Leaving the Sepang MotoGP test, all eyes were on Ducati. In part, perhaps, because they had brought yet another technical innovation which is set to upset rival manufacturers, and captured the imagination of fans and media. We were all talking about Ducati's front ride-height device.
That enthusiasm was supported by the fact that there were two Ducatis in the top three after Sepang, and three Ducatis in the top six. Take away the Aprilias (who had had the benefit of extra days riding and testing during the shakedown test), and there were three Ducatis in the top four. Things were looking ominous.
Heading into the Mandalika test, we were expecting that Ducati dominance to continue. Luca Marini setting the fastest time on the second day on the Mooney VR46 Desmosedici GP22 reinforced that idea. And yet by the end of the three-day test, the idea that 2022 would be the year of the Ducati was far less obvious than it had been a week prior.
The Ducatis were still competitive. But digging into the pace, the bikes looked a fraction off the pace of the Hondas, of Fabio Quartararo, of the Suzukis. Pecco Bagnaia put that down to doing race runs on the medium rather than the soft rear, making it hard to compare times.
"Today is difficult to say something about who was the fastest, because today the worst tire was the medium, but they will not take the soft for the race weekend," the factory Ducati rider said. "So just me, [Luca] Marini, and [Marco] Bezzecchi were trying the race simulation with the medium. And it was really difficult to do more laps, because it was slippery and I was sliding a lot. The soft was for sure better, and all the others were using soft. So looking at my pace when I was using the soft, it's very close to the fastest riders."
It is hard to verify Bagnaia's claims that only he, Bezzecchi, and Marini used the medium rear. The tires used are not published on the official timesheets, in contrast to regular race weekends. And the tires at the test lack the color coding used on race weekends. It is customary that the Michelin technicians will tell riders what other riders are using. But outside of the garages, that information is widely shared.
Truth or dare?
Bagnaia says that he was one of only three riders to do a long run on the medium tire. But then Fabio Quartararo told us, "today, we decided with the team to go with the medium for the race simulation, because they said the soft will not be here for the race. But actually it was a nightmare of a race simulation, I never had such a bad feeling with the rear tire."
It may have been a nightmare, but Quartararo did 7 laps under 1'33, and 3 more 1'33.0s. Bagnaia, by contrast, could not lap under the 1'33.2s, and his pace was closer to 1'33.5.
It is not uncommon for riders to not be entirely accurate in their comments to the media, and it seems that either Pecco Bagnaia or Fabio Quartararo are misleading us, or Bagnaia is genuinely unaware of what tire Quartararo used for his race simulation. But what is apparent is that, though the Ducati is fast, it is not as dominant as we thought at Sepang.
The feedback from the Ducati riders was positive, but they were also hedging their bets. "Ready? No, but when are we ever ready?" Jack Miller said. "The race is the race, it's completely different. I feel as ready as we can be there."
Pecco Bagnaia's perspective ran along similar lines. "We did an incredible job in this test. We have prepared the bike to race well in Qatar. Our pace and consistency was OK. We decided to do the race simulation with a medium tire, that was not the best option but we were very constant in terms of pace, so this is good. We are working a lot and still we need to work more. But with only five days of test you need to try everything in less laps than normal. But it's OK like this. Finally we found a compromise that I like, so that I think that in Qatar we will start well."
The Desmosedici GP22 clearly has potential. The chassis is relatively unchanged, but the bike has a new engine, with more power and different power delivery. The engine note of the bike is changed compared to last year, suggesting the firing intervals have been revised, which would tie in with the change to the engine character.
The other big change is to the fairing and the aerodynamics package. Though visually similar, the wings are larger and the side pods have been reshaped. The fairing is much slimmer, sharper, and flatter, something which changes both the frontal area of the bike and the effect on downforce, but also the degree to which it resists changes of direction. It is now more agile, and easier to turn from side to side, something which is a major improvement.
Lower = faster
Then there's the front ride-height device. First explained here, the system uses a pneumatic cylinder to compress the front forks on corner exit. That lowers the front along with the rear, dropping the bike's center of mass. Significantly, it also leaves the bike in the same attitude, rather than tail down/nose up, so the aero package is more effective.
On bikes without a front ride-height device, dropping the rear changes the angle of attack of the wings, reducing the downforce generated. This is especially a disadvantage on corner exit, where the benefit of wings – more downforce to reduce wheelie – is most important.
The problem is, of course, that this is another can of worms which Ducati has opened. Although the implementation is relatively trivial, it will once again require all of the factories to spend a lot of money designing, testing, and perfecting their version of a front ride-height device, only to end up at the same point. That is something the other five factories have very little appetite to do, and so the possibility of a ban is being examined.
That is not as simple as it looks, however. All changes to the technical regulations can only be passed by unanimous agreement of the MSMA. In other words, all six MotoGP manufacturers have to agree to this. Unanimity is, for obvious reason, impossible to reach.
The other path to a ban is the one used to ban free-standing wings, rather than closed aero appendages. The Grand Prix Commission can ban a technology if it is deemed a safety risk. They would have to make a case that the front ride-height device is more dangerous than the rear ride-height devices, however. That looks to be a tough ask.
Still, whether Ducati will have the front ride-height device at their disposal at Qatar, or at any of the races this year, is open to question. If they do not, then that will complicate bike setup, all of it having been done using the front device so far this year.
If there is a weakness for Ducati, this is it. The bike is fast, powerful, it turns, and it is better than last year. But it is also still rough around the edges: big changes need more time to sort out. Here is where Ducati having five GP22s on the grid can help, of course, with more data meaning it is easier to sort out what works and what doesn't. But it still feels like Ducati has work to do.
Is the dominance which observers of the sport assign to Ducati warranted? My guess is that it is still a little early to say. The bike has the potential to be the best machine on the grid. But at the moment, the GP21 is better, because it has had all of its wrinkles ironed out. If Ducati can find a setup that works quickly, then it will be hard indeed for its rivals. And with Pecco Bagnaia have finished so strong last year, it would take a foolish gambler to lay bets against the Italian going one better in 2022.
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