One of the most perplexing issues of the 800cc era has been the question of the Ducati Desmosedici GP7, GP8 and GP9. The remarkable and incredibly innovative motorcycle has one world title and 18 victories to its name from just 39 races, a strike rate impressively close to 50%. But look more closely at those awe-inspiring results and you see a much darker side to the Ducati, a side which makes a nonsense of all those victories.
Of the 18 victories recorded on the 800cc Desmosedici, 17 were taken by Casey Stoner, as was the 2007 world title. Of the 394 points which gained Ducati the constructor's title in 2007, 367 were scored by Stoner, the Australian only beaten by another Ducati three times that year, and beating his team mate Loris Capirossi - the man who had been a title contender in 2006 - by over 200 points, or 11 points a race, on average. In 2008, Stoner could "only" manage to best Toni Elias, the next Ducati rider, by 188 points. So far this season, Casey Stoner has already racked up 54 points, 75% more than the other four (!) Ducati riders combined.
Anyone doubting that the problem is with the bike need only look at the riders who have been teamed with Casey Stoner. Loris Capirossi is a three-time world champion, with two titles in the 125 class and one in 250s; Marco Melandri is another former 250 champ, as well as a MotoGP runner-up; while current team mate Nicky Hayden is one of an elite group of riders - including Casey Stoner - to have beaten Valentino Rossi to the MotoGP title. This is no ragtag crew of journeymen and also-rans, these are among the very best riders in the world, and yet they have all proven incapable of taming the Bologna Beast.
The reasons the Ducati is so difficult to ride have been speculated on extensively, but all of the riders (well, all but Casey Stoner, that is) have spoken of a lack of trust in the bike, and especially a lack of predictability. The bike is hard to set up, and at Jerez, Nicky Hayden told reporters that the bike felt like it had "a mind of its own. The thing that's hard about this bike is it always feels different. Sometimes the carburation fixes itself, so every lap's not the same." And all talk that Casey Stoner just trusts his traction control has been consigned to the garbage can too. At the Spanish Grand Prix, Hayden admitted that he used far more traction control than Stoner, the Australian using hardly any traction control at all.
Finally, even Ducati have had to admit there's a problem. In the pre-race press release for this weekend's MotoGP round at Le Mans, Ducati announced that the team on Hayden's side of the garage would be reshuffled. Current Hayden crew chief and track engineer Cristhian Pupulin, will be handing over the role of crew chief to Juan Martinez. Martinez joins Ducati from Kawasaki, where he was Ant West's crew chief last year, but he is no stranger to the Ducati team. Martinez spent a year there with Sete Gibernau in 2006, who he had followed to Ducati from the Gresini Honda team.
Martinez is both well-known and well-respected in the paddock, and helped Gibernau to poles and victories while at Gresini, at the time sponsored by Movistar. Most importantly, Martinez speaks both Italian and English well, an issue which had been troubling the relationship between Pupulin and Hayden, Pupulin having difficulty following Hayden's Kentucky drawl and southern slang.
It would be wrong to paint this as a demotion for Pupulin, however. Relieved of crew chief duties, Pupulin will be free to concentrate on his role as track engineer, and, as the press release puts it, spend more time focusing on purely analyzing the data from all the Ducati riders. Pupulin first joined the Ducati team as track engineer for Carlos Checa back in 2005, but switched to Loris Capirossi in the Italian's best season, 2006. Since then, he has worked with both Capirossi and Melandri, and so through his career, Pupulin has seen both great success and abject failure. He has clearly been able to make the 990cc Ducati fly for Capirossi, but despite a victory for Capirex at Motegi, Pupulin has had little success making the 800cc bike work for the riders he has worked with.
The move seems to be aimed at a number of things. First and foremost is to improve the communication on the Hayden side of the garage. If the American feels his feedback is being correctly understood, he should be able to spend more time on track, gathering data and improving his base setup, which is what has troubled Hayden. After working with an Australian for a year, Martinez should have fewer problems reaching an understanding with a Kentuckian.
But secondly, the move is a sign that Ducati recognize the problems with the GP9. By allowing Pupulin to spend more time on the data from all of the Ducatis (and the press release is very specific on this matter), the team hope to be able to develop the bike from a beast which only one man can tame to a more docile animal which a broader range of riders can master.
If anything, the reorganization underlines the fact that Casey Stoner's speed is down to his incredible skill, rather than the ability of the bike. A large number of fans - often given to wearing yellow - have declared Stoner's success to be just down to the speed of the bike, painting the Australian merely as a capable passenger, rather than a skilled operator. But a closer examination of Casey Stoner's first season in MotoGP, aboard a very satellite spec Honda and at the bottom of the Michelin pecking order when it came to tires, demonstrated Stoner's true ability.
The Australian was forced to extract the maximum out of what he was given, a task he sometimes overstepped, gaining him a reputation as a crasher. It is looking more and more like this is what Stoner is doing at Ducati as well, extracting everything he can out of the difficult Ducati. Stoner's speed, it seems, is more despite of the Ducati, rather than because of it.
With Ducati focusing more of its effort on making the GP9 more rideable, it would appear that they, too, are starting to understand this fact. Back at Borgo Panigale, they now know they have to tame the Bologna Beast. On present form, if they lose Casey Stoner through accident or injury, the Hayate would be handing them their behinds. Being beaten by a bike with no development, ridden by a man whose career they helped write off in 2008, is a sign of just how much trouble Ducati are really in.