Like so many homologation specials before it, Ducati’s latest is fast, exclusive and oh-so desirable
Back in the golden era of world Superbike, Ducati – still a relatively small and responsive manufacturer in the 1990s – wreaked havoc on its Japanese rivals. If the Bologna factory needed to modify, say, the frame of its factory race machine, it’d quickly slip out a couple of hundred road-spec homologation specials, then turn up at the next race ready to go. Remember the 916 Foggy Rep of 1998? Or the 2001 Testastretta 996 R? They truly were racebikes with lights and throughly collectable today.
Well, Ducati is greater now and its homologation specials anything but rushed responses to Ducati Corse’s mid-season need for a step-up in performance, but Ducati lovers still drool and dream of getting their hands on one these rare race-ready road-going superbikes.
The 2023 Panigale V4 R from Ducati is the latest homologation special that exists solely to enable Ducati to win on the racetrack. It’s dominating in the hands of Alvaro Bautista on the world stage, and it’s shining in domestic series’, too, evidenced by Wayne Maxwell’s twin ASBK titles in 2020 and 2021 and Josh Waters’ early-season success in 2023.
Remove its lights and numberplate, add the optional titanium race system and a pair of slicks and it’s good to grid up in any FIM Superbike championship you’d care to mention. Every component, even its optional, ultra low-friction Shell engine oil, exists to win. You want to impress your mates down the pub with some figures? Well, with its optional race exhaust fitted the V4 R should be good for 174kW (233hp). Nearer 179kW (240hp) with that special oil on board.
FIM superbike regulations cap engine capacity at 1000cc, and in road-legal showroom spec this 998cc version of the Desmosedici Stradale V4 makes 160.4kW (215hp) in Europe and Australia – the Americans get less power. Peak power arrives at a lofty 15,500rpm while peak torque of 111.3Nm comes in at 12,000rpm, unsurprisingly down on the larger 1103cc Stradale V4 found in the Panigale V4 and V4 S.
The R version shares the same 90-degree layout and counter-rotating crank as the larger 1103cc V4 powerplant, but gets a shorter stroke – down from 53.5mm to 48.4mm. ‘Gun-drilled’ conrods are new for the 2023 model R, along with 5g lighter pistons and tweaks to the cam profiles.
The gearbox is the same, meaning the R gets the longer first and second gear introduced last year, and a shorter top gear which Ducati also installed across the Panigales for 2023. There’s also the latest quickshifter adopted from the same Panigale refresh.
I’m at the Misano race circuit in northern Italy for this test. I’m familiar with the circuit and, with a fresh pair of heated Pirelli slicks working well from the first lap, there were no excuses. The clutch-less gear changes are slick and accurate and comparable to a factory racebike. The downshifts are effortless, too, the revs precisely matching each new ratio. The fueling is as close to perfect as you’ll ever experience, even in first gear, and a revised dash, featuring a superbly designed Track EVO display, welcomes rather than bewilders. Every detail of this Panigale feels evolved and integrated. Nothing niggles or distracts from the business at hand.
And that business is, without doubt, revving that Stradale R V4 to the heavens. When you ride the larger, torquier, street-facing 1103cc V4 S Panigale, it’s easy to pump out a decent lap time by short-shifting at 10,000rpm and using the bike’s mighty grunt. On the shorter-stroke, higher-revving V4 R, however, it’s essential to use all of the tacho – to ride it like the racebike it is in order to push for a fast lap.
For my first track session I thought I was riding reasonably intense by changing gear at around 13,000rpm, approximately where a ‘normal’ superbike makes its peak power. But this ain’t no normal superbike and peak is at 15,500rpm – and even happy to rev on to 16,500rpm. The engine feels frictionless, liquid almost, but still I had to convince my old-school brain that it was okay to thrash it so hard, hold onto my ratio a fraction longer before nudging the quickshifter at the shift lights just before 16,000rpm – and this on a $70,200 (ride away) bike. The roadbike actually revs higher than the dominant WorldSBK bike, as the red rockets have had their peak revs cut to keep the series competitive.
Of course, you can ride around on the V4’s torque and have a truly rapid and satisfying experience, but to deliver the lap time it deserves, the V4 R demands 15,500rpm – and then a little more – every time.
At which point life becomes frantic. On Misano’s back straight, with second, third and fourth gears held to the rev limiter, it was so fast that I forget to breathe until I recalibrated my senses. First gear is now longer than the previous V4 R’s, which makes it more useable in slower corners and gives even more brain-folding acceleration. This is a front-running superbike with lights.
