Some days I have to pinch myself, just to make sure I haven’t mistaken my dreaming for real life. Last Thursday was one such day, combining a first ride on a new Ducati with a rare privilege: trying out the new Kyalami track. As we all undoubtedly know, Kyalami, outside Johannesburg, is undergoing a serious upgrade under new owner Toby Venter, the man behind Porsche and Ducati in South Africa. In January, international car journalists — aided by some very fast racing drivers — had the chance to experience the heavily updated circuit in a fleet of Porsches. Recently it was the turn of two very lucky bike journos; myself and Donovan Fourie (of Bike SA magazine and my co-presenter on The Bike Show).
We were handed two ideal models for the occasion, the 1299 Panigale S and the new 959 Panigale. After scaring myself silly on the larger model for a couple of laps, I concentrated on Ducati’s newest superbike, intrigued as to whether the upgrade to the old 899 Panigale would result in anything other than an unfortunate downgrading of the model’s looks. The imminent arrival of Euro-4 emissions regulations has necessitated a change to the exhaust, so out goes the near-invisible system of the 899, and in comes a rather more obvious twin-silencer system.
Comments across the interwebs have, perhaps understandably, been scathing; but I have to say that in the flesh the change isn’t quite the catastrophe it has been portrayed as. Obviously, it isn’t nearly as neat as it is once was, but the result is hardly ugly and, with an inevitable deluge of after-market alternatives sure to arrive in double-quick time, I’d have to say it’s much ado about nothing. Of more relevance to the shape of the exhaust is the power output of the new, larger engine. Has Euro-4 strangled the power delivery despite the increase in capacity? Happily, the answer to that is: “No.” Power has actually climbed, up by nearly 7kW to 117kW, which is largely due to the 57cc hike in capacity. Add in a more refined fuelling system and we have a bike that is not only fast, but easy to ride.
The numbers aren’t all completely positive though, because weight — the other side of the performance equation — has been adversely affected by that new exhaust. The entry-level Panigale now has an extra 7kg to lug around, with at least half of that increase coming from the enforced exhaust modifications. Happily, though, that weight simply isn’t felt once the bike is rolling along — and let’s not forget that, in spite of appearances, this is a Panigale designed to be something more than a track tool. Ducati is adamant that the 959 is a superbike for the road as well as the track, which has led to concessions being made for comfort that the bigger Panigales simply don’t; like a wider fairing and taller screen for increased protection from wind blast.
That’s not to say it’s uncomfortable on a track. After my opening few laps on the 1299 Panigale S, I have to admit that I found the 959 a more rewarding partner for learning the modified Kyalami layout. The smaller bike feels more accurate, more reassuring at the front end and decidedly easier to get turned or swapped from full lean one side to the other. The electronics package may not be quite as all-encompassing as that of its bigger stablemate, but there are still three riding modes and an adjustable traction-control system. I had the opportunity to feel it — and the subtle ABS — working too, as these electronic safety aids coped with a very dusty Kyalami and helped keep me from a truly embarrassing finale to this day of firsts.
Being the first person to both crash at Kyalami and bin a 959 Panigale would have been one of those career defining moments, and not in a good way, either. There is, as you’d expect, a quick shifter for lightning fast up-changes, although the gearbox unfortunately doesn’t have the auto-blip down-change of the 1299. Overall, I came away from my brief test of the 959 much more impressed than I’d anticipated I’d be. It was perhaps unfair to have the Panigale 1299 S there at the same time, but in the end that merely highlighted the relative strengths of the 959 — the ease with which you can get the best from it. And the new Kyalami? Bloody brilliant, and a fantastic pleasure to feel a world-class smooth circuit — something I’ve not been able to in more than 20 years of riding at the country’s premier (bumpy) motorsport facility. The new section at the end of the start-finish straight adds a bit of complexity to what was a simple series of turns and, overall, it’s wider, faster and will, I feel, make for more over- taking possibilities. You can, however, see that it’s been designed for cars; several of the curbs are extremely steep and will be a challenge for bikers trying to lean over. Expect to see a good few crashes as the curbs are clipped, before the country’s top racers work out where the limits are…