At Sunday’s Qatar MotoGP season opener, Ducati ran a little scoop attached to the underside of the swingarms of its three factory bikes, that of race winner Andrea Dovizioso among them. Four teams—Aprilia Gresini, Red Bull KTM, Repsol Honda, and Suzuki Ecstar—had in advance prepared a protest of this object, which was rejected by the MotoGP stewards panel. The teams then lodged an appeal with the appeal stewards, who referred the case to the court of appeal. A decision is expected prior to the Argentina Grand Prix on March 31.
The first photos available did give the appearance of a simple scoop, so it was assumed its purpose was to direct air to cool the hard-worked rear tire. The matter has since gone back and forth, with factory rider Danilo Petrucci saying unofficially that it’s not for cooling, and Ducati Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti saying that it may be. The protesting teams say they want clarified “once and for all” the question of whether or not the device has an aerodynamic effect or purpose.
Whatever the scoop actually is, the protesting teams variously do not like it, regard it as a precedent that may lead to things they like even less, or are basically the voice of Honda, who has in the past been annoyed at Ducati horsepower (pirates! rug merchants!). Students of history will recall that the power Ducati showed in 2003 (Loris Capirossi won Catalunya) spooked Honda into powering up for 2004, making its bike more difficult to ride and thereby assisting Valentino Rossi in taking the championship on a Yamaha that year. Gnashing of teeth.
This is nonsense, for prior to the present era of spec rider-aid electronics and software, race-by-race innovation in control strategies was continuous. Now that innovation is coming from Ducati, ordinary fairness suggests the others should accept it as readily as Yamaha’s Mu learning or Honda’s driveline torque meter and seamless transmission were in their day.
Newer photos reveal that the scoop has the form of a three-element slotted airfoil. The mind, eager for entertainment, leaps to the conclusion that this must be a downforce device. Then it reconsiders: The airfoil is narrow—perhaps 3 to 4 inches—and the airflow under the bike is disturbed by having just come past the front wheel. Indeed, the flow behind the front wheel likely takes the form of a rapidly alternating series of vortices shed by it. It is far from being free-stream, full-velocity airflow.
Okay, why the multi-elements? It could still be a tire cooler, and the slots could be there to keep airflow on the downstream side of the scoop following its upward curve, rather than separating.
What else could it be? The rear suspension damper is in the vicinity, but today complaints of damper fade from overheating are rare. The large exhaust pipes from the Ducati’s rear cylinders pass close to the fuel tank. Could there have been occasions late in 2018 races when fuel-pump vapor locking from excessive fuel temperature was suspected? Submerged fuel pumps are used, which make this unlikely.
Yet it can happen that a single technology has several effects. Sulfonates in lubricating oils can act as dispersants, anti-wear agents, and as anti-corrosives, so which is their true effect? This matter of Ducati’s scoop is a question that can’t be answered objectively, so it will be dealt with by talking about it until everyone is tired. What if Ducati devised the scoop to cool the tire, rear suspension unit, or fuel tank, and later discovered that it also produced a slight downforce? Is that possible or suspected downforce greater than what could be achieved by an imperceptible change in the shape of the windscreen, front fender, or fairing nose? Might wider soles on a rider’s boots, because of their downward incidence, be considered aero devices?
Can Ducati argue that the device should be judged by their intentions in developing it, rather than by its possible side effects? Will the FIM court of appeals consider actual evidence, such as Ducati in-house minutes of meetings or internal emails showing the original intended reason for development of this device? Or will it devolve into a vague he said/she said as professional advocates for the two sides work to persuade the justices of the FIM to squeeze definite meaning out of “the spirit of the regulations”? One person’s spirit is so often another’s demon.