MotoGP: Michele Pirro - An Integral Part Of Ducati’s Effort

Ducati’s official factory test rider leads a very busy and interesting life

Michele Pirro 2016
Ducati's MotoGP Factory test rider Michele Pirro has kept busy in 2016.Photo Courtesy of Ducati

When you read these lines, Michele Pirro probably will be sitting in a plane on his way to Sepang, Malaysia. For Ducati’s official test rider the last months have been certainly quite intense... Intense? He hasn’t stopped for a minute!

Since the start of the season at the end of March, Pirro has participated in six grands prix within three different teams and riding three different bikes. In that same period he has raced four legs of the Italian Superbike Championship on a Ducati Panigale, winning all of them; all this while doing his regular job as the test rider of the Italian factory… Not bad, isn’t it?

But it seems that it hasn’t been varied enough for Pirro, because his trip to Malaysia isn’t for summer holidays in the exotic Far East country, but to test for Michelin the tarmac of the newly resurfaced Sepang circuit.

When I substitute it’s difficult because I’m testing the bike directly in the race. I don’t have a session to get to know the bike.

With this schedule the first question for Pirro when I sat down for a chat with him was very clear: How does it work? Does Ducati suggest if you can/want to do all this or is it more of an order?

“It’s difficult because my first job is to develop the new bike, but I also do three wildcard appearances with the official bike: twice in Italy and once in Valencia, because of the post-race test on Monday,” Pirro explained. “Ducati is in my heart and as I like to race, when there is a chance to help a team that needs a substitute rider, obviously I’ll help that team. It isn’t easy because this year I’ve raced the GP14, 15 and 16. I’ve raced with all these bikes, but the biggest hurdle to overcome is changing teams and learning how to work with the different crews. The problem is that in MotoGP everyone rides at the limit and three or four tenths of a second make a huge difference when you don’t know the bike so well.”

Michele Pirro 2016
Pirro takes great satisfaction in his work to help Ducati succeed.Photo Courtesy of Ducati

Pirro may be happy to lend a hand when needed, but stepping in as a substitute rider is not as easy as being a wild card with the factory squad. “When I substitute it’s difficult because I’m testing the bike directly in the race. I don’t have a session to get to know the bike. I go directly into FP1 with the MotoGP riders, who are able to ride with their bikes at the limit, and this year three or four tenths are worth five positions.”

That’s not to say that the factory team/bike is superior, it’s more about his comfort level.

“It’s not that I feel faster,” Pirro further explained. “For me the job is the same, but I’d say I feel more comfortable. I have more information about the bike and I work with the same people all year. Communicating with them is easier. Anyway, I always give my all when I have the chance to race, but it’s true that when I do so with my bike I’m more confident and perhaps the result is better because of this.”

I think at the moment our bike still lacks the consistency race-by-race, but this can also be attributed to the tires...

Pirro has been Ducati’s test rider for quite some time and has been a part of the development of the older GP14 and GP15… Did his ride on the older versions of the Desmosedici feel like taking a trip through time?

“Yeah, I’ve ridden them in the past, but not with these tires,” he answered. “The most difficult thing isn’t riding, but understanding the bike and knowing how to be fast on it. My first objective is to always be consistent; the second is to try to be as fast as possible and not do anything silly. I have to find a balance so I can be of help to Ducati and not make them mad at me.”

Michele Pirro 2016
Pirro likes to race, so he's quite happy to fill in for injured riders on the satellite teams. So far in 2016, he's had a wild card ride at Mugello for the factory squad and filled in for Pramac's Danilo Petrucci at Argentina, COTA, and Jerez; and for Avintia Ducati's Loris Baz at Catalunya and Assen.Photo Courtesy of Avintia Ducati

And there definitely is value in Pirro racing more than just the latest version of the Desmosedici. It’s a refresher course on the positives of each version. “When you test three different bikes in the same year you have more information to have an idea where you can improve,” Pirro said. “But it’s clear that the GP14 is completely different to the ’16. At the same time it’s important to understand where the ’16 is better than the ’14, or the ’15. When you test them you have to explain the positives of each one. Normally the new bike is a little better everywhere.”

In the end, Pirro feels the best way to make progress with development is a good working relationship with the engineers and he’s working with one of the greats – GiGi Dall’Igna.

I think the best combination is when the technician is sure what works best for the rider and the rider understands what the technician says or wants.

“For me the rider’s feeling is really important because the engineers are sitting, watching from a seat while I’m riding at 200 mph,” he said. “I think the best combination is when the technician is sure what works best for the rider and the rider understands what the technician says or wants. This is really important because every year the feeling with these people gets better. I’m happy because next year [Jorge] Lorenzo will be here and we’ll be able to make a big step forward in this direction. I think we can win races”. Although Pirro feels that the Spaniard will win races on the Ducati, he is not so sure that the bike is a title winner yet.

“I think at the moment our bike still lacks the consistency race-by-race, but this can also be attributed to the tires,” he said. “When the tires are like they were in Qatar, Mugello or Assen, the Ducati can be at the front. At other tracks, like Barcelona or Jerez we suffer more, but I still think Lorenzo can win races.”

Although they do not have a ’17 version in their hands yet, the work for the next generation Desmosedici never stops.

Casey Stoner and Michele Pirro
Pirro (right) shares testing duties with Australian Casey Stoner (left). Due to logistics, the pair have yet to share the same tarmac.Photo Courtesy of Ducati

“We’re always working, but we don’t have the ’17 or ’18 yet,” Pirro said. “With Ducati we work and test every week to improve. We never stop. That’s important because we have a good base and we’re working at home and in the tests to win. We still haven’t won a race but we’re only missing some small details.”

The testing team also has the help of two-time World Champion Casey Stoner, but so far Pirro and Stoner have not shared the track at a test due to logistics.

“We still haven’t tested together on the same day but I would like to because he’s a fast rider and I can learn a lot from him [Stoner],” he said. “It would be great to test with him. We’ve talked about how the bike worked in Mugello. We both have an objective and we hope that Jorge can finish the job.”

When the Ducati is strong I feel content. If Lorenzo wins next year I’ll be happy because it will be another motivator to keep working well.

It’s a lot of work trying to help Ducati get that first win. And it’s a lot of behind the scenes work that often gets overlooked.

“If you only do a test it isn’t a problem, but this year we’ve done six races in MotoGP, four in the Italian Superbike Championship and more testing,” he explained. “I’m always aware that it’s my job to help Ducati reach the top. So much work is difficult but it would be great to see Ducati get to the top after all the work that we’ve done. Sometimes it makes me a little angry because I’m never on TV, only the top riders. But I think that without test riders doing a lot of work, like I do, it’s harder to be at the front.”

Although the test rider doesn’t get to bask in the glory atop the podium, Pirro takes personal satisfaction when the Ducati does well. “When the Ducati is strong I feel content. If Lorenzo wins next year I’ll be happy because it will be another motivator to keep working well.”