Ducati, Sometimes It’s Like I Don’t Even Know You

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I had a good chuckle last week, you see one of my Facebook groups posted up some rumors they heard about the upcoming Ducati middleweight sport bike — namely that it would have a double-sided swingarm. “That’s ludicrous,” I said to myself, as I posted an even snarkier reply to the Facebook (oh sweet internet, how you bring the asshole out in all of us).

Hrmm…well, it appears I was wrong, as spy photos of the “Ducati 899 Panigale” surfaced just days later, and sure enough, there is a double-sided swinger bolted onto the Babigale™.

While it surely gets my goat that I was pie-in-the-face wrong on this rumor (on Facebook no less), what really grinds my gears was that the new model from Borgo Panigale flies in the face of my basic understanding of how Italy’s iconic motorcycle brand even thinks.

You see in motorcycling product cycle terms, it wasn’t that long ago that Ducati Motor Holding made the faux pas of debuting a massive revision of the Ducati aesthetic to motorcycles.

It was a crime against motorcycling, in the eyes of Ducatisti at least, and Pierre Terblanche was served a trial-by-fire for his Ducati 999 Superbike design, with its staked-headlight and double-sided swingarm being the biggest bones of contention.

As time has passed on, we can now recognize the Ducati 999 for the brilliance that it was, and with maybe even more duration, retrospect will show Terblanche to be just as much of the master as his mentor Massimo Tamburini.

Let’s be honest, the Ducati 916 and its progeny were a tough act to follow, but what Ducati and Terblanche failed to realize was just how massively conservative Ducati owners were when it came to the lines of their machines.

I have already argued that the 999 wasn’t as big of a sales flop as motorcycling’s gentry would have us believe, and I argue now that the machine will be as timeless of a piece as the 916 — but was it the right bike for Ducati at the time? Surely not, and the Ducati 1098 Superbike shows us that.

Call it pandering to Ducati’s core consumer, the Ducati 1098’s design was a direct response to the reaction of the Ducati 999. It was like someone took Tamburini’s 916, imagined what the maestro would have penned a decade later, and put that on the market — and to be frank, that is what Ducatisti were really expecting from Terblanche and Ducati all along — though whether that is right or wrong, I will let you decide.

Fast-forward in time to Ducati 1199 Panigale — Bologna has its groove back. The company has solidified its base, it made a bold, but calculated, entry into the adventure and cruiser segments, and was ready to go for the hat trick with a killer super bike design — something that’s easy to do in theory, but harder to do in practice.

“20 more horsepower, 10 less kilos” a voice whispered into my ear. Asphalt & Rubber was the first to report the two most important details of Ducati’s new superbike — a machine that would be sold on its peak horsepower figure, and dry weight mass.

Ducati had an ace up its sleeve, and it wasn’t until more information, spy photos, and rumors came forth that we knew how big of a step Borgo Panigale had taken with its namesake.

A “frameless” chassis, LED headlights, an alphabet soup of electronic systems, and of course more horsepower than had ever been seen before on a production Ducati superbike, not to mention it was the lightest machine on Ducati’s line-up at the time.

The gaff, if you can call it that, was Ducati knew what a winner it had on its hands, and raised the price accordingly (another tidbit A&R broke first, just saying).

Sales for the Ducati 1199 Panigale have been good — let’s remember that. But, they have not been great…they have not been the home run the Ducati had expected those many months ago.

Superbike shootouts with the Panigale rarely showed the Ducati as the victor (we would question the result of any test that did so), with the consensus being that Aprilia RSV4 and BMW HP4 were the better machines.

Another model year is now upon us, and while we expect Ducati to debut another exciting machine at EICMA later this year, we also expect some more minor bike releases as well — enter the Ducati 899 Panigale, or whatever its name is officially.

I expect to see this machine drop cover ahead of the November bike show in Milan, if for no other reason than it’s basically a 1199, only smaller (and thus, not the “big” release we’d expect at EICMA).

But that’s the point though, it’s not just an “1199, only smaller” bike — it’s missing one of the key elements we now associate with the Ducati brand, a single-sided swingarm.

It seems like a trivial thing really, after all unless you’re going endurance racing, a single-sided swingarm provides no benefit to the machine. But ah, it provides so much benefit to the soul, and that’s what Ducatisti are really after at the end of the day.

This is where I feel like I have lost my understanding of the Ducati brand. Didn’t the pushback from the 999 teach Ducati that there are certain elements we expect from the Italian brand when it comes from its motorcycle designs?

Doesn’t Ducati realize there are certain elements that its sport bikes must have in order to be accepted by the espresso bike night crowd?

Cost is surely playing a factor here; and if rumors of a 899cc displacement are true, then Ducati will certainly need to differentiate its now near-liter-bike sized “supersport” from its 1,200cc “superbike” counterpart (I could write even more pages about the displacement creep going on in the supersport category).

Beyond that, I just don’t get the decision here. The obvious expectation from Ducatisti was a very obtainable “X”, but Ducati has seemingly given us “X-1” instead.

I keep hoping to wake up from this dream, hoping to hear that this has all been an elaborate hoax — some photoshop mastery — because at least then I will feel like I understand what’s going on in the collective mind at Ducati HQ.

Until then…Chewbacca, it doesn’t make sense.

Photo: © 2011 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0