When the 2022 MotoGP world championship roars into action under the Losail floodlights on March 6, eight of the motorcycles on the 24-strong grid will be Ducati Desmosedicis.
The other factories are worried, not so much by the number of bikes but by their speed. Ducati’s desmodromic-valve 90-degree V4 has been MotoGP’s quickest machine pretty much ever since the first iteration was unleashed at Suzuka, the opening race of the 2003 season. MotoGP rights-holder Dorna has six manufacturers signed up to its championship – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha – to create a maximum grid of 24 riders.
Each of those brands must put a minimum of two riders on the grid. Honda, KTM and Yamaha each have four riders (two in their factory teams and two in factory-supported independent teams), Aprilia and Suzuki field just two factory riders, while Ducati has eight (two in its factory outfit, the other six in indie squads).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some fans aren’t happy with so many Ducatis filling the grid. They’d rather see a more equal spread of brands represented, but that’s not how the system works. Dorna pays all the factories and teams to be there, reserving most of its budget for the independents, because the Spanish company understands that it’s the poorer operations who need the most support. And if the performance gap between the front and the back of the grid can be substantially reduced the racing will be more exciting, which will encourage more fans to turn on their televisions. So everyone wins.
MotoGP costs a fraction of Formula 1, so a £4.2m contribution to each independent team is more than enough to lease four factory-spec bikes for two riders, or something very close to factory-spec bikes, from whichever manufacturer agrees to do the deal. Ducati is the only manufacturer that has really embraced Dorna’s indie-team concept and has done so with such enthusiasm that the Bologna-based company is almost certainly making a tidy profit out of the business, which isn’t exactly normal in motorcycle racing.
“Ducati’s crowning glory is its speed: 225.2mph at Losail”
As well as the lease payments from its three customer teams – Gresini Racing, Pramac Racing and Valentino Rossi’s VR46 outfit – Ducati receives extra bonuses from Dorna for each rider it supplies with motorcycles. The system doesn’t only work well financially. Ducati management has a big say in who rides for its customers, so these outfits are Ducati junior teams, nurturing talented youngsters who may one day