When Ducati wants to flex its manufacturing muscle, it builds bikes like the Superleggera V4. We were one of the very few outlets invited to Laguna Seca to check it out.
Photography by Kevin Wing
When you see a Ducati Superleggera V4 in the metal, you know you’re standing in the presence of something special. It’s a black-and-red study in carbon fiber, aerodynamics, electronics, and the harnessing of 200-plus horsepower from a motor that sounds almost as good as what’s on the grid in MotoGP.
Limited to 500 examples worldwide, the Superleggera V4 is the finest superbike Ducati is capable of making for sale to the public. Worth a staggering $100,000, the Superleggera comes to the game with a claimed 224 horsepower in a package weighing a claimed 335 pounds dry (Ducati annoyingly refused to let us weigh the bike fully wet) once you fit the Racing Kit exhaust that comes with the bike at purchase. At that point, power gets bumped to 234 horsepower. Mental.
That makes it instantly the most powerful production motorcycle that Ducati has ever created, but as impressive as that fact is, what’s more interesting is the advancements made in carbon-fiber and Ducati’s ability to manufacture different levels of flex into the various components.
Carbon fiber has come a long way since Cagiva put the first chassis made from the exotic material on a 500cc Grand Prix grid for the Czechoslovakian and Hungarian races in 1990 with Randy Mamola and Ron Haslam at the helm. Back then, the understanding of lateral and torsional stiffness was in its absolute infancy, and the Cagiva design—while beautiful—was a disaster. The chassis was so stiff it almost chattered the rider’s teeth out, and Cagiva quickly reverted to an aluminum chassis for 1991.
In 2008, Ducati brought carbon-fiber chassis technology back into MotoGP with Casey Stoner, who incidentally loved the carbon monocoque, although no one else did. When Valentino Rossi joined Ducati in 2011, he hated the carbon monocoque with such zeal that Ducati changed frames mid-season to an aluminum twin-spar to appease its Italian mega star.
The carbon-fiber monocoque chassis may have been dead in the MotoGP water ever since (although carbon swingarms, bodywork and fork sliders are still very much in use), but that didn’t stop Ducati from exploring the material for its high-end superbike range.
The Superleggera V4 is the third such superbike to come from Ducati using carbon fiber as the main material for the chassis. The first two Superleggera’s of 2014 and 2016 used carbon for the monocoque, and when the V4 platform with its Front Frame design emerged in 2018, it was inevitable that we’d see a carbon-fiber Superleggera V4 hit dealer floors.
“The Front Frame has been created with the layout of the V4, which has been challenging for the design guys to create in carbon fiber,” says Ducati Superbike Performance Development Manager, Carlo Ricci Maccarini. “But the target has been met because with this frame, we not only revealed the carbon frame with the same shape of a cast aluminum one, but we also had the chance to fine tune the stiffness.”
Typical thinking would have the Superleggera’s carbon-fiber Front Frame as the stiffest of all three Panigale V4’s on sale, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually the reverse. The V4 R, which essentially exists as Ducati’s homologation machine to go WorldSBK racing, isn’t as stiff as the road-going V4 S, and the Superleggera was therefore required by Ducati Corse to investigate a lower stiffness reference. The Ducati engineers defined a playbook for the new chassis that reduced the braking, torsional and lateral stiffness when compared to the V4 R.
“On the V4 R, we made two openings on the side walls, and we also put reinforcement on the lower part to match the new set of stiffness numbers that Ducati asked of us. On the carbon-fiber frame, we moved even lower with the numbers with a reduction of 27 percent in braking stiffness, and 10 percent in torsional stiffness when compared to the V4 R.
“The combination of torsional and braking stiffness brought a reduction in lateral stiffness by six percent. The less you can go with the stiffness number of the frame, without going over the problem of chattering, gives a better feeling to the rider, who will have more confidence over bumps, more tire contact patch on the ground and a better feeling and grip at maximum lean. This is the idea we followed during the design and development of this bike.”
Less stiffness combined with the huge reduction in overall mass makes the Superleggera V4 a very special ride indeed. A quick glance through the list of the reductions makes for impressive reading. Compared to a standard Panigale V4, the carbon Front Frame is 2.6 pounds lighter; carbon swingarm is two pounds less, 2.6 pounds is gone from the carbon subframe, and 7.5 pounds has been taken off the wheels. Carbon-fiber components are everywhere, and that’s before you start looking at the bodywork.
“Similar consideration was also given to the wheels,” says Maccarini. “We already used these carbon wheels on the Superleggera of 2016. Consider that moving away 7.5 pounds from the two wheels, it makes a big difference in terms of lightness. You will feel the speed of the bike entering the corner and with the changing of direction. Today you are on the right circuit!”
