From one presentation to another. Having the Movistar Yamaha and Ducati Factory team launches on consecutive days made it a little too easy to make comparisons between the two. There was much complaining on social media about the fact that large parts of the Yamaha presentation were in Spanish only, causing the international audience watching the live streaming to lose interest.
Ducati's approach was better: while everything in the presentation was in Italian, there was simultaneous translation available on the live stream, so those following could hear it in English. That was no good to us in the hall, of course, though we would find out later that there had been headsets available with the live translation available. But nobody had thought to tell us about that, of course. Still, we got to practice our racing Italian, a necessity (along with racing Spanish) for those who work in MotoGP.
There was not much to complain about the location. Just as last year, the launch took place at the Ducati factory in Borgo Panigale, just west of Bologna. The auditorium is not much to write home about – a dark room with a stage – but journalists and guests were welcomed in the Ducati museum, a glorious place filled with Ducati history and a lot of racing past. If you are heading to Mugello or Misano, a visit to the museum is highly recommended.
Revising the past and revising the future
But we came to see the bikes, and to talk to the riders (and one rider in particular). We came to learn about Ducati's plans for 2017, and how they intend to try to win a world title. We learned a lot, though not necessarily about the subjects we were expecting.
The presentation featured live interviews with Ducati management and the riders Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo. It also included a short video recap of last season, and the highlights of what was a very successful year for Ducati. The attention paid to Ducati's successes last year also highlighted some painful historical revisionism. The footage of Austria – Ducati's first win since 2010 – showed both Ducatis crossing the line, but the podium footage was only of Andrea Dovizioso. Andrea Iannone found himself virtually airbrushed out of Ducati history, Leon Trotsky to Dovizioso's Joe Stalin.
Rumors that the bike on show would be a mock up of the 2017 bike rather than the actual machine Dovizioso and Lorenzo will race proved to be only half right. The bike on the podium was a 2017 machine, but the bodywork was the 2016 version without the now-banned wings.
Ducati Corse boss and the man in charge of the design of the bike, Gigi Dall'Igna, was coy about the 2017 Ducati. "[This is] not really the final design, but for sure the bike will improve a lot during the winter test, because we have 'something in pocket'. For sure nothing absolutely clear, but something that in our intention will improve the bike. Starting from next week we will try to do this."
Reading between the lines, there are aerodynamic updates coming, but they are still being developed, and Ducati do not intend to tip their hand early. But Dall'Igna did not believe they could replicate the effectiveness of the wings. "Nobody has a solution for this, frankly speaking," Dall'Igna said on the loss of winglets. "For me the bike will have a step backwards without wings. That is absolutely clear. So everybody is now trying to find the best compromise without wings, but for sure it will be not perform like with wings." Ducati is still annoyed by the banning of wings, but more on this later.
While Dall'Igna kept his cards close to his chest, Ducati's CEO Claudio Domenicali was a little more forthcoming. The 2017 bike has a new engine, he explained, which had "a very good increase in performance, thanks to a different approach in the overall engine." He would not elaborate much beyond that, but added "it's still a 90-degree V4, but a different interpretation of the design and general approach."
What does this mean? We can only speculate. Perhaps the ignition spacing has been altered, though the bike sounded the same at Valencia as the older Ducatis. More likely is some kind of innovation in the engine internals, which a trawl through recent patents might reveal. But Domenicali did give another, perhaps unwitting, clue that the change was significant.
Ducati's new V4 WorldSBK machine
He acknowledged that Ducati's next Superbike will be a V4, and not a V2, and that the new engine would have a lot of MotoGP technology inside it. "The engine development we have made in MotoGP has been exceptional. We have an engine which is very reliable, very light, compact and has a lot of interesting technology. We are seriously thinking of introducing it to regular customers as it is a masterpiece of engineering."
