The least surprising news revealed by Filippo Preziosi in the press conference he gave at Valencia today was that Ducati will be testing an aluminium perimeter frame on Tuesday and Wednesday. The fact that Ducati have been building such a frame came to light in mid-August, Ducati sources letting slip that the factory was building such a frame. But the existence of such a chassis was always officially denied, at least until today.
But even as he made the announcement, Preziosi stressed that this frame - an aluminium twin spar design - was very much a starting point, rather than the finished product ready to race. "The bike you will see tomorrow with the perimeter frame will be not the bike for the first race," Preziosi told reporters. "The bike you will see tomorrow is an experimental bike, really a prototype bike, to give to our designer the targets to design bike of the future."
The goal of such a move is to create a baseline, a starting point for the work that is to come. The first task of the aluminium perimeter frame is to replicate the existing frameless design, to understand the changes as Ducati moves forward on this new path. "At this stage, we would like just to realize a bike with a different kind of chassis but with exactly the same geometry and weight distribution as the current bike uses," Preziosi explained.
Ducati was not expecting a step in performance, Ducati's MotoGP boss emphasized, as they knew that the existing geometry and weight distribution will need to be changed going into the future. But following good engineering practice, they were changing just one variable at a time, to eliminate any interfering factors from the data.
Preziosi also explained the reason behind the switch from a design using the engine as a stressed member to a more traditional perimeter frame design. "We believe that an engine-based chassis is a good idea in general, but we believe that in the MotoGP championship there are some constraints that force us to make the choice we did," he said. "The first is the tires: they are are very good from a technical point of view. It is unbelievable to be able to create a tire that with the unbelievable level of this bike and these riders and the amount of energy they can carry, especially on the front tire. It is amazing that the riders are able to make their best lap time on the last lap of the race. But to reach that result, this kind of tires are completely different from any other kind of tire, and they require special chassis in terms of stiffness."
The most obvious reason for switching to a perimeter frame was the engine allocation limits, however, with the factories allowed to use just 6 engines for each rider in an entire season. "When you have an engine-based chassis, if you want to change some dimensions or weight distribution, you have to redesign the tooling to make a new custom part, machine it and make a new engine," Preziosi said. "This is a big effort in terms of economics, but it's quite impossible to do in this championship because you can only use six engines." Preziosi used the penalty Valentino Rossi took at Aragon to illustrate his point. "We had to use a seventh engine just because we wanted to use the front frame, and this of course is not the way to win the championship."
The engine rules in MotoGP meant that the design using the engine as a stressed member, connecting the rear swingarm to a small monocoque front frame was much more suited to production than to racing. On a production bike, once you have finished your development, you release the bike to the general public and you don't need to change the bike any more. Racing is different, Preziosi explained: "For the races, you are always developing the bikes. Even if you have found a good solution, going back to the engine-based chassis is a problem with the limited number of engines, because you have to design the engine and chassis just for that configuration. If you need to change that configuration three races later, you have to seal other engines with a penalty. This is a big problem." He added, "When you have to work continuously in developing a bike according to the development of the tires and the request of the riders, it's a lot easier to do with a complete frame."
Rumors that the angle of the engine would be changed were dismissed almost out of hand, but not quite. Preziosi even declined to confirm that the existing engine is a 90 degree V, telling journalists to ask Mr Nakamoto (head of HRC) what angle the RC212V and RC213V engines use. He assured the press that he had the freedom to change the engine angle if he wanted to, though such a change would need to be discussed with Ducati's senior management. If it was necessary, however, it would be done: "Like I said many times, if I believe pneumatic is better than desmo, I will use pneumatic valves, and if I believe that 72 degree angle is better than 90 then I will do that. But to be honest, I don't think it is a top priority issue, and I don't think it will help in what we are thinking of doing."
So the goal of the next two days' testing for Ducati is to create a baseline, a starting point for Ducati's engineers to work from in designing the bike for 2012. Ducati staff are not even calling the bike to be tested on Tuesday the GP12, Preziosi only referring to the bike as "step zero". All of the riders, including the satellite teams, would be using the aluminium perimeter chassis, and contributing to the development of what will become the GP12. The biggest changes are expected after the winter break, in the tests at Sepang. There we might get a glimpse of the real future direction for Ducati. At Valencia, what we will get is a comparison of what Ducati's bike might have been like if they had built it exactly as it was, but with an aluminium frame.
There is a lot of work to do, and a lot of work has already been done, Preziosi thanking both Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden for their willingness to sacrifice results this year for a year of testing, something forced upon the factory by the lack of testing permitted by the rules - and due to change, Preziosi joking that it was "inefficient" for Ducati to pay Valentino Rossi to "sleep in his room" while the test riders were out testing the bike. 2011 had been Ducati's worst year since 2004, Preziosi said, and he was determined to ensure it didn't happen again. "The only way I know to change this is to work," Preziosi said, "and to work in the hardest way I know."