The smattering of carbon-fiber structural components almost overshadows the behemoth that is the carbon bodywork. Modeled on the Desmosedici GP16 of Andrea Dovizioso and Andrea Iannone, when aerodynamic regulations were not as tight as they are now in MotoGP, the Superleggera uses a bi-plane design that forces 110 pounds of vertical load onto the chassis at 167 mph, a figure that improves to 134 pounds once you reach 180 mph. As Briton Adam Child, who rode this very bike at Mugello a few weeks ago, said, “it’s like having Dani Pedrosa in leathers sitting on the front of your bike.”
The downforce provided by the wings gives several advantages over a non-winged machine, including better braking, cornering and corner exit stability, but the big one is under hard acceleration when you’re trying to impart 234 horsepower to the tarmac in the fastest and smoothest fashion possible.
More mechanical force on the chassis removes the need for increased electronic intervention in the form of the Ducati Wheelie Control (DWC). While one of the best systems of its kind on the market, the DWC nevertheless cuts the power to keep the front on the ground at a time when all you want is more of it. The result is precious meters lost on acceleration and a slower overall top speed.
The wings help by forcing the front onto the tarmac, which allows you to run a lower level of DWC intervention. And if you’re adept at using the rear brake under acceleration, you’ll almost need no DWC at all. Almost.
Unlike the V4 S, the Superleggera runs conventionally adjusted Ӧhlins Pressurized NPX25/30 forks and a TTX36 shock with a titanium spring, the overall suspension package saving another 1.3 pounds. Internally, the shock runs Ӧhlins GP valves, which the company claims reduces the sticking effect and improves bump absorption in the initial part of the high-speed compression circuit.
The brakes are one of the most impressive parts of the Superleggera. Running Brembo’s Stylema R calipers matched to their race-spec MCS 19.21 radial master-cylinder with a remote adjuster on the left handlebar, the feel at the lever and overall braking power is nothing short of superb. What you ask for at the lever, you get, and when you experience them firsthand it makes you realize how badly some manufacturers skimp when it comes to decent quality brakes for high-end sportbikes.
Surprisingly, the 998cc Desmosedici Stradale R motor, donated by the Panigale V4 R, is only slightly modified in Superleggera form. Lighter camshafts with the same lift and duration have been used, but that’s mechanically the only difference to the V4 R. Ducati has used titanium engine bolts to save a further 6.2 pounds when coupled with the lighter cams. And the exhaust muffler and titanium headers drop a further 5.5 pounds.
It gets better, however, when you fit the Racing Kit exhaust, which adds a claimed 10 hp to 234 hp and drops an impressive 13.3 pounds over a base-model Panigale V4.
The electronics suite is an evolution of what you get with the Panigale V4 R, but optimized more for the track. As such, you get a Race A and a Race B mode, with reduced torque delivery in the first two gears in Race B; Sport mode for more manageable behavior on the street; and five User ride modes where the rider can save any setting they like and switch between them on the fly.
Every one of the rider aids from the V4 R—traction, wheelie, launch and slide control, quick shift, engine brake control, power launch and ABS—has been tweaked slightly to match the new chassis and increased horsepower of the Superleggera, and you also get the same dash layout as Andrea Dovizioso’s GP20 called RaceGP dash mode. This is full MotoGP-style with no rev-counter (just a flashing light for when you need to shift), a massive gear-position indicator, lap timer and lap number, and display for traction control, wheelie control, slide control and engine-braking control. It’s uber-cool, until you realize how slow you’re riding.
VIDEO | Ducati Superleggera V4 Track Test Review
2020 Ducati Superleggera V4 Review | On Track
Right, now we’ve got the small matter of what constitutes a Ducati Superleggera V4 out of the way, what’s it like to ride?
I could end the test right here by saying it’s the most impressive, fastest, and downright sexiest production superbike I’ve ever ridden, but that would be doing Ducati, and you, dear reader, a severe disservice.
Before I got my 10 laps on this most exquisite of Ducatis, I was handed the key to a Panigale V4 R for a few warm-up laps. A Panigale V4 R for warming up. Mental, right? After getting my brain slightly warped by the hugely impressive V4 R, the Superleggera was waiting for me in Laguna Seca’s pit lane.
The first thing you notice before you even get moving is the slightly taller seat height. It’s only 0.5 inches higher, but it angles you much more towards the front of the bike, your peripheral vision consumed by angles of carbon-fiber wings, only half of which are on the V4 R.
The second thing you notice is the Dovi dash. The massive gear position indicator takes up your view, and it’s kind of odd not to see any form of revs climbing up and down the dash when you blip the throttle in pitlane.
The third and most eye-opening feature is next, after you snick first gear and start riding up pit lane. That’s the lack of weight. There may be 50-odd pounds missing on the Superleggera to the V4 R, but it feels almost twice that. Just cruising pitlane and under the Laguna Seca turn-one bridge, I do a few zig-zags and am utterly blown away by how light the Superleggera feels. The feeling of lightness is at odds with the overall size of the bike, because the wings and extra-wide bodywork tricks your brain into thinking it should be much heavier than it is.
