The first step on a long road. That's how you might characterize the second day of Ducati's preseason launch event at Madonna di Campiglio in Italy. Especially when seen from a distance, the result of only a select group of journalists being invited to attend the launch, and our names not being among them.
It may be the first step, but there is no doubt that it is a big one. The many new faces at Wrooom are testament enough to that. The numerous changes within Ducati Corse and especially the Ducati MotoGP team have been well documented, but at Wrooom, the scale of the change is made visible. The overall impression is of a team which is slightly less Italian, but also one of vast experience. New Ducati Corse boss Bernhard Gobmeier may not be much older than Filippo Preziosi, the man he replaces, but the grizzled veteran Paolo Ciabatti, taking the place of a more youthful Alessandro Cicognani, highlights the seriousness with which Ducati, under their new owners Audi are taking the whole affair.
That is reflected in the entire approach. The bike unveiled on Tuesday night is largely unchanged from the machine tested at Valencia and Jerez by Nicky Hayden and Andrea Dovizioso, with no new bike due for the start of the season. This, Andrea Dovizioso told the press, was an inevitable result of making so many major changes to the team and the senior management: it takes time to get the organizational structure sorted before the team and engineers are ready to start making significant changes to the bike, based on a complete understanding of the machine.
Continuity, and a slower, more analytical approach appear to be the new course which Ducati intends to steer in MotoGP. The factory has seen the chassis of the Desmosedici change radically several times in the past four years, from the steel trellis frame of the 2007 bike to the carbon fiber subframe of 2008/2009, to the larger aluminium subframe used towards the end of the 2011 season, and then two very different types of aluminium perimeter frames for 2012 onwards. All these changes have made it difficult for Ducati to collect and analyze a stable set of data, Gobmeier told Speedweek.de, the different chassis making it difficult to compare data. The bike in its current form was not a million miles off the mark, what is needed is to make the parts work together better, and turn them into a more consistent whole.
The bike had two main problems which was Ducati's highest priority to fix, Nicky Hayden said. The first is understeer - a problem which has plagued the bike for a long time, and which sapped the confidence of Valentino Rossi while he was at the Italian factory - and the second, related problem is getting the bike to turn better. Both problems meant that riders spend too much time on the edge of the tire, unable to pick the bike up early, with subsequent heavy tire wear. Add in an aggressive response on the first touch of the throttle, and managing tires becomes a significant issue.
Gobmeier is due to reveal more of the details of Ducati's plans on Wednesday, but it is clear that much of the work will be focused on the engine management, using electronics, to make the bike much easier to ride and to handle. "It's clear that it isn't a case of building one specific new part, and we're running at the front again," Gobmeier told Speedweek. Instead, it is a matter of making a more thorough analysis and developing parts in a more focused and concentrated fashion. Too many changes had been made over the past couple of years, and made too fast and without sufficient consideration, Gobmeier said.
The past two years were a constant topic of conversation at Wrooom. Valentino Rossi's two-year stint at Ducati hangs over the event like Banquo's ghost at the feast. The failure of the nine-time world champion to be competitive on the Ducati raises a host of question marks about his period with the Italian brand. What is clear from all concerned is that the presence of Rossi at Ducati raised the pressure on the factory enormously. That they did their best to respond was clear, Gobmeier hinted, from the variety of new parts which Ducati had produced for the Italian, and the haste with which they were produced. From Gobmeier's point of view, this had often been counterproductive. Too much had been done via a process of 'trial and error', he told Speedweek, and parts had been produced almost at random, without any consistency of focus, and not always in the right direction. The feedback from Rossi and his legendary crew chief Jeremy Burgess was not always 100% accurate, Gobmeier hinted to Speedweek, raising the example of Hector Barbera's ability to compete with Rossi on the chassis which Rossi had designated as unusable after riding it at the Valencia test in 2011.
Nicky Hayden saw both positives and negatives to Rossi's time at Ducati. The presence of the Italian had put an incredible amount of pressure on the factory, meaning many changes were made in short order. The switch to the aluminium chassis was one change which Hayden deemed that Rossi had made possible. That change had improved the feedback and feel of the bike, and was a change made necessary by the spec tire. However, the pressure created by the presence of Rossi meant that perhaps too many changes had been made throughout the season, Hayden suggested, leaving Ducati unable sometimes to see the woods for the trees. With Rossi gone, Hayden hoped that his input will play a larger role in the development of the bike.
The one man who could benefit from Valentino Rossi's period at Ducati is the man brought in to replace him. The fact that Rossi had such a hard time on the bike takes a lot of the pressure off him, Andrea Dovizioso told the press. Expectations were lower, leaving the Italian free to concentrate on learning to ride the bike and then trying to improve it. His first year would be dedicated to working to understand the bike, with the hope that this would help Ducati make the machine competitive enough to start challenging for wins, and hopefully a championship in the second year of his contract. "This is a long-term project," Dovizioso reiterated.
It was the long-term commitment to the project which had convinced Dovizioso to make the move to Ducati. He had spoken at length with both Filippo Preziosi and Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio, and they had persuaded him that it was the right move. Dinner with new Ducati Corse boss Bernhard Gobmeier had reinforced that impression, Dovizioso said.
The loss of Valentino Rossi did have another major effect on Ducati's MotoGP team. At the unveiling of the bikes, it was immediately clear that sponsors had fled the marque, not just because of Rossi's departure, but perhaps also because of the two difficult years just passed. Insurance multinational Generali is missing from the fairings of the factory team, as is power company Enel. Italian site GPOne estimates the financial cost of losing Generali and Enel at some seven million euros a season, and fashion brand Diesel is also absent from the bike. Just how great a financial blow the loss of sponsorship is is open to debate, however. Valentino Rossi was rumored to have been offered 17 million euros to stay with Ducati for 2013, and though Ducati have Ben Spies and Andrea Iannone under contract, the salaries of the Pramac team, combined with the wages of Andrea Dovizioso (probably in the region of four million euros a year) still leave Ducati likely to come out ahead of the game.
On Wednesday, Bernhard Gobmeier speaks to the press about the engineering direction which Ducati will be taking over the next year. No doubt he will also address the degree to which Audi will assist, and perhaps hint at how much patience the German car manufacturer will show with Ducati. What Ducati do expect are more podiums than 2012, Gobmeier told Speedweek. The aim is to be competing for the podium every week, he said. There is clearly still some way to go to achieve that goal.