MotoGP team launches are always the triumph of hope over experience. Each year, the bosses of every factory in the series tell the media that their objective is to win races and fight for the championship. Sometimes, they even believe it.
At last year's launch of the Ducati MotoGP team, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna said they hoped to be fighting for the championship. That, after all, is why they signed Jorge Lorenzo to what is reported to be a very lucrative contract. The assembled press were skeptical, despite the clear progress which Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons, their first wins coming in 2016.
Such skepticism was unwarranted, though you get the distinct feeling that even Ducati were surprised at how close Andrea Dovizioso came to clinching the 2017 MotoGP title. Ducati were delighted by the Italian's first win at Mugello, amazed at his victory in Barcelona a week later, and impressed by the way he beat Marc Márquez at Austria. By the end of the season, Ducati had come to expect to win races, and realized just how far they had come on their journey since the dark days of 2013, when they didn't score a single podium all year.
So on Monday, when Dall'Igna echoed the words of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in Bologna, that Ducati's objective was to win races and challenge for the championship in MotoGP, they were deadly serious. There is no doubt that Ducati is capable of doing just that – Dovizioso's results and Lorenzo's improvement in 2017 demonstrate that – and though they are all too aware of the dangers of complacency, Ducati start the 2018 season with both a firm expectation and belief that they are candidates for the 2018 MotoGP title.
The Ducati Desmosedici GP18
What can we say about the Ducati Desmosedici GP18? Not much yet, as the bike which was shown to the public at Bologna was an older bike, which looked for all the world like a 2017 machine. This should come as no surprise, really, as the bikes used at team launches are invariably there to show off the new color scheme, rather than the engineering details. The GP18 isn't even finalized yet, with updates scheduled for the Sepang test, and then probably for Thailand and Qatar as well.
But the introduction did reveal a few details about the new bike. According to Gigi Dall'Igna, speaking both during the presentation and afterwards to myself and Simon Patterson of Motorcycle News, the GP18 will have more horsepower than last year's bike. Why add more power to a bike that is already the most powerful on the grid? "I think that everybody is working to improve their bike, and so Honda and Yamaha will make a step forward in terms of performance of the engine next season, so we have to be ready." A lack of power may not have been the Ducati's biggest problem, but there was no harm in looking for more. "It's an improvement, so why not use it?" Dall'Igna asked philosophically.
Dall'Igna was confident the extra power would not make the bike any more difficult to ride. Ducati have worked on solutions to the first touch of the throttle, which was one of the bigger gripes the riders had last year. The biggest problem of the GP17, according to the riders, was the behavior of the bike in the middle of the corner. Dall'Igna said he hoped that Ducati had a solution for that too, with a new chassis coming for 2018. Aerodynamic updates are also due, in an attempt to fix the complaints which Andrea Dovizioso had, especially, that the aero fairing took more effort to turn than the standard one.
Whether those updates are ready for the first test at Sepang is open to question. Ducati hoped to have them ready for Sepang, but if they weren't ready for that test, then they would be ready for the test at Buriram in Thailand, Dall'Igna explained.
Unfortunately for Ducati, the Buriram test has replaced the one at Phillip Island, as the track in Thailand is new on the calendar for 2018 and the teams (and more importantly, Michelin) are keen to get data from the circuit. But Phillip Island, and to a lesser extent Sachsenring, were the places the Ducati really suffered in terms of getting the bike to turn.
Andrea Dovizioso was not concerned about not getting to test at Phillip Island, however. "For sure, if you go to those tracks it's easier," the Italian told us. "But that's not a problem, because I know very well what we need to be stronger in that kind of track. Because for me it is clear what we need to be faster."
If the turning problem was fixed, it would be immediately obvious, Dovizioso maintained, wherever they were testing. "If you improve in that point, you are faster also in other tracks," he said. "Because in Malaysia we are fast, but in the middle of the corner we are not as fast as the competitors. The characteristic is always the same. So this is not the point, the point is to improve our limit."
Past history bears out Dovizioso's experience. When the Italian first swung his leg over the new and improved GP15 at Sepang, he knew the bike was a massive improvement over the GP14 as soon as he tipped in to the tight first turn at Sepang. He found himself almost on the grass on the inside of the corner, the bike require so much less effort to turn than he was used to. If the GP18 is easier to turn in the middle of the corner, both Dovizioso and Lorenzo will know immediately, no matter where they are testing.
Despite the fact that the GP18 will be revised on several fronts, Gigi Dall'Igna insisted that this was a question of evolution rather than revolution. "We have arrived quite close to the premium bikes, the fastest bikes, and so now it's time for evolution. We are not looking for a completely new concept, a completely new idea."
