Dubai: Dream Ride – The Desmo Owners Club UAE track test the 899 Panigale
March 30th – First Ride Test report by ‘Biggles’ AKA Neil Greer – It wasn’t any old Dubai Autodrome bike track day last weekend, but a free one for members of the Desmo Owners Club (DOC) of the UAE. So my trusty Streetfighter 848 was dusted off, had its loins gilded with a new rear Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa, tweaked, adjusted and prepared for a thrash round the track. Reporting for duty at 8am, I was greeted by the sight of 40 odd Ducatista already hovering impatiently in the pit garages of the Autodrome, smiling nervously in anticipation of the days program. Interestingly enough for a country where late is the norm, about 80% of the days participants were on time, truly remarkable.
The usual DOC luminaries turned up with many familiar faces and even the odd person whose name I could remember. Forget about the people tho’, dip me in vinegar and call me a fish supper, there were a lot of seriously nice Bologna twins to behold. Not just that, but the evidence of the fine work the Ducati dealer in Dubai is doing was manifested by more Panigales than you could shake a bevel drive at. Winner of the most interesting bike was easily won by Martin Krepela’s 749. OK Martin has a bit of an advantage in running the Dubai Ducati showroom, but by any standards a beautifully prepared and presented machine.
So after the usual briefing where even Dick sounded lucid for a few fleeting moments, we headed for our first session on the track. Perfect temperatures in the mid 20’s, a track freshly washed by the previous week of rain, track conditions were simply, tip top. A couple of laps to scrub in the new rear hoop and get some heat in the front, then normal programming continued.
The little fighter, as always revelling in the short club circuit at the Drome, playfully duffing up the faster and more exotic bikes under braking and through the twisties. My apologies to the 4 Panigale’s that were passed around the outside of turn 1, but honest Guv, I had nowhere else to safely go…
But the gaggle of Pani’s did look lovely out on track and after parking the Streetfighter after the second session, I could not help but notice a brand new 899 Panigale sitting forlornly parked outside the garage. Summary investigation revealed that it was the Ducati Demo bike. Now as anyone with any experience will tell you the ultimate sports machine is a demo motor, whether bike or a car. The chance to thrash the nuts off a brand new exotic model that I did not own was just too much for me. Donning my best responsible Captain Sensible look, Martin was approached to see if I could somehow ‘borrow’ the keys of the 899 for 20 minutes or so.
But Martin is certainly not daft and after having to sign my life away on a waiver that made me responsible for the bike to the sum of AED70,000 (no insurance on track) and negotiate with Jarka, his lovely wife for release of the keys, I quickly installed myself in the remarkably comfortable seat and we were off. OK, so not quite the guilt free, total lack of responsibility I was hoping for, but just have to really ensure I keep it rubber side down then.
Initial perceptions while exiting the pit garage were mixed, as my brain was trying to re-boot the long lost Superbike program, buried somewhere deep down in my riding database. But it’s a bike, so wind open the throttle, crank it, bank it and eventually after about 3 laps it all started to come together.
The hardest part was my old knees getting used to the tucked in position, but oh boy is this a precision machine. Gone are the days of having to set up a Ducati with half a laps warning to get it to flow perfectly from entry, to apex, to exit. Nope just tip it in and it steers like a laser guided missile. In fact it is hard to remember just how many years it has been since so many apex’s where so easily clipped, the 899 simply flatters your riding like no other bike I have ever ridden. The engine power was more than I could have hoped for out of the meagre 899cc’s on tap, in my excitement several gear down-changes were forgotten, but the torque of the motor never failed to dig me out and flatter my ham fisted attempts to string together a fast lap or two. But, then there is the electronics package.
As many who know me can attest in certain ways I could be accused of being a Luddite, with a love of Old School, where the drivers hand or foot is ABS and his wrist or other foot is the Traction Control (TC). But I also do appreciate the leaps and bounds that technology is taking to make our toys more user friendly, reliable and dare I say safer.
My first session on the 899 saw me gradually picking up pace to the point that on entry to most corners the ABS was kicking in gently for the last 50 meters of braking and while in some ways this seemed a good thing it could be a little distracting and I always suspected I was nowhere near the grip limits of the tyres. Likewise exiting every corner on feeding in the throttle, the TC light would blink and power was restricted to match the TC’s idea of what was appropriate to the situation.
My inner geek found exploring and trying to understand the ABS and TC envelopes truly fascinating, but it seemed to just take the edge off the bike, made it seem a little Decaffeinated and seriously who really loves Decaf. So brilliant engine, amazing handling, brakes that never failed to feel perfect, but all a little decaf for this Luddite. End of story then, well not quite.
Back in the pits after 15 laps or so, regaling my perceptions and opinions to Martin and anyone else bored enough to listen. Martin politely pointed out that the ABS was really on the wrong setting for the track and instead of Sport Mode, I should be using Race Mode. Well no other option than to go out again and just check whether that made any difference, would seem rude not to. So out I went again and what can I say, but caffeine had been added by the bucket load.
At 90% of this authors ability the 899 seemed to be identical to the previous session, but step it up a knotch towards the top end of my commitment level and it was like riding a different bike. I do love a pinned, precise front end, with the ABS in Race Mode, it felt like just the best front end you could ever wish for, pin sharp, confidence inspiring and requiring so little effort. No idea if the ABS kicked in at all in RACE Mode and as I was riding a little bit conservatively, was not willing to test it to the limits imposed by my 70K waiver or sense of self protection. But what was most tangible, was that I was braking about 40meters later than with the ABS in Sports mode. A quick 10 laps or so and I totally fell for this brilliant (sic) little bike.
My biggest mistake of the day was stepping back on the Streetfighter after the 899 session. Now the ‘fighter is a great handling bike by any standards, but after stepping off the Pani, it felt like going back a dozen years in bike development. Yes it was just a matter of recalibrating the old CPU to the different inputs and several laps later normal programming resumed, but a little of my heart was left behind with the new machine. Guess that’s progress for you.
In summary then, much as all the other Panigale 899 reviews will attest, it is simply more Superbike than most people will ever need. The 899 flatters you, stops you testing the laws of physics too easily, smooth’s out your kak-handedness and simply makes you a better rider. Anyone who thinks they can need or do justice to the 1199 Panigale had better have a few seasons of racing under their belt or an innate need to go slower everywhere except in a straight line.
As far as this dinosaur is concerned, the 899 only has one flaw, on this bike you will never learn to brake to lock up and feel the front end chirping away, just before you tip in to a corner. You will never learn to ride to the slide, spinning up the rear tyre controllably on exit and of course sometimes uncontrollably and expensively. Wonderful skills, that definitely come under the category of the older I get, the faster I was, but gravity sucks and usually hurts, a bit of protection is perhaps not a bad thing at all.
Big thanks to all at Ducati UAE and to the DOC organisers for a fantastic day.
‘All images supplied’