A motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, Roland Brown has tested machines ranging from Valentino Rossi’s YZR-M1 to a Ural sidecar combination, and attended enough new bike launches to gain a worryingly detailed knowledge of Spanish airports. A former Bike magazine deputy editor and Le Mans 24 Hours finisher on two wheels, he now contributes to publications in 15 countries and is motorcycling correspondent of the Telegraph.
The 959 Panigale’s designation suggests that Ducati’s latest super-sports V-twin is a successor to the legendary 916 whose unmatched blend of speed and style began the Bologna brand’s spectacular renaissance back in 1994. So it is, but the 959 does not follow the 916 by pushing the performance envelope or forming the basis of a World Superbike racer like the red rockets that Carl Fogarty rode to glory in the Nineties. Instead the model that inherits the role of Ducati’s sporting flagship is the awesome 1299 Panigale, while the relatively sane and sensible 959 replaces the two-year-old 899 Panigale as Ducati’s so-called “super-mid”. Its mission is to combine the sleek design and technology of a full-blown superbike with a rider-friendly character that is suited as much to road-going use as to the racetrack.
This Panigale’s styling and aluminium monocoque-framed chassis are closely based on those of its 899 predecessor, with one main difference: the new twin-silencer exhaust required to get it through tighter Euro 4 emissions tests. This detracts slightly from the Ducati’s streamlined shape because the previous pipe (which is retained for 959s sold in the US and Australia) sits almost flush with the fairing, but this is still one sharp looking sports bike.
Capacity of the eight-valve desmo V-twin engine is increased from 898 to 955cc, which boosts maximum output by 9bhp to a healthy 157bhp – not bad for a “middleweight” if well short of the 1299 Panigale’s 205bhp. The other engine changes are mostly just thicker covers and other noise-deadening features. The fairing is actually the slightly wider, more protective one from the 1299. Other changes inherited from the bigger bike include a lower swing-arm pivot that allows better drive out of turns. Less welcome is the 7kg weight increase, mainly due to that exhaust, which increases the total to a still very respectable 200kg with fuel.
Given that it’s a rorty V-twin superbike that blasts out over 150bhp, the 959 is remarkably civilised and delivers its performance in almost restrained fashion. The mid-sized Panigale storms towards its 160mph-plus top speed at an eye-opening rate but is more memorable for the broad spread of smooth, well-metred power that makes it very easy to ride. And which is backed-up by civilising features including a light slipper clutch, efficient traction control system and a gearbox quick-shifter that works efficiently, although only on up-shifts.
Chassis performance is well matched to the engine. Handling combines stability with impressive agility; the multi-adjustable Showa forks and Sachs rear shock give a fairly firm and admirably well-controlled ride. Brembo’s Monobloc front brake calipers provide strong and reliable stopping power, backed up by an efficient ABS system, but can’t match the on-track bite of the 1299’s more exotic M50 equivalents.
In many ways the 959 Panigale is that rarity of a Ducati sports bike that is likely to be bought on instruction from the head, rather than the heart. For those attracted by the pulse-quickening fury of a 200bhp-plus, wheelie-happy adrenaline factory the 959 can’t approach its big brother’s raw appeal. But it’s still a beautifully styled, thrillingly fast machine with a high level of handling and braking plus an engaging V-twin character and exhaust note.
It’s also respectably practical: reasonably roomy and even comfortable, its fuel tank good for 150 rapid road miles, and its 15,000-mile service intervals meaning that most owners will never need to have the desmodromic valve gear adjusted. At just over £13,000 the 959 Panigale is also competitively priced by the standards of litre-class sports bikes, never mind Ducatis. Perhaps not the ultimate Italian superbike, then, but probably the one that makes most sense.
Price tag of our bike: £13,295 in white, £13,095 in red