Soft Machine

Fast used to be enough for a superbike. Not anymore

The man squares his shoulders, braces his legs like a linebacker anticipating a running back, points the gun at me, and nods. I’m done for. Finished. Kaput. “Give it,” he barks. Over the muscular clatter of the idling Ducati Panigale V4S I offer justifications, excuses, and explanations. He’s having none of it. The man fires me a withering look equally as chilling as the threat from his pointed gun. I give up. And give in. And give it. And wait to be sent packing. 

Ducati Panigale V4S at speed. Lots and lots of speed. It's still hard to wrap the mind around a production four-cylinder Ducati, after Bologna worked for decades to convince us twins were the better way.  

But nothing happens. The man and I share an odd, startled glance. I have gunned the throttle on the Panigale V4S but the racetrack’s hand-held decibel meter, which grants or rejects access to the track day, has not had its needle pinned. This is unexpected. When I started the Panigale for the first time, the engine barked to life with a hard, metallic, threateningly loud thrumming that made me jump as if a snake had slithered up my pantleg. I couldn’t believe the noise. I glanced down at the exhaust expecting to see an aftermarket system (or no system at all) but the exhaust was stock. If it was this loud at idle, imagine it at redline—clearly, it would be in violation of the racetrack’s noise limit. But here’s the shocking part—as soon as the engine is revved the noise disappears. It’s as if the exhaust has been stopped with a cork. And it’s just the beginning of the surprises the Panigale V4S has in store.

My amnesia for the past is matched by my inability to predict the future, yet even I knew Ducati’s previous generation Panigale twin was stillborn. I knew it the first time I rode Aprilia’s RSV4. The Aprilia’s V4 was (and remains) the most spine-tinglingly inspiring engine to power a motorcycle. Have you ever met a man or woman who could juggle, play the spoons, spit for accuracy, and know each and every one of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas? That’s the Aprilia—it’s rude, refined, ferocious, and soothing. It’s a contradiction that makes you faster, smoother, kinder to old people and more tolerant of misbehaving children.

 

In iterations from the 899 to the 1299, the Panigale twin was a machine as stunning as it was doomed. Its superquadro engine was entirely new, and the belts of old that spun camshafts were jettisoned for chains and gears. A good-sized house cat could pass through its cylinder bore and the piston’s stroke was as short as a sharp punch to the chin. The trellis frame, a Ducati hallmark, was gone. In its place was an oblong piece of metal, no larger than an espresso-maker’s boiler, bolted to the top of the engine. This aluminum casting, which appeared insufficiently robust to withstand the forces of the engine at one end and the headstock at the other, was hollow and acted as the bike’s airbox.

Another break with Ducati tradition was the Panigale twin’s exhaust, which exited below the engine and not in theatrically swooping pipes that snaked up and under the tail section, as on every Ducati superbike since the 916. The only concession to the past was the single-sided swingarm. (The 899 and 959 used a conventional dual-sided item.) Despite the clean-sheet design, the Panigale twin was instantly identifiable as a Ducati superbike. Gone was the bland and derivative 1198, which, after the unloved 999, was a timid retreat by Ducati’s design department to a 916 lookalike. The Panigale twin was unexpectedly beautiful, with a lean, aggressive visage and dramatically cut slashes in its shrink-wrapped fairing.

But the Panigale twin was less a brilliant motorcycle than it was an engineering thesis made real. In the quest for more speed, the twin lost the accessible power that had, historically, allowed Ducati twins to go faster than their horsepower ratings would suggest they could. The superquadro was peaky and hard-hitting. And the frameless design muted feedback to the rider—it’s difficult to tune a frame to communicate with the rider when there isn’t a frame. You could see the problems by watching Ducati racers. Carlos Checa won a World Superbike title on a 1098 but couldn’t tame the Panigale twin. And though Chaz Davies won races with a Panigale twin, you had the sense he wasn’t quite sure if the bike wanted him in the saddle or in the gravel pit.  

Hot stuff. Don't be titillated by the curves from the exhaust header beneath the seat. Heat that emanates from it is lethally hot. Don't fret that the noisy dry clutch is gone. At idle the engine clatters frenetically even with a silent wet clutch.

The Panigale twin reminded me of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour. The film chronicles a young and newly-married Séverine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) who spends afternoons as a prostitute while her husband, Mr. Serizy, to whom she is sexually frigid, is at work. In this dysfunctional liaison the Panigale twin is Ms. Serizy, and I, regretfully, am Mr. Serizy, a man flummoxed by his perpetually aloof wife. I rode a Panigale twin at Circuit of the Americas in Texas and could sense the bike’s indifference to me. Tucked in behind the windscreen at 180 mph, I feared for my well-being, while my heart broke for poor Mr. Serizy.

 

It was clear Ducati’s ultra-modern Panigale twin failed to accommodate the fallibilities of a human pilot. And Ducati were so infuriated that home-country-rival Aprilia pipped them for a trio of World Superbike titles that Ducati pinched the mastermind (Gigi Dall’Igna) who made Aprilia dominant. And since Ducati already had a V4 in its MotoGP bike, the Panigale V4 was only surprising because of Ducati’s long history of sporting twins. The Panigale V4 was designed to be everything the Panigale twin was not—namely, communicative for a range of riders from track day warriors to proper racers.

