Images by Gaurav S Thombre
I am faced with a Morton’s Fork. I simply cannot decide which one to settle for, because even though they are both Italian supersport motorcycles, there is very little in common between Ducati’s new 959 Panigale and the MV Agusta
F3 800. The only thing they do share is their innate ability to stir the soul and evoke emotions in a manner no thoroughbred super refined Japanese machine ever can. They split fans right down the middle with one set vouching for one motorcycle while another swears by the other. And yet there are more who find themselves speechless when asked to choose between one and the other. I suppose I belong to that final coterie of people. So, here’s my plan of action. I’ll take you through the finer points of each of these two lovely Italians and then at the end perhaps you can help me decide. Or, alternatively, you can join me in that list of people waiting at Morton’s Fork.
If looks could kill…
I’d be six feet under already. I look left and I find myself gawping. I look right and I find myself staring. The only way I can stop this imaginary tennis match is by shutting my eyes tight. If you think I’m exaggerating, just let your eyes move to the images and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s like trying to decide between Genevieve Morton and Emily Rajatowski. How do you decide who’s more beautiful? After all, both the Ducati 959 Panigale and the MV Agusta F3 800 carry forward the legacy of the late maestro Massimo Tamburini.
The Panigale is the latest in a long line of supersport motorcycles from Bologna, a line that began with the radical (for its time) Ducati 916 nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1994. Its symmetry, flowing lines and aggressive stance floored critics and fans without exception. Everyone wanted one. The current Panigale carries that legacy further. The twin headlamps, something Tamburini along with co-designer Sergio Robbiano introduced to the Ducatisti with the 916, continues to be a Ducati trademark. The headlamps now resemble a pair of hooded eyes. It’s almost as if the bike is sizing you up.
Unlike in the 916, where Tamburini had used a trellis frame, Ducati engineers have moved the frame game to unreal levels with a carbon monocoque replacing the old steel monkey bars. The engine and that double-sided swingarm (Ducati has not used the gorgeous single-sided unit on the 959) are mounted directly on to the monocoque. A minimum of cuts and slashes have been used as the design theme flows backwards from the fairing to that slim tail piece. The only incongruity on the Ducati appears in the form of the side slung dual Termignioni exhausts but blame them on ever tightening emission norms.
The MV on the other hand pays homage to Tamburini’s genius more directly since its styling flows straight from the more muscular and more powerful F4, the bike that was actually designed by the maestro over a decade ago. Even after so many years and despite the design hardly having evolved the F3 800 looks as contemporary as contemporary can be. The pointy nose with the single hexagonal headlamp gives it aggression and makes it look like the bike is ready to rocket ahead. The fairing, which is finished in the same silver and red as Giacomo Agostini’s old race bike, employs more slashes and cuts than the Ducati’s before flowing back into a similarly minimal tail unit. Unlike on the 959, MV engineers have retained the single-sided swingarm which, when seen in combination with the short triple barrel exhaust, only heightens the bike’s appeal.
The race crouch
There’s no doubt that both these bikes will have your hearts beating faster with their racy looks, but once you swing a leg over them there’s no doubt which of the two is more set in its purpose. There is no doubt that it is the MV that is more aggressive and focused. The handlebars are lower and the footpegs higher than on the Ducati so getting in to a race crouch behind the F3’s screen is almost intuitive. Out on track, watching others put the bike through its paces, the profile this Italian cuts through the air is absolutely fantastic.
Compared to the F3, the riding posture on the 959 feels almost relaxed. There is less weight on the wrists and there is a sense of there being a bit more space. Tucking in behind the screen and out of the windblast is equally easy but what’s different is visibility through the wider screen on the Ducati. The pillion seat too is wider and seems better geared for shotgun rides, not that that sort of thing really matters on a supersport machine. But for sure, the Ducati makes it easier for riders to swing a leg over it and feel in control.
The seat of the pants
While you only get a hint of the chalk and the cheese when you sit on the bike, the differences become starker as you switch the engines on and get going. The high strung in-line triple of the F3 is a howler and shrieks and spits when you cane her. The 959 sounds more mature with a throaty rumble coming from that L-twin.
On paper, the 959 has the edge over the F3. The extra cee-cees means more power while the extra displacement combined with the twin-cylinder configuration means a lot of extra torque. For the number crunchers out there, the 959’s liquid-cooled 955cc L-twin puts out 155bhp and 107.4Nm while the F3’s liquid-cooled 798cc in-line triple boasts 146bhp and 88Nm. But then, paper’s just paper and unless you’re an absolute racer class expert rider or as suicidal as Hrishi and Varad can be, you’ll be hard pressed to decide which of the two feels more powerful. What you will be able to tell apart however is the way they feel under you.
Where the Ducati feels linear and easy to manage, the F3 makes itself heard loudly and clearly as a no nonsense machine that can bite your head off and spit it out. The power build up is borderline crazy and there’s no let up as one goes through the quickshifter. Chased by the engine’s manic howl the F3 is the potion that allows the Dr Jekyll in you to give way to Mr Hyde. You want to go faster and you desire the accompanying tunnel vision even as your brain keeps tripping on the in-line triple soundtrack. It’s a speed junkie’s delight, this Italian.
Approaching the end of the long straight at Kari, you better be sure you don’t miss your braking marker. The Brembo brakes on the bike are more than capable of helping you shed speed but this is a bike that needs your undivided attention. At all times, period. If you’ve managed to claw back to sanity and made the turns, the MV rewards you with its instinctive dynamic abilities. Corners come and go and between them, there’s that mad rush of energy all over again. It’s addictive. I kept at it until the bike ran out of fuel at the end of the bowl approaching the straight. That was scary!
The Ducati, in comparison, feels forgiving and less manic. The rush of torque from low down in the rev range means that you never lose drive out of corners and everything feels in control. You feel like you’re the master until you wind the throttle open a bit more than you should have… and… brrrrap! Even now you can picture that Italian nose pointing skywards as you end up barrelling down the straight. Except, with wheelie control on, the nose stays firmly on the ground. That also means the 959 picks up pace at a fearsome rate. A veritable monster, it first lulls you into a false sense of security before giving you a taste of what it’s really like to be trying to tame a Panigale.
Like the MV, the Ducati also gets the benefit of Brembo stoppers and they work just as well. Pull the right lever in and there’s plenty of bite and progression. As you bang the six-speed box down, a slipper clutch keeps the rear wheel grounded. There’s no mad hopping or sliding. The correct numbers come up on the speedo without drama. A simple flick of the wrist and the bike is into the turn, that monocoque working brilliantly with the Showa USDs, the Sachs monoshock and that double-sided swingarm. Powering out of the turn, the 959 feels like it is on rails and never leaves the line. The degree of confidence it can inspire in a relative newcomer to the supersport game is other-worldly. The F3 in comparison needs a more practiced hand to extract the best from it.
You would have thought that by now I would have arrived at some kind of a decision. A direction, at least. Nyet. I’m still at that bloody fork, looking this way and the other way. The only decision I can come to is that I want both. That I can’t or that there’s a tidy sum of money separating the Ducati from the MV, in favour of the Ducati, matters not a jot. It’s just that both motorcycles have managed to stir something deep within my soul. Admittedly, even the heartstrings they tug at aren’t the same but be sure that you will never be able to buy one with your thinking head. The money for either has to be forked out by your beating heart. Your heart simply has to decide which one of these two tug at its strings harder.