Thank God for the late great Massimo Tamburini. Without him the world of Italian superbikes would certainly have been a lot less exciting. He is the man who made Italian bikes look as good as Italian women again when he gave the world the iconic Ducati 916 in 1994. Over time, the 916 spawned a smaller 748 as well, characterised by the trellis, the inverted forks and the single-sided swingarm that went on to become his signature. The current 959 Panigale, as you will find out, carries on Tamburini’s design legacy in more ways than one.
Back to the 916, this was the best-looking bike of its time, until old man Tamburini went to work again. This time at the ailing Italian firm MV Agusta and ended up creating the F4 750 in 1999, which was to be followed by the litre-class F4 in 2005. Here again we see the old cues come back – that trellis, the USDs and that single-sided swingarm. Cues that have been handed down to the F3 800 we see here.
So when we got our hands on both these motorcycles we promptly decided to pit one against the other. They have similar outputs and tonnes of electronic aids. They are also priced in the same territory and yet, knowing how temperamental Italians can be, they might just be as different as chalk and cheese.
The only way to decide though is to ride them back to back. The fact that we had an all access pass to the Kari Motor Speedway in Coimbatore meant good luck had suddenly turned into a lottery win. Mamma mia!
Ducati 959 Panigale
The genesis of the current 959 Panigale can be traced back to the Ducati 748, which remained in production for nearly nine years. Ducati followed it up with the 749, the 848 three years later, the 899 Panigale in 2013 and finally the 959 Panigale in 2015 when it was revealed in the run up to the EICMA.
Over the course of the 20 years that separate the 748 and the 959, there have been vast revisions to Ducati’s design philosophy and massive leaps in engineering prowess. The old trellis has now been scrapped, and like on the larger 1299, the 959 Panigale features an aluminium monocoque with the engine as a stressed member. The double-sided swingarm (the gorgeous single-sided unit is reserved only for the larger bikes) is mounted directly on to the engine. Yet, despite the obvious differences several cues from Tamburini’s original design carry on in the 959 as a nod to its illustrious predecessor.
When Ducati boss Claudio Domenicali unveiled the bike to an enthralled audience the evening before the EICMA, he was insistent that this was a sportsbike unlike others to have come out of Bologna. Daily usability was as much of a focal point in the presentation, as lap-times and Ducati’s racing heritage. This was to be the perfect stepping stone into the world of even (ahem…) larger superbikes. The 1299 Panigale, for instance.
True to his words, the riding posture on the 959 is less extreme than you would find on other similar machines. Make no mistake, it’s still extremely aggressive but the relation between the clip-on handlebars, seat and rearsets is such that your wrists and back will certainly suffer a little less, should you decide to ride the bike on the road instead of the track. A word of warning here, this is a tall bike with a saddle height of 830mm, which might make things slightly difficult for shorter riders. But once you get going, there will be no issues. Tucking in behind the bubble screen however is surprisingly easy.
Power comes from a liquid-cooled 955cc 90° V-twin (or as Ducati like to call it L-twin) that is rated for a peak power of 157bhp and max torque of 107.4Nm. While inputs from your right wrists are now managed by a ride-by-wire throttle, all of the engine’s output is sent to the wheel via a precise and slick shifting six-speed gearbox. To prevent rear wheel hop under aggressive downshifting, assistance is provided by the slipper clutch.
The engine gets three riding modes – Wet, where peak output is limited to 100bhp, Sport, where all 157 horses can be accessed but with slightly lesser intrusion from the Ducati Traction Control (DTC) and Race mode, where 157bhp is accessible via a wilder fuel map and ABS is completely switched off on the rear wheel. Those of you with delusions of having titanium balls can go ahead and try Race mode but for a noob like me, Sport is only as far as I can dream of. Apart from restricting the output the fuel map is such that more of the grunt is spread over a wider rev range. Also, both DTC and ABS are kept 100 per cent active to help you deal when things get slippery.
Past Wet mode, gingerly try your luck with Sport mode. The difference is instant and palpable as the engine’s full potential is unleashed while DTC becomes less intrusive. The fuel mapping is more aggressive too. Thankfully, the anti-wheelie function stays on, as does ABS.
I did try Race mode, under the mistaken assumption that the bike was in Sport, and quickly returned to the pits to reset it after a couple of unexpected nose-in-the-air followed by tail-out-of-line moments, once both occuring simltaneously. You see, apart from switching ABS off at the rear wheel, Race mode also switches off the anti-wheelie function.
The 959 gets the Ducati Quick Shift (DQS) system which allows you to keep the throttle whacked open while making clutchless shifts, both up and down. The DQS was very handy on Kari’s long straight where I could go through the ’box with hardly any movement and reach speeds that would scare my mother witless. The number therefore will be left out for the sake of her sanity. Love you, mom.
