in 2012, complete with all new oversquare Superquadro engine, so the 749 was succeeded by the 848 in 2008 then the first 899 Panigale in 2014.
Throughout, the ‘junior’ version has always taken virtually all the great attributes of its bigger brother and added a dash of panache and personality all its own. The same looks set to be true of the new 959. The only irony, a decade after it all began, is that the latest ‘junior’, the 959, is now itself actually bigger than the superbike that started it all: the 916.
What do you think of the 959 Panigale? Do you own the 899? Did it need improving?