Ducati's new WorldSBK machine will get its first public airing at Aragon today
It's hard to remember a more hotly anticipated racing motorcycle than the Ducati Panigale V4R. The bike will make its track debut today at Aragon with Chaz Davies on testing duties.
The V4 is arguably this is the most interesting bike to hit the track since 2015, when the first Gigi Dall'Igna-designed Ducati MotoGP machine rolled down the pit lane at Sepang. That GP15 transformed Ducati's fortunes in Grand Prix racing, and the GP15-inspired V4 will hold similar hopes for the Bologna based firm.
It took a year for Ducati to get back to winning ways in MotoGP but the GP15 was a podium threat from the opening round of the year. The Italian manufacturer doesn't need to make huge leaps forward in WorldSBK, so if the V4 improves on its predecessor it will be an instant contender to end Jonathan Rea's dominance of the production-based series.
Pretender to the throne?
"WorldSBK is unfortunately a little bit like MotoGP, with Marquez and Honda dominating. Rea and Kawasaki have dominated WorldSBK," admitted Ducati's Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti. "Our package has been good in recent years, as shown by Chaz [Davies] finishing second for the last two seasons. It's not good enough to seriously challenge Jonathan, though. The Panigale didn't win a world championship, but it won lots of races and we showed that we were the only serious contender to Rea and Kawasaki.
"The new V4R has been developed extensively with Michele Pirro doing a lot of testing. The plan for 2019 is very strong with Chaz and Alvaro [Bautista]. This year Chaz was injured a lot and wasn't riding at 100%, but a fully-fit Chaz and Alvaro Bautista is a very strong team of riders. We haven't won a title since Carlos Checa in 2011 but we are confident to have both the bike and the riders capable of fighting for the title next year."
Those riders will be Davies and MotoGP refugee Alvaro Bautista. The decision to bring in the Spaniard was a head scratcher to some, but with Marco Melandri having struggled to challenge Davies in recent years, Ducati felt it was the right time to make a change. Melandri, a podium finisher almost every other race since returning to the series, will move to Yamaha for 2019.
"It's never easy to change riders and obviously there are always people who have a different opinion. The situation for us in round June was that there were other opportunities on the table for our riders and Marco had been approached by Yamaha. We understand that Marco wasn't happy and was disappointed but that's life. Marco is super competitive and was fighting for podium finishes at almost every round but we needed a rider who's capable of fighting for the win in every race.
"We thought Alvaro was without doubt one of the fastest riders in MotoGP, and he didn't have a proper solution to continue in MotoGP. We thought it was time to try to get him to come to WorldSBK. Alvaro has been underestimated, up until Phillip Island. If you are capable of doing that jumping on a different bike, on a difficult track like Phillip Island, probably you can be a challenger for the WorldSBK title."
New bike, new beginning
To win that title he'll need a bike that's made a step forward. The Panigale was a bike that struggled to make an impact initially and once the team had found its form they were suddenly in the midst of the "Rea era" of WorldSBK. With an all-new bike for 2019 the Italians were keen to stress that they weren't married to any design philosophy, and that their only concern was developing the best bike possible for the road and the track.
"We are always trying to find the best solution for our customer. The desmodromic system in the engine is the only thing that we want to keep, but the other things that some people thought are Ducati dogmas, like a trellis frame, aren't necessarily required for every bike. The performances of the new generation four-cylinder bikes from our competitors made us evaluate that configuration. The V4 engine was designed for the GP15 and it is a compact, powerful base for a production engine. It was the first engine designed with Gigi Dall'Igna, and I think it came naturally to switch. The twin-cylinder engine is a very good solution for lots of other models, but for the best hyper performance bike, the V4 was the way to go. It's a V4, but it's a desmodromic V4!"
Ducati views the new bike as a demonstration of their commitment to WorldSBK. The cost of developing any bike is not to be underestimated and they have put their money where their mouth is; they want WorldSBK to be a success.
"Superbike racing is still very important for Ducati; it's where we came from. We've won so many races and so many titles, so it's still important to us. Ducati still believes in Superbikes, as shown by the fact that we developed a new bike for the series. It's never an easy task to develop a bike and obviously, we want to see that the championship will grow again."
"The championship needs stability with a lot of changes in recent years - reverse grids, three races a weekend, and so on - but hopefully Dorna can find a way to make a good package for the show for spectators and broadcasters. The main thing is that teams are struggling to finance themselves.
"There is factory support for Kawasaki, Ducati, and Yamaha [this interview was conducted prior to HRC and BMW's 2019 announcement] but then the rest is a little bit behind. It will be great to see more active involvement from other manufacturers. Hopefully next year we're going to be a difficult challenge for Kawasaki and this will make races more interesting at many races this year."
The first skirmish of 2019 is underway at Aragon, and with Jerez playing host to another test next week a clearer picture of what to expect from Ducati next year will develop very quickly.
Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.