This was not a replacement for Ducati's previous ex-MotoGP road machine, the Desmosedici. Instead, it would be a premium sports bike, based on a V4 engine developed from MotoGP. It would be sold at a "reasonable, if premium price", which suggests it would be priced around the same as a Panigale R. Which, as it happens, is the bike Ducati race in WorldSBK.
Domenicali would not be drawn on when the bike would be available, nor would he say outright that Ducati would race the new V4 in WorldSBK. Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti gave a hint or two, by accident more than design. "For sure we will race with the Panigale for 2017 and 2018," Ciabatti told us when we asked him. That meant continuing development of the twin, with the aim of winning a title with Chaz Davies.
Piecing together those hints, it suggests that Ducati will probably introduce their V4 Superbike for 2018. That would allow the bike to be raced in national series and maybe Superstock 1000 for the 2018 season, using that experience to iron out the bugs which inevitably plague a new project on a lower profile stage. It would then allow Ducati to race the V4 in WorldSBK from the 2019 season. Of course, all this is speculation, but it seems built on rather solid foundations.
Mid corner needs work
Back to MotoGP, and where the new bike needs work. Both Andrea Dovizioso and Gigi Dall'Igna were clear what the biggest problem with the 2016 Desmosedici was. Getting the bike to turn in the middle of the corner, especially with a completely neutral throttle, was the biggest challenge they face.
The other area where the Ducati is weak is throttle response at the first touch of the throttle, Gigi Dall'Igna explained. "For sure, the first part of the gas is a problem with our bike so we have to find something to solve or at least reduce this problem. And another is the turning of the bike when you release completely the brake. These are the main areas where we have to improve." Asked whether he had any solutions, Dall'Igna laughed, and told us no solutions, but plenty of ideas. After all, you only know if an idea is a solution when you find out it works.
Those ideas will be available at Sepang, for the first test of the season starting in a little over a week. Andrea Dovizioso: "We will have a lot of updates in Malaysia for our bike in every area but I am focused on our bike and the middle of the corner to try and turn the bike a little bit easier and faster. I think it is what Jorge requested so I’m happy about that. "
Dall'Igna was keen to make it clear that this change was not solely to help Jorge Lorenzo, who is famously strong in the middle of the corner. "Frankly speaking I don’t think we have to change a lot the bike for his style. For sure we have to improve the bike, but not only for him, also Dovizioso, if I give him a bike that is better in the middle of the corner it will improve his performance. "
Lorenzo on Ducati
Jorge Lorenzo, free at last to talk, was enthusiastic about the bike he had found. It was a very different bike to the Yamaha he left behind at Valencia, though. "They are two completely different philosophies for making a bike, starting from the engine," Lorenzo explained. "The Ducati has a different sound, different power, but also the chassis has a different swing arm, handlebars, aerodynamics, everything is different. I needed a couple of laps to really understand where I was. For sure, especially the first time I went flat out on the straight in fifth and sixth gear, it was an unbelievable feeling and I had a smile on my face. The first impression is always important and the first impression was great."
The question is, of course, can Lorenzo adapt? The five-time world champion was keen to point out that he had done so in the past. When he was in the 250 class, he had been forced to change his riding style when he went from Honda to Aprilia. "[I rode] two different bikes. The Honda, I needed to brake much later and less corner speed. The Aprilia was the opposite really. With it you couldn’t brake so late."
Lorenzo will take a similar approach with the Ducati. "With this bike it will probably be something similar. It has another engine, with a lot more power on the straight and with more stability. If you're faster than before but have good stability, maybe you can brake at the same point." In the end, though, Lorenzo remained determined to make the best of his strongest points. "I will keep more or less the same DNA; that is precision, focus, smoothness and corner speed with the Ducati."
Dovizioso – a winner again?
While a lot of the focus was on Jorge Lorenzo, there was still plenty of attention for Andrea Dovizioso as well. Paolo Ciabatti was particularly complimentary. "Dovi, after the last part of the season, and win in Sepang, has found himself all the answers, all the self-confidence." The win at Sepang changed him, and he was stronger for it.
