The Ultimate Ducati Superbike Comparison: From the 916 to the Panigale V4 S
Measuring the Ducati Panigale V4 soul against its ancestors
Riding the Ducati Panigale V4 S is quite a trip, as the experience is nothing short of relentless. There’s power everywhere, and if ever there was a machine to remind us that we, the riders, are the limiting factors in performance, this is it. By now there has been quite a lot written about the Ducati Panigale V4 S on the digital pages of Motorcycle.com. From our First Look of the bike a year ago, to Kevin Duke’s subsequent First Ride Review, we’ve then gone on to put it on the dyno against its natural rival, the Aprilia RSV4 RF, followed by a full-on showdown between the two Italians on both the street and the track. Hell, despite some of its shortcomings, we even gave the Panigale V4 S our 2018 Motorcycle of the Year award!
Through it all, though, there’s been a question lingering in the back of our collective minds: Now that Ducati has retired its venerable V-Twin for superbike duty, does the V4 still have the same character – the same DNA – as its V-Twin ancestors before it?
Enter Shahin Alvandi. A dyed-in-the-wool Ducatisti, he was (past tense, as he’s since moved on to a position outside the industry) also an integral part of the sales team at Portland, Oregon-based MotoCorsa, the top-selling Ducati dealership in North America several years running. Our paths first crossed several years ago, when riding with Michael Czysz in what would be one of his final times on a motorcycle. Alvandi and I would catch up and shoot the proverbial sh*t from time to time, when one day the conversation took a turn I never could have expected.
“When are you coming back to Portland?” he asked. A city I enjoy visiting, I told him I’d love to come back, but I needed a reason. Especially if it included riding at Portland International Raceway again. Like a true salesman, he left the onus on me to demand my terms. That’s when I hit him with my hail mary idea, thinking there’d be no way we could pull this off. I typed back: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could get all the past Ducati V-Twin superbikes together to see if the new V4 has the same DNA?”
“I think I can make that happen,” was the response. With my jaw firmly on the floor, I pressed for details. Little did I realize, Alvandi was also the president of the Ducati Owner’s Club of the Pacific Northwest – meaning he’s very well connected. “Let me make a few calls, but I think we can do it,” he said. Did I also mention Shahin was also an awesome guy? Anyway, when an opportunity this big presents itself, you make sure not to let it slip. Over the course of several weeks I’d check in just to make sure the dream was still alive and Alvandi would always reply in the affirmative. The only change in course was MotoCorsa switching the venue for its trackday to The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington. No matter, learning a new track is fun.
With plane tickets booked there was no turning back now, and when we arrived at The Ridge we were greeted by six Italian supermodels: The iconic 916, a 999, 1098, 1199 Panigale, 1299 Panigale, and of course, the Panigale V4 S. Before you cry foul, yes, we know the 851/888 is missing – but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Unfortunately, every lead on a Ducati 851 or 888 fell through, and even though one almost presented itself at the 11th hour, it wasn’t a runner anyway. Turns out, running examples of late-’80s Ducatis in the PNW are increasingly difficult to find. Nonetheless, the collection we had in front of us all have a storied history within Ducati, and what we wanted to find out was whether the new V4 S had that same pedigree. Where to begin? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
The legendary 916
Obviously, having the 851/888 would have really made this retrospective complete, but if we had shown up and not seen a 916, 996, or 998 around, there really would have been no point in continuing. That’s how important the 916 is to the Ducati superbike story. The history, significance, folklore, and racing success of the 916 family are well written about. What’s not as easy to come across these days is what a motorcycle like the 916 – which is over two decades old – is like to ride (it’s not like internet reviews for the 916 are readily available). Luckily for us people like Daniel Mester exist, because he loaned us his personal 916 to flog around the track. Not only that, but he also encouraged us to ride it in anger!
Before even turning on the key to the 916, a couple things stood out. First was how light and narrow the 916 felt. Originally, I thought there wasn’t any gas in the tank! Second was the forward reach to the bars I’d heard so much about on older Ducatis – a touring bike this definitely was not! Thumb the starter and you’re sent back in time to an analog world. First you hear the dry clutch clang away in its signature style, then you notice the basic needle-over-numbers speedo and tach vibrating away within their foam-cushioned mounts. When you eventually get over the aural sensation of the mechanical circus happening underneath you, twisting the grip and squeezing levers come next. The march of time is immediately clear at this point – the throttle is extremely stiff and so is the clutch lever.
None of this matters once you’re finally spinning wheels down the racetrack. Cautious to bring the nine-year old Michelin Pilot Power tires up to temperature, the first lap or two is more like a procession than a spirited ride, but already I can tell the V-Twin power is healthy on the bottom and mid. Stretching actual throttle cables brings back a certain sense of feel and linearity missing with today’s motorcycles. You’ve gotta be quick and deliberate when rowing through the gears – do it right and clutchless upshifts are smooth as glass. In an age before slipper clutches, rev-matching for each downshift is also critical. You’re engaged aboard the 916. It depends on you for everything.
