As the entry-level motorcycle in Ducati’s superbike family, the 959 Panigale has a tough task – it has to play the role of a good streetbike and an admirable track machine too. We flew down to Thailand to experience the racy side of the new baby Panigale at the fantastic and intricate Chang circuit.
It’s a case of what works best, wins; to explain that we must give you a bit of background. The 959’s predecessor, the 899, was launched after the bigger 1199 Panigale. However, the sharper geometry of the 899’s chassis turned out to be so good, that it was used for the 1199’s replacement, the 1299 Panigale! Get it? So, no surprises, one of the defining aspects of the 959 has been carried over pretty much unchanged from the 899, except for one small tweak. The only change has been to drop the swingarm pivot by 4mm, and as this is a monocoque frame, it meant an altered engine casing.
The engine again, is based on the motor of the outgoing 899 Panigale, but has been heavily revised to help it meet Euro 4 emission regulations. The increase in displacement is thanks to a longer stroke, the same as the 1299 Panigale. The revisions have helped meet emissions and also increased peak horsepower to 157hp (earlier, 148hp) and torque to 107.4Nm (99Nm). To make the best use of the extra grunt the 959 retains the same gearbox as the 899, but has an added tooth on the rear wheel sprocket to make the overall gearing taller.
Hopping onto the saddle of the 959 in the pitlane, the first thought that hits you is that it is an incredibly compact motorcycle. It feels slim and tightly packaged. The seat, tips you forward onto the slim clip-on handlebars, but the ergonomics aren’t overly aggressive. Again, the rider triangle is identical to the larger Panigale. Turn the ignition key on and the LCD screen comes to life, and reminds you that costs have been kept in check as the colour TFT screen has been given a miss here.
Slide the engine kill switch to the on position, keep the starter button depressed for a second and then the L-Twin engine coughs to life and then settles into a mechanical rumble. As we head out of the pitlane I am pleasantly surprised by the light action of the clutch. The engine too seems to be quite capable of chugging at low rpms. Onto the straight it's time to gas it up and the 959 responds with impressive urgency. In Sport mode there’s full power on offer from the engine, but throttle response is milder than in the Race mode that we try later. The modes also come with presets for electronic aids such the eight-stage traction control, three-level engine brake control and three-level ABS system. The Rain mode lifts the intervention levels high and also caps power to 100hp. Despite the clouds looming above us, we are sure that we won't have to rely on that mode today. The nuances of the modes become apparent as I use the Race mode. Here, you can feel a crisper throttle and the stronger mid-range can now be used to full effect. Although the mid-range is impressive and the top-end serious, you soon come to terms with the punch from the Superquadro motor fairly soon. I can see the 1299 carrot dangling already.
Screaming through the revs on a L-Twin is a different experience. The noise is an angry blend of small and precise mechanical bits hammering away furiously and of air being yanked in and shovelled out in almighty gulps. The rev band is tighter than on in-line four motors and peak power also arrives at 10,500rpm. The little Panigale, although not as feisty as other litre-class motorcycles with 200hp on tap, was not so little on performance hitting 260kph down the straights. Even though the rush tapers off slightly, there is plenty of juice as you head to 11,000rpm and the shift light warns you to upshift. Armed with the Ducati Quick Shifter, there really is no drama in going up gears even when exiting corners as a slight tap on the lever gets the job done with virtually no interruption in the flow of power and feels seamless in the saddle too. The one area where you need to put some extra effort is through the corners as it is very important to have smooth throttle inputs, else the torquey pulse of the engine can make the going feel a bit choppy.
Now out on track my first reaction to the 959’s handling was of surprise, I was just expecting it to be very light and sensitive to inputs at the handlebar, but the 959 needed a bit more muscle to get turned in. Spec sheet comparison shows that the baby Panigale actually weighs more than its elder sibling. Also, it doesn't have the forged alloy wheels. A few laps in, as I used a bit more effort at the bars, the 959 proved that it didn’t lack in agility and the extra effort to get it turned wasn’t wasted, because in exchange you were getting unwavering commitment from the front end. Go too hot, pick the wrong line, shift weight mid corner, nothing, absolutely nothing, seemed to bring out a nervous streak in the 959. The Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa rubber at both ends no doubt amplified the sense of confidence. In Race mode with TC level set to 3, on exiting a couple of corners you could sense the torque overcoming the grip from the rear tyre with just a hint of slip before settling back in line. No doubt the changed pivot position makes much better use of the traction on offer and adds to the confident demeanour of the motorcycle. Also helping the rider are the new alloy foot pegs, never did a foot slip even when hustling through transitions.
Also adding to the sense of confidence here is the introduction of a slipper clutch. Scrubbing speed from 260kph to 100kph, slamming down the gears from 6th to 2nd picking and sticking to a line was all too easy as the rear wheel stayed obediently in line. Squeeze on the front discs via the M4.32 Monobloc calipers resulted in solid retardation. The radial master cylinder for the front brake also offered a light feel at the lever and offered good modulation as well. Other elements, such as a single-sided swingarm and IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit)-based cornering ABS system have also been kept off the equipment list to keep the price accessible.
With the 959 Panigale, Ducati has built a motorcycle to cater to draw more riders into the superbike fold. The 959’s blend of electronic sophistication, manageable power, confidence-inspiring handling and enjoyable agility make it a well-rounded motorcycle. The 959’s price tag for India of Rs 14.37 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai), also lands it in quite a sweet spot as it sits just above the less exotic, less powerful but uber-sporty Triumph Daytona 675R. On the other hand are the more powerful litre-class motorcycles from Japan, but they don’t carry as much appeal and cost several lakhs more. While we haven’t tested Ducati’s new 959 Panigale in the real world and on Indian roads, its combination of ergonomics, engine character and suspension setup suggest that it will be a fairly liveable motorcycle. For now though, the 959’s ability to excite without being overwhelming, its incredible confidence, electronics, exotic appeal and left-brain sensibilities make it a package that makes more sense with every passing minute.