It's not just the bike which wasn't finalized. On both the riders' leathers and on the side of the bike, there was a large blank space. Italian telecoms giant TIM chose not to renew their contract when it ended in November last year. But the space left by TIM was being left intentionally blank, as Ducati were close to a deal with a new sponsor to fill it. Ducati sporting director Paolo Ciabatti explained the situation.
"Obviously, everybody knows that TIM had been partners with Ducati – different brands like Telecom, Alice – the Telecom Italia group has decided not to renew the contract, which was expiring at the end of 2017," Ciabatti said. "We knew about this in November and we sold some spaces to existing sponsors, so they increased their investment in Ducati. But still we decided to leave the field open for one more sponsor to join Ducati before the beginning of the 2018 season. Let’s say, we plan to be able to finalize a deal in early March to be able to come to the first race with some additional branding on the bike with one company."
Ciabatti refused to name the candidates to replace TIM – understandably, given the commercial sensitivities – but said they were talking to multiple possible sponsors. "We’re talking with a couple of companies. Obviously knowing that TIM would not continue in November did not make our life very easy because most companies have already allocated their budgets for 2018 in November. But luckily when talking to some companies that might be interested in multi-year deals, you can always manage the investment from this year to the future and try to balance. This is what we are trying to do and we are confident we will achieve that target."
A fantastic season in 2017 had made the negotiations a little easier than in previous years, Ciabatti told us. "In the past we used to go and see our partner and promise that we would be able to improve, improve and improve. We actually managed to do that, but once you are sitting with the company and you have six races wins and the second place in the championship, and you can show how much visibility that we’re able to provide to our sponsors and partners, it makes it easier."
A hard sell
Finding new sponsors was not easy, however. "The situation with sponsorships in the motorcycle racing world is not that easy in general. There aren’t many big corporations willing to invest in our sport, unfortunately, but luckily there are some companies who approached us," Ciabatti explained.
These difficulties are not unique to motorcycle racing, though it also faces unique challenges because of the dangers of the sport. "There is a lot of competition in the sponsorship world from our sport," Ciabatti explained. "Even football, which is so popular, covering any age or demographics, the cost of sponsorship there at least if you don’t talk about Real Madrid or Barcelona is decreased a lot. There is a lot of competition."
Though the popularity of motorcycle racing, and MotoGP in particular, has been growing, sponsorship was still very much a numbers game, Ciabatti said. "A lot of companies that are looking into exposure and big numbers, they might look to different sports. For the same money, they can get a lot and probably get bigger numbers. Motorcycle racing is growing in numbers but in some countries it’s, I would say, a niche product – not everybody knows it and follows it – and this doesn’t make it so easy. Some companies still consider it a dangerous sport so they find it controversial to associate their brand with a sport which – right or wrong – is considered for the past to be a dangerous sport."
Extra sponsorship would be more than welcome for Ducati. Their success pays off for the company, but it also leads to increased salary demands from the riders. Andrea Dovizioso is believed to be greatly underpaid in relation to the success he had last year, and if he manages anything like a repeat of 2017 this year, he will want a much bigger slice of the pie. Other factories are lurking, expressing an interest in Dovizioso, which will also drive up the price. Jorge Lorenzo, meanwhile is on an exorbitant salary, and though he will accept a pay cut if he doesn't start winning races, he will still command a princely salary.
Can Ducati afford to keep both of their riders? "We don't know what kind of proposal they will get from our competitors, but we are pretty sure that they would like to stay with this family," team manager Davide Tardozzi told us. Paolo Ciabatti was less certain, but underlined that keeping their two current riders was the main concern.
"In the ideal world, we would like to keep both riders," Ciabatti said. "Andrea has been with us for six years and he’s in the heart of Ducati fans because of what he did last year. Also because of his personality; humble, down to earth, with no fuss or glitter – just a normal guy doing exceptional things. Obviously it’s a value for Ducati; not only what he does on the track but also the way he’s seen by our fans."
"Jorge has won 44 GPs, five championships. Hopefully this year he will be a contender for the championship. It would be a shame not to continue with him after a difficult beginning and, we think, a very positive – with some perspective – 2017 season," Ciabatti said. Lorenzo himself understood how riders are valued, and joked about the situation he found himself in. "Obviously, they say your value is the same as your last race. My last race is a crash so it’s not very high!"