The dependence goes both ways, as its racing pedigree comes out once the pace picks up. Flick the bike to its side and the 916’s trellis frame is nearly telepathic in communicating what the entire chassis is doing. At no point is there any question where either wheel is or what it’s doing next. Chassis feel is the epitome of confidence inspiring, and this is on tires nearing their tenth birthday! Despite the old tires, the 916 handles as well – if not better than – some modern machinery.
Of course, the new stuff does hold an advantage in some key areas. The 916 is sluggish when changing direction compared to its modern siblings, as you really need to use some muscle to move from side to side. Then, getting the beautiful Italian slowed is an eye-opening moment if you’re only used to new bikes; the initial bite is far removed from what we’d see on today’s brakes, and the stopping power matches. For someone used to the immediacy of modern braking, the 916 (or at least this particular one) will remind you of its age.
Lastly, the 916 pales in comparison to its modern brethren when talking about speed. Blasting down The Ridge’s ½-mile straight on the 916 is quick, but not fast, with pace matching that of today’s 600cc sportbikes. However, put yourself in 1994 and it definitely feels quick for its day. While the 916 is generally revered for its outward appearance, the 916 is a treat to ride because it demands the rider be involved in every action and input.
999: Ducati’s red-headed stepchild
Poor Pierre Terblanche. What in the world do you do when you’re tasked with designing the successor to the most iconic motorcycle ever? If you’re Terblanche, you try for something different – and well… we all know how that turned out. With its rounded, swooping lines, stacked circular headlights, and double-sided swingarm, about the only aesthetic elements the 999 shared with its 916/996/998 predecessors is the undertail exhaust and the red paint.
Not long after it debuted in 2003, it received mixed emotions from press and Ducati fans alike. Which is too bad because, from a performance standpoint, the 999 was every bit the superior to the 916 trilogy. It’s obvious advantage was its larger 998cc engine (999cc in the R model), but updates to the chassis and brakes put the triple-nine a notch above.
The debate about the 999’s place in history can go on and on, but that’s not our focus here. Instead, we turn to the former Motorcyclist Magazine E-i-C, Brian Catterson (now the man slinging used bikes at MotoCorsa). He rode the 999 when it came out, and now one sits in his garage at home. He, too, was kind enough to let me ride his, and straight away there were both plenty of similarities, and obvious differences.
Had I not known any better, sitting on the 999 is very similar to the 916. Both are narrow, though the 999’s seat feels wider than the 916. Once underway the differences are apparent. Immediately noticeable is the stark contrast in throttles. Where the 916 is stiff, the 999 throttle was light, with revs willing to soar in an instant. Continuing the technical superiority theme, the 999 simply feels faster in every way compared to the 916, because it is: The 999 got the new Testastretta engine, first seen in the 998 produced from 2002 to 2004. That same desmodromic V-Twin roar remains, as does the linear power delivery, there’s simply more of it. Where the 916 felt like a modern 600cc four-cylinder sportbike, the 999S we got to sample rivaled the power of a 750cc Four (ironic, given World Superbike rules at the time for both Twins and Fours were capped at 1000cc).
Like the 916, the 999 provides levels of communication and feedback while leaned over that many modern machines can’t match. Simply put, the 999 is one of the best handling motorcycles I can remember riding in recent memory, inspiring gobs of confidence to push your limits. Which is a good segue to…
The 1098: Where power and handling meet
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to the 1098. The good news is that Sean Boles was nice enough to let us borrow his 1098S. The bad news, unfortunately, is we never got to ride it; long story short, his aftermarket rearsets broke. You kinda need those to ride a motorcycle.
Fortunately, my time riding a 1098R – the very first production motorcycle with traction control – a decade ago are still clear in my head. There was no escaping the sound of Ducati’s signature booming V-Twin with Termignoni pipes, as the clatter filled the air. Once underway the enormous torque was impossible to ignore. Granted, the R version of the 1098 stuffed an 1198cc Twin between the frame spars compared to the 1099cc of the standard 1098, but the impressions still remain.
Yet again, the 1098 was a clear step forward from the machine it replaced. Short shifting through the gears to take advantage of the engine’s bottom and mid-range blasted you down the tarmac with the front wheel barely skimming the ground. Grabbing those monster Brembos brings the world back into view quickly. But again, lost in the hype surrounding the engine is the underappreciated strength of the 1098’s awesome chassis. I clearly remember riding the 1098R for the first time, and within a session feeling nearly invincible. I knew exactly where the front tire was and what it was doing. The feeling was incredible.