"Winning a race, any race, but especially in MotoGP is really big but it’s how you win a race that makes the difference," Dovizioso said. "For sure it was in the wet but how I won the race it was something big, something important for me. In your mind something changes." What was more important, though, was the strong finish he had to the season. Dovizioso believed that by the end of the season, the bike was much more competitive. The season may have been different if the bike had been that good at the start of the year.
The big question for Dovizioso was his relationship with Lorenzo. Circumstances point to the Italian playing second fiddle to Lorenzo, Ducati acknowledging that they had engaged the Spaniard with the express task of winning races and a championship. Dovizioso was sanguine about it. He was not afraid of Lorenzo, and the two had always respected each other on track.
Having a rider like Lorenzo as a teammate also forced him to raise his game, and offered him a target to aim at. "I'm excited, because for sure it will be a big challenge," he told us. The fact that Lorenzo was being paid far more than him was not a concern. Lorenzo had won more races and more titles, so that came with the territory.
There was also news of Casey Stoner, brand ambassador for Ducati, and the fastest test rider in the world, still. The Australian is to play a similar role to last year, doing important test work and attending a select few races to provide support and assistance. Stoner will test the 2017 Ducati at Sepang ahead of the test, from 25th to 27th January, and then stay on for the three-day test starting on 30th January to advise. He will also ride on the second day of the test, as well as probably the final day.
How important is Casey Stoner to Ducati? "Casey is important," Gigi Dall'Igna told us. He found it hard to express exactly how important Stoner's contribution is. "I think that Casey is a real… when he speaks normally he can give to you what the bike really… it's difficult to explain… If you understand very well his words, I think you can understand very well the behavior of the bike on the track. He is one of the few riders that can transmit the real problems of the bike. Maybe sometimes you cannot understand what he means! But test after test you can understand a little bit better and in the end normally you find out that - since the beginning - he gave to you the real problems."
Unhappy at losing the wings
Of course, the biggest change for 2017 is the banning of winglets in MotoGP. It was a move which Ducati had implacably opposed, and they continued to rail against it even at their 2017 launch. The lessons learned from the wings had proved useful in their thinking about production bikes, but Claudio Domenicali would not give any details. "Developing the wings was super useful," he said.
"It's been a very difficult to explain situation. The bikes were much better, much more stable, much more load on the front, much safer… and they kind of banned it for safety? Now you have to build a less safe bike, for a safety problem that never happened. It's very interesting, let's put it this way. But in the Commission it is majority voting and actually there are few European and many Japanese companies. So everyone can draw their own conclusion, as to why we are not running wings any more."
Andrea Dovizioso expanded on the Ducati CEO's explanation. "It’s something that we understood but the safety change a lot. In the last three years everybody increased the downforce with the wings. It was step-by-step and everyone developed it through the years. The quantity of the downforce was quite big. At the beginning you were lost on the exit. The biggest change is when you have a lot of [lean] angle and open a big percentage of throttle and you start to wheelie. This could be the biggest change."
Dovizioso said that the difference had been clear at the test in Valencia. "In Valencia maybe nobody noticed but from the test, almost at the finish line there were a lot of black lines and it was the front wheel when it started to spin again [when the front touched the asphalt again]. So if you check the meters from the last corner to the finish line it’s a lot of meters. All of them you are without weight on the front and it’s difficult to change the direction. If you notice on TV at the test everyone that was without the winglets changed completely the line. This is not safe because when you don’t have enough grip on the front you can’t control the direction of the bike enough. In some tracks it’s big, in others no."
Did killing off the wings mean the end of aerodynamic development in MotoGP? "I'm saying we have very creative and innovative people here," Claudio Domenicali said. "They cannot continue every season to ban something. I'm glad we have these people here because Gigi and his team are very focused on advanced development. It is not only a team spirit among riders, but a lot of development of technology and this will be very interesting for our future Ducati customer bikes."
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