Merry-go-round starts to roll
Ducati's situation also depended on what the other MotoGP factories would do, Ciabatti said. "We will wait to see a little bit, understand what we can put on the table, see a little bit the movement of the market because if some other manufacturers approach our riders it will become more complicated. But ideally we will be happy to keep both riders knowing we can not overspend a certain limit. We need the money to develop the bike."
The fact that all six factories have their riders out of contract at the end of 2018 means that the pressure is on to sign riders early. Normally, factories would want to wait for the first few races on European soil before making a decision, to evaluate where riders stand and judge their value. Traditionally, Mugello was the place where contracts would be settled, but that date has gotten earlier every year.
"I think Mugello is too late," Ciabatti said. "I think we’ll need to start exploring the situation in the next weeks. I don’t think making a firm decision too early, but for sure having a clear picture of the situation. Then do the next steps as a consequence of the situation quite early. Quite early probably means the second half of February or the first half of March. I think we should know by then what is the clear possibility of us for 2019/2020."
What that means is that for Ducati, at least, they would hope to be signing their riders before the 2018 bikes have turned a wheel in anger during a race. "If we would be able to conclude negotiations with both and sign them both before the first race, I would be very happy. I think it’s unlikely that this can happen. I think that we can have already a clear idea of the situation with both Andrea and Jorge in early March. Then depending on how the situation is, we will move forward." The 2019 contracts could be decided by the outcome of testing before the season has even started.
The future starts here
If you thought that contract negotiations for the factory team are bordering on the dangerously premature, then Ducati's scouting for young talent is even earlier. Paolo Ciabatti confirmed reports that Ducati were already talking to Sky VR46 Moto2 rider Pecco Bagnaia for a spot in the Pramac team for 2019, and were putting out feelers for other talent as well.
"When I was asked out of the younger, coming riders I think Franco Morbidelli already did an incredible season and he’s moved to MotoGP," Ciabatti said. "We will see his performance this year. From the other riders we think Bagnaia is a promising rider and definitely Joan Mir did a fantastic season last year. We need to see what he does in Moto2. If I had to say three names of young riders that might be interesting for our future, they would be Morbidelli, Bagnaia and Mir without getting started in negotiations."
Showing interest was one thing, signing contracts was another thing altogether, Ciabatti went on to clarify. "It’s obvious when you think some riders are interesting, you try to understand which situations they are in, which commitments they have for the future because this is the basics of thinking. If someone decides that in five years, they are a potential rider for you, it’s useless. So to do properly our job, we need to understand the situation of these riders and then we can think about our future. As I said, it’s a future probably more for Pramac."
Pramac was there to operate as a place to nurture future talent, Ciabatti said. "The task of Pramac is to be the MotoGP Junior Team. I mean, this is why we signed Danilo, Scott and Jack – in order to put them in a very professional team with very good material, either the same bike as the factory riders or just one step below, and with a very competent team. Most of the technical management is done by Ducati Corse engineers. Sometimes it works, like with Danilo. Obviously we were happy with his achievements. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with Scott. We couldn’t get the results that we had hoped for. He had a fantastic beginning on a Ducati when he was testing at Jerez in 2015 but things didn’t really go the way we or he expected. But this is why we have such a close relationship with Pramac. Any new riders would come first in the Pramac team and then we will see if we can do the ‘Iannone thing’ – moving him from the Pramac team to the factory team."
No team tension
Mention of Andrea Iannone immediately raised the specter of the friction which the Italian brought to Ducati when he was paired with Andrea Dovizioso. But Paolo Ciabatti was not afraid of a repeat of that situation if Jorge Lorenzo proves to be competitive in 2018. "I think the Iannone / Dovizioso situation was quite different because of Iannone’s character," the Ducati boss explained. "He is quite different to Jorge’s character. We like very much Andrea Iannone. When he came into the team, he came with the approach of being defiant with the other rider, which immediately created some friction."
The situation for Lorenzo and Dovizioso was very different, Ciabatti said. "Jorge and Dovi know each other because they have been in MotoGP for many years. They respect each other. Obviously they want to beat each other but this is normal. Every team-mate is the worse opponent. I don’t have this fear. I’m not afraid this will happen. Obviously there might be moments that friction might be stronger because anything can happen on track. I think both Andrea and Jorge are very respectful of each other. They don’t like to do crazy things on track. When riders respect each other, it’s because of the way they’ve been seeing each other for many years. [Because of this] I think 90% of the job is done."
That doesn't mean there can be no friction, however. "We don’t live in an ideal world. There might be moments where – and there were moments last year a few times – but it’s quite easy for us to sit them together and explain to cut any potential problem from the beginning and let them explain each others’ reason, if there is some misunderstanding so it doesn’t grow to a higher level."
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