If you wanted proof that things are changing at Ducati, you need look no further than the launch of their MotoGP team. In years past, it was an outrageously flamboyant affair, a veritable extravaganza hosted by Philip Morris to showcase their two motor sports projects, the Ducati MotoGP team and the Ferrari Formula One squad. Held at the upmarket Italian ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio, the event even had a proper showbiz name: Wrooom. All that was missing was an exclamation mark.
Ducati's 2014 launch was very different. Held not in Italy, but in Munich and Ingolstadt, on premises owned and operated by Ducati's current owners, Audi. The team presentation at the Audi Forum at Munich airport, the unveiling of the livery in the evening, at the Audi Gebrauchtwagen Plus center in Munich, then to Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt the following day, for the presentation of the Germany company's annual report to the press. If the Wrooom event had been flamboyant and over the top, the 2014 launch was serious, focused, yet still stylish. It felt very much like Italy versus Germany, and Germany won.
There was another difference too. Despite the media having been present at both Sepang tests and the Phillip Island tire test, there was still some real meat for journalists to get their teeth into in Munich. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, MotoGP project leader Paolo Ciabatti, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali, head of technical development at Audi Ulrich Hackenberg, even the riders Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow all had something new to add. It was much, much more interesting than expected.
The fact that the launch was hosted in Munich, at joint event with Audi, rather than Italy was itself a message, one intentionally framed by both Ducati and Audi. Both Claudio Domenicali and Ulrich Hackenberg, the two heaviest hitters at the Ducati launch, underlined the importance of MotoGP to Ducati. After three years out of contention, Domenicali told the press, the company had even questioned how relevant racing was to its business. After taking a long hard look at racing, Ducati had come to the conclusion that it was a key part of its strategy. Racing lies at the heart of Ducati's brand.
The big news on the final day of testing at Sepang was not what was happening on track, but rather what was happening off track. The announcement – trailed here and all around the media since early January – that Ducati would switch to the Open category was the talk of the paddock. And social media. And bike racing forums. And biking bars around the world, I expect. Even though we knew this was coming, it is only now becoming clear just how much of a game changer this decision is.
The announcement was timed curiously, made at the end of the day when the bosses of Yamaha and Honda had already left the circuit and were unavailable to the press. Likewise, the press room had largely emptied out. It appeared to have been made to minimize the impact, especially on the other manufacturers. Honda and Yamaha now have a couple of days to gather their PR might and put together a carefully worded position on the move by Ducati, which will both give the impression they are entirely disinterested in what Ducati have decided to do, while at the same time exuding a vague air of disapproval. Expect to see the verb 'to disappoint' in various conjugations.
With Ducati having elected to switch to racing as an Open entry in the MotoGP class, it is time for a quick refresher course on the rules. Below is a primer on the key differences between racing as an Open entry and racing as a Factory Option entry, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Factory Option: Factory Option bikes have 20 liters of fuel, and 5 engines to last the season. No engine development is allowed, the engine specifications being frozen before the first race in Qatar. Factories have to supply template engines with specifications of all parts at the race, those parts must remain unchanged. Development is frozen on parts not accessible when engine is sealed. In short, this means engine internals, crankshaft, crankcases, cams, valves, pistons, conrods, etc. Gearboxes can still be modified. Engine specifications must be identical within teams. This means that engines for Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez must be identical, Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi's engines must be identical, Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro's engines must be identical.
Testing is also limited for Factory Option teams. They can take part in all official tests (the three one-day tests after Jerez, Barcelona and Brno) and on five days at a nominated circuit.
2014 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 2 Round Up: The Old New Tire, Lorenzo's Lamentations, And Ducati's Open Future (Again)
A cleaner track made for better times at the second MotoGP test at Sepang on Thursday, but conditions remain far from ideal. The track was still greasy, and the added heat made the situation worse. That meant the track remained empty for large parts of the day, the riders waiting for temperatures to come down at the end of the day.
When the riders did go for their fast laps, the usual suspects raised their heads. Aleix Espargaro was quick, Alvaro Bautista was quick, but if anyone was in any doubt about where the real power lies on the MotoGP grid, Dani Pedrosa quickly disabused them of their misconceptions. The Repsol Honda man posted two scorching laps, faster than anyone else was capable of riding. At nearly three tenths of a second, the gap was convincing. When Dani Pedrosa decides to exert his authority, the world listens. Especially when his teammate is absent.
Pedrosa spent the day working on the front of the Repsol Honda, and deciding on which of the two chassis to use for the rest of the year. The quicker of the two options was also less forgiving under braking, meaning Pedrosa elected to pursue the slower of the two frames. Sacrificing a little bit of speed for more stability and less effort to ride seemed like a suitable trade off.
2014 MotoGP Sepang 2 Day 1 Round Up: The Tire Pendulum Swings Against Yamaha, And Ducati's Open Future
If the first Sepang test threw up a few surprises, the first day of the second test turned into a bit a shocker. Anyone putting money on Alvaro Bautista, Aleix Espargaro and his brother Pol being the top 3 at the end of the first day would very, very rich indeed. Though all three had good reason to be further up front – Bautista has a new rear shock from Showa which is a big step forward, Aleix has been fast throughout, and Pol has the new seamless gearbox from Yamaha – their speed should not be seen as presaging a revolution in MotoGP. A dirty track, and several riders not chasing times gave the trio a chance to shine, which they seized with both hands.
Things did not look promising at the start of the day. The track was in poor condition, still dirty after a recent Ferrari test. The Kuala Lumpur region has had no rain for months now, which usually helps to clean the track in between tests. The situation was so bad that the circuit offered to spray the track clean with water, an offer which turned out not to be necessary. Having 23 bikes circulating helped sweep the track fairly well as the day progressed. By Thursday, the track should be in much better shape.
