Ducati is experiencing some of its brightest moments since arriving in the MotoGP world championship in 2003. This season the factory team has not only won half the races disputed thus far, but those victories have been shared equally between two riders, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo. This is an example of the current Desmosedici's potential, which is now arguably the best motorcycle on the grid.

Before anyone mentions the Casey Stoner era, remember that multiple factors back then could present a possible technical advantage. There is only one tire manufacturer, electronics are universal, and engine development is frozen. In this moment of technical equality, Gigi Dall’Igna’s Ducati is the reference by which all others—Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, KTM, and Aprilia—are measured.

Victories are awarded to the winning rider, but Grand Prix racing is a team sport. Dovizioso, Lorenzo, and Dall’Igna are the mostly commonly recognized names in the Borgo Panigale project, but behind them is a legion of others who make this reality possible. Paolo Ciabatti’s organization of the team, the engineers at the track and back in Bologna, and Davide Tardozzi’s iron management in the pit box are all part of Ducati’s success.

The unseen portion of the Ducati “iceberg” includes another group that plays a fundamental role: the test team. This group has played a decisive role in the forward steps taken by the bikes that Dall’Igna designed and in Lorenzo’s adaptation to the blisteringly fast red machine. And in this group there is a name that stands out above all of the rest: test rider and sometime MotoGP racer Michele Pirro.

The former Moto2 rider is calm, serious, and laser-focused on his job. He is not only fast—the 32-year-old Italian finished fifth at last year’s San Marino GP—he is the envy of other factories; on more than one occasion Ducati has “neutralized” offers from other manufacturers. I spoke with Pirro at Misano, where he competed as a wild card, despite still recuperating from the injuries he suffered in an epic crash this past June during practice at Mugello

Do you have to change your usual approach when you are racing? I ask this because you are a test rider and used to working with a different objective than competing.

They are two different things, competition and testing. In testing, it doesn’t always serve to go fast. On the other hand, during a race weekend, you always have to go strong; it’s the objective of each lap. On a test day, it’s important to maintain the same level over the whole test day. On race weekends, you have to be on top for 40 minutes.

I imagine the same thing happens to the team. It is used to working with a test mentality and times. How complicated is it to switch to MotoGP mode?

Many of those who work with me have worked on the racing team. On the other hand, for us to take part in races is satisfying. When there are good results, like last year at Misano, it is really satisfying and a joy. For us, it’s important because working three days alone at a circuit—you and the track, many hours testing, evaluating—isn’t easy.

Michele Pirro
Asked to describe Jorge Lorenzo’s greatest virtue as a rider, Ducati test rider Michele Pirro replied, “The ability to improve and solve a problem. If he is clear about what he needs to do to be faster, little by little, step by step, he does it. He is very analytical.”Courtesy of Ducati

I once spoke with Jorge “Aspar” Martínez about his time as an Aprilia test rider, and he said that for a rider accustomed to racing, it was a “sad job—gray and tasteless.” You are alone at the circuit, you ride four or five laps, stop, wait an hour for the mechanics to make changes to the bike, go out again, another couple of laps…

It’s not always like that. It depends on the plan. Normally you enter the track at eight or nine, stop at one, and rest an hour and a half or two. Then you return to the track for another four hours. To do good work it’s essential to have a lot of concentration and to be always consistent. It isn’t about going to the limit in the first hour and being 80 percent in the second. When you test you are never on the same bike, so it’s important to always be at the same level. You have to try to be consistent throughout the whole day but at the same time be at a level that allows you to understand if a certain thing is better or worse.

Is the goal when evaluating new material to go as fast as possible?

Yes, exactly. We have a tire test, another to see the benefits, another to evaluate something specific, or a combination of the two. In those situations, when you have a good setting to go the maximum, you go out to see if everything works together and at what times we can be with those benefits.

Is test rider a subcategory within the racing profession?

I’ve been doing this work for seven years. I came to do it for a year, as a racer. I think it was decisive to start so young because it is more difficult for a more veteran or even retired rider. When you are young, as was my case, you only think about doing it better and better and better. I spoke with Randy de Puniet in Spielberg [Austria] and he told me that he didn’t feel motivated when doing test work for KTM. When I started seven years ago, I wanted to be strong, as strong as the racers. I had a lot of motivation.

How is it to ride entire days at a circuit like Mugello?

