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Both one step short of being flagships, both capable of setting the racetrack on fire, both Italians. But which one is better?

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In an ideal world, I would be riding the Ducati Panigale R and MV Agusta F4 RC at Laguna Seca. But in the real world, I’m far from it. I am, in fact, at the Madras Motor Race Track astride the MV Agusta F3 800 and the Ducati 959 Panigale. Such is life… But wait, what on earth am I complaining about? Chennai has been home turf for me as long as I can remember and these two bikes are more than enough to get my hear rate up to just short of a cardiac arrest! Let’s just get on with it then…

Words: Ashok George | Photography: Parag Parelkar

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She’s got the looks…
I’m not going to waste your time here. This is a track test, so how beautiful these motorcycles look does not really matter (even though I feel the Ducati looks better). What really matters is how the ergonomics and other bits come together on the racetrack and in this, I have a bone to pick with the Ducati. The 959’s tank is an odd shape. The sculpted shape doesn’t give you enough flat surface to grab on to the tank with. This makes locking yourself in while leaned over a problem.

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She’s got the looks…
The MV on the other hand has a tank that provides enough grip for you to have your lower body locked in so your upper body stays free. The F3 also has a more aggressive riding position. So when you’re tucked in and going fast, the bike feels great. Thanks to the bum-high riding position, there’s come additional weight up front too. That said, the 959 is great too. But the problem is, out on the track, the F3’s more focused riding position works better.

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Around the corner…
The chassis configuration on both these motorcycles are very different. The Ducati uses the Monoscocca chassis which splits the chassis into two cast aluminum parts (the rear subframe and the airbox/steering head) that attach to the front and rear cylinder heads. The F3 meanwhile is a combination of tubular steel trellis frame with cast aluminum bits. Both of them get fully adjustable suspension all around and sticky Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa rubber.

In the most basic sense, both these motorcycles are excellent handlers. There’ll be a smile on your face no matter which motorcycle you’re on. But there is a crucial difference.

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Around the corner…
The F3 is a more focused motorcycle out on the track. The 959 loses focus a bit because it wants to be great on track and still remain usable on the road. The F3 has no such qualms. Its sole focus is to be fast around a racetrack and being that way, it cares nothing about comfort or ride quality. This means that where the 959 does turn in quickly and hold its line really well around corners, the F3 takes it all one step up. The reactions are lightning fast and with much more confidence than the 959. You won’t notice the difference till you ride both back to back. But once you do, it’s difficult not to appreciate the sharpness and confidence with which the F3 goes around the racetrack. The extra confidence means you’ll be going a few kph faster around corners and gaining a few seconds on the 959 every single lap.

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Around the corner…
But where the 959 does do really well is under hard braking. For example, C8 is a hard right hander that comes right after the back straight at the MMRT. By the time you get to your braking marker, you’re doing 180kph at least. When you grab the brakes on the Ducati approaching C8, at first you think there is no way you’re making that corner. But when the Brembos start working, they shed speed with incredible efficiency. In fact, once you get used to them, you realize that you can push your braking point farther into the corner. But what really inspires confidence is how the Ducati behaves under such heavy braking. There is no hesitation or lack of confidence. It sheds speed in a straight line without ever threatening to get bent out of shape. Which is not the case with the MV. The F3 too sheds speed very efficiently. But the difference here is that where the Ducati stays calm and composed, the MV is doing a little dance and lifting its tail repeatedly. Of course, the motorcycle still stays on its line, but the whole of feel of it is a little on edge. You just have to trust it and you’ll be fine. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get a bit nervous!

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Need for speed…
The Ducati uses a 955cc, L-Twin while the MV uses a 798cc, triple. The 959 makes 157bhp and 107.4Nm while the F3 makes 148bhp and 88Nm of torque. The crucial difference though is in where the power is delivered. The Ducati wants to be the more usable motorcycle here and hence it generates upwards of 70Nm from as low as 3000rpm and the peak torque comes in at 9,000rpm. This means that the Panigale is delivering performance from very low in the rev-range when compared to the F3. The F3 likes to make its power up top. In fact, the harder you rev it, the happier it is. Peak power and torque come in well above 10,000rpm and if you look at the dyno charts, you’ll see the power curve as a steep uphill climb, both with the torque and the power. A lot of it points to the 959’s need to be usable on the street as well as the racetrack.

And this is where the crucial difference lies. The 959 wants to be a people pleaser. It wants to be great around a racetrack and comfortable out on the street. The only problem is, when you want to do multiple things well, you end up only doing them well and not exceptionally.

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With the F3, the focus is clear. It was born to be great around a racetrack. It doesn’t give two hoots about the street. It doesn’t care for usability in traffic. It doesn’t care for smooth throttle action. It doesn’t care about any creature comforts. The only thing it cares about is being fast. Hence the focus on high rpm performance.

And at high revs, the F3 is a revelation. All through the rev range, the power keeps building up. But as you reach the upper third of the revs, the motorcycle really wakes up. It becomes almost feral. All through the first three gears, the front wheel is trying to point skyward and at the end of both the straights at the MMRT, you’re looking at upwards of 180kph.

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The 959 isn’t too far behind though. Straight-line acceleration is incredible and the straights have the speedo hovering only slightly behind what the F3’s is. But that sense of wonder is missing and in comparison to the F3, the 959 seems a bit, well, emotionless.

There was another problem. I had some issues with the Panigale’s throttle. Both the bikes get ride-by-wire and consequentially, four riding modes and 8-mode level traction control. However, the Panigale has a strange problem. Despite its slipper clutch, the 959 tends to tuck down when going from open to closed throttle. This becomes a problem if you go in too hot into a corner or have to get off the throttle to change direction through a chicane. Closing of the throttle has to be done with a very measured hand and incrementally.

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In the end…
You really can’t go wrong with either of these motorcycles. You WILL have fun on either of them! But, the single-minded focus of the F3 is what wins your heart here. When you’re at a racetrack, being silly fast is all that matters. Nobody cares about how comfortable you are on the street. Nobody cares about more relaxed ergos. And nobody cares about compliant suspension. What matters is the time that you shave off every lap. And that’s what the F3 does better than the 959. And that is why, while the 959 might be a better package overall, there is no denying that the F3 800 is the better bike on the racetrack. There’s just no doubt about that.

Bottomline: The F3’s focus on performance helps it edge the Panigale out at the racetrack. Not by much, but it does.

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Ducati 959 Panigale
8/10

Price: Rs 15.30 lakh (ex-Mumbai)
Engine: 955cc, liquid-cooled, L-twin
Power: 155bhp at 10,500rpm
Torque: 107.4Nm at 9,000rpm
Transmission: 6-speed
Dry weight: 176kg

Pros: Friendly to ride around the track without compromising on performance
Cons: Not as focused as the F3

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MV Agusta F3 800
9/10

Price: Rs 16.78 lakh (ex-Mumbai)
Engine: 798cc, liquid-cooled, inline-three
Power: 146bhp at 13,000rpm
Torque: 88Nm at 10,600rpm
Transmission: 6-speed
Dry weight: 173kg

Pros: Incredibly sharp in performance and handling and supremely rewarding to ride
Cons: Will chew you up if you don’t know what you’re doing

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