MotoGP history was made at Aragon, and as has been the case so often throughout his career, the man making the history was Valentino Rossi. He is unlikely to be quite so proud of this piece of history, though: On Sunday, Rossi became the first rider to fall foul of MotoGP's engine durability rules, using his seventh engine during warm up, one beyond his original allocation of six and consequently being forced to start from pit lane. Rather ironically, Rossi was not the first rider to use a seventh engine; that dubious honor falls to Alvaro Bautista, who ended up using eight engines during 2010, after Suzuki negotiated adding three extra to their original allowance, when it became clear that they were unlikely to make the end of the season on their allocation.
The reason that Rossi elected to take the penalty was simple: he wanted to have two bikes with identical setups, and that included having the new, revised aluminium frame which he had tested on the 1000 at Mugello and he debuted at Aragon. The new chassis needs new mounting points, the lugs on the rear of the cylinder head having to be machined differently to accept the new frame. The 6th engine Rossi used at Misano already had the new mounting points, which fitted both the old carbon fiber and the new aluminium subframe, but the two other GP11.1 engines did not, and could not be modified. That meant taking engine number seven, and taking number seven meant starting from pit lane 10 seconds after the rest of the pack.
Rossi's crew felt that starting from pit lane at Aragon was a smarter choice than starting at Motegi (the other alternative, as Rossi wanted to have two identical bikes for the rest of the season). The pit lane exit at Aragon cuts off all of Turn 1 and much of Turn 2, joining the track on the exit of the second corner, minimizing time lost to the rest of the field. That turned out to be a good call, Rossi crossing the line at the end of lap 1 just 7.4 seconds behind the leader, Casey Stoner, and 5 seconds behind Hector Barbera, who had moved up to take Rossi's qualifying spot on the grid.
Was the penalty worth it? Well it provided some spectacle, with Rossi fighting his way forward to 9th at one point, before losing out to Cal Crutchlow to cross the line in 10th. The front felt a little better, he said after the race, but the problem had not been fixed. "I'm a little bit disappointed and a little bit worried," Rossi told the media afterwards, adding that he had expected a lot more from the change. "It looks like we don't fix the problem."
"The feeling with the front is not so bad," Rossi said. "I am quite good in braking and entry but I remain slow in the change of direction. It looks like after a lot of races we don't fix nothing so maybe we don't understand the real problem."
The experiment, brief as it was, has apparently failed. Replacing the front carbon fiber section with a different material had made a small difference, but not enough to turn around the fortunes of either the Italian rider or the Italian factory. The material, as Filippo Preziosi had told reporters at Brno and Misano, was not the problem. The problem appears to be something else.
The solution - or what Ducati hopes will be the solution - is already lined up. Ducati team boss Vito Guareschi told Italian reporters that Ducati will test yet another chassis at Jerez on Thursday, and then again at the official MotoGP test at Valencia. This will be the Ducati's 5th chassis of the year, after the original CF chassis they started the year with; a revised, softer version tested after Estoril; the GP11.1 chassis (though this is largely unchanged at the front) with the altered swingarm bracing and rear shock mounting; and then the longer aluminium item used here at Aragon.
What is radical about the new item is that it will finally break with Ducati's tradition of using the engine as a stressed member. The new chassis will be a standard aluminium twin spar design, as used by all the other factories, Dennis Noyes reported on Spanish TV on Sunday night, and the most obvious candidate to produce the chassis is the Buckingham-based firm FTR, who built the frame used by Rossi at Aragon.
The fact that the revised aluminium chassis is already being dismissed seems to suggest that a twin spar is what Rossi and his crew have been angling for all along - despite Rossi's continuous protestations that he is a rider, not an engineer. With every new revision, there have been small steps made, but the main problem (a lack of feedback from the front tire, and difficulty in turning the bike) remains.
Every time I have watched Rossi from trackside, his body language has been stiff, unnatural, not comfortable with the bike the way that Lorenzo is with the Yamaha and Stoner is with the Honda. At Aragon, I watched again, and though there was a visible improvement, it still looked like somebody had stolen Rossi's leathers and nipped into the Ducati garage for a go on the bike. And after the race, Rossi confirmed that he was still a long way off where he wanted to be. "I don't feel very comfortable on the bike," Rossi said on Sunday. "We already think of something to move the weight, move me, on the bike and if you look at me on the television, I don't ride like in the past, I don't have the same position on the bike. It's quite clear from all sides. So we work in some different way and hope we find the right way for improve."
That "different way" is a capitulation on Ducati's design principles and a switch to what has become standard industry design over the past twenty years. No doubt this will put another nail into the coffin of engineering innovation in motorcycle racing, but in my view, it will be a tragedy if motorcycle designers stay away from the monocoque design used by Ducati on the Desmosedici, and from next year, on Ducati's 1199 superbike, due to be introduced as the 1198R's replacement at the EICMA show in Milan in November.
For the problem is not so much the shortcomings of the design, as learning to understand the feedback which a different design generates. Whether or not Ducati's implementation of the monocoque is a good one or not - and there are reasons to believe it is still not quite there, as despite winning races on the bike, Stoner and his crew had plenty of problems in finding exactly the right setup on the bike - the difference i feel is what is crucial. At the end of the 2009 season, I spoke to Tech 3's engineering guru Guy Coulon about the lack of innovation in Moto2, especially the lack of new front suspension solutions, with everyone plumping for a traditional telescopic front end. Coulon said the explanation was simple. "You want the information to go from the asphalt to the rider's brain without any interference," Coulon told me. Hub center steering, Hossack forks, anything else would change the signal coming from the tire to such an extent that the riders would not know how to interpret it. There may be a theoretical advantage to any or all of these technologies, but if a rider could not understand them, then the advantage would disappear.
This is one of the reasons that despite MotoGP being the pinnacle of motorcycle racing technology, in engineering terms, it is still an immensely conservative world. The current breed of racing motorcycles are really just evolutions of the bikes that have been raced for the past twenty, thirty, maybe even sixty years. As one engineer put it to me rather pithily "if it wasn't used on a Matchless in 1958, then the teams think it can't be any good." Instead of innovation, MotoGP prefers evolution, preferring something which they are sure is a little bit better than what they have than something which could be a radical improvement, but with some uncertainty over whether it will work. Even a small change like FTR's stemless steering head (where the bearings fix on the top and bottom of the steering head, without a steel stem connecting he bottom and top bearings running through the head and messing up the airflow into the airbox) has met with utter resistance from the Moto2 teams, despite the advantages which the engineering clearly shows.
Yet there is also a risk in Ducati's switch to an aluminium twin spar, one which we have covered here before. Ducati has no experience in building a twin spar frame, yet is reluctant to buy in expertise from outside. The design and engineering is done in-house, Ducati's chief engineer Filippo Preziosi said, as chassis design is very much Ducati's core business. The lessons they learn and the R&D they can do in MotoGP is their reason for being in the sport, and helps them design their production bikes. Farming out the design to a third party may improve their chances, but it is the knowledge which is crucial to Ducati Corse, and therefore to Ducati as a whole. It is highly probable that FTR will be moulding and welding the aluminium on the chassis (they are among the very best in the world at doing so, after all) but the design will come from the CAD computer of Filippo Prezioso and the engineering team at Ducati Corse. Valentino Rossi, Jerry Burgess and crew will have to hope that they have listened first.