When you’re [testing], it just seems like another track. When you have the whole place to yourself, it seems huge. When you arrive for the GP and see all the fans, it feels different. It is a job that, if you do it with passion, it gives you a lot of satisfaction. The key is the attitude you have when you go to work. If you are comfortable with the team and you have the possibility of doing a good work, those long days don’t weigh you down. It is not an effort to do a test.

To do your job well, do you have to crash? I ask that because you have to find the limit of whatever you are evaluating.

Not at all. Like the rest of the riders, you can always fall, but you have to be careful to fall as little as possible because, besides possibly hurting yourself, you delay the entire work plan. It’s important to try to be quick without risking too much. Go to the limit and risk if necessary—it happens—but generally that’s not the objective of a test. Basically, our job is to set up a motorcycle to be fast over 20 or 30 laps.

Lorenzo (99)
Lorenzo (99) led the first five laps of the San Marino Grand Prix at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli. He crashed out of second place on the penultimate lap. He is currently fourth overall in the championship point standings.Courtesy of Ducati

When you test, do you try to follow the characteristics of the rider who races that bike?

The advantage is that last year I went to many races. I was at the side of the track and I could see the problems that Dovi and Jorge had as riders, not in the electronics. Then, when I did the test, I tried to understand what the solution should be to solve Jorge’s problems and what Andrea needed.

Do you say, “Today I am going to test for Lorenzo” or “Tomorrow I am going to test for Dovizioso”?

No. I believe that if the bike works, it works for everyone. Something important we did this year is that Lorenzo, Dovizioso, and Danilo Petrucci go fast with the same bike.

Even if their riding styles differ from yours? Are you able to develop the bike thinking, “He rides like this, he does things that way”?

Yes, the style of riding is important, but I pay attention to things that can make the bike go faster. If I find something that can make Jorge go faster, it also makes me stronger. Working for Jorge and Dovi, I’ve grown a lot as a rider. Between the three of us—Jorge, Dovi, and me—we have generated a lot of information that has helped us to take the bike to its current level.

Andrea Dovizioso
Andrea Dovizioso and Lorenzo have won six MotoGP races this season, three apiece. Pirro says one of the Ducati test team’s greatest accomplishments is building a bike that “works for everyone.”Courtesy of Ducati

Is this the step forward that you have provided?

Yes, because four or five years ago only one rider was strong.

And how much credit do you take from this?

As I said, it’s the work of the whole team. I think all the people in Ducati have their share of merit. People only see the rider or the team at the race, but at home there are many people who have contributed to this result. It’s like a football player: You see the game on Sunday but you don’t know that since Monday they have been working and preparing for the game. It’s the same. I have no more or less merit than the others. I don’t think one person has made a difference. The difference was when Gigi, Paolo, and Davide arrived. Let’s say that with them the ship has always sailed in the same direction, which maybe was not the case before.

You told me that when you arrived at Ducati seven years ago one of your motivations was to be able to become one of the racers. Is this motivation still there or have you fully changed to the role of test rider?

No, no. If I did not have this motivation, I would not have the results I have had in the GPs. Last year I did fifth, eighth, and even a top four in practice, and in all the races I finished in the top 10. This year when I went to Mugello, in my head I had to be in the top five, and I think I could have done it. But this happens only because I have motivation; I still want to be a MotoGP rider.

Is Danilo Petrucci a reference in this regard?

I think Danilo has done great because he has taken advantage of all the opportunities that have been given him. He had the opportunity to do a full year with the same bike, the same team, and I’ve never had that. But he has done very well and shown potential. I think if I had the same opportunity, I would have also grown as a rider.

In the last two seasons you worked very closely with Lorenzo. How has that experience been?

For me, it has been an honor, a great opportunity to work with a world champion like Jorge. I’ve also been able to do it with Dovi; they are two very strong riders. I know that Jorge is not with Ducati next year, but I must say that he will leave many good things. He has personally given me many things.

Personally or as a rider?

Both as a person and as a rider. I feel really bad, as a friend, that he is leaving because I think he is one of the strongest riders. But in life, people come and go. It feels bad to me because it seems contrary having seen what he is capable of doing.

After working with Lorenzo, do you understand why he's a five-time world champion?

Yes, I understand completely. It’s totally clear.

What are his greatest strengths, his mental state or his ability to go fast on a motorcycle?

Skill. He has the virtue of perseverance, of wanting to get there, the talent to go fast on a motorcycle, and he has a very hard head! The thing that I feel the worst about is that he won’t be with us next year, not because he is going to retire, as [Casey] Stoner did, but because he will be riding another bike. I am worried, but we have a strong team.