If you wanted proof that things are changing at Ducati, you need look no further than the launch of their MotoGP team. In years past, it was an outrageously flamboyant affair, a veritable extravaganza hosted by Philip Morris to showcase their two motor sports projects, the Ducati MotoGP team and the Ferrari Formula One squad. Held at the upmarket Italian ski resort of Madonna di Campiglio, the event even had a proper showbiz name: Wrooom. All that was missing was an exclamation mark.
Ducati's 2014 launch was very different. Held not in Italy, but in Munich and Ingolstadt, on premises owned and operated by Ducati's current owners, Audi. The team presentation at the Audi Forum at Munich airport, the unveiling of the livery in the evening, at the Audi Gebrauchtwagen Plus center in Munich, then to Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt the following day, for the presentation of the Germany company's annual report to the press. If the Wrooom event had been flamboyant and over the top, the 2014 launch was serious, focused, yet still stylish. It felt very much like Italy versus Germany, and Germany won.
There was another difference too. Despite the media having been present at both Sepang tests and the Phillip Island tire test, there was still some real meat for journalists to get their teeth into in Munich. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna, MotoGP project leader Paolo Ciabatti, Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali, head of technical development at Audi Ulrich Hackenberg, even the riders Andrea Dovizioso and Cal Crutchlow all had something new to add. It was much, much more interesting than expected.
The fact that the launch was hosted in Munich, at joint event with Audi, rather than Italy was itself a message, one intentionally framed by both Ducati and Audi. Both Claudio Domenicali and Ulrich Hackenberg, the two heaviest hitters at the Ducati launch, underlined the importance of MotoGP to Ducati. After three years out of contention, Domenicali told the press, the company had even questioned how relevant racing was to its business. After taking a long hard look at racing, Ducati had come to the conclusion that it was a key part of its strategy. Racing lies at the heart of Ducati's brand.
Audi chief Hackenberg clarified the German car giant's commitment to Ducati and its racing project, explaining that they would be providing expertise in a number of areas, such as materials and engine development. Motor sports were part of the common heritage between Ducati and Audi, Hackenberg said, but they were in racing to win. 'The Olympic ideal is not enough,' Hackenberg said. 'Our target is the podium.' He added that the program had the full weight of expertise at Audi and Ducati behind it.
The same message came through in informal conversations with both Audi and Ducati staff. Audi is backing Ducati's MotoGP program, and intends to continue to back the project to make it successful. The intention was to remove the question mark hanging over the project as a result of recent ambivalence by Ducati's main sponsor, Philip Morris. The tobacco giant has still only committed to this season with the Italian factory, but conversations with Ducati staff made it clear that the situation was looking much more optimistic than it had in the recent path. Philip Morris had been involved very closely in Ducati's plans for 2014, and were fully behind the project for this year. Though they had not yet renewed the sponsorship deal, the chances of them pulling out – a realistic possibility in recent years – have diminished considerably. No doubt the recent competitiveness of the Desmosedici has helped, as have the signs of genuine progress from Ducati Corse's engineering department.
The man responsible for that is Gigi Dall'Igna. The Italian took over from Bernhard Gobmeier at the end of last year, and has clearly stamped his authority on the racing department. He had two objectives at Ducati, Dall'Igna explained: to restructure the organization, with an emphasis on improving communication; and to develop the bike, with the help of the expertise of Ducati's racing department and the data from the track.
The first objective had been largely achieved, with racing department, race team and test team now all exchanging information. 'The group is now working as a single group,' Paolo Ciabatti said. Engineers were being rotated among all three locations, and lines of communication had been opened up. Comments from the riders were being used as input for the engineering process, Ducati Corse engineers basing their decisions more on the race team than on the test team now. The data from last year had allowed the engineers to create a bike which was already a big improvement on last year. The Desmosedici was now significantly better on corner entry, allowing the riders to brake later and harder, and still turn the bike in, Andrea Dovizioso explained. The improvement had not come from a single change, Dall'Igna told the press, the bike having seen small modifications in almost every area, from chassis, swingarm, engine, fairing, and seating position.
Though the Desmosedici is better on corner entry and had better drive off the corner, there was still much work to do. The bike still had understeer, both Dovizioso and Crutchlow told the press. It wasn't possible to get the bike to hold a tight line, to stand it up and fire it out of the corner, as the tires and the power of the bike demanded. Understeer was one of the areas they would be attempting to fix, Dall'Igna acknowledged, but there would be no simple fix. Change would come from many small modifications, made methodically after studying the data.
