Now you can ride the same Ducati superbike as factory WSBK riders Chaz Davies and Alvaro Bautista
Story by: Alan Cathcart
Photos by: Milagro/Gigi Soldano and Thomas Maccabelli
For the first time ever in the past 31 years since the World Superbike Championship (WSBK) began in 1988, there were no twin-cylinder motorcycles of any kind on the grid when the WSBK series kicked off on the Phillip Island Circuit in Australia last February. It was a watershed moment for Ducati, as there wasn’t a Desmo V-twin Ducati on the track. In addition, all the bikes on the grid now have one-litre engines for the first time since 2008, when the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) lifted the capacity ceiling for twins to 1,200 cc versus 1,000 cc fours.
Ducati finally has ended its line of Desmo V-twin racers. Their history stretches back to 1972, when Paul Smart won the Imola 200, the Italian manufacturer’s debut race with a 750-cc Desmo V-twin. Fourteen World Superbike titles later – the last of them won as long ago as 2011 by Carlos Checa with a 1098R – Ducati has now finally produced a four-cylinder model for Superbike racing, closely based on its Desmosedici V4 MotoGP contender, originally introduced back in 2002, with the latest version (on which Andrea Dovizioso has been runner-up in the past two MotoGP World Championships to the Márquez/Honda duo).
That Desmosedici technology was already brought to the mass production marketplace one year ago with the Panigale V4 S. However, that bike’s 1,103 cc motor made it ineligible for Superbike racing. But at the 2018 EICMA Milan show, Ducati unveiled its first-ever four-cylinder street-legal superbike – the 998 cc Panigale V4 R. WSBK homologation rules place a price cap in the country of origin for homologated models, which must be fully street legal as well as have a minimum of 125 bikes built before the first race, 250 by the end of the first year and 500 by the end of Year 2.
Production of the V4 R began in January, prior to the Phillip Island race. The V4 R is Ducati’s most powerful customer road bike yet, delivering 221 hp on a bike 172 kg dry weighing for a power/weight ratio of 1.28. Add on the racing kit, which includes an Akrapovič race exhaust, and power rises to 234 hp and dry weight is reduced to 165.5 kg.
But Ducati doesn’t regard the V4 R as a limited edition special like the 500-off Superleggera, which sold out immediately in 2017 despite its $85,000 price tag and half the number of cylinders. “We anticipate building at least 1,000 examples of the V4 R in 2019,” says Paolo Quattrino, Ducati’s product manager,. “While, of course, it’s a very expensive model, we believe that the high level of technology and the outstanding performance will attract many customers – not only committed ducatisti, but we hope to conquest customers from other brands. So this will not be a limited edition model.” The price in Canada is set at $47,995.
Just three weeks after the Panigale V4 R’s début at EICMA, Ducati allowed a few privileged journalists – just a dozen of us from all over the world – to join factory WSBK riders Chaz Davies and Alvaro Bautista for a day aboard the bike at the Circuito de Ángel-Jerez circuit in the sunny south of Spain. Well, that was the idea, anyway, but the day did not start well – rain, mist and a wet track. But soon after midday the track dried up, and so that afternoon I spent 35 laps aboard the V4 R gradually becoming more and more impressed by it. This is quite a motorcycle.
While the V4 R shares the same technical basis as the more prosaic but still super-performing V4 S, the V4 R is a very different motorcycle to ride. First, of course, because of the engine, which has a bore and shorter stroke combination of 81 x 48.4 mm – as opposed to 81 x 53.5 mm for the V4 S, (an 81 mm cylinder bore is the largest diameter allowed for Superbike racing) – the V4 R has a greater appetite for revs, even before the adoption of a 1.1 kg-lighter backward-rotating forged steel crankshaft and titanium “conrods” and 34 mm intake valves (with 27.5 mm steel exhaust valves). These features not only lift the rev limiter to 16,500 rpm in top gear (16,000-rpm red line in other ratios), but also allow the V4 R to pick up revs harder and faster when exiting a turn. That’s aided by the same Twin Pulse firing order as on the D16 MotoGP bike, obtained via a 70-degree crank pin offset with a 90-degree V4 cylinder angle, with the two left cylinders essentially firing closely together, followed by the two right ones in a 0 degree, 90 degree, 290 degree and 380 degree firing order, respectively. This makes the V4 R sound just like the MotoGP Desmosedici V4, complete with the same chilling high-pitched but hollow-sounding roar from the dual exhausts, which you’re very well aware both when riding the bike and standing trackside.
