Hero worship is a funny thing. As I write this, I’m sitting in my office, sipping a beer, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a red, white, and blue #1 flanked with two words: Evel Knievel. Understand, I’m a 51-year old man who’s not overly prone to nostalgia, but one of the few items I miss from my childhood is my beloved Evel Knievel lunch box, which burned up in a house fire when I was ten. My Rosebud if you will. When I found this t-shirt in a shop in New Orleans a few years back, I snapped it up over the bemused chuckle of my wife, and as it's faded over the years, I feel like it’s catching up in wear-and-tear to me. When I wear it to the grocery store or Costco or some tony shop, inevitably I get knowing thumbs-up from other men of a certain age. Boys will never stop being boys. (LATE BREAKING NEWS: The Evel Knievel Museum opened last weekend!)
But heroes come and heroes go, and since the turn of the century, the motorcycle hero I’ve followed is one Nicholas Patrick “Nicky” Hayden, aka “The Kentucky Kid,” who blew onto the scene after winning the AMA title in 2002 and then transitioned to MotoGP with the Repsol Honda team the following year. In 2006, Hayden won the MotoGP title outright, beating out Valentino Rossi for the title at the final race. (For an astounding recount of that season, I highly recommend Rick Broadbent’s “Ring of Fire.”) Nicky jumped to the Ducati factory team in 2009, spent five seasons there, then moved back to a Honda team before leaving MotoGP for the production-based World Superbike Championship in 2016.
And then this past May, while on a bicycle training ride nearly Rimini, Italy, with other members of his team, Hayden was hit by a car and suffered severe injuries. He succumbed five days later. Hayden rode a motorcycle, any motorcycle, from dirt bikes to flat-trackers to road racing machines to MotoGP two-wheeled spaceships, with verve and flair and joy, and by all accounts, he was one of the true gentlemen in the racing paddock. The Kentucky Kid also happened to be the most successful American motorcycle racer of his era. He was, as they say, hero material.
And that brings me to this review, of the Ducati 1199 Panigale R, a bike for heroes if there ever was one.
I suppose I should be brutally honest up front. The Ducati 1199 Panigale R is a dreadful street bike. It bucks at low speeds, which means it bucks at pretty much anything even remotely legal. It barks and snorts and makes noise like an Al Pacino outtake reel. At stop signs and lights, or anywhere that demands civilized behavior, it handles in a tremulous manner. You sit tippy-toe high. It’s hot. It will not flatter you with niceties.
I love everything about it.
The Panigale R arrived in 2013 (the bike tested here is of that generation), and as with virtually all of Ducati’s R-bikes, it was intended as a homologation special to conform to World Superbike rules. Ducati has released a number of R-bikes over the years, with some notables being the 888SP2, 996R, 999R, and 1098R, all of which went on to significant use and success in the racing world. The “R” moniker isn’t used exclusively for homologation machines, as you can walk into your Ducati dealer and buy a lovely Monster R at this very moment, but the Superbikes that wear the badge have always tended toward the extreme.
The bike's motor begins life as the standard two-cylinder 1199S lump, but since this bike has racing intentions, Ducati equipped the R with titanium connecting rods and a lighter flywheel, which lets the bike build revs in a manner more closely associated with 4-cylinder bikes (a twin has massive pistons to turn over, remember) with the rev limiter raised from 11,500 to 12,000 rpm. The engine makes 195-hp at 10,750 rpm and 97.3 lb/ft of torque at 9000 rpm. At any speed, the bike never wants for power, the low-end torque between 3000 to 7000 rpm providing a visceral grunt virtually unknown to the V4s with which the R competes.
Ducati also equipped the Panigale R with numerous chassis upgrades to facilitate fine-tuning in a race paddock, including an adjustable swingarm pivot that allows for several millimeters tunable movement up and down, allowing racers to tune for squat and increased agility (which helps to manage tire wear over a race distance). This is not a feature with which riders who stick to the roads will ever likely experiment, but it speaks to the racing intentions of the machine. The bike also gets all manner of carbon fiber goodies, which not only look wonderful (the Italians do matte-finished CF better than anyone) but also save some weight.
