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Saving the Best ‘Til Last

July 5, 2017
ducati

“Created to provide quintessential performance.” That’s Ducati’s proclaimed axiom behind the development of this bike, and after riding it, I reckon its engineers have hit the bull’s eye

Photos by: Milagro/Thomas Maccabelli & Rudy Carezzevoli

It’s become a bit of a cliché to call something a mechanical work of art, but if ever a motorcycle deserved that accolade, it’s the Ducati 1299 Superleggera. Dripping in carbon fibre, replete with titanium and flaunting endless examples of technological innovation found on nothing else with two wheels and an engine, the whole clothed in bodywork of stunning beauty – this is the latest testament to Ducati’s ability to combine exquisite looks with a stellar level of performance sourced from winning countless races and championships.

The Superleggera was launched at the EICMA Milan Show last November as a limited edition model of which just 500 examples will be built. Unfortunately, if you were slow to put a deposit down on one via its dedicated website, you’ve lost out. At around C$85,000, all of them have been sold, and it’s said that 16 are coming to Canada.

Yet the 1299 Superleggera also marks a significant landmark in Ducati history, beyond its sheer unmatched excellence in conception and execution. For with the advent next year of the Italian firm’s first V4 superbike, this is the last of the line of the its series of desmo V-twin street-legal race bikes, the ultimate evolution of this unique format that has so far garnered 14 World Superbike rider’s titles and 15 manufacturer’s crowns, in winning 329 races to date in the past 30 seasons. It’s a line that began in 1974 with the debut of the green-frame 750SS, of which just 401 examples were ever made as a pretty close replica of Paul Smart’s Imola 200-winning factory desmo V-twin, just as the new Ducati 1299 Superleggera is to the factory F17 superbikes that are at the front of the field in WSBK competition. Actually, it’s even better chassis-wise, with a carbon fibre, semi-monocoque frame structure that saves 1.7 kg over the racer’s heavier aluminum equivalent. And it’s pretty close in engine performance, too, with a claimed 215 hp on tap at 11,000 rpm – 15 hp more than the Panigale R currently leading the FIM Superstock series.

Riding a 750SS Brands Hatch in 1975Having begun my racing career back in the mists of time as one of the 401 lucky owners of the aforementioned green-frame 750SS, which I had bought new in 1974, I still race in Classic F750 events on what is apparently the last such genuine bike to be used in something approaching anger on the racetrack. So for me, the honour – no other word for it – was especially meaningful to be one of only eight journalists from around the world invited to sample the 1299 Superleggera at the Mugello GP circuit just a couple of weeks before this year’s Italian MotoGP was held there. Riding this two-wheeled work of desmodromic art composed of magnesium, titanium, aluminum and carbon fibre – scaling a featherweight 178 kg ready to roll with a full 17-litre fuel tank – was an undoubted thrill.

The Ride

Settle aboard the Superleggera’s plushly padded 830 mm-high seat and you’ll encounter an unmistakably racy riding position, with quite a lot of your body weight on your arms and shoulders. Thumb the starter button and relish the muted sound of thunder from the tubone (big pipe!) race exhaust supplied free with the bike as part of the race kit that was fitted for my ride, which further increases power by 5 hp with its massive 80 mm-diameter collector pipe feeding into the twin silencers located under the seat.

Select first gear – and you’re off. That’s the last time you’ll need to touch the clutch lever before you return to the pits and stop this Ducati, for while the fitted auto-blipper system is switchable, you’d be crazy to turn it off, because it works so well. It delivers a seamless backshift in every gear without fingering the clutch lever, which means you can focus 100 per cent on hitting your braking markers and picking your turn-in for a given corner.

However, you don’t have to work the gear lever very hard on the 1299 Superleggera, and that’s because of the massive extra mid-range punch from this ultimate version of the Superquadro motor. It’s no longer critical to choose the right gear for each section of track to keep up momentum, as it is with the much-less-torquey 1199 Panigale. In fact, it’s better to use one gear higher in many places than you might otherwise think of doing, and hold that gear from way low to way high. I found I could lap the entire 5.245 km Mugello Circuit from the end of the kilometre-long main straight back to the start of it with just three gear changes. To convince myself I wasn’t being lazy, I checked the on-board lap timer in the Ducati Data Analyzer that’s included in the race kit, which you set with the flash button as you cross the start line, then leave the GPS mounted at the front of the bike to trigger each lap. A comparison between using the gears and revving the bike hard told me I was going faster the lazy way, which let me focus more on choosing a line and maximizing turn speed via the surprisingly flexible motor.

Catch the Wave

The Ducati 1299 SuperleggeraThe 1299 Superleggera starts to pick up engine speed a bit faster just above 5,000 rpm, and from there to its torque peak at 9,000 rpm, there’s a delicious wave of grunt that you look forward to surfing each time you catch it. Even after that peak has been reached, the mid-range torque doesn’t fall away – but it stops building and stays pretty much constant all the way to 11,000 rpm, at which point the orange shifter lights either side of the TFT dash will start to light up. They flash red at 12,000 rpm in the bottom five gears, telling you that you’re about to hit the 12,500 rpm soft revlimiter. Being a ride-by-wire digital throttle, there’s no engine cut-out – you just stop building speed and revs. But with the broad spread of power and torque of the 1299 Superleggera, there’s no need to rev it right out to the limiter, as on the smaller-cubed, less grunty 1199 Panigale. Just ride it like some sort of twist-’n’-go mega-scooter by holding third gear for most of the lap. The combination of Ducati Wheelie Control (DWC) set at level 4 and Ducati Traction Control (DTC) set at level 3 (both out of eight levels) delivered intoxicating drive out of turns, with the extra torque giving no hint of understeer. The Superleggera hugs a tight line as you wind on the revs, thanks to the new Ducati Slide Control (DSC) program, as well as the dialled-in chassis geometry and the sublime compliance of the Öhlins rear shock. Where you point the Superleggera is where it heads for. It’s an ultra-precise, predictable package that’s so enjoyable and rewarding to ride, with enhanced electronic rider aids making doing so even safer and more confidence- inspiring than before.

Reprogram Your Mental Mindset

Riding the Ducati 1299 SuperleggeraThe DSC lets you accelerate harder and earlier through a corner in a controlled drift, which in turn means you finish turning quicker and can thus nail the throttle wide open sooner, with the highly effective DWC doing its job of keeping the front wheel on the ground to avoid time-wasting wheelies. I’d like to tell you that I was doing this every lap at every turn, but working your mind up to doing this is a bit like convincing yourself that you can take a big handful of brake on the angle deep into a turn – it’s only when you break through the mental barrier of doing so just once and find you haven’t crashed that you’ve reprogrammed your mental mindset. Well, toward the end of my stint on the Superleggera, I was getting the hang of doing this at Palagio, the exit of the tightest of the chicanes and probably the slowest corner on the track. But I could honestly feel the rear Pirelli SC1 race tire starting to walk under me, without digging in and highsiding me, while at the same time avoiding running too wide for the exit. I can’t wait for the trickle-down effect to take place so I can try to improve my DSC technique on something that doesn’t cost $85,000 new, and a mountain of cash to fix crash damage! Hard though it is to ignore the extra…

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