The Imola circuit, even on the best of days, is hardly what you would call an easy track. According to Ducati’s test rider, it’s fast, undulating, demanding, and at times, dangerous because of the differing levels of grip throughout the circuit.
On that one fateful weekend in 1994, Rubens Barrichello went airborne, Roland Ratzenberger had a fatal crash during Saturday’s qualifying, and Ayrton Senna suffered a fatal accident on Sunday’s race day. Faced with this and the task of evaluating Ducati’s latest superbike, I naturally wanted to accord the track due respect (which is quite a lot). Then it decided to rain.
To make matters worse, a giant poster of Ayrton Senna graces the entrance to the circuit – serving as a reminder of how even driving gods can get caught out by this unforgiving circuit.
Thankfully, Ducati’s new 899 Panigale “baby superbike” is (according to the brochure, at least) a scaled-down version of the 1199 Panigale, promising to be “fast but not intimidating”.
Where the flagship 1199 Panigale’s 195bhp might prove a handful for less experienced riders, the 899 is for riders wanting a more accessible route to Italian superbike ownership, both in handling and pricing. The watered-down nature of the 899 does take some shine away from said ownership, but its price and power are intended to make it appeal to a larger pool of riders, so trade-offs are inevitable.
To keep costs down, steel (instead of lighter aluminum and plastic) is employed for components such as the sub-frame and fuel tank, though the 899 still gets an aluminium monocoque frame.
But the most noticeable differences are the absence of the 1199’s sexy single-sided swing-arm and multi-coloured digital dashboard. That more “budget” construction means the 899 weighs 5kg more than its bigger brother, but is 5kg lighter than the bike it replaces, the 848.
Fortunately, we still get the same electronic riding aids as on the 1199, including Ducati’s eight-stage traction control system, ABS, “quick-shifter” (allowing for clutchless, full-throttle upshifts) and Engine Brake Control (EBC), which balances the torque forces acting on the rear tyre to optimise stability during fast corner entry.
Also carried over from the 1199 are the selectable riding modes, which dial up or down throttle response, rein in power, and set higher or lower thresholds for EBC and ABS settings accordingly.
An unexpected, though no less welcome, riding aid on the day came in the form of race-spec rain tyres, courtesy of Ducati’s racing tyre supplier Pirelli, whose factory is just a few kilometres away from the circuit. It wasn’t exactly a substitute for sunshine and dry tarmac, but in these circumstances, I’ll take all the help I can get.