"This is the reality," factory Ducati rider Andrea Dovizioso told the media after finishing 7th at Qatar, some 24 seconds off the pace of the winner, Jorge Lorenzo. Hopes had been raised on Saturday night, after the Italian had qualified in fourth, posting a flying lap within half a second of polesitter Lorenzo. While Dovizioso's qualifying performance had been strong, he had at the time warned against too much optimism. The Desmosedici is good on new tires, but as they begin to wear, the chronic understeer which has plagued the Ducati since, well, probably since the beginning of the 800cc era, and maybe even well before that, rears its ugly head and makes posting competitively fast laps nigh on impossible.
The problem appears to be twofold. Firstly, a chassis issue, which is a mixture of weight distribution, gearbox output shaft layout, frame geometry and, to a lesser extent, chassis flexibility. And secondly, a problem with engine response, an issue which is down in part to electronics, and in part to Ducati still using just a single injector per throttle body. The weight distribution problem causes the bike to want to run wide at corners, making it hard to keep it on line; the throttle response issue just makes this worse, with the throttle either very harsh and aggressive, and difficult to control, or, when the revised electronics package is used to soften power delivery, makes the throttle response feel remote, and removes the connection between throttle and drive from the rear wheel.
The combination of the two means that while the bike is relatively competitive in qualifying and practice, lap times take a nosedive as the race progresses. With fresh tires, it is possible to use the power to help the bike to turn, and the extra grip new tires offer also helps mitigate the tendency to understeer. As grip levels drop off, the front starts pushing wide, and the harshness of the throttle makes it hard to control sliding at the rear, one way of helping the bike to turn.
The problem is clear from the lap times posted by the factory Ducati riders in the race. Both Dovizioso and Nicky Hayden started well, Dovizioso getting away with the leaders when the lights went out. The two men have a decent pace for the first 8 laps, running mid to high 1'56s, before suddenly slowing, losing four tenths or more a lap, as the tires start to pass their prime. Where the lap times of the Hondas and Yamahas tend to show a slow and steady decline, the Ducati times appear to suddenly fall off a cliff.
So Ducati is still in trouble, despite the work they have done. And yet the early part of this season has given more cause for hope than has been present for the past few years. With Valentino Rossi now back at Yamaha, and Audi's organizational shake up starting to have some impact on Ducati's internal organization - something made even more obvious by the apparently imminent departure of Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio - Ducati Corse has been getting on quietly with the redesign of the Desmosedici which they hope will cure the bike's biggest problems, free of the media spotlights which put so much pressure on the Italian factory.
At the Jerez test, while most of the media were milling around the factory garages of Yamaha, Honda and Ducati - in order of media interest - one garage along from the Factory Ducati box, Michele Pirro worked with the Ducati test team on the Bologna factory's new direction. The three bikes in that garage were among the most intriguing machines at Jerez. Pirro had one of the 2013 bikes which would be raced by Hayden and Dovizioso at Qatar, which included the latest weight distribution updates, moving the electronics package to the front of the tank, and the fuel further under the seat, changes which have already improved the balance of the bike. But Pirro also had a new version of the Desmosedici, with a radically different exhaust layout and a revised chassis, hinting at much bigger changes to come.
This bike is not likely to be raced by the factory riders, but it is the basis of Ducati's future direction, Ducati staff continually referring to the machine as their "lab bike". The ideas being tested in that machine will make their way into the next iteration of the bike, which according to sources close to Ducati suggest could be tested by the factory riders at the official test after the Barcelona round of MotoGP in June. If those changes win the approval of Hayden and Dovizioso, they could then filter through in the second half of 2013.
The first change is expected to be the introduction of two injectors per throttle body, to help improve throttle response, especially for the first touch of the throttle. Adding a secondary injector for low RPM allows the fuel to be more finely vaporized, something which is more critical at lower revs and therefore lower air intake speeds. Both Honda and Yamaha have been using two injectors for some time now, and this should allow better throttle control.
The next change will be a major chassis revamp, centralizing mass even more and reorganizing the basic packaging of engine, gearbox, fuel and frame. Whether this change will also include an altered gearbox layout for a better output shaft position, and to help shorten the engine, is unknown, but what is certain is that the Ducati will retain the 90° angle between its cylinder banks. The revelation that Honda's RC213V is a 90°V may have steeled Ducati in their conviction that there is nothing wrong with the choice of engine layout, and that the solution needs to be found in other directions. Redesigning the engine to use a different angle would have been a massive operation - at least two years, maybe more - but repackaging the current basic bottom end and cylinder layout is a much less costly exercise.
How quickly will this program begin to pay off? Without a working crystal ball (and all of the ones I acquire appear to be defective) it is hard to say. Audi will be expecting to see solid signs of progress by the end of the year, as will Phillip Morris, who continue to spend many millions of dollars on Ducati's MotoGP program without the return of visible promotion for their tobacco brands. A victory for Ducati in MotoGP seems improbable in 2013. But the iconic Bologna factory will need to look like a regular podium contender by the end of the year. Seen from the sidelines, they just might be on the right path again.