Paolo Ciabatti Interview: ‘It’s always difficult to improve an almost perfect bike’

The first five races of 2022 have been far from straightforward for Ducati. The factory that could claim it had the best bike on the MotoGP grid in the autumn of last year with some justification has struggled to get up and running since March, with fancied runners Francesco Bagnaia and Jorge Martin scoring just 31 and 28 points from a possible 125.

There has been much to ponder for Paolo Ciabatti, its MotoGP Project Director, in that time, be it rider performance, engine choices for the five riders running GP22s, or the decision to place a ban on front ride height devices, the most recent innovation from the Bologna factory that was in partly to blame for a disastrous first race of the season.

During the Friday of the Argentine Grand Prix, while the paddock waited anxiously for missing freight to be delivered, Ciabatti spoke to Motomatters on a range of issues, including a mixed start to the year for Ducati’s eight riders, the development of the front ride height device, his reaction to its ban, and how the MotoE project is being managed ahead of 2023.

Q: The start of 2022 has been a bit of a mixed bag, in that Enea has been exceptional but fancied names have struggled. How would you assess the start of Ducati’s season?

Paolo Ciabatti: It was a difficult start to the season for some of our riders. Obviously, the factory team didn’t achieve the result we expected after finishing last year in such a spectacular way. It’s true that Qatar, we made our life a little bit more complicated than it should (have been) because the system we used was not really mature, to the point that it could be used with full confidence by the riders. And Mandalika was a strange situation.

But the positive side is Enea is leading the championship (as of the beginning of round 3). On the other side Pecco and Jorge don’t have the points we expected. Jack did a good race in Mandalika. He realized pushing too hard could risk a crash. He came home with fourth position. We are positive because there is no rider that has really showed a dominance. The situation is still very fluid. But starting from here, we must start to be consistently on the top if we want to keep our target, which is fighting for the championship.

Q: As results at the end of 2021 showed, the GP21 was the best bike on the grid. How would you assess the performance of the GP22 so far?

PC: I think (Johann) Zarco’s result in Mandalika proves the GP22 is as good as the GP21, with probably more room for improvement. It’s always difficult to improve an almost perfect bike. But on the other side you cannot rely on the bike that was very competitive in the previous season, because maybe your competitors will do something. And we saw that everyone is super competitive this year. I would say we didn’t see the full potential of the GP22 yet.

Q: In Qatar we learned Pecco and Jack’s engine selection for this year was different to the Pramac team and Luca Marini. How did that situation develop? And is that a difficult situation to manage?

PC: I think what we did is after the winter tests, especially after Sepang, we realized our factory riders wanted an engine that was probably a little smoother than the ’22 engine. We had a previous version that was in between the ’21 (spec) and the ’22. We decided to go for that specification for the two factory riders. As you know, once you choose one engine spec for one factory rider, it goes automatically to the other. They both agreed it was a good solution.

It's not such a complicated situation for us to manage. Basically, I would say, the engines, many parts are in common. It’s just a slightly hybrid version between the two. I think we did it because we wanted to go a bit in the direction of keeping that feeling from the end of ’21 into ’22 for the two factory riders. On the other side, I think Marini was fastest at the Mandalika test with the ’22 (engine). Martin and Zarco like it. It was more listening to the riders’ tastes or selection and going in that direction. So, we have three specs homologated. There is one spec for the GP21. For the two factory riders we have a hybrid version of the ’22. And then the full version of the ’22 is for the two Pramac riders and Marini.

Q: Would it be fair to say Pecco needs a settled package that isn’t changing during a race weekend to be as calm and competitive as he was in the second half of 2021?

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What is also interesting, being that the Ducati E-bike is a race application only, is that there are no concerns associated with bringing a new product to market. They can focus solely on the race application, develop the E-bike, and learn. The range anxiety, charging time, and customer satisfaction elephant associated with a street version just vanishes. 

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it but this seems like another dig at the riders. It appears to come from everywhere. Of course based on the results from '21, weighted for the number of bikes, Ducati still had the best position... by far.

Riders, can't succeed with them or without them!