MotoGP returns to the track at Sepang in just a few hours, and the second test at the Malaysian circuit offers just as much intrigue as the first did. Interest at Sepang 2 centers on notable absentees, Ducati's plans, and progress made so far. There is much to watch in Malaysia.
One thing we know for sure. Marc Marquez will not be the fastest man at the second Sepang test. The reigning world champion dominated the first test at the beginning of the month, but a training crash saw him fracture his right fibula. Even in adversity, Marquez' luck held, the injury being relatively quick to heal, the bone not being displaced. He will definitely be back in action at the first race of the year in Qatar, and he could possible attend the Bridgestone test at Phillip Island early next week, but he will be forced to miss Sepang 2.
With Marquez out, others will have a chance to shine, though the question of how any times set would hold up if the Repsol Honda man had been present will remain. Nobody had an answer to Marquez' pace at the first test – especially when you compare his race pace on long runs – and his rivals will have to drop well under the two-minute mark to make an impression.
Rising temperatures may have dispelled the arctic chill that held sway at Valencia for the beginning of the Moto2 and Moto3 test, conditions were still far from ideal on the final day. High winds set in, causing problems for riders in both classes, though especially for the bantamweight Moto3 class, and causing a spate of crashes. Niccolo Antonelli, fastest man over all three days, was one of many to go down, the list also including Dutchman Scott Deroue, Danny Kent and Enea Bastianini. Unlike previous days, nobody was injured, and all continued to ride, though Bastianini complained of headaches and Deroue suffered back pain. They weren't the only people riding with injury: Gino Rea soldiered bravely on despite having broken a foot on Wednesday, relieving the pain by sticking his ankle in a bucket of ice water between stints.
The winds meant that very few riders improved their times in the Moto3 class, Niccolo Antonelli remaining the fastest over all three days, though Jack Miller took the honors for the fastest man on the last day. Antonelli has been impressive throughout all three days of testing, having adapted to the KTM very quickly. Miller, likewise, was still getting used to the KTM, enjoying the added power, while adjusting to the handling of the Austrian Moto3 bike, which does not corner as well as his old FTR Honda. The excess power more than compensated, but Miller spent the day working through various linkages and set up options in an attempt to get the bike to turn a little bit better.
Conditions improved a little for the second day of testing at Valencia, with warmer temperatures seeing times drop. The Moto2 riders were an average of a second faster than Tuesday, the Moto3 riders even faster, a second-and-a-half quicker than yesterday.
Improvement was pretty even across the field, in both classes. In the Moto3 class, the chasing hordes closed the gap on Niccolo Antonelli, though the young Italian continued to top the timesheets. He has Jack Miller breathing down his neck, however, the Australian ending the day just eight thousandths of a second behind the Italian.
With an Italian leading, an Australian in 2nd and young Brit Danny Kent in 3rd, the top of the Moto3 class has a decidedly international feel. The contrast with last year, where Spaniards took all but 5 of the 51 available podium positions, is huge. There is only one Spaniard - Isaac Viñales - in the top 5 at Valencia, and a total of 3 in the top 10. Italians feature heavily - the investment made by the Italian Federation over the past few years is very slowly starting to pay off - but there is also a Brit, an Australian and a Portuguese rider. The increased variety looks promising for 2014.
After a private test at Almeria last week, the full Moto2 and Moto3 fields assembled at Valencia for the first full official test of the year for the Grand Prix support classes. Conditions were far from ideal: though it remained dry all day, it was cold, with asphalt temperatures barely cracking 10°C at midday. The cold track caught an awful lot of riders out, with many people crashing, though nobody suffered any serious harm. Mostly, it was just riders' pride and their bikes which ended up dented.
In the Moto2 class, Mika Kallio ended the day as fastest, somehow fitting that the icy Finn should top the timesheets in the freezing conditions. The Marc VDS Racing rider ended the day just ahead of Aspar's Jordi Torres, and Interwetten's Tom Luthi. Spaniards Nico Terol and Tito Rabat took 4th and 5th respectively. So far, the names at the top of the timesheets are familiar ones, having been fast in Moto2 last year.
One of the great privileges which holding a MotoGP media pass allows is to stand behind the armco and watch and listen to the bikes as they go past. At the Sepang test, I made full use of that opportunity, and wandered over to Turn 3 – the glorious, fast right hander, where the riders get sideways driving through the turn and onto the short straight to Turn 4 – to enjoy the spectacle of the best riders of the world showing off their skills.
There is more to be learned from watching at track side than just how spectacular MotoGP bikes are through fast corners, though. The careful observer can pick up clues to what both the riders and factories are doing. With electronics such a key part of MotoGP nowadays, the track is one of the few places where updates are visible. Updated vehicle dynamics algorithms may be invisible from pit lane (or nearly so, with the occasional addition of sensors or torque gauges the only visible clue), bike behavior on the track will sometimes betray them.
At the end of 2013, Marc Marquez and Dani Pedrosa had asked for more stability under braking, and some more corner speed. Listening to the bikes at Sepang gave a possible clue as to how they had achieved that. The differences in engine note between the various bikes were instructive of the varying levels of electronics, engine braking strategies, and gearbox function.
That Honda have been working on braking and corner entry was audible at Sepang. Though the RC213V always sounded smooth under braking, braking for Turn 4 the improvement was noticeable. As they braked and downshifted for the corner, the Hondas of Marquez and Pedrosa sounded more like a big scooter with a constantly variable transmission than a racing four stroke with six separate gears. Engine revs decreased smoothly, downshifts barely perceptible. There was no popping or crackle of extra fuel burning off, just a smooth, booming descending tone.