PHOTOGRAPHY BY MILAGRO
I’ll argue all day long that MotoGP bikes should have less electronic aids. After all, who amongst us doesn’t want to see Valentino Rossi vs. Marc Marquez with at least some of the traction control taken away? Old school vs. new school. But as I splish-splash my way around the Autodromo Enzo E Dino Ferrari in the rain, I want to get down on my knees and thank Ducati for the big “WET” display that’s staring back at me from the LCD dash on my Panigale 899. You see with every bit of ABS, DTC, DQS and EBC turned up as high as it will go on my 899, I’m fairly confident that I’m not going to end up on my ASS. And that’s a good thing.
Like you, I’m neither Rossi nor Marquez. But what we are, however, is the people Ducati built its new 899 for. The 899 Panigale is what Ducati calls, “the more accessible platform.” As in more accessible than the ultra high-end Panigale 1199… a motorcycle that most definitely isn’t accessible to the majority of us.
So Ducati is hoping that the new 899 Panigale is a “step up” motorcycle for those currently riding a Japanese 600cc sportbike; a “step down” for current owners of Japanese 1000cc sportbikes; and/or an entry point for “premium” sportbike customers.
Ducati is also pushing the notion that the 899 is “more at home on the road than on the track.” In other words, don’t be scared to buy this Ducati sportbike. It’s not just a racebike. It’s not… well, it’s not the 1199 Panigale.
Yet it is still very much a Ducati. It still features that “iconic” Ducati superbike style and it still offers superbike performance – albeit with a bit more “street tuning.” It’s made to be less intimidating than the 1199 Panigale and it is. And it’s more affordable – at $14,995 for Ducati Red and $15,295 for Arctic White.
We were fortunate enough to be on hand for the world press introduction of the newest Panigale at the Autodromo Enzo E Dino Ferrari in Imola, Italy. And could things get any better? There we were with a stable of brand new 899s, an iconic racetrack in Italy on which to ride them… but it pissed down rain the entire time. Yes, it was one of those days when you just wanted to smack Mother Nature up the side of her head.
Although it’s not the 1199 Panigale, the 899 certainly started life closer to the Panigale than it did the 848 Evo. For starters, it shares the same crankcases as the 1199 but it gets its 898cc from a bore and stroke of 100 x 57.2mm – extreme, but not as extreme as the 1199. The compression ratio is 12.5:1. The Superquadro powerplant on the 899 also gets a redesigned cylinder head with 41.8mm inlet and 34mm exhaust valves.
According to Ducati, the 899 produces 148 horsepower at 10,750 rpm – eight more horsepower than the 848 Evo, which makes its max power at 10,500 rpm – and 72 foot pounds of torque. Ducati says the torque on the new Panigale is 20-25 percent more than the 848 Evo in every gear. In other words, it’s going to accelerate much better than the Evo. The bike also gets a five-tooth larger rear sprocket (44), to further help in acceleration.
Unlike the more expensive 1199 Panigale that gets magnesium engine covers, the 899 gets the less-expensive aluminum (clutch, sump and valve) covers.
Chassis-wise, the other obvious changes over the bigger and more expensive 1199 Panigale is the double-sided swingarm on the 899 – a shorter and stiffer unit made from cast aluminum. The swingarm was changed from the single-sided unit on the 1199 to keep the cost down.
Ditto for the subframe. Although the engine remains a stressed member of the chassis, the rear subframe is now constructed of tubular steel.
“The one on the bigger Panigale is an aluminum-casted piece,” said Andrea Forni, the R&D Director on the project. “It is very complicated, the aluminum casting, so we wanted to simplify the construction of this motorcycle and we shifted to the steel trellis. It is much more simple to manufacture.”
Plastic covers hide the less-expensive steel in an effort to make it look like the more expensive 1199. At least from a distance.
The 899 Panigale also uses a steel, 4.49-gallon fuel tank (.8mm thick) – half a gallon bigger than the plastic unit found on the 848 Evo. The steel unit also weighs two pounds less than the Evo, according to Ducati. So lighter with more capacity. A win-win.
Ducati also toned down the suspension components on the 899 compared to the 1199. The new bike gets a fully adjustable 43mm Showa Big Piston Fork (BPF) up front and a Sachs monoshock, also fully adjustable, at the rear. Sachs also produces the non-adjustable steering damper that comes on the 899 Panigale.
