2017 has been a good year for new motorcycles, as the depth and quality of the entry list to this year’s Pirelli Bike of the Year competition can attest. Although an adventure bike took overall honours in the shape of the KTM 1290 Super Adventure R, it has been the resurgence of the sport bike that got me excited.
Ten years ago the world fell into financial crisis, with many inevitable and terrible consequences, one of which was the sudden end of the superbike wars. For years the major manufacturers had duked it out for the status of top dog, the results being a series of truly wonderful sport bikes.
That rivalry died when the money dried up, because superbikes are expensive to develop, and so we have been long overdue a couple of new models. Kawasaki had been the sole Japanese manufacturer to keep the superbike flag flying, then Yamaha rejoined the fray with the superb R1, and at last 2017 saw the return of two more legends — Honda’s Fireblade and Suzuki’s GSX-R1000.
The good news didn’t stop there; I rode the most amazing superbike of my career at the Estoril circuit in Portugal in June. BMW’s HP4 Race isn’t road legal, but if you have R1.3-million then organising a track shouldn’t be a problem. If you want that level of performance — a bike that wouldn’t be out of place on a World Superbike grid — but in a road-legal package, for similar money Ducati will sell you the Panigale Superleggera.
If you want the ultimate big Italian V-twin then you’d better hurry because Ducati is about to undergo a seismic shift in its approach to superbikes. From next year, if you want Ducati’s ultimate sport bike it will have double the usual number of cylinders, which to some fans of the brand feels something like a betrayal.
For those of us who aren’t such Ducatisti purists, the impending arrival of the Panigale V4 is like all our Christmases arriving at once. Some will mourn the death of the engine configuration that brought so much WSBK success to the brand, but for those looking forward, the future is brighter than ever.
The move to a V4 is a logical one for Ducati, given that it races with this type of engine in MotoGP. Next year is the last season for the twin in WSBK and then it’s also V4 time for that series alongside the continuing efforts in MotoGP.
Ducati has of course given us a road-going V4 superbike before, back in 2008 when it released the R750 000 Desmosedici RR, a replica of the MotoGP bike. The huge price tag may have bought you exclusivity, but it only just measured up to the much more affordable Japanese superbikes in terms of performance.
The new Panigale is the first V4 that Ducati will have in mass production (though 1500 Desmo RRs seem quite mass-produced to me) and it has raised the superbike bar. As is the case with most new sport bikes, much of the new development has gone into the electronic aids that allow us mere mortals to experience and hopefully learn to exploit the outrageous levels of performance on offer.
Outrageous is the right word, too, because the 1103cc engine will pump out anything from 157kW on the base model to 168kW on the limited-edition Speciale version. The standard for most of the new Panigale’s competition is 149kW, unless you go for BMW’s HP4 Race, and that, as I mentioned, isn’t road legal like the Ducatis.
This new V4 is notable not only for its output, but for its counter-rotating crankshaft. Most bike engines use a crank that turns in the same direction as the wheels, but the V4 Panigale changes that direction of rotation for benefits in terms of handling — increased stability under both acceleration and braking.
In place of the perimeter-type frame you see on most sport bikes, Ducati has again used the engine as the stressed member onto which the rest of the bike is essentially bolted, meaning there’s a huge weight saving.
On the electrickery side of things there’s a new set of acronyms to learn, but they all essentially boil down to control of grip levels under both acceleration and braking.
The ABS cornering works only on the front wheel for maximum track ability and takes lean angle into account, as does the traction control.
The addition of a six-direction IMU has allowed Ducati to embellish traction control with a new slide control system which also incorporates the bike’s lean angle to determine the level of torque delivered by the engine. Corner exits should now be quicker and safer than before.
Ducati has raised the superbike bar with the Panigale V4, and although I haven’t ridden it yet — early next year, hopefully — it doesn’t take a Nostradamus level of intuition to realise that this will be the superbike to beat in 2018. – Mat Durrans