That was the reason why Ducati had elected to race as an Open entry, Dall'Igna explained. He did not have the data to fully understand what to change on the bike. He needed 'two to three months' before he had enough data to start designing a new bike. 'I like to move my brain before I move my hands,' he quipped. Without the freedom to test and change the engine which the Open class provided, it would be impossible to make the changes necessary to be competitive again. Above all, it was the freedom to test the changes made with the factory riders at different circuits which would be the measure of success. They wanted to be fast at every circuit, Dall'Igna said, not just at one or two. To ensure that, they had to test changes at more than just the one nominated circuit the Factory Option regulations allowed.
The proposal by Dorna to introduce a third category, Factory 2, was not helpful, the Ducati Corse boss said. Ducati understood why they would want to do it, he said, but it would make it more difficult for Ducati. The reduction from 12 to 9 engines per season was not insurmountable, but losing 1.5 liters a race would present a challenge. The championship software – even the latest, 2014 version – did not have all the strategies and parameters which Ducati had used in previous years, he told the press. That meant they could not optimize fuel consumption in the same way they had in previous years. They would be forced to cut power at some, fuel-critical circuits, something they did not want to do.
Ducati had heard about the proposal through the MSMA, which represents the three manufacturers in MotoGP. Dall'Igna said he did not feel that it was fair, as Ducati had merely looked at the rules and decided which was the best path for them to follow. But he accepted that this was not an ideal world, and he had to deal with the situation as it stands, not as he would wish it to be.
Dall'Igna did not believe that Ducati switching to the Open category ran contrary to the aim of the Open class, he said. 'The Open solution is important, not because we have to reduce the cost of the Open bikes, we have to reduce the cost of the entire MotoGP world championship.' By choosing to go Open now, Dall'Igna explained, they could use their knowledge to design and build a cheap but 'really fast' Open bike to sell to the teams for 2015 onwards. Running in the Open class in 2014 allows Ducati to both develop the bike, and prove to their potential customers that they can build bikes which are competitive.
The bone of contention in the Ducati case is the 2014 version of the championship software. Written by Magneti Marelli, the latest version is vastly more complex than the 2013 version, in part due to the input from Ducati. Dall'Igna denied that Ducati had contributed code to the software, explaining that that was not the way the system worked. They had submitted a list of specifications and functionality requests to Dorna, who had then passed them on to Magneti Marelli, who had implemented them. This had provided a big boost in functionality for the software, but that had made it too complex for the other Open teams. Dall'Igna expressed his sympathies for the other Open teams, admitting 'The smaller teams cannot work like factory teams, they cannot use the new solution so fast'. They would need time to gain experience with the new software.
Dall'Igna accepted that Ducati's decision had 'made some people unhappy,' but insisted that this was the only decision they could take if they wanted to develop the bike. He also admitted this was preparing for the future, when all of the bikes will be using the championship software. This was the future of MotoGP, Dall'Igna said, and the change would help to reduce costs in the future. When asked if Ducati would be willing to also accept a rev limit – the other pillar in Dorna's plan for MotoGP - Dall'Igna said that although they had not discussed it in depth yet, Ducati would not reject it out of hand. 'Maybe it's not the best for Ducati, but we are open to discuss with everybody.'
So where does this leave Ducati at the start of the 2014 season? Throughout the presentation, Ducati senior staff refused to set concrete goals. They spoke only of bringing Ducati back to 'the front' and 'the positions where Ducati belongs'. Neither Ciabatti nor Dall'Igna would be drawn on positions they were aiming for, though they hinted that the aim was to secure podiums.
Is that realistic? On the evidence of preseason testing and the team launch in Munich, you would have to say podiums are an achievable goal. The decision to switch to the Open category was the right one for Ducati, giving them the freedom to do the development and testing which they need. Though they are facing criticism from both the other factories and the Open teams, they cannot be blamed for making the decision they did. The other factories could have made the same decision – perhaps even, as some satellite team owners have hinted, by making just the satellite teams Open class entries – but they elected not to. Ducati have a significant advantage over the other Open teams in terms of being able to understand and manage the 2014 software, but as Dorna control software specs, that is a problem which can be solved at a stroke, by simply making the less complex 2013 software compulsory. That, after all, is very much the point of having spec software, being able to control the level of complexity, and with it the costs involved. Using the 2013 software certainly hasn't slowed the Forward Yamaha bikes down very much.
For the first time in years, Ducati faces a MotoGP season with optimism. Even Andrea Dovizioso, who looked dejected through much of the 2013 season, was being cautiously positive. He did not want to get his hopes up, but the speed which the bikes showed at Sepang and Phillip Island gave cause for optimism. And once Gigi Dall'Igna can start making more changes to the bikes as the season goes on, things could get very interesting indeed.