Chip, chip, chip… That’s the sound of Ducati’s MotoGP crew slowly chipping away at their disadvantage to Honda and Yamaha.
It would be too soon to talk of a Ducati renaissance but Mugello was by far the factory’s best Grand Prix so far this year. Only a few months ago it seemed like there was no light at the end of the tunnel; now both Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden can see the way forward.
Their pace in the second half was so impressive that both riders closed relentlessly on the Bradl/Dovizioso duel for third, Hayden throwing caution to the wind as he barged past Bradl on the last lap. He wasn’t close enough to the front to be in ‘win it or bin it’ mode, but at least he had a chance of ‘podium or opprobrium’.
“When I passed Bradl I was trying to get on Dovi’s rear wheel,” said Hayden. “I threw up a Hail Mary and went for it. The thought of being on the podium on the Ducati in Italy was incredible.”
As it turned out, Bradl exacted revenge on Hayden at the next corner, the mightily impressive rookie muscling through on the inside and hanging the American out to dry. Hayden nearly ran off the track, which made him easy prey for Rossi and Cal Crutchlow who had been together for most of the race.
One moment Hayden could almost taste the podium champagne (okay, it’s Spanish cava in MotoGP), the next he was crossing the line in seventh. “It’s tough to take,” he said. “It really hurts, but I’ll get over it. Probably.”
Rossi finished fifth, one second off the podium and 11 seconds off the win. At Silverstone he had been 34 seconds down, in Germany it was 28 seconds.
“From half-distance I had a good pace,” said Rossi, sounding more optimistic than he’s been for a long time.
Mugello may be Ducati’s test track, but Rossi’s most crucial improvement came on race day, not during testing. “After warm-up we modified the front,” he added. “After that the bike was very strong on corner entry, so I could push a lot on the front.”
Is this the big breakthrough? It’s not so long ago that Ducati seemed entirely incapable of curing the Desmosedici’s disastrous front-end grip problems.
The next priorities are softening power delivery and fixing understeer. Rossi has his biggest understeer problems when he fits a soft rear tyre to go for his ‘time attack’ during qualifying. The softer rear gives him more grip than the front tyre can handle, so when he accelerates out of a corner the bike drifts out to the kerb and he can’t get on the gas as hard as he’d like.
“We struggle too much in qualifying, so I cannot get a good grid position, which makes things very difficult in the race,” he added.
Hayden was almost a second quicker in Mugello qualifying, but the American struggled with rear grip in the early stages of the race. “After warm-up Bridgestone told me the hard tyre I was planning to use for the race might blister, so they wanted me to use the extra-hard,” said Hayden. “I said ‘no way’, so we raised the pressure in the hard tyre instead.”
Increasing tyre pressure reduces temperature but also shrinks the contact patch which reduces grip.
“The rear came around on me a couple of times on the sighting lap. And in the race I didn’t have great grip until I played around with the engine map and found some traction. That’s when the guys going for third started coming back to me. It’s exciting. The bike has improved a lot in the last three or four races. We haven’t fixed all the problems but we are working in a good way.”
Rossi also advises Ducati against reinventing the Desmosedici. “It would be a mistake to restart from zero,” he said. “If we can fix these problems the bike could be very good for 2013.”
However, Rossi’s crew chief Jeremy Burgess believes significant changes are still required and is getting impatient with the rate of progress.
“This bike is still a frame wrapped around an engine, rather than an engine designed to go in a frame,” explained Burgess. “We need new crankcases because we can’t keep raising the engine because then the countershaft sprocket gets higher and higher which affects the swingarm pivot and thus handling. You’d think we would’ve had new ’cases by Le Mans, but here we are at the ninth race with the same bike we had at the first tests.
“There’s lots of other little things. The Honda gets a jump on us out of the corners because it’s smoother and the Yamaha is another step better. They’ve got primary and secondary injectors, while we’ve only got single injectors.”
Arguably the really big question is this: will Rossi be at Ducati in 2013? The Italian has been impressed by Audi – Ducati’s new owners – who seem determined to stay in MotoGP and make it work. But is that enough?
“The problem is that I have to trust that the situation will improve,” he said. “Maybe with help from Audi we can fix the problems. But it’s just a gamble.”
Meanwhile Crutchlow waits in the wings, wondering why his talks with Ducati seem to have cooled. When Rossi makes up his mind, only then will the Briton have a clue about what he’s doing in 2013.