Barelling down the long straight at the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, the Ducati 959 Panigale I am astride, is hitting close to the double ton, but my eyes are fixed on turn 2 and 3, a sharp right-hander and u-turn for which I need to downshift, hit the brakes and then take it one smooth flow in third. But there's no time to glance at the speedo, the 320mm front discs gripped by Brembo monobloc calipers shed speed in an instant, and the Engine Braking System on the 959 Panigale ensures there's no drama, no flex as the chassis retains its composure and I open the throttle, after hitting the apex.
And this is when you begin to appreciate how forgiving the 959 Panigale is. Handling has to be one of the biggest strengths of the 959 Panigale - lap after lap, you find yourself getting more and more confident to brake later and push harder, lean further into the corners.
The 959 Panigale is the smallest supersport from Ducati and replaces the 899 Panigale. The new 'baby Panigale' doesn't look radically different from the 899 Panigale, but it gets more power, more torque and a longer stroke engine. It's a compact sportbike and it looks fantastic! Ducati describes the new Panigale as the bike with the 'perfect balance' - and it promises a lot - superb performance and handling for track use, as well as a lot of rider aids and electronic safety equipment for road use.
The 959 Panigale doesn't look radically different from the 899, but there are subtle changes - a wider nose, taller windscreen and a new 'double-barrel' side-mounted exhaust system. The new exhaust isn't the bike's design strength, but it's been added out of compulsion to meet strict Euro 4 emission norms.
An aftermarket Akrapovic exhaust system of course will make the bike look aesthetically pleasing and also give a 2 per cent hike in power output, as well as make it sound a lot different. And it's certainly going to be the first change many owners are likely to go for. The chassis largely remains the same but the swingarm has been tweaked to accommodate the new exhaust and the pivot point is 4mm lower. There are other minor changes as well, like a 5mm longer wheelbase and high-grip machined footpegs.
The engine's stroke has been increased from the 899's and also gets a new crankshaft and connecting rods. The throttle bodies now get new fuel injectors and the wet clutch gets a slipper function, which provides a lighter feel at the lever and smoother downshifting, preventing wheel lock-up while riding aggressively.
(The Ducati 959 Panigale has meaty torque available throughout the mid-range)
How does it perform?
At the Chang International Circuit, it didn't take long to come to terms with the 959 Panigale's punch. The engine feels a bit gruff at idle, but that's more a v-twin character than raise any concerns about refinement and smoothness. Open the throttle and it becomes evident that the 959 has enough power for you to be impressed and more. The 90-degree v-twin superquadro engine makes 157bhp and 105Nm and there's meaty torque available throughout the mid-range so you don't need to wring the throttle wide open to feel that punch.
The World Superbike circuit at Buriram is a long, fast track, offering plenty of opportunity to explore the bike's performance. The long straights allow you to shift through the six-speed transmission, the quickshifter aiding in effortless upshifts and there are plenty of fast, sweeping corners to explore the bike's handling as well as push your riding skills to the limit. The bike's not very light and nimble and you need to muscle it around the corners, but handling is just superb and the bike conveys a sense of composure which is immediately likeable.
(The 959 Panigale's Race mode sharpens throttle response and lowers traction control)
With limited track experience and skills, the 959 Panigale flatters my riding skills no end. As the day wore on, with session after session with the Ducati Riding Experience instructor, it became evident that with the right bike, and the right guidance, you can easily raise the bar of your track riding skills.
Tackling corners becomes a delightful experience, the Pirelli Diablo Corsa tyres offering superb grip, even when leaned over. In Sport mode, the traction control is dialed up on level five, and it allows you to open the throttle mid-corner without worrying about losing grip or traction. Things get a little hairy in Race mode, when throttle response is even sharper and traction control is lower, but with a cautious right hand, there was no cause for alarm.
Who should consider it?
The time we had with the 959 Panigale is going to be memorable, and it definitely makes me wish we had one more day at the track with it. It's a great looking bike, whether parked or whizzing past on racetrack, and it's a Ducati after all. If track riding is what your are looking at, and you want a package which offers near litre-class performance and nimble handling, the 959 Panigale offers a very likeable supersport, if you're willing to spend that much. What the 959 Panigale offers is exhilarating performance and a superb track motorcycle.
We're waiting to see how the 959 Panigale performs on the street, so we can't really comment yet how it will be as a practical, everyday bike; how it behaves in traffic and how it's like to live with. For that, we will have to wait for a comprehensive review.
At Rs 13.97 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi), the Ducati 959 Panigale isn't what you'd call an affordable sportbike. If track days are what you have in mind, or even occasional ones to brush up and improve your riding skills, the 959 Panigale could be the perfect bike for you. It's got enough power, enough performance, superb handling and an electronic rider aid package that casts a wide safety net.