Pilgrimage on a Ducati 959
An Entry Level Ducati and a biker’s paradise.
Ducati’s 959 Panigale, or their Super-Mid Level bike as they coin it, is their entry-level sportbike. Packing a 955cc L-Twin (differentiated from a V by the right-angled piston layout) and a monocoque chassis however it is packed with superbike tech to ensure that the term entry is applied loosely. And what better place to put it through its paces than Motorbike Mecca itself – the Isle of Mann during TT week.
After an early start, I convene with my two co-pilots, riding a GSX750R and a S Tripple R (in a wonderful green/gold colour scheme I might ad). After a bit of time at a petrol station and a chat over a quick sausage roll and coffee, we suit up, ready to ride. The silky wail of the Gixxer, the throaty burble of the Tripple and the Big Twin Roar of the 959. A 4 hour ride to Liverpool gives us time to jump on the ferry, stretch our legs and arrive well in time for the 11pm sunset, relaxing over a beer and planning the best spot for some riding and viewing.
Make no mistake, it’s a fully equipped Ducati. It produces 157 stallions and as you’d expect from Italian machinery, is beautifully and strikingly styled. From the angled headlights that appear like LED strips from a distance and the gorgeous rear end, it looks like it is going flat out whilst still on it’s kick-stand. It’s clearly inspired by the 1299 with new intakes, a wider front and a revised tail. It gets a quick-shifter, fantastic slipper clutch, new rods, crank, pistons and shower flue-injector. The end result is slick throttle response.
The twin exhaust pipes look much like an aftermarket bolt-on kit as opposed to OEM engineering (in fact, my first bike, an Aprilia RS125 had a very similar looking kit back in 2007). Whilst I would have liked to have seen a return of the sleeker under-pan design (or even the older-school undertail pipes), such are EU Regulations.
But what better place to be. We arrive into Liverpool to catch mid-evening ferry to Douglas on the Isle of Man. The weather has given us a break, with the sun now peeking through grey rainclouds overhead. Amazingly, until 11pm we are gifted daylight to find our temporary camp and discuss the days ahead. Of course, we have landed just in time for the big race, praying that the good weather would continue despite the canceled races prior to our arrival.
A 5am start sees us scope out a pub on a lengthy straight which sees the TT riders scream by at up to 180mph. One Hundred and Eighty. On a city track. So to put that into perspective, we decided it would be prudent to cruise around the track when it re-opened to see what the same roads would be like with speed limits imposed. Bumps, undulations, adverse camber, all combined to make an entertaining ride that defied logic when you reflect on the beforementioned speeds. But such pedestrian by comparison speeds didn’t quite allow true exploration of the Ducati’s capabilities.
Time for the mountain pass then, where speeds are de-limited and the whole road is made one-way for the duration of race week.
The Ducati is more refined than the 899 that preceded it. Wring its neck and it still sounds angry, ferocious. But torque is still plentiful, poked hard and it wants to point skywards. Hard acceleration on some of the roads that we came across saw the bike take the opportunity to power wheelie you into the horizon. Considering it is for all intents and purposes a litre bike, it still retains the rev-enthusiasm of the 899 and is just as engaging on the track. It is a progression if not a complete revolution of the 899 formula. It is chuckable, flicking from side to side with ease.
You can feel the benefit of the larger fairings as we hit the open mountain roads, with the cool breeze never making you feel es exposed as you feel you might on a sports bike. Handling is improved by a lower swingarm pivot and between the screwdriver-adjustable Showa front forks, 2mm longer Sachs rear shock and monocoque chassis which uses the engine as a member. Unlike the trick setup on the likes of the 1299 S, the suspension is adjustable in an old-school manner, the tip of the Key fitting perfectly into the adjuster screws for on-the-fly-tweaks. Steeper geometry, adds to the improved handling. Little touches like the machined pegs and adjustable clutch allow you to feel more at home on the bike.
On my first run, it was a matter of familiarisation, slowly making progress and tweaking the suspension in between passes. In a road setting, the extra power and torque above the 899 provides a noticeably more rideable package. I found progress slow initially because you have to adjust your approach a little. Whilst at times the 959 doesn’t *feel* fast, when you start adjusting your approach so that you carry a higher speed through the bend, roaring away at 7,500 rpm in second, and sliding through to the next gear after hitting 11,000 rpm and pulling towards the next apex. I found the bike perfect for me dimensionally, occasionally touching an elbow or to when I eventually got the confidence to press on.
This bike becomes all about running into a bend carrying heaps of speed and fronting it out. Holding a line feels natural once you have adapted to the way it goes about business. The Electrical system selected into Sport mode enables a road-friendly setup. Handfuls of throttle coming out of a bend will see the traction control light flash and power cut. Select Race mode and you will feel the rear lift under severe braking, the electronic intrusion minimalised, the front lift more as you power down the straights and the abs allowing the rear to slide more. But it never really impedes your progress and all of the tweaks that you can see on the right of the monochromatic LCD screen combine to make you feel connected to the car in a way that is hard to match. It displays the settings for the traction, stability and ABS controls applied under each ‘map’.
