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Ducatis in Malaysia: Red riding hoot!

A day on a MotoGP racetrack. And we’re seeing red

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I am a diehard Valentino Rossi fan. I went delirious when he joined Ducati in 2010, forging the all-Italian dream team. But being a fan-boy is farthest from my mind right now, as the Life Flashing Before Eyes movie plays again. This must be its 100th rerun in my lifetime, I think.

I’m moments away from kicking the bucket with both feet, hurtling down Sepang’s main straight tucked into the fairing at something approaching 270kph. I sit up, and the wind almost takes my head off, as my limbs struggle to maintain contact with the bike. “Not a bad way to go,” is the thought that surfaces above visions of a Panigale-shaped hole in the grandstand wall. But it’s not to be, thankfully.

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I squeeze two fingers on the lever and the Ducati 1199 Panigale S I’m riding shocks me with the fiercest braking I’ve ever experienced on a motorcycle. I slow down to what I think is a magnificent entry speed for the first corner. And just then, two bikes go past me into the first corner, side by side, both drifting their rear wheels at a crazy angle.

The only thing keeping my jaw from hitting the tank is my helmet’s chin strap. Those two gentlemen, by the way, happen to be two motorcycling legends – Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi. Yes, stuff like this happens at the Ducati Riding Experi-ence, part of the Asia Ducati Week 2012. And it can be a bit too much to take, really.

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Firstly, I’m riding on the same strip of tarmac that, just yesterday, saw the world’s best students of motorcycling race each other in the MotoGP class. It’s the closest I’m ever going to come to pretending to be a MotoGP rider. Secondly, there’s the array of stunning Ducati motorcycles on offer – the relatively humble Monster 795, the rowdy Streetfighter 848, the monstrous Diavel and the red-as-sin 1199 Panigale S. It’s a festival of red, all right.

Since I’m keen on riding only those bikes that I haven’t yet ridden, (and since I’ve been off riding bikes for a couple of months because of a back injury) I jump on to the friendlier Streetfighter first. The rest of the group follows the instructor out of the pitlane, even as I’m struggling to get my gloves on. As soon as I let out the clutch, the bike stalls. Thanks to the helmet, no one can see my face turning redder than a Ducati.

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I storm out of pitlane, mostly on one wheel, determined to catch the group. Clearing the first set of corners, as gingerly as I can on cold tyres, there’s an intense sense of occasion that takes over my mind. Journalistic aims of remembering and reporting the motorcycles’ characteristics get dumped at the first corner. “Hmm. This feels taut and flickable... Hey, this is where Nicky Hayden low-sided yesterday!” Cue missed apex and running wide at the exit. And so on.

Nonetheless, halfway around the lap, I somehow manage to catch up with the group, only to realise that it’s much more fun to ride alone. So I hang back and let my nerves settle a bit – easier said than done at 240kph on the back straight.

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The Streetfighter 848 is a quick little motorcycle that delivers much more than you expect from it.

Its riding position isn’t exactly track-friendly, but it only adds to the drama. You can feel each and every ‘kph’ as it pushes the helmet visor into your face. The sweet and forgiving motor has got more than enough performance to keep you entertained. But before I can fully come to terms with it, the first 20-minute session is over.

Soon, I learn that I am to follow Capirossi in the next session. Just so I have an excuse for my lack of speed, I park myself on a Diavel. Capirossi takes the one next to mine. Feebly, I mutter, “Try going slow, okay?” Lining up at the pit exit, there’s just three of us – Capirossi, me and another motoring journalist who also happens to be a friend. It’s a surreal feeling as we look at each other, shaking our heads. Capirossi takes off and after five corners, he’s gone. I’m alone again.

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At least the Diavel’s familiar territory. And it also happens to be excellent fun on the track... apart from the two times it went into false neutral at 220kph as I was braking for the first corner. After that, I take it easy, pushing it only in the fast sweepers, where the Diavel is as planted as anything in the world. It doesn’t really like chicanes, but does its best to please you. Again, like the Streetfighter, the Diavel is more fun than I’d expected. But nothing prepares you for the Panigale.

Even before I swing a trembling leg over it, the Panigale has me swooning. I don’t know how they do it, but each Ducati superbike looks more perfect, more beautiful than the previous one. It’s got a steely glint in its eyes and design cues worthy of being called art – and it’s so tiny! Tiny, but with an incredible 195bhp from a 1200cc V-twin called the Superquadro. That’s 600cc and 97.5bhp per cylinder – no wonder there’s a ‘super’ in Superquadro.

There’s absolutely no hanging about with the Panigale. It knows its focus and doesn’t waste time with civilities the way in-line-fours do. From the first time I twist the throttle, it feels like I’m commanding an avalanche of pure torque that grips the road with a ferocity that’s a stark contrast to the Panigale’s lines. And even more mind-boggling is how extremely controllable this devastation is.

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I shattered the world record in the ‘leap of faith’ category aboard the Panigale. And it rewarded me with the fastest 25 minutes of my life. It shreds straights to pieces, carves corners way better than I can wield it and brakes like it’s run into a wall. And through all of this, it throbs and roars like a living being. Amazing how Ducati has managed to pack so much sensation into such a small thing.

A few hours later, I find myself – brain still twitching as it recovers from the sensory assault that is the Panigale – pondering over Rossi’s exit from Ducati. Two days ago, I sat watching him talk about how qualifying went, waiting for my chance to corner him and extract yet another autograph. Instead, I signed a photo of the two of us taken three years ago and presented it to him.

I asked him how he felt about leaving Ducati. He responded only with a smile and a pat on my shoulder. Everyone says it’s the bike. All I can say is, with Ducati making a bike like the Panigale, it’s hard to imagine how.

(Words: Kartik Ware, Photos: Aniruddh Kaushal)

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