If anyone thought that the media storm surrounding Valentino Rossi's switch to Ducati for the 2011 MotoGP season would die down once the announcement had been made official, they were to be proven utterly wrong. First, there was the saga of whether Yamaha would release Rossi early from his contract to allow the Italian to test the Ducati at Valencia, then there was the excitement and drama of the Valencia test itself.
Rossi ended the Valencia test 15th fastest, with only MotoGP returnee Toni Elias and MotoGP rookie Karel Abraham behind him, unleashing a tidal wave of speculation surrounding his test result. Rossi's slow time was put down to his still injured shoulder (for which he had surgery a few days later), and in wanting to get acquainted with the Ducati Desmosedici, rather than focus on trying to put in a fast lap.
While both these explanations are undoubtedly true, there were also a few of signs of panic among the Ducati team, despite team manager Alessandro Cicognani professing that Ducati was "not worried" about the times. Speaking to the press after the test, Ducati Corse director Filippo Preziosi described the test as a "bad test" and spoke of Rossi's lack of feeling with the front end. But the Ducati team had taken plenty of positives from the test, with Rossi expressing himself to be impressed with the engine and the rear grip, something he had complained about on the Yamaha just about all year.
As a sign of how seriously Ducati are taking Rossi's critique of the Desmosedici, Jeremy Burgess and the rest of Rossi's crew are currently at Ducati's Bologna factory, discussing the direction the Desmosedici needs to take for 2011. While the mechanics are spending their time familiarizing themselves with the bikes (learning how to assemble and disassemble the machines at speed, as Alex Briggs explained on Twitter), Burgess is joining Preziosi and other Ducati engineers and designers to analyze the data taken from the Valencia test and the data the test team collected at Jerez, riding with the Moto2 bikes there.
Their main priority is to improve the front end of the machine. The Desmosedici only really starts to work when the front Bridgestone tire gets up to temperature, a process that requires a lot of physical effort from the rider. Once the tire is up to temperature, the front end provides the necessary feedback, but until then it tends to feel vague, as if it is about to wash out. Ducati is working a new front subframe (the Desmosedici uses the engine as a load-bearing part of the chassis, with a separate front and rear subframe holding the steering head and the tail unit and fuel tank) featuring altered stiffness characteristics, making it less stiff in some directions. Though no details are available, lessons from the other manufacturers suggest that the new subframe will be less stiff in the vertical direction, allowing the front end to move a little more. The new chassis is expected to feature a revised weight balance and a new swingarm as well, with all of the changes aimed at making the bike much easier to ride.
The extent of the planned modifications is a surprise. Back in August, at the press conference where Ducati CEO Gabriele del Torchio announced the signing of Valentino Rossi, he told the media that Rossi's main focus would be on developing the 2012 bike, rather than the 2011 machine."Valentino will operate with us mainly for the 2012 bike, because the 2011 bike will be ready by the end of the season," Del Torchio told the press. It was expected that development on the 2011 machine over the winter would be minimal, as Ducati is a relatively small company with limited resources, despite several generous sponsorship contracts. Ducati Corse simply does not have the resources or the trained personnel to just throw more engineers at a problem, and the rule changes for 2012 are already absorbing a large part of Ducati Corse's efforts.
Rossi's times and Rossi's feedback appear to have radically reshaped Ducati's priorities. Casey Stoner's success aboard the Ducati had lulled the Bologna company into a false sense of security: after all, how bad can a bike be if the team's lead rider just keeps on racking up the victories? The struggles encountered by the other riders appear to have counted for less - Marco Melandri complaining that he was sent to a psychologist when he asked for changes to the bike during his miserable 2008 season aboard the Desmosedici - but now that Valentino Rossi, a rider whose talent is beyond question, is struggling with the machine, Ducati are starting to listen.
The bike that takes to the grid at Qatar is likely to be radically different to the one Rossi rode at Valencia. How those changes will affect development of the 2012 Desmosedici remains to be seen, but a bike that is easier to ride will surely benefit Nicky Hayden and the rest of the Ducati riders as well.