I was suffering mild panic attacks, with euphoria and trepidation thrown in. And that was before I’d even swung a leg over. It wasn’t COVID-19. It was two wheels with a power-to-weight ratio more than twice that of a Bugatti Chiron.
Weighing in at 159 kg, not far north of where I tip the scale after a good twelve-hour lunch at Balthazar, with 224 horsepower on tap from its highly tweaked V4 motor. The beast was the Ducati Superleggera V4. An Exocet missile of a superbike built to annihilate everything in its class, with that Bolognese panache and character unique to Ducati—the most powerful, fastest, and most technologically advanced production bike they’ve ever produced.
I’d been chasing this most recent holy grail of superbikes for some time. A global pandemic had quashed plans for a roundtrip test run from Newport Beach to Monterey, CA, as the lone example in the U.S. was shipped back to Italy for the duration. And so I waited. And plotted. Eventually I had to get to Europe to renew a passport. Which seemed the perfect opportunity to test the beast in its natural habitat.
Borgo Panigale, Bologna, Italy. The home of Società Scientifica Radio Brevetti Ducati, founded here in 1926 to make capacitors and other small electronics. Bombed out of existence in 1944 by the Allies, a new opportunity arose from the ashes of war as individual mobility boomed. Motorized bicycles were becoming all the rage. So the Ducati brothers licensed production of them for SIATA, a company in Turin. Their Cucciolo engine became the foundation for the mighty warhorse that is now Ducati Motor Holdings S.p.A.
Many years later, the first superbike I ever piloted was the Ducati 955SP, arguably the first true Ducati 916 track bike. It was a roadgoing homologation special built to qualify for racing. An animal of a bike, burping and roaring and wheelie-ing and wailing as it thumped and spat itself up the tarmac, inhaling every ounce of road in its path. The first of the road-legal race editions of the eye-wateringly beautiful Ducati 916 designed by the legendary Massimo Tamburini.
The 955SP was a rollercoaster of an experience requiring skill, faith, and special underwear. Such homologation specials were the basis for the models later piloted by Carl “Foggy” Fogerty, Troy Bayliss, Nicky Hayden, Nick Bostrom, and others to victory in World SBK and MotoGP throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The 916 was the bike that put Ducati firmly on the map as the modern pinnacle of two-wheeled sex appeal.
These homologation special bikes were the progenitors of the Superleggera I was to caress in the hills of Bologna. The one I rode simply bore a XX/500 on the plaque on the headstock, indicating it was a pre-production model of a limited-edition of 500 bikes to be made globally for collectors and glitterati alike. At $100,000 per unit, this is the stuff of teenage boys’ poster walls and wet dreams. So gently, and carefully, I took off, babying the beast like riding an unbroken stallion capable of spitting you off permanently into a wheelchair at any minute.
The Superleggera V4 is true to its name—light, and nimble, and as fast as a flick of the wrist or touch of the toe. Like piloting a will- o’-the-wisp. But underneath, this featherweight steed packs the punch of a heavyweight MMA fighter at the peak of his game. Eloquent and expert in every art of the laying down of pain upon the opposition, with no quarter granted. With extreme measures possible at every juncture of the dance.
Not for nothing are there computers controlling launch, wheelies, braking, and everything else you could imagine that AI may do better than you, assuming you are not Foggy or Hayden or Bostrom. And frankly, perhaps, even if you are. This thing is a thinly-veiled global thermonuclear weapon, ready to make a bid for global domination.
Not until I climbed off, drenched in sweat from hours in the unbridled heat of the midday sun of Emilia Romagna, to switch to the Panigale V4S that was to be my ride to St Tropez, did I truly realize just how fast and nimble the Superleggera was. And what others would see as a superbike of the first order, the Panigale now felt like the huskier cousin with a little too much weight—and not quite enough oomph.