Yet, despite breathing through a quartet of huge elliptical throttle bodies (equal to 56 mm in diameter), the Desmo V4 R engine is highly tractable, even friendly, in the way it makes power. You honestly could imagine riding this bike to the corner store – the engine pulls so cleanly from low down, barely off the 1,500 rpm idle speed, with zero transmission snatch and only a little use of the relatively light action, dry slipper clutch. Yes, for the first time in many years, the trademark Ducati rattle of the clutch plates kissing each other at low revs is back, without the oil bath they’d otherwise be sitting in to quiet them down.
Power builds in a totally linear way until just above 8,500 rpm, when things start to happen a lot faster. That’s when this small V4 engine sends you catapulting forward even faster than the V4 S, its big sister, does, while still delivering an enormously broad power band – meaning you end up holding second and third gear for long stretches on the track. Davies says he uses only four of the six gears on his race bike at the Jerez track.
The race-pattern power shifter naturally works without the clutch in both directions, although I had to remember to be quite forceful in selecting bottom gear for the slow Curva Lorenzo final hairpin that leads into the pit straight. In the hairpin, I got a false neutral going from second to first half a dozen times, although maybe this would be less of an issue with more mileage on the gearbox to loosen it up. Either that or use second gear, as Davies does.
Power Keeps Building
From 13,000 rpm onward, the variable-length intake funnels lift to shorten the intake paths, so that the higher-lift race-spec camshafts can do their work. You honestly don’t feel this transition – and knowing it was there, I did look for it, but there’s no trace of any steps in the power delivery. Instead, there’s just a strong, relentless build of revs and the power they deliver – and this was with the Akrapovič titanium race exhaust system fitted to all four of our test bikes. One presumes the stock Euro 4-compliant street exhaust is even friendlier in its function. What’s more, my test in Race mode out of the choice of three available
(Sport and Street are the other two) all of which deliver full power, but with different degrees of response.
The V4 R motor builds speed very quickly, pulling irresistibly rather than explosively, but with a huge sense of purpose until an orange shifter light appears at 14,500 rpm across the top left of the five-inch TFT dash (same as on the V4 S), then a red one on the right at 15,000 rpm. The high revs are made possible by the absence of valve springs on this Desmo engine, allowing the use of a more radical camshaft design alongside the lightweight internals and reduced friction from items such as the two-ring ultra-slippery forged aluminum pistons that deliver the high 14:1 compression ratio – another reason for the V4 R’s super-strong drive out of turns.
There’s no hard cutout when you reach the rev limiter – the ride-by-wire digital throttle simply tools down and stops pulling. Below that, the famed nirvana of a direct connection via the throttle pickup between your right hand and the rear Pirelli slick (fitted for my test) is very much present. Despite there being so much power and such extremes of performance on tap, this is a super-controllable motorcycle with well-controlled power delivery, even when ridden in something approaching anger on a race track.
Built-In Optimized Flex
Then there’s the handling. Basically the V4 R’s black-painted cast aluminum abbreviated twin-spar chassis is the same so-called Front Frame design as on the V4 S, but with less metal behind the steering head to deliver a little more flex – a.k.a. optimized stiffness. (WSBK regulations allow the addition of material to the frame, but not the removal of any.) That’s important for Davies and Bautista, but less so for the likes of us, so it wasn’t so tragic that the test bikes weren’t yet equipped with this frame configuration, which is yet to be manufactured in volume for production. But the geometry is identical between the two frames – the only difference is in the degree of flex and, of course, a small amount of weight. The single-sided cast aluminum swingarm delivers a seemingly rangy 1,471 mm wheelbase, despite which the V4 R likes to wheelie under hard acceleration, and there’s now a choice of four positions for the swingarm pivot in two mm increments.