To that point, the R tips the scales at 417-pounds wet (meaning full of fluids), which makes it one of the lightest liter-bikes on the market. The ultra-lightweight forged and machined three-spoke Marchesini wheels and Brembo M50 calipers also add to the significant weight reduction.
The Panigale R also happens to be achingly beautiful, the rolling embodiment of Italian design, powerful and taught and nipped and tucked, an expensive bike that looks expensive. And did I mention it’s red? I read an interview once with Flavio Manzoni, Ferrari’s Chief Designer, who happens to collect Ducati motorcycles. When asked why he collected Ducati bikes rather than Ferrari cars, he replied to the effect of, “Ducatis are Ferraris for people who can’t afford Ferraris.” I entirely get it (though I'm suspect of Flavio’s veracity about his financial capabilities). The Panigale R looks exotic sitting still, every component and weld and brake-line fastener lovely and purposeful and exotic. As a garage queen, it is nonpareil.
On startup, the Panigale R whines its high-tension starter whine then erupts with a bark. Ducati ships the R with a stock Panigale exhaust, but also includes a full Termignini race systems with a dedicated ECU mapping (the bike you see here was thus equipped). (Note: The current year's R bikes ship with an Akropovic race exhaust rather than the Termi.) To say that it’s loud does an injustice to decibel sensors; this bike will wound a rider not wearing appropriate hearing protection. But oh, what a sound! Hikers who have the misfortune to be hiking in Yellowstone at the moment the supervolcano erupts will hear a similar sound as their lives come to an end, a howling, barking, gravely gargle that ebbs and flows with rage and tension; Sam Elliot has likely already signed a retainer to voice the Panigale R in an upcoming Pixar “Cars” movie. It’s unlike any motorcycle I’ve ever heard.
The electronics are everything you'd expect from a top-spec superbike these days, and Ducati's LCD screen is bright and readable in all manner of light. (The way the background flexes from black to white depending on ambient light is both cool and useful.) The Panigale R comes with the latest gizmos that Ducati and its OEM partners can conjure, all with the express intent of both making you feel comfortable going faster but also preserving the rider and the bike. For fun, I opened the throttle more fully than prudent at one mid-corner and the DTC EVO system (think really fancy traction control) lit up the dashboard with all manner of blinky lights while it modulated traction and wheelspin to save me from myself. The bike never slowed, never jerked, just slid the rear Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP tire enough for me to feel it in my ass, then rocketed out of the corner with massive speed.
As mentioned, it’s not a particularly pleasant motorcycle to ride slow. (Ed: The next sentence was originally “So don’t ride slow!” but our lawyers made us take that out.) Even in Sport mode (rather than the type-A Race mode), the R’s fueling at lower revolutions is unhappy and bitchy, and low-speed handling is ponderous at best. Plan your rides accordingly, because this bike wants a track or at the very least a winding country road, where it comes alive. Once there, the race-tuning begins to make sense, the bike becoming flickable through transitions, aided not only by the low curb-weight but by the Öhlins suspension front and back, which provides immense feedback and progressive damping. The wide, clip-on handlebars aid turn-in and the rider geometry makes steering with your knees on the tank almost telepathic. The windscreen even does an admirable job of directing the wind at speeds north of 120 mph (or so, um, I guess, cough, cough). While the Panigale R isn’t as comfortable as, say, the Aprilia RSV4 Factory or BMW S1000RR, it’s not at all an uncomfortable perch (with the proviso that comfort is absolutely relative on superbikes in general).
The Panigale R isn’t for the faint of heart when it comes to pulling out your checkbook. At a list price of $35,000, the R is almost ten grand more expensive than the 1299S model it sits above in the lineup. That extra dough gets a bunch of extras, though, and perhaps even more importantly a whole lot of exclusivity. And since the 1199/1299 line is the end to the era of Ducati twin-cylinder bikes, with the inevitable four-cylinder superbikes arriving soon, collectability is certainly an element with the R. It’s special, in the way that taming any lightly-broken beast is special.
The Ducati Panigale R rewards commitment and skill; it’s the diametric opposite of the bike for beginners, and maybe most importantly it’s the kind of motorcycle that allows you to scratch your inner Nicky Hayden fantasies. And I would be massively fibbing if I didn't admit to that being one of the reasons I still wrap my middle-aged self around these kinds of rocketships. Get one while you can.