Kneel on a rug with your hands on the ground in front of your shoulders. Now imagine the rug to be a low-flying magic carpet, responding to your demands at the speed of thought, where faster and slower are products of instantaneous desire and turning is as simple as looking to your goal. Hold that vision. Now go ride a Ducati Panigale. See? And that of course is what I’ve just been doing — courtesy of the ever-helpful Blair at Ducati Glasgow, I’ve been having a play on their Panigale S demonstrator.
First impressions then: a lovely looking machine if, like its 1098/1198 predecessors, of a design that’s very much of the moment. It is however absolutely tiny – for anyone who doesn’t have a garage, all Ducati need do is offer an accessory clip-on handle with which to carry it upstairs – it’ll fit in the hall next to the Brompton. Getting on it doesn’t change that impression – waggle it side-to-side with the bars and it feels nearly weightless. What does surprise is just how roomy it is for the pilot – I’m 1.83m (6′ in old money) and the riding position was far more laid-back than the 848 I’d recently been riding. The Panigale has a surprisingly comfortable combination of highish, wide bars and footpegs that aren’t too radically placed for knees that creak from decades of abuse.
Blair waved me off through the slightly fixed smile of a man who suspects he’s just given a loaded AK47 and a handful of amphetamines to the village idiot. He had however left the safety catch on by putting his shiny 1199S into full “Wet” mode: softer suspension settings and the low power 120bhp engine map (aside: that was as much as ANY Ducati produced at full chat a dozen years ago). And that was just fine for the tedium of the 30mph haul through central Glasgow out to Milngarvie and the open roads North of there. After that, it was like riding a Tiger dosed with Valium: impressive-looking but rather missing the point of the experience.
So a couple of button presses took it into Sport mode, thereby changing things substantially. For the worse. The stock suspension setup becomes overly damped for Scottish country roads (I think Scotland must have contracted out road maintenance to the Belgians) and the Sport engine map – the full 195bhp but with a softer delivery than Race mode – is, frankly, pants. It feels strangled, relatively unresponsive and detached from the action – it does give you what you ask for but too slowly, too reluctantly, like it really can’t be bothered getting out of bed for an honest day’s work.
So it’s into Race mode then. Which does two things: firstly, all your fillings will fall out as one and secondly, the throttle response becomes utterly sublime – giving that direct and instant link from brain to rear wheel that marks the finest achievements of the twilight days of internal combustion engineering. Yes, it’s brutal and will land you on your arse (traction control permitting) if you’re determined to be ham-fisted with it, but it is utterly precise, immediate and predictable and, as a result, all the more controllable in all conditions: if I were to choose a single engine map to use full-time, this would be it. Five minutes in a layby then let me work out how to have the Race map with Wet suspension settings, after which I just ignored the electronics and got on with having fun. I could see myself happily using Wet engine map for a relaxed cruise home at the end of a long and tiring day, but I just don’t see the point of Sport mode for an experienced rider (and if you’re not an experienced rider, just what the hell are you doing with a Panigale?). Except for one thing: Race mode loses the speedo, officer. In fact it moves the speed display into a small corner of the rather lovely colour display, something it took me a good ten miles of blue light paranoia to discover. So please, Ducati, a firmware update that gives us a “Race mode for the road”.
The Panigale is unashamedly a product of the computer age, in the same way as are modern fighter jets: the latter are inherently unstable and simply can’t be flown without the continuous intervention of multiple computers – they would simply fall out of the sky without all the bit-shuffling. In the Panigale’s case, no engine THAT oversquare has any right to not only pick up smoothly from low revs but to happily pull 4th gear at 30mph. That’ll be the ride-by-wire then. So first impressions are that it drives cleanly and happily from idle up to roughly 7500rpm.
I say “roughly” there because I’m a little fuzzy on events thereafter, that being the point at which my brain melted. No, seriously: I consider myself generally pretty experienced at the eye-brain-do bit after decades of hooning around on motorcycles, fast cars, bicycles, skis and other sensory overload generators. Not this time. For each of us, there’s an ideal zone where, the faster you go and the greater the sensory processing demands, your senses widen their ability to take in the world around, from straight ahead to peripheral vision. Things go into slow motion and you feel you’ve all the time in the world to plan, act and react. That’s something that comes with and improves with experience, to a point. Whatever your personal limit however, there’s an upper threshold beyond which you’ve reached the slippery downside of the curve: your vision narrows, your senses are overwhelmed and your ability to do the stuff on which life and liberty depend diminishes. This is not good. And the Panigale takes you straight there, without passing Go and, quite possibly, directly to jail. If you’re lucky.
Much. Too. Much. On the other hand, too much is never enough. The good news is that training and experience do raise that limit. The bad news is that it takes time. So buy one of these and allow that time – a deal of time – to run in brain as well as bike. This particular Panigale is fitted with the factory-optional and culturally mandatory titanium Termignoni exhaust end-cans, which suit the bike perfectly, burbling away with a grumbling, staccato bark at low revs and segueing into the full hunting Sabre Tooth effect as the revs rise. It also pops and bangs on the overrun, like a good ‘un. In fact, for all those who worry about EU regs strangling motorcycles, just remember that motorcycle engineers are MUCH smarter than Eurocrats. In fact, the last thing that springs to my mind as being remotely as loud on stock pipes was a 1978 900SS on Contis. It’s a good noise, even if most track day noise tests disagree.
Alongside its Multistrada stablemate and BMW’s S1000RR/HP4, the Panigale sits at the top of the biking technology heap, with electronic modes for pretty much everything except behaving at a vicarage tea party. It’s got the same modes for suspension settings as my own Multistrada, which means that the defaults will only ever approximate your needs until you customise them to suit your roads, weight and riding style. Then there’s the multi-level traction control, the adjustable ABS and electronic engine braking and, quite possibly, a Teasmade. If that sounds like overkill, it just means that you’ve got more parameters to fiddle with when setting up the bike to your tastes, giving the discerning the ability to achieve exactly what they want and the inept the opportunity to turn a £20k sports bike into a passable impression of a deflating spacehopper. And that’s the trick with these beasts: spend the time learning, customise the set-ups for your preferred riding modes and then just forget about the electronics.
In even the short time I had with it, it really was surprising just how wonderfully analogue and deeply visceral an experience the Panigale provided – quite the opposite of the oft-presumed sanitised competence of modern machinery. That really is a huge point in its favour. What we do have is another hugely entertaining, breathtakingly capable machine, albeit one that, at anything approximating sane road speeds, really isn’t interested in what you’re doing – you just aren’t going to be getting it into its optimum performance envelope. For that very reason I’ve always had a soft spot for the smaller versions of the Ducati sports bikes, so I eagerly await the inevitable coming of the mini-me Panigale to replace the venerable 848. Oh, and it drinks like a dipsomaniac fish on a bender. There’s always something…