The Öhlins Smart EC 2.0 suspension found on the V4 S is missing from the V4 R, because electronic suspension is banned from WSBK. Instead, the V4 R features a mechanically adjusted TiN-coated 43 mm Öhlins NPX 25/30 pressurized gas fork that is 0.6 kg lighter than the V4 S’s and combines well with the Öhlins TTX-36 rear shock to deliver a huge amount of confidence and feedback that is coupled with a sense of agility I wasn’t prepared for from the V4 R’s chassis package. However, having been fortunate enough to test ride every single factory World Superbike machine year-over-year between 1988 and 2015, the V4 R’s practically dainty handling strongly reminded me of the 750 cc Castrol Honda RC45’s steering. (That latter bike was the one that John Kocinski rode to his win of the World Superbike title in 1997.) The 90-degree V4 Honda superbike combined two often mutually exclusive traits: agility and stability. And the Ducati V4 R also encompasses that in a similar format, but in a much more powerful package. Despite the V4 R’s long wheelbase, the bike was easier to change direction on than any Desmo V-twin superbike I’ve ridden.
On-Track Riding Impression
The new Ducati hugged a line really well even under hard acceleration, and although Jerez isn’t an ideal circuit to test a bike’s ability to switch from side to side very quickly – except at turns 2 and 3 – the V4 R seemed both agile and quickly responsive to steering input. However, I suspect the reason it steers so well isn’t so hard to figure out – the compact build of the 90-degree V4 engine centralizes the mass of the bike, and having that right-angle cylinder layout means that the bike has a lower centre of gravity. That’s because there’s room to sink the throttle bodies down between the cylinders in a way that couldn’t be done on Max Biaggi’s and Stephane Guintoli’s taller, tighter-angle 65-degree V4 Aprilia (with which they won the World Championship three times); the Ducati V4 R engine reminds me of the Aprilia in terms of power delivery characteristics with that broad spread of torque.
The large 330 mm twin front disc brakes and the lighter, more sculpted, latest-spec four-piston Brembo Stylema one-piece radial calipers, exclusively developed for the V4 R, do a phenomenal job of stopping the bike hard from high speed with great sensitivity and no hint of grabbing. But there’s also a nice degree of engine braking still left dialled into the settings for the STM ramp-style slipper clutch.
All this means you have heaps of confidence in keeping up turn speed in a corner like the off-camber third-gear sweeping right-hander at Jerez, named after Sito Pons, which leads into the back straight. You can feel via your fingertips how well the front Pirelli tire is gripping the tarmac – a confidence that may perhaps be derived from the winglets fitted to the bike. These are the first-ever features found on a customer streetbike and are derived from the 2016 type used by Ducati in MotoGP before the regulations were changed to make them less intrusive visually (albeit apparently less functional).
However, the winglets on the V4 R don’t suffer from that handicap, and in delivering greater downforce on the front wheel at high speed – 16 kg at 200 km/h and 30 kg at 270 km/h, says Edoardo Lenoci, Ducati’s aerodynamics engineer – they undoubtedly play a role in both maximizing front tire grip and rider confidence. When you sit up and brake for a turn, you can just see the winglets peeping out from either side of the new fairing design. This bodywork also features a more tightly domed 34-mm taller screen, which together result in increased rider protection, although I must admit that at busy, twisty Jerez, the most time I spent tucked down behind it was about four seconds per lap! Motorland Aragon or Phillip Island would be a different matter.
The revamped bodywork also includes large gill-like openings in each flank, a consequence of which the radiators can dissipate their heat much more efficiently. According to Lenoci, these vents increase airflow through the radiator and oil cooler by as much as 6 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. As well, the intake apertures in the nose of the fairing are much larger than on the V4 S for deeper breathing at higher revs. Form follows function.
The V4 R’s Bosch electronics package featuring a 6-axis IMU offers everything from a lap timer to launch control, including cornering ABS, pit lane speed limiter (adjustable from 40 km/h to 80 km/h, so good for avoiding speeding tickets), DWC wheelie control, DTC EVO traction control, DSC slide control, EBC/engine braking control, etc.
The DWC could have worked better – I had a couple of big-time power wheelies when shifting into third gear from second at just the wrong point in the rev range – but the DTC was particularly effective, repeatedly intervening gently but effectively in one session in which the rear Pirelli had started to wear after countless laps. Ducati has lots of experience in how to map this properly – and it shows.
Ducati also has a lot of experience in how to build Superbike racers that have lights. This is the latest model – and the best yet by some way. I predict that despite the high price, Ducati will sell the 1,000-plus bikes of the V4 R it will produce with some ease because the company is delivering a unique level of street legal performance from a WSBK-series production motorcycle…