The 899’s 17-inch wheels will come shod in Pirelli Rosa Corsa tires.
Brakes on the 899 are Brembo: 320mm x 4.5mm front discs that use Brembo’s four-piston Monobloc M4.32 calipers; and a single 245mm rear disc that hangs rather shoddily (by Ducati standards) from the new swingarm. The ABS is a Bosch system that works in conjunction with the Ducati Safety Pack (DSP).
The wheelbase on the new 899 is a shorter 56.1 inches – compared to 56.5 inches on the 1199 Panigale and 56.2 inches on the 848 Evo. At 24 degrees, the 899 also has a steeper rake than the other two as Ducati set out to make the new bike a more agile motorcycle.
The 899 was designed to have the same riding position as the 1199, so that means it has a much different feel than the 848 Evo. With the handlebars raised some 10mm and the seat-to-handlebar distance shortened by 30mm, the bike has a more upright (and thus comfortable) riding position than the Evo. The seat is also 5mm higher on the new model – with thicker padding than that found on the bigger Panigale. Made for the street… remember?
The newest Panigale tips the scales at 372.5 pounds (dry), 11 pounds less than the 848 Evo. But that’s with the 899’s standard ABS, which adds 4.4 pounds.
Oh how I’d love to tell you tales of blazing around the iconic Imola circuit full-tilt with images of Eddie Lawson vs. Freddie Spencer dancing in my head. But that would be a fib of biblical proportions.
Instead Mother Nature threw a big old monkey wrench into the proceedings and drenched the place in the wet stuff. So what ended up dancing in my head was the fear of tossing the $15,295 Arctic White Ducati down the drenched racetrack. To make matters worse, our scheduled five 15-minute sessions were slashed to three when heavy afternoon rain caused Ducati to shut us down completely. So instead of sampling all that the newest Panigale had to offer, we were resigned to sipping espresso under the massive and impressive MotoGP hospitality unit that Ducati had set up in the paddock.
Learning a new racetrack is never easy, learning one in the rain with limited vision and on a motorcycle you’ve never ridden before makes the challenge even more… well, challenging. But there’s no denying that slipping the electronics package on the 899 Panigale into “wet” mode made all of that not only bearable, but fun.
With the settings on “wet”, the 148 horsepower of the twin is cut down to 100 horsepower, DTC (Ducati Traction Control) is at level eight, DQS (Ducati Quick Shift) is off, ABS is at level three (max safety, max rear wheel lift prevention), and EBC (Engine Brake Control) is at level one. It was definitely a case of “ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmet on, commencing countdown engines on…”
What it all means is you can pull out of pit lane and head out into the yonder of Imola relatively stress free. You can figure out where the hell you’re going and not be fretful of the Ducati doing anything silly that could result in you hitting the deck. It also helped that Pirelli had fitted the bikes with its World Supersport/World Superbike-spec rain tires, the compound of which is basically melted gumballs.
So in two and a half sessions (I lost a bit of the second session when the bolt pulled out of the shifter assembly, leaving me five gears short of a full box), I sort of knew where I was going and was hopeful of stepping out of the comfort zone of the “wet” setting and venturing into Sport mode. Woot-woot.
But that never happened. Instead, I can vouch full for the safety of the “wet” settings. I felt comfortable on the motorcycle immediately in spite of the treacherous conditions and was able to at least begin to get Imola figured out, making the cancellation of the final two sessions a bit frustrating. The traction control, which was working overtime in the wet conditions, isn’t choppy and doesn’t give you that traction-interuptus feeling. The only indication you get that it’s working is the flashing yellow lights on the dash.
The ABS was also tested to its fullest in the conditions, and it’s also a keeper. Brake as hard was you want while upright in full wet conditions and you remain upright. It works.
One thing that doesn’t work is the footpegs. Ducati continues to fit its sportbikes with the most slippery footpegs in the world. They are slippery in the dry. In the wet it was if they were dipped in baby oil. Not good.
Ergonomically, the bike felt right. The changes they made to the chassis dimensions work. You sit up a bit higher, which will translate nicely to riding the bike on the road. You’re also closer to the handlebars, adding to the upright riding position.
The wet conditions of Imola left us wanting for more and we’re looking forward to getting our hands on a test unit when they arrive stateside. At that point, we can point it at the California sun and see what it’s really made of.