Of course, we can’t talk about the 1098 without mentioning the elephant in the room: its styling. After feeling the backlash from the 999, Ducati designer Giandrea Fabbro played it safe with the 1098, modernizing several design elements from the 916. The stacked headlights were gone, individual exhausts under the tail were back, as was the single-sided swingarm. The 1098 (and its successors) all look like an evolution of the 916. That’s no coincidence.
The 1098 eventually made way for the 1198 which, technically, shares the basic engine from the 1098R with lower-spec components. It would be the last of the trellis frame design.
Enter the Panigales
A huge shift in the motorcycle landscape, the “frameless” monocoque design of the Ducati 1199 and 1299 Panigale drew a lot of buzz. Using the engine as the main stressed member was a big risk, especially considering none other than Valentino Rossi couldn’t make the concept work at the MotoGP level. Nonetheless, what the 1199 and 1299 offered was the signature Ducati V-Twin power, exotic styling, and now a growing number of electronic aids. Even though the 1098R introduced traction control to the masses, the Panigales really were the turning point between analog and digital.
We’ve written about the 1199 and 1299 here at MO extensively. Having a chance to ride these back-to-back with the 916 and 999 reveals a not insignificant shift in the Ducati superbike landscape. An obvious theme with the trellis-framed machines was how well they handled, with feedback and precision still admired today. That obsession with pinpoint accuracy is missing when riding the 1199 and 1299 Panigales.
Don’t mistake this as calling the 1199 and 1299 poor-handling sportbikes – far from it – they simply require a different riding style. With so much power ready at a moment’s notice, the 1199 and 1299 don’t have the same feel and feedback leaned over as their ancestors, but instead rely on massive grunt to power out and launch to the next bend. All the while the traits that define Ducati character – the vibration, the noise, the experience – are all relatable to the 916. But how does it relate to the the new kid on the block?
The V4 experience: Spiritual successor or fraudulent phony?
Which brings us to the Panigale V4 S. If you’re not convinced the 1199 and 1299 signal the switch to the digital age, then the V4 S erases any doubt whatsoever. A bright TFT dash is in your face, with graphics and icons we couldn’t imagine 20-something years ago. There are buttons and knobs everywhere. Even the fork caps have wires sticking out of them – what kind of sorcery is this? The V4 S mesmerizes as a technological tour-de-force in 2018 in much the same way the 916 wowed the masses with its combination of aesthetics and performance.
The V4 now has something resembling a quasi frame, with two little spars (one on each side) cradling the engine. Then, of course, there are the two extra cylinders between the rider’s legs. It’s fitting the 1103cc displacement doesn’t fit within any sanctioning body’s regulations – an homage to an age when Ducati’s twins were given displacement advantages over the Fours, perhaps – though the recently unveiled Panigale V4 R finally brings a class-legal Ducati four-banger to World Superbike.
As a styling exercise, the Panigale V4 S is difficult to distinguish against the backdrop of the 1199 and 1299. You really have to look closely to tell them apart. I personally find this disappointing, but it should have been my clue all along that the V4 is a nod to the future that pays respect to the past.
This is clear the moment you thumb the starter. Push it, and it sounds like… a Twin!? Clearly no coincidence, the Twin Pulse firing order allows the two left side cylinders and two right cylinders to fire close together, mimicking a Twin. Out on track, the V4 S even behaves like a twin in many ways. Similar to the 1199 and 1299, the feel and communication while banked over doesn’t match the trellis frames of yore, but once it’s time to twist the grip, the torque and midrange punch you back in the seat. Unlike the Twins, which tend to sign off once the revs travel north, here the V4 blasts to another level, picking up speed with uncanny ability. The Earth is flying by so fast it’s all you can do to simply hang on and look where you want to go. Meanwhile, the V4 is roaring like the lion it is, announcing to the jungle who’s boss in a pitch reminiscent of a Twin, only more manic. It’s a different sensation than any of the others, yet there’s a feeling of familiarity about it all. The vibrations, sounds, and emotions can draw a line straight back to the 916, and likely the 851 before it.
The same, but different
Needless to say, this is a “test” unlike any other we’ve done at Motorcycle.com. It’s hard to nail down what gives a motorcycle character, but after riding the 916 then hopping on the Panigale V4 S, the two are quite different in terms of technology and performance, and yet there was no mistaking both as anything other than a Ducati. From their committed riding positions, to their distinctive sounds and nuances, a Ducati superbike does not suffer fools gladly whereas a Japanese sportbike might.
Moving from a trellis frame to the monocoque is a clear turning point for the superbike lineup; it’s with the Panigale series (1098R notwithstanding) that Ducati sacrificed extreme precision from its trellis frames and fully embraced brute strength in its engines, coupled with sophisticated electronics, to allow the rider to make up the time with their right wrist. So does the Panigale V4 S have the same DNA as the rest of the superbike line? Of course, and here’s why: Even though the newest Panigale has two more cylinders than its ancestors, all are linked through the V-Twin soul.
More by Troy Siahaan