 

By mid-morning the sun has warmed the asphalt after an unseasonably chilly dawn, and I’m waved onto the racetrack. I peek over my shoulder for oncoming riders, roll the throttle on, and…and…meet a lull in the powerband followed by an unrelenting fury of vicious acceleration. I settle my breathing, dispense with a pair of rights and a left turn, and again roll the throttle to full. Same thing again. My tailbone is slammed to the rear of the seat and the front wheel hovers above the pavement for the duration of the straightaway.

The V4’s horsepower, at the rear wheel, peaks in the mid-180s. It’s substantial, but I’ve ridden bikes this powerful before. It’s that lull just off idle that exacerbates the sensation of acceleration. And the Ducati isn’t the only modern motorcycle to suffer such a fate. The sophistication of electronics allows a manufacturer to tune the powerband to slip past noise and emissions regulations while delivering outrageous power levels. But it comes at a cost.

That the Ducati’s muscular pounding at idle is followed by an eerie silence as the throttle is opened comes down to two factors. For one, the engine generates an astounding amount of heat, and in a (failed) attempt to cool the inferno, the rear bank of cylinders deactivates at idle. (It sounds like a twin-cylinder engine at idle because that’s exactly what it is.) The heat is less an issue on the racetrack, but a short ride on a hot day in the city had me concerned my genitalia would resemble something I’d seen hanging in the window of a butcher shop in Chinatown, so intense is the heat from beneath. Secondly, and the reason for the odd silence after the throttle is opened from idle, is the valve in the exhaust system. This flapper, which reroutes gases down to somewhere in middle earth, is to blame for the mojo-killing flat spot.   

A naked version of the Panigale V4 is on the way, though it'll come with a seat. It's still odd to see aluminum frame spars on a Ducati. Perhaps the Japanese have been on to something good all these years.   

We live in the age of electronics, but electronic intervention is only welcome if the chassis allows the rider to push the bike to the point where intervention is helpful. The Panigale V4S’s truncated frame spars are a compromise between the Panigale twin’s espresso-boiler boxed front frame member and a conventional frame that links the headstock to the swingarm pivot. (The Panigale V4’s swingarm, in longstanding Ducati tradition, pivots in the rear of the engine cases.)

 

I’ve logged a lot of laps on Ducati superbikes, and each generation has sacrificed a further degree of user-friendliness for outright performance. On my nearly 30-year-old 888 racer I can tell the mood of the front tire as easily as a sommelier can tell when wine’s gone to vinegar. The Panigale V4S is a welcome return to a communicative motorcycle—it’s nearly Japanese-like in its ability to give the rider the sense that all is well (or going straight to hell).

 

One particularly tricky corner on the racetrack is a decreasing-radius left-hander that kicks in on itself near the exit. Many a rider has either tucked the front, run onto the grass, or been so intimidated by either of those scenarios that the corner is negotiated at what would be a comfortable speed for a UPS delivery truck. On the Panigale V4S I’m able to sense when I’ve pushed too deep and too hard. Trail braking down to the apex brings the front tire back into line without risking a crash. Mechanically, the Panigale V4S allows the rider to sidle into the zone where electronic intervention adds a thrilling dimension to riding.

 

Misconceptions abound about the application of modern electronics. In lieu of droning on about the multitude of variables the Panigale V4S offers, I’ll distill a day’s riding down to one corner; a second-gear left-hander that begins as a slight bowl and ends in an off-camber exit. It’s a corner where I habitually carry too much lean angle to the off-camber exit, which causes me to stand the bike up (for fear of crashing) and drift too far to the right.

On my 888 I slide the rear under throttle which tightens my line, but I don’t have the skill, the nerve, or the reaction time to do this on a modern superbike without traction control. On the Panigale V4S, once I’m comfortable with the old-school mechanical feedback of the bike, I begin opening the throttle earlier and earlier, causing the rear tire to spin, step out slightly, and tighten the line. When I feel the rear end become loose, I lift the bike up, minimize my lean angle, and neatly dispense with the corner. Just a slight stepping out of the rear wheel accomplishes this. (I wish I could claim the hacked out rear ends and lurid power slides of the fast lads, but heroics are beyond my skillset.) Electronics are a gateway to learning the limits of the modern motorcycle. Want to know how hard you can brake? Nail the lever and let ABS show you. And that power wheelie down the straightaway? I’m not willing to risk a destroyed motorcycle and the broken bones that come with going up and over the top. But I’m certainly appreciative of the opportunity to learn the astounding limits of a superbike like the Panigale V4S.

 

Unfortunately, the lean flanks and knife-edge creases of the Panigale twin’s fairing haven’t translated directly to the Panigale V4S. The V4S’s exposed aluminum frame spars bulge as if they’re suspenders diverted by a farmer’s plump belly. And it’s impossible not to imagine the bike retuned with the limitations of street legality reprogrammed out of its computer. But none of these niggles detract meaningfully from the V4S, which is, ultimately, an admission by Ducati that its V-twin superbikes had become wound too tight to be fully exploited. As one of those riders who struggled, I’m happy to have been welcomed back into the fold.