After two months of quiet on the MotoGP front, the racing season is starting to burst into action. With the first test at Qatar approaching – and looking ever more likely to actually take place – there is a burst of activity, as the factories all hold their team launches. So frenetic, indeed, that we barely have a moment to ponder one launch before we are onto the next.
That is in part a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In previous years, launches have been live events with an online element. (Manufacturers, both in racing and production, have learned that they can reach fans and buyers directly with online launches, without journalists sitting in the middle and muddying the message. Series organizers are on this path now as well.) While the pandemic still holds the world in its grip, those launches have moved completely online, with different factories taking different approaches.
Ducati were, as almost every year, the first manufacturer to launch their 2021 MotoGP project. You can watch the video on Ducati's YouTube channel or see it below, something worth doing. The video is well-produced, as you might expect, but it also provides real insight into what Ducati is doing (though, of course, not too much). As in previous years, they have one of their engineering specialists appearing in the launch. This time, it is Gabriele Conti, Ducati Corse Electronics Systems Manager, talking about some of the issues related to electronics.
The reason they have Gabriele Conti on display is to showcase their new title sponsor. For the first time since the banning of tobacco sponsorship forced Ducati to abandon their Marlboro name at the end of 2009, the Italian factory has a name sponsor. For 2021, they will be known as the Ducati Lenovo team, partnering with the Chinese technology giant for the next three years. It is a relationship which started in 2018, and is now being expanded to a title role.
Of course, this does not mean that Phillip Morris, the tobacco giant which has backed Ducati since they entered the premier class back in 2003, have stepped away from the Italian manufacturer. Mission Winnow, the innovation project which serves as a shell company for PM's tobacco sponsorship, is still a major backer of Ducati. Mission Winnow is listed second on Ducati's list of sponsors behind Lenovo but ahead of Audi Sport, the brand's owners. Like the opening credits of a movie, the sponsors are listed in order of significance. Significance in this instance being largely a synonym for financial contribution.
That said, Lenovo is a natural partner for Ducati. The Italian factory has long been at the forefront of using computers to model every aspect of the motorcycle. While everyone is now using computational fluid dynamics to model aerodynamics, and various methods to model materials and engine performance, Ducati have expanded that to every aspect of the bike. Their partnership with Megaride to model tire performance is one example of where Ducati have been pioneers.
"Lenovo is not a new partner for us," Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna explained. "We have worked with them since 2018, and so we know them very well, and we evolve our IT technology with them in the last few years. And so it's quite normal for us to introduce new computers and new things that Lenovo can supply to us. For sure it's really important to evolve the IT technology, because the simulation of the bike has increased quite a lot in a few years, and now in particular for the aerodynamics, and many other things, we need a lot of power and Lenovo is the best partner for that, I think."
Gabriele Conti, Ducati Corse Electronics Systems Manager, went a little deeper into this subject, explaining how important a reliable and fast IT infrastructure is, not just at the factory, but also at the track, to analyze and examine the data coming from the bikes when they come into the garage.
"There are around five minutes, maybe four, to download all the data, talk to the rider, see what's happened and use our tools to put together a new package of thousands of new parameters to send back to the bike," Conti explained in the launch video. "Here are a few numbers: on the motorbike, we have about 50 sensors. But we are talking about 500 channels, because the software continues its calculations. All these numbers and data are aggregated by our control center, which has to wait for the bike to return to the pit. This means that we need to tailor-make the suit while it is being worn, so to speak."
Tailoring the bike to each rider is a necessity, Conti explained. "While the engine is the same for everyone, the electronics each rider has are extremely personalized and customized so that when they are on the track, they're comfortable. Because if they aren't, it's too late. You can't change."
Reliability was crucial to success. "It all has to work, because losing a connection on the grid just before the start means not starting. So the reliability of the IT tools that we use, which Lenovo is helping us with, is comparable to the reliability of the engine, because starting or not starting is like breaking the engine. And it was fundamental to have the right machines to manage this huge amount of data extremely quickly."
Computers and data processing touched every aspect of Ducati's work, Conti explained. "Apart from the electronics, many of these services serve other areas, like engine development and aerodynamics, which in recent years have demanded enormous calculation capacity."
Ducati's pioneering in aerodynamics and simulation technology has been the envy of the other MotoGP manufacturers. "We think we have a group of engineers and technicians at the very highest level, as well as the capacity to make unconventional choices, innovations devised and developed by Ducati engineers, which were then seen and applied by almost all the other manufacturers," Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti said.
Those engineers are constantly at risk of being poached by the other manufacturers. Michele Gada and Marco Frigerio, two electronics specialists who defected to Yamaha to apply their expertise to the spec Magneti Marelli electronics of the M1, are two of the most high profile examples in recent years. "Ducati engineers are very highly thought of in the paddock," team manager Davide Tardozzi said. "Every year someone tries to poach one or two or three of them, but it makes me very happy that many of them turn down those offers and prefer to stay at Ducati where they have learned and grown and continue to develop."
The innovations – some loved, some hated – are indicative of the freedom given to Ducati's engineers to try out new ideas, explore new solutions to existing problems. That creativity is visible in the way Ducati gets around technical restrictions put in their way by the rule makers. Ducati responded to the introduction of spec electronics by switching their focus to aerodynamics to control wheelie. When the Grand Prix Commission clamped down on aerodynamics, Ducati first introduced a holeshot device to control wheelie at the start of the race, then adapted it for use throughout the race, in the form of the "shapeshifter", or suspension lowering device.
Where Ducati led, others have followed. Every bike on the grid now has aerodynamic winglets within the bounds of the MotoGP regulations. They all either have a holeshot device, or are working on one. And most now also have a shapeshifter of some form or other. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, Gigi Dall'Igna concedes. "At the end, it's a question of pride, because after the inevitable reflex of anger, being copied by the Japanese is actually a big compliment."
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