That feeling gets cranked to 11 after the first few corners at Laguna Seca. You can change lines as quickly as the thought enters your head on a Superleggera, and it’s so nimble it makes a V4 S feel awkward and cumbersome by comparison.
This is thanks in large part to the Ӧhlins NPX fork. This is without question the best production fork I have ever had the pleasure of using. I’ve ridden factory WorldSBK bikes that feel only slightly better than this, which is really saying something.
The fork combines with the incredible Brembo brakes, the wings, the chassis and the revised engine-braking algorithm to send the rider into the corner on a carbon magic-carpet ride. The funny thing is, while the chassis is less stiff than either the V4 S or V4 R, it doesn’t feel it. It feels stiffer, but not nervous. It doesn’t feel like there’s as much flex in the chassis, but it gives a much clearer picture to the rider of just where they are on the track and what’s happening underneath them.
It’s an amazing trick Ducati has pulled: reduce stiffness, but make it feel more connected, racier, than either the V4 S or V4 R.
Incredibly, the 234-horsepower (we only test rode a Superleggera with the Racing Kit exhaust fitted) motor absolutely plays second fiddle to the chassis. Yes, it’s brutally fast, but the way in which the power is delivered is so metered, so precise, it’s less of an event to the rider than 150 horsepower delivered poorly.
There’s power in every area of the rev range, and once you get the motor spinning above 10,000 rpm, you better hang on, because things start happening very, very quickly. What’s amazing is you think you’re about to hit the rev-limiter due to the cacophony of noise, but in reality, you’ve likely got another 3000 rpm remaining before you need to shift.
On that note, the new Ducati Quick Shift EVO 2 is much better than on the V4 R. I’ve had a few issues with the Ducati system in the past (I put my head through the screen of a V4 R at Willow last year when I accidently touched the lever at speed), but the SL system is almost perfect, offering the right amount of ignition cut without being too touchy.
Clicking fourth gear up the hill towards the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca, the number-one feature of the Superleggera shined through. Using level one wheelie control, one level down from what I had on the V4 R, the Superleggera simply floated the front wheel and allowed me to stay on the throttle longer. The result was a much more composed chassis, ready for braking, than the V4 R.
That was eye-opening because it proved what Ducati were saying all along: more mechanical downforce always trumps electronic intervention.
After 10 laps, I’m back in pitlane, consumed by the experience but ultra-thankful that I didn’t pitch a Superleggera into the fence. This is an absolute masterpiece of a superbike. For the price, it better be good, but I didn’t think it would be that good.
Laguna Seca isn’t the fastest of tracks, so stretching the legs of the motor wasn’t really part of the game that day, but it did allow Ducati to show off the wares of its carbon chassis, which is so far in front of even its own V4 S, it’s hard to believe they can both be called superbikes.
If you’re one of the lucky 500 who put down $100K for a 2020 Ducati Superleggera V4, I tip my cap to you. You’ve chosen well. CN
2020 Ducati Superleggera V4 Specifications
||Liquid-cooled, Desmosedici Stradale R 90° V4, rearward-rotating crankshaft, 4 Desmodromically actuated valves per cylinder
|Bore x stroke:
||81 x 48.4mm
||Electronic fue-injection system, twin injectors per cylinder, full ride-by-wire elliptical throttle bodies, variable length intake system
||224 hp at 15,250 rpm / 234 hp at 15,500 rpm w/ Racing Kit exhaust
||85.6 lb-ft at 11,750 rpm / 87.7 lb-ft at 11,750 rpm w/ Racing Kit exhaust
||6-speed w/ Ducati Quick Shift (DQS) up/down EVO 2
||Hydraulically controlled slipper and self-servo dry multi-plate clutch
||Ducati Traction Control EVO 2 (DTC) Engine Brake Control EVO 2 (EBC EVO), Cornering ABS EVO, Ducati Wheelie Control EVO (DWC EVO), Ducati Slide Control (DSC), Ducati Power Launch (DPL), Ducati Engine Brake Control EVO (EBC EVO)
||Carbon-fiber Front Frame
||Öhlins 43mm NPX25/30 pressurized fork w/ TiN treatment, Billet fork bottoms, lightweight springs, fully adjustable
||Fully adjustable Öhlins TTX36 unit with GP valving and titanium spring. Carbon-fiber single-sided swingarm
||Dual 330mm semi-floating discs, MCS 19.21 master-cylinder, radially mounted Brembo Monobloc Stylema R 4-piston calipers with Bosch Cornering ABS EVO
||245mm disc, 2-piston caliper with Bosch Cornering ABS EVO
||Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP 120/70 ZR17 in.
||Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP 200/60 ZR17 in.
|Weight (dry, claimed):
||350 lbs. / 335 lbs. w/ Racing Kit