The launch of Ducati's 2012 season got properly underway this morning, when Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden faced questions from the press at Madonna di Campiglio, the Italian ski resort that hosts Ducati's Wrooom event. After a disastrous 2011, much of the focus of questioning was on the new Ducati GP12, the bike missing from the festivities at Wrooom, but to make its first public appearance at the Sepang test. The delay, according to various reports, is more to do with finalizing the livery, with details still to be hammered out with sponsors.
Both Hayden and Rossi were cautious about the new bike, not wanting to steal Filippo Preziosi's thunder - the Ducati Corse boss is due to give a press conference on Wednesday morning, at which he will present more details about the bike - but they did have a number of interesting things to say. Both men confirmed that the bike was different, Rossi describing it as "totally new" compared to what Ducati started with last year. The Italian said he had not yet seen the bike in the flesh, only in computer designs, describing it as "very beautiful." Rumors persist that the bike will either have the engine rotated back, bringing the front cylinder more upright, or else use a narrower V angle between the cylinder banks. Rossi did let slip one tiny sliver of information in an interview with the official MotoGP.com website, saying that "we moved something," without elaborating exactly what it was that had moved.
The target for everyone was the first test, and the first time chance Rossi and Hayden will get to ride the bike, after a shakedown test by WSBK champion Carlos Checa and Ducati test rider Franco Battaini at Jerez next week. Rossi explained that Ducati's aim is to understand whether the changes have had the required effect or not: "The first target is to understand if ... we are in the right way to fix the problems," he told MotoGP.com. Both Rossi and Hayden were confident the changes would be a big step forward, as the lessons learned during 2011 had allowed the factory to structure their development path a little better. After a year of working together, Rossi believed that they had the potential to build a competitive bike.
But Rossi was also careful to temper expectations. With the bike still so new, being competitive at the first race was an illusion, he told the press. The aim was to close the gap first, then to start fighting for podiums, and eventually, wins. The additional testing time will help, Rossi saying that Franco Battaini will still do most of the testing, with himself and Hayden stepping up only once the changes were sufficient to need their input. He expected that 18 races and an additional 8 to 10 test days should be sufficient to develop the bike to a point where it is competitive, but the 2012 championship was not a realistic goal.
Even with a competitive bike, winning 10 or 11 races in a season, as he had done in the past, would be difficult, Rossi conceded. There was a "new generation" of younger riders who had proved themselves to be very difficult to beat, Rossi naming Casey Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo in particular. He was as hungry as ever, though, and he believed that he still had the speed to be competitive.
Rossi's desire to be competitive naturally brought up the question of contracts. The Italian said he was not ready to retire yet, and wanted another two-year contract after his current one expires at the end of 2012. He characterized a return to a Japanese brand as "unlikely," saying that he is currently concentrating on the Ducati: "I want to be able to make the Ducati go fast and to win on the Ducati," he told the press. Rossi is, to some extent, the prisoner of his own reputation as a rider capable of developing bikes. If he leaves before the Ducati is competitive, he tarnishes his reputation for creating winning bikes; if he can turn the Ducati around and make it competitive, then there is no reason to leave.
Rossi did say that he expected some surprises, however. With all six factory riders out of contract at the end of season, silly season could get "interesting," Rossi said. "Cards can be shuffled," he added.
Both Rossi and Hayden were asked about the return to 1000cc, but the Ducati men said that fans should not get their hopes up too high. Fans expecting a return to the "tire smoking and sideways style" would be disappointed, Nicky Hayden said: until electronics are limited, the bikes would continue to be more like an 800 than an old 990. Although unable to ride the Ducati 1000 at Valencia, he had gone out on track and watched, and seen that the bikes had a little more movement than the 800s, but that not that much had changed. The biggest problem with the bigger bikes was their tendency to wheelie, Hayden said. That would cause problems at some of the tighter tracks such as Laguna Seca and the Sachsenring.
As for his injury, Hayden said he was recovering well, but that the injury had been fairly serious. The fracture of his shoulderblade had been complete, meaning that the bone had cracked all the way through. The fractured ribs had been worse, he said, but he had not needed surgery and now didn't need to use the sling for his arm all the time. The aim was still to be fit in time for the Sepang test, though Hayden conceded that it would be a close thing, because of the severity of the injury. Hayden was determined not to miss the first Sepang test at the end of January, though, as he had already missed one test and was keen to ride the bike with the aluminium chassis.
Tomorrow, the GP12 will take center stage, as Filippo Preziosi faces questions from the press. Just how much he will reveal about the new bike remains to be seen, but it is clear that the bike will be significantly different to the GP11. Whether the changes are successful or not will only be clear once Valentino Rossi and - hopefully - Nicky Hayden take to the track on the bike at Sepang.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
Listen to the complete audio of Rossi's press conference over on GPOne.com.