Suspension duties are taken care of by a 43mm USD BPF front fork while a Sachs monoshock is employed along with the aluminium alloy double-sided swingarm at the rear. The setup is fully adjustable to suit the rider’s needs, but needs to be done manually. To keep things stable on straights, the 959 gets a steering damper too. The 959 turns in quickly and easily. On the quick left-rights at Kari, it changes direction without effort. The 959 Panigale is forgiving and may let one slide over as long as you don’t repeat it once more.
The gorgeous 17-inch aluminium alloys are shod with super grippy Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres. The brakes too are great. The 320mm twin rotors with Brembo M4.32 monobloc four-piston calipers up front and the single 245mm disc with twin piston calipers at the rear do a fab job of stopping.
MV Agusta F3 800
If the Ducati is futuristic in all its ways, the MV is still very early 2000s. The F3 800 is a reflection of its bigger brother, the F4, which is another gorgeous Tamburini creation dating back to 1999. In any case the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ maxim works ninety-nine per cent of the time.
Even though it’s essentially a decade and a half old, that iconic design still evokes a sensual, erotic emotion with its pointed nose and the diamond-esque headlamp, tweaked a bit by one Adrian Morton for it to suit the smaller capacity engine. Since the 800 is an inline three, the exhaust pipes end just below the pillion’s right foot-peg. Just like it does on the naked Brutale 800 streetfighter. The fact that this bike was finished in the legendary silver and red paint scheme had every Ago fan in the team drooling like they needed bibs. Even the single-sided swingarm, which Tamburini was a staunch supporter of, has been retained and the rear wheel looks hot with the single nut-mounting construction.
The F3 is a no-nonsense machine that demands utmost respect and the highest levels of attention. Even though the saddle height is a good 25mm less than the 959 Panigale’s, the riding posture is meant only for serious riding. No respite for your wrists here. The single-billet aluminium triple clamp with the clip-on handlebars however looks super sexy.
The cubic capacity of the engine that started out life as a 675 now stands at 798cc in the F3 800 and is rated for a peak output of 148bhp and 88Nm of torque. Now, that may look like it’s a lot less than what you get on the 959 Panigale but make no mistake, the MV is the wilder of the two cats here. The three-cylinder layout of course is quite reminiscent of the Agustas of 1970s which scorched the premier class racing scene alight with none other than Giacomo Agositini at the helm.
Like the 959, the F3 also gets a quickshifter that allows clutchless upshifts and downshifts on the six-speed transmission. What the F3 does get over the 959 however is MV’s EAS 2.0 (electronically-assisted shift), which means gear shifts are quicker and smoother.
While I’m sure that they are evenly matched on velocities if you choose to measure speed or lap-times, the sensation of moving really fast is less muted on the F3 800. As a result, it’s the MV that feels more soulful as opposed to the technologically superior Ducati. And that characteristic in-line triple howl only heightens the senses.
Though the bike may be three years old, the F3 gets all the electronic aids to match the riding experience. But unlike the Ducati, you get tonnes of customisable options to suit your riding. The MVICS (Motor & Vehicle Integrated Control System) unit controls all the aids and you get four riding modes (Normal, Rain, Sport and Custom), eight levels of traction control and settings for initial throttle sensitivity, maximum torque output, engine response and engine braking. While it may amount to getting the purest riding experience you can get, the fine-tuning of each may ruin your track day and more importantly much of the rubber in the process.
The TC though isn’t as sophisticated as the DTC. While most bikes’ sensors take into account speeds at both ends of the motorcycle to maintain composure, the F3 relies only on the rear wheel speed sensor to predict slip and accordingly control the throttle response. The presence of Bosch’s 9 Plus ABS which houses a RLM (Rear wheel Lift-up Mitigation) prevents massive shudders during downshifts. The F3 just wants to lift its front end on most occasions, a taste of which I got as I was just getting to grips with the bike.
The front end of the F3 is light and sharp thanks to a 43mm Marzocchi USD front fork. The lack of a steering damper though is certainly amiss as the bike can be a bit too much to handle down a straight.
A Sachs damper is used on the rear aluminium alloy single-sided swingarm. Both of the suspension units are fully manually adjustable.
The F3 too comes shod with the same Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tyres, which performed excellently. Twin 320mm rotors upfront come with Brembo monoblocs, as seen on the 959. But the rear end gets a smaller disc size of 220mm dia, due to packaging constraints for the single-sided swingarm.
It’s a tough call really. How does one select between two bikes with such wildly divergent propositions? On one hand you have the technological marvel that is the Ducati 959 Panigale with its out-of-this-world monocoque chassis and Superquadro engine. It is powerful, capable and usable with looks to die for. On the other hand you have the evocative MV Agusta F3 800 with its offer of a more sensorial experience, brilliant dynamics, soulful nature and looks that you would happily kill for.
The casting vote then goes to the aspect of pricing strategy. And in the pricing round, the Ducati wins it fair and square with a sticker that puts it a couple of lakh of rupees below the MV Agusta. Honestly, speaking as though wishes were horses, I’d rather have both in my garage.