Behind the Wheel: Ducati Panigale 1199 R

Limited in production but not in power, the Ducati Panigale 1199 R ($31,000) is a cross between a Navy Seal and Usain Bolt. It’s got carbon fiber and titanium for bones, a computer for a brain and a 195-horsepower engine revving to 12,000 rpm for a heart.

If Ducati is the Ferrari of the motorcycle world, then the Ducati Panigale 1199 R ($30,995) is the LaFerrari. Limited in production but not in power, this superbike of superbikes is a cross between a Navy Seal and Usain Bolt. It’s got carbon fiber and titanium for bones, a computer for a brain and a 195-horsepower engine revving to 12,000 rpm for a heart. The Panigale 1199 R might be the fastest production bike available (it has nearly the power-to-weight ratio of an F1 car), so we had to take it out for a few days — after we updated our will.

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In the mid 1920s the Ducati family started a very successful business manufacturing radio components like vacuum tubes and condensers. Unfortunately that business failed due in large part to repeated Allied bomb strikes on their factory during WWII. Toward the end of the ’40s the family took note of Aldo Farinelli’s extremely popular pushrod “Cucciolo” engine used to power bicycles and joined forces with Farinelli and his company, SIATA (Societa Italiana per Applicazioni Tecniche Auto-Aviatorie). The result was the first line of Ducati motorcycles produced in 1950, starting with a 48cc bike that topped out at 40 mph and weighed just under 100 pounds. Sixty-four years later Ducati makes six bikes ranging in price and prowess from affordable street bikes like the Monster to the larger touring Multistrada to the very highest end of performance, the 200 mph Panigale, proving the brand is still one of Italy’s best exports — behind olive oil and Monica Bellucci, of course.

The Panigale comes in five trim options, from the smaller 899, which offers 148 hp, to the 1199, which brings 195 hp to the table (track). Inspired by MotoGP, the 1199 Panigale is a bike wrapped in sexy and stuffed with engineering innovation. The R-trim brings even more performance with a larger engine, lighter materials and a Termignoni exhaust. One look at the exclusive Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tires, the Ducati Corse-inspired livery and the narrow shape provides a decent pucker factor. Just sitting on it raises your confidence level to a dangerous place; remember, this is a race bike that somehow managed to be street certified. That said, the seat and ergonomic design of the body make it surprisingly comfortable in low-speed traffic and at pesky stop lights.

After leaving those stop lights it’s disturbingly easy to find yourself at 200 mph. To harness the bike’s brutal power, the engineers at Ducati added ABS, adjustable suspension and adjustable traction control. A few switches on the handlebar navigate the color TFT display to select race, sport or wet mode (which modulate the engine power and suspension), and the screen also delivers information such as average fuel consumption, average speed and lap times. The configurable options on the Panigale 1199 R mean you can set up the bike to be raw enough for the likes of MotoGP legend Valentino Rossi or a little safer for your weekend warrior (e.g., guy who wishes he was Rossi).

The brilliant ingegneri from Bologna made the bold move to bolt the aluminum monocoque frame directly onto the 1198cc Superquadro L-Twin engine, thus removing unnecessary components and dropping weight. Assisting the engine is the Ducati Quick Shift, an electrical system that helps the gearbox shift while accelerating even without using the clutch. After all that power is created, it’s up to the Termignoni exhaust system, which contributes to the streamlined silhouette of the bike, to broadcast that signature Ducati cry and alert everyone in traffic of your approach.

Riding the Panigale in the wilds of Los Angeles rather than in a track setting was a rather terrifying prospect.

Riding the Panigale in the wilds of Los Angeles rather than at a track setting was a rather terrifying prospect. Give us a $400,000 Aventador any day of the week, but the intimidation factor of the same angry power with two less wheels and no sheet-metal protection (or in the Aventador’s case, carbon fiber) will add a decidedly large shrinkage factor; that’s part of what the Panigale 1199 R is.

Much to our surprise, after a few minutes of neighborhood riding we quickly became comfortable enough to add more gas and gears. Escaping from packed LA roads to empty side streets and parking lots gave the Panigale room to stretch its legs; yet even at our fastest, we were obviously short-changing the bike. It was as if we had coaxed this king of the concrete jungle into captivity and couldn’t offer it the proper room to roam it deserved.

Haters may say the $31,000 price tag is too steep for the average motorcycle rider, and we agree. But then, the average rider isn’t capable of handling 195 hp on a 365-pound bike. The Panigale 1199 R was made for either the wealthy enthusiast who wants a beautiful piece of artwork or the professional racer looking to destroy a wide-open track. Anything in between seems pointless — or at least frustrating for both rider and bike.

To put it another way, the Panigale 1199 R is an international supermodel who demands full attention and respect; the second she notices you aren’t totally enthralled with her beauty or mesmerized by the siren song from her Termignoni exhaust, you’re sprawled out on the street left in a daze. But for those who have the patience and wallet to satisfy said siren, the Panigale 1199 R could be the best ride of your life. Just make sure you treat her well or she’ll bust your balls.

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