What’s up, Ducati? - Racing

The Italian factory is still not up to speed on track in MotoGP.

Ducati #69 Nicky Hayden

Ducati #69 Nicky Hayden

A friend recently summed up the situation with Ducati in MotoGP: “They’re a bunch of engineers who fire any rider who doesn’t get with their program . They stumble onto this kid Casey Stoner, who can just ride it, and he gives them a world championship. Then, they played around and lost the combination, so Stoner’s results thinned out, and he went to Honda, where he instantly made winning look easy again. Now, Ducati hires someone whose reputation is so huge they can’t fire him, yet somehow they can’t give him what Honda or what Yamaha gave him—bikes he can put up front. What gives?”

We all want to know.

We also all want to know what happened to unmentionable but invaluable sponsor Marlboro. The tobacco giant’s name isn’t on Ducati’s published list of sponsors, and it’s not on the bike. Is the Marlboro brand so huge that just the color red says enough? Would Marlboro hand over secret millions for that?

The current official line is that fresh changes being made to the 2012 bike will not be ready until the fourth race of the season. That doesn’t sound like any of the changes they have made so far: more-flexible forks, ball steering-head bearings instead of rollers, an FTR twin-aluminum-beam chassis instead of the Vincent-style “black pyramid” of carbon fiber, which bolted to the cylinder heads and rigidly carried the steering head.

Some blamed the tires for lack of feel, but then spec-supplier Bridgestone made much more forgiving, quicker-to-temperature tires for the second preseason test at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia and the Ducatis were no closer to the front. Rossi has said the bike is much-improved, that it now responds to normal chassis tuning. Where’s the speed?

When crew chief Jeremy Burgess first spoke of the problems Rossi faced, he listed 1) lack of front-end feel and 2) understeer. Rossi and teammate Nicky Hayden say they now have improved warning from the front end when entering corners. Does that leave understeer as the major problem? Understeer, or front-end “push,” is as old as 100-hp motorcycles. When you get on the gas, the force accelerating the bike acts at ground level but the center of mass is maybe 20 inches above that. Result? The front end goes light, the rider steers into the turn to stay on line, and if he keeps pushing it, the front tucks (“closes” or loses grip) and down he goes.

Kenny Roberts and, much later, Stoner responded to understeer by breaking the grip of the rear tire, steering not with the front wheel but by hanging the back end out on the throttle enough to keep the bike pointed into the turn. Another long tradition was to move weight forward to keep enough load on the front tire to make it steer. Look at the short windscreens and forward seating positions on today’s bikes to see how far riders have been moved forward to accomplish this. See them pull themselves forward with arm strength during acceleration, weighting that front tire. Yamaha made its engine and gearbox like a pancake, plastered up as close to the front tire as it would go, to move weight forward.

But Ducati’s engine is a 90-degree V-Four, with a lot of rear cylinder weight aft. Is that the problem? Or, as repeatedly asserted by Ducati Corse boss Filippo Preziosi, does the wide-angle Vee have plenty of life ahead of it in MotoGP?

What needs all the time between now and that fourth race? Could Ducati be making a new engine with a narrower cylinder angle to push weight forward? It’s going to be like Christmas: What’s in those beautifully wrapped red packages will be unknown to us until the day they are opened. We have the pleasure of anticipation.

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

Nicky Hayden

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi

Valentino Rossi