In the straight, the power on tap is simply brilliant. Following one of my two ride partners as we hit a de-restricted section of road on his GSXR-750 and he hits wide-open throttle. A second later, I do the same and the extra torque of the Twin simply reels him in. The road is fantastic with rolling mountain views and a road that offers breath-taking visibility as you roll in and out of curves, up-hill and then eventually drifting down again. The harder you start to push the Panigale, the more momentous the occasion. The more it rewards and exhilarates the soul (it was only a matter of time before the word soul is used in a review of an Italian superbike, wasn’t it?) The Ducati is an aural delight and feels so much more of an occasion than the Gixxer; and that’s not to talk down the Suzuki, but simply adds to the level of accomplishment of the Duc.
Stiffening up the rebound, preload and compression for a more track-like setup and going for another pass, resulted in increased confidence and feel through the bends. Finally plucking up the courage to select race mode finally shows you the full potential of the beast.
As increasingly seems to be the way, Euro emission rules mean that weight has increased, which has forced Ducati’s hand in increasing the power output of the bike to compensate. Stroke is increased to 60.8mm with the same bore as the 899. Torque hits 115 lbs/ft at 9,000 rpm. The engine has been engineered to reduce noise thanks again to the Euro 4 rules. The servo’d clutch gives a light but tactile clutch feel and the ride-by-wire system provides a sharp, crisp response. There is a little dead-space near shut throttle where a few mm’s free-play can be felt. As often the case though this would be simply alleviated to suit with a remap. Thankfully, The Australian version doesn’t come equipped with the Euro-tastic twin pipes. There isn’t an auto-blipping downshift function which would have been a nice addition but the slipper clutch and adjustable engine-braking give as good a compromise. As received, the engine braking was quite savage but again it’s something that you adapt to suit.
The mono-block Brembo caliper bites strong but eventually, you do get a fair amount of lever travel with the braking performance leaving a little room for improvement. A couple of late-braking corners lets you feel the extent of the performance available though and that observation is with the caveat of being critical.
All in all we lapped up 600 miles across a combination of motorway, country, and all out and out pleasurable roads.
The IOM TT is a must for any bike aficionado. Swathes of bikes from all walks of life can be seen in convoy at every bend. Everywhere you go you will be gestured to give the throttle a fist full of revs, biker to biker nods and you’ll get to engage in conversation in like-minded piston-heads at every corner. The atmosphere is simply electric. We settled on the Crosby pub in the end as the perfect high-speed spot with food, banter and drinks on tap as well as a lengthy view down the straight as the bikes hit a frankly un-hinged speed, dodging kerbs and drainpipe up-hill. The sound and catching a blur of each bike combine for an immersive experience.
On Saturday we had the pleasure of also catching the Southern 100 race as a bonus. We find ourselves perched on a grassy verge for the practice sessions, bikes passing mere meters from our feet, accelerating towards the four-ways cross-roads via a set of S-curves. The speeds get ever-impressive as we go up the bike classes, the 1000cc’s hitting the right then left-handers, twitching into a hard 90 degree right and then scrabbling for traction on the straight that follows. The roads re-open for an hour following the practice session (whatever you do, don’t hit the roads before this unless you want a $2,000-or-prison-fine!), we took the chance to walk half the 4-mile track to Church bends. The reward for our trek – front row seats perching over an aged church graveyard wall over a technical S-bends. The bikes pass so close to our wall that we would be able to reach out and give the riders an encouraging pat on the helmet as they passed – it almost felt as if we were riding pillion with the racers.
The Ducati was the perfect ride-partner throughout but; and while I don’t usually like pandering to motoring-stereotypes, reliability did become a concern. I’ve owned and loved a much modified 1098 previously which was fault-free; but after our last pass and on a leisurely trip back to civilization, I pull up to see coolant, steaming from the overflow. The stench of boiling coolant overcame me, steam billowing from somewhere under the fairing. Now, despite the rev-happy nature of the bike, service intervals stay at 7,500 miles with clearances checked at 15,000 miles which frankly is very generous, but it was a worry to have such a failure on such a short trip. I don’t want to over-labour this point though having not had the chance to identify the fault. It could have been a simply failed coolant pipe or connection, or the infamous coolant cap having given away, neither of which really are major; and really, probably amount to bad luck. Ducati’s run hot, I know that – but this saw the temperature quickly hit 120 degrees and beyond which meant the bike had to be babied home. With the addition of a Ventura bike rack, fully-laden it could accommodate everything that I needed to carry for a week away.
That small indiscretion aside and in the context of being an entry-level Ducati, it’s a showcase in how far bike tech has come. The 959 manages to span many accomplishments. Rider Comfort-wise, the seat sits higher than the GSXR that joined us on this trip, making it more comfortable for both the technical riding and the motorway trip alike. Its increased torque and refined throttle response make it more rideable around town than Ducatis of past that only became so after a remap. Its array of rider aids mean that it performs regardless of the conditions, whilst allowing you to extract the most from the bike. Surprisingly, equipped with a Ventura luggage rack, it was more practical than I had imagined, carrying a payload suitable for a week away without feeling that it upset the dynamics too much.