Ducati 125 T

First Ride: 2013 Ducati 1199 Panigale R

Nowhere is it clearer that racing improves the breed than with the up-rated Ducati Panigale 1199 R. When Carlos Checa needed a few things to help make the bike he would be racing in the 2013 World Superbike Championship competitive with the four-cylinder machines he was racing against, Ducati went to work to give him what he needed. And with World Superbike rules the way they are, for Carlos to get what he wanted, we had to get it too.

Enter the Panigale 1199 R.

The much-ballyhooed Panigale made its debut last year and although the world’s motorcycling media laid praise at its wheels, it didn’t fare as well as everyone thought it would when it came to racing. It was plenty fast, but it didn’t get to that top speed quickly enough to make those racing (the Panigale wasn’t homologated for World Superbike last year, but it raced in the World Superstock Series) happy, including Checa who tested the bike in the middle of the year. They wanted more torque from the Superquadro powerplant and Ducati went about the task of giving them just that.

They also wanted a bit more adjustability with the chassis, but more on that in a minute.

Ducati responded with titanium connecting rods and a lighter flywheel in the R model, the combination of which yielded a weight savings of 2.9 pounds over the standard model. It also meant the rev limit could be raised by 500 rpm, with the new Panigale R now redlining at 12,000 rpm.

So Checa and Co. are hopeful what they wanted works for them (the Spaniard earned pole position at the opening round in Australia, but crashed out of the first race and suffered a concussion) and we ultimately get what we want – quite possibly the best production Superbike that $29,995 can buy.

With the rods and flywheel saving almost three pounds, the engine spins up quicker and redline was increased from 11,500 rpm to 12,000 rpm. The result is 10 percent more torque at 85 mph; and 18 percent more torque at 125 mph, according to Ducati. And the gains came without sacrificing top speed – again, according to Ducati.

The peak horsepower figure from a year ago remains the same at 195 hp at 10,500 rpm. Ditto for the 98 feet pounds of torque.

Because of all the changes in the powerband, the Panigale R also gets a shorter 15/41 final drive (last year’s model used a 39 on the rear).

As far as the adjustability of the new chassis, for the first-time ever in a production Ducati, the Panigale has a four-position swingarm pivot that’s easily adjustable in 2mm increments – either to make the rear wheel squat more or less. Higher equals less squat, lower equals more – and more squat translates to better grip with worn tires or in iffy conditions. The fixed setting on the previous Panigale is the baseline setting on the new R and the new pivot allows you to raise it 2mm or lower it either 2mm or 4mm – and the settings are well marked on the pivot.

Additional changes to the bike include the use of a carbon fiber in a few key areas – namely a heat shield to help with the heat that comes off the exhaust near the rider’s rear end and thigh. This was a big complaint with last year’s Panigale and the new shield has also been retrofitted for those wanting one for their 2012 Panigale. Carbon is also used for a rear suspension guard, heel guards and inner panels in the fairing and protectors for the single-sided swingarm and a clutch cover.

All the carbon, lighter monocoque chassis and engine components mean that the Panigale R now weighs in at just 363.7 pounds dry (416 pounds ready to rip), including the ABS system that’s fitted as standard equipment.

The R model also gets a “race-style” seat cover and the full, GPS Ducati Data Acquisition System that gives you automatic lap times and circuit-map linked data. The bike is basically NASA without the Tang.

Ducati also gave the bike a racier look (if that’s even possible) by using a mix of red and brushed aluminum on the gas tank, which holds 4.5 gallons. It also gets the full factory Ducati Corse graphics on both sides of the fairing.

The bike is fitted with the best Ohlins money can buy – a 43mm NIX30 fork that’s adjustable electronically in both compression and rebound damping (spring pre-load is manual). The Ohlins TTX36 rear suspension is fully adjustable and electronic in both compression and rebound damping with manual spring pre-load adjustment.

The Panigale R also gets top-of-the-line Brembo monobloc brakes with four 30mm pistons grabbing 330mm discs. The ABS is integrated with Ducati’s three programmed riding modes (Race, Sport and Wet) with the ABS working only on the front wheel in Race mode; in the other two modes, the system activates both front and rear ABS, front-to-rear combined braking, and rear-wheel lift detection.

The Panigale R also allows you to bang upshifts without the clutch and without getting out of the throttle with its Ducati Quick Shift.

It wasn’t enough for Ducati to give us the chance to ride the new Panigale on a racetrack, but they opted to send us to what is arguably the best racing facility in North America – the brand-new Circuit of The Americas outside of Austin, Texas. The track is world-class with facilities to match. Being that it’s in Texas, it’s also big with plenty of corners (20) and lots to learn (3.4 miles of racetrack).

With four 20 minutes sessions on the R, we had to learn quickly in order to be able to turn our attention to the motorcycle we were there to test.

I didn’t get the opportunity to ride last year’s Panigale, so I guess you could say I’m spoiled in a way to jump straight to the up-rated R version. With no previous Panigale experience, I can’t tell you what’s improved over last year – but I can tell you from a zillion years of riding sportbikes that this is one incredible motorcycle.

I was fully expecting the Panigale R to be difficult to ride. I thought it would be snatchy, stiff and not a lot of fun to go slowly on as I tried my best to learn the long and difficult CoTA circuit in a less than Checa pace. But it wasn’t that way at all – even in the Race mode that I used throughout the day.

The bike allowed me the opportunity to learn the circuit without a worry.

The bike is definitely light and with the esses at CoTA seemingly going from Austin to Houston, there was plenty of opportunity to flick the R from side to side to side. And you do so at speed – so the bike has to be both agile and stable. The Panigale R is both.

The brakes on the R are as good as you’d imagine them to be. The back straight at CoTA is taken flat out in sixth gear (and you can watch it all unfold on a truly trick instrument display that tells you everything but your heart rate) before downshifting to second gear for a left-hand hairpin of sorts. The brakes are so good that I found myself wishing I’d gone deeper every single lap. But if you do get in a bit hot… no worries.

Just keep tugging on the brakes and keep leaning the Panigale over. If you’re up for it, the Ducati definitely is. It likes to be ridden hard and it likes to be put on its side.

You also don’t have to worry about banging those downshifts with a slipper clutch that’s as good as on any streetbike. The bike stays stable and perfectly inline even when you’re busy with both the brakes and the downshifts, allowing you to focus on what’s next – hitting the apex. Again, the Ducati excels there with turn in that’s both light and precise. And if you do run it a bit wide, as mentioned earlier, you just keep leaning it over.

No Hail Mary’s necessary. It will be just fine, thank you very much.

When you pick up the throttle out of the hairpin prior to the backstraight and start upshifting, you get to sixth gear in the blink of an eye as the bike spins up quickly. The speed shifter is also spot on and makes you wonder how you ever rode a motorcycle without one. Nothing quite like keeping it pinned as you grab gears with abandon.

The bike does lift the wheel as you’re grabbing those lower gears, but it does so without nary a wiggle and it’s never enough to cause you to ever back out of the throttle.

As far as comfort goes, at 5’ 8,” I was right at home on the Panigale. Bigger riders might feel a bit cramped, but I can’t play basketball – so let’s call it a draw. As far as looks go, I’m not sure I’ve seen a motorcycle that is both as pretty and daunting looking as this one. Sort of an angry wasp look, but all dressed up in a pretty red dress.

The brushed aluminum tank is flat out trick looking. Combine the red, the brushed aluminum, all that carbon and the Ducati screams, “look at me!”

We like it plenty. Now we just have to see how Carlos gets along with it. Guessing if there’s bits he doesn’t like, we’ll only get an even better Panigale R next year.

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