It should be exhausting and it should be too wild for a standard human like me, but it’s not. Like the updated 2022 Panigale V4 and V4 S, the new V4 R receives refreshed and uprated electronics (recalibrated to match the R’s performance and lightweight handling) that make the art of speed ridiculously easy.
You can choose between Full, High, Medium and Low power modes with Full limiting torque ever so slightly in first gear and High and Medium limiting torque in the first three gears. There is cornering ABS, Ducati Traction Control EVO 3, Ducati Slide Control, Ducati Wheelie Control EVO, Ducati Power Launch, Ducati Quick Shift EVO 2, and Engine Brake Control EVO 2, plus countless parameters and options, which are accessible and easy to change. While a pro racer can set combinations that extract the last percentile of performance from their skillset, it’s also true that the EVO generation of electronics knock great chunks out of a typical track rider’s times, making the beast far less tiring to hustle than it should be.
Yes, this perfectly clever suite of rider aids is as much at the heart of the V4 R’s performance as the Stradale R engine itself. With 30 minutes spent learning the basic functions, any accomplished sports rider will be able to trim and personalise the V4 R to the conditions and how they ride. Whenever I sensed, for example, the anti-wheelie control working around the Misano circuit I could quickly double check on the dash to be sure and then make the appropriate adjustment to see if it improved my lap time. When we had a short rain shower, I easily added more rider aids and then gradually reduced their level of intervention as the track dried.
Oh, and the icing on the electronic cake is the ‘Track Evo’ function which changes the dash display to give lap times, a clear horizontal digital rev counter, a prominent gear position indicator and a readout of live rider-aid interventions. Watch out: it’s addictive! You can visually see how much and which rider aids you’re using in real time.
While the V4 S and V4 SP2 models run on semi-active suspension, the V4 R homologation model has conventional Öhlins suspension, mainly because semi-active suspension isn’t used or allowed in racing. Up front there’s an Öhlins NPX25/30 fork, now with 5mm more travel than before, and a slightly longer TTX36 rear shock with a softer spring. As before, the swingarm pivot position is adjustable, with four possible points each 2mm apart. In the standard ‘+1’ position, the rear ride height of the 2023 bike is 20mm higher than before.
Ducati has performed a similar trick with the V4 R as it did with the larger-capacity Panigale by giving it more suspension travel and a softer spring on the rear, which in theory makes the bike easier to ride as it gives more feel and movement. On track, the combination of a high-revving counter-rotating crank, those state-of-the-art rider aids and lightweight chassis delivers a fast but wonderfully easy to ride superbike. Stable on entry and exit, accurate to the inch, unflustered, seamless, weightless, dripping with grip and traction and seemingly up for anything you ask it to do, it rides more like that MotoGP game the, ahem, kids are so obsessed with than real-life motorcycles. But unlike the game this hurts when you get it wrong…
I encountered some patchy weather on a drying track and, with one narrow dry line plus slicks, you need to be accurate and precise. The V4 R seemed to find grippy areas by remote and kissed those weird Misano apexes every time. You feel you can really push the track limits as you know how the 2023 Panigale V4 R will react, all the while those sublime rider aids are working overtime in the background,
The brakes, too, blend brutality with precision – and that is not solely down to the quality of the stoppers, a juicy pair of monobloc Stymela M4.30 calipers, but also the excellence of the chassis they’re bolted to. On the brakes, the V4 R is predictably implacable while the front tyre oozes with grip and feel.
Tweak the Engine Brake Control EVO 2 to your liking and it is hard to believe how late you can brake the 2023 Panigale V4 R, and how hot you can run into a turn. Each lap I was moving my marker forward as the bike’s stopping power seemed to grow. With my confidence in the front-end also bolstered by the brilliant cornering ABS, I found myself hanging on to the lever longer, downshifting rapidly yet smoothly through the gearbox, those clutch-less shifts keeping the engine spinning. Even the (more compact) winglets contribute, so too the new-shape tank and revised rider position which help you stay in the seat and not slip up the fuel tank and give your arms an easier time.
When you’re building pace and rhythm, braking later, accelerating earlier you wonder if life can be any better. R models from Ducati have always been special and the latest one carries on that tradition. And while the screaming 998cc V4 is the closest you’ll get to a race engine for the street, the way the R makes lap times you thought were beyond reach easily achievable – and achievable without a sense of riding on the edge – makes this a bike perhaps above all others.
For the street, the less revvy V4 S Panigale might be a more practical proposition as it packs more torque and has semi-active suspension.
But for sheer exclusivity and the kudos of piloting a world championship-winning motorcycle, it has to be the R. For sports riders, it could be the most desirable sportsbike on the planet.
Test Adam Child + Photography Alex Photo