Anyone watching the presentation of Ducati's 2015 MotoGP bike will have learned two Italian phrases: "Emozionante" and "tanto lavoro". Both were extremely apt. Getting from where Ducati were to where they are now with the Desmosedici GP15 had needed "tanto lavoro", a lot of hard work, and they still had "tanto lavoro" ahead of them. The results were "emozionante", a fantastic word nearer to exciting than emotional. But both exciting and emotional were apt phrases. The sense of eagerness was palpable among Ducati staff at Bologna on Monday.
For good reason. The GP15 presented in a long, loud, and rather meandering show is radically different from what came before. The presentation was a very Italian affair: an Italian TV presenter introduced the Italian managers and Italian engineer of an Italian bike, to be ridden by two Italian riders, to an audience consisting entirely of Italian journalists, with the honorable exception of Slovenian channel POP TV, a team from Dorna, and the rather less honorable exception of myself. But the bike being presented looked very far from Italian: from most angles, this looked like a very Japanese motorcycle, in concept and in execution.
What has changed? Everything. Even with the fairings on, it is clear that this is a very different motorcycle. The engine is still a 90°V4, using desmodromic valves, but it is rolled back much further than its predecessor. The engine in the GP14 had already been rolled back around its axis compared to the starting point some three years ago. The rotation is now complete, the engine a few degrees further back, and very close to the location used by the Honda RC213V.
More importantly, the engine as a whole has been made smaller. The cases holding the gearbox are shorter and narrower than the GP14, and parts have been rearranged and relocated to make the whole more compact. When I asked Gigi Dall'Igna about the work he had done, he would answer only in the most general terms. The design goal had been to achieve a specific set up, a mixture of geometry and weight distribution, but with a shorter wheelbase and better ergonomics. The changes made to the various iterations of GP14, culminating with the GP14.3, had allowed Ducati to reach the set up they were after, but the bike was still too long. Long bikes don't want to turn (as anyone who has ever ridden a chopper will tell you), so making the bike shorter should make the bike turn better. What was the main thing that needed fixing? Understeer. A shorter bike should help with that.
The compactness of the bike is visible everywhere you look. The tank is shorter and narrower, the top frame is narrower, the bottom of the frame, where it passes underneath the engine, is narrower. The seat is much narrower where it joins the tank. The tail section is shorter, further forward, more aggressively cut.
The biggest difference is in the frame, however. The line of the frame is now totally different, more akin to the Honda RC213V than the GP14. The upper members are angled down much more than the GP14, forming more of a straight line between the headstock and the swingarm pivot. The upright rear member is significantly shorter, perhaps as much as 15cm. Engine mount points are all different, with the front engine spar now several centimeters longer than it was on the GP14. This is a common strategy, an attempt to create some flexibility and feel from the front end when the bike is on its side.
The exhaust has changed too, the rear cylinders routing their pipes to the right of the tank, rather than around it. This is in part an attempt to reduce the heat transfer from the exhaust to the tank, cooler fuel making for more power. The pipe for the front cylinders is much shorter, centralizing the weight more. This will have to change, however, as the heat from the lower exhaust is causing problems for the swingarm, which is getting too warm. A solution like Yamaha's slash-cut exhaust is a possible option.
For the riders, the biggest change is in the ergonomics. A more compact bike means more freedom to move around on the bike, and greater control over the GP15. Test rider Michele Pirro is the only person to have ridden the bike at the moment, and he was forbidden from speaking. After he had taken the bike for its shakedown test, Andrea Dovizioso called Pirro, and the test rider was tight-lipped even to Dovizioso. All he would tell Dovizioso is that the seat position is different, and better.
It was not much of a test ride. Nobody would tell us where it was that Pirro rode the GP15, but it was not a normal race track. Various comments hinted at it being too limited a place to actually give the bike a proper test, but then again, it was really only a shakedown. The objective was to ensure that it ran without blowing itself up, or anything major falling off. The first full test will come next week at Sepang, where Dovizioso and Iannone will get a better idea of the potential of the bike. Even then, they will not spend a lot of time on the GP15. Each rider will have one GP15, and one GP14.3, and only Pirro will ride the GP15 on the first day, ensuring that the bike works well.
Has the engine changed much internally? Again, Dall'Igna was cagey, admitting only that he and his design team had been working on the thermodynamics, by which he meant the combustion efficiency. Andrea Dovizioso let slip that the engine did sound different, suggesting either a different firing order or a different engine character. If the aim of the redesign has been to make the engine more compact, it is possible that Ducati have switched from a big bang firing order to a screamer, as that has better primary balance, obviating the need for balance shafts. That, however, remains pure speculation. We will get a better idea of the engine changes once the engine is fired up at Sepang.
At the root of the GP15 is not a design philosophy, however, but something more fundamental. Gigi Dall'Igna's first task when he arrived at Ducati was to thoroughly reorganize the racing department. Some people left, some people joined, most remained, but now, all of Ducati Corse's departments work together. "We managed to create harmony within the working group, both at the track and here," Ducati Corse sporting director Paolo Ciabatti told me. The engine department speaks to the chassis department, the chassis department speaks to the electronics department, the electronics department speaks to the engine department.
This allowed Dall'Igna to design and build the bike he wanted to. It is not just the fruit of his brain, both he and everyone at Ducati were keen to emphasize. Dall'Igna explained something of how he worked, setting out objectives, listening to ideas from the staff, picking and choosing from the best of them and then molding them into a single concept. This is not the work of a single man, but of an entire team. Even so, nobody hesitated when asked if this was "Gigi's bike".
Just how big a deal is the GP15 for Ducati? Very big, Ciabatti, Dall'Igna and both riders admitted. It is the first time Ducati has built a completely new bike with a new engine since they decided to enter MotoGP in 2003. They are determined to succeed, and nobody was willing to contemplate failure. This bike was the basis for the future, and had plenty of room for improvement. Already, various evolutions of the bike were being planned.
Will they succeed? The objective for 2015 is to try to win a race. That is not easy, Ciabatti was at pains to emphasize. To win a race means beating Marc Márquez, Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, riders with 20 world titles between them, of which 11 in the premier class. It means beating the engineering might of Yamaha and Honda, something which only the mercurial genius of Casey Stoner was consistently capable of doing since 2007, and the wiles and doggedness of Loris Capirossi before then.
But there is an overwhelming sense of optimism among everyone in Ducati. A win is no longer seen as a pipe dream, the kind of thing which riders tell themselves to keep themselves motivated, and justify the long hours which the mechanics and engineers put in. It will not be easy, but it is no longer impossible. Yes, Ducati will still have more fuel than Yamaha and Honda. And yes, they will have the soft qualifying tire. And yes, they are allowed to introduce engine updates, while development for Honda and Yamaha is frozen. But after being lost in the wilderness for so long, to be in contention again is truly an achievement. Yes, Ducati have several advantages thanks to the rules. But there is nothing they want more than to be forced to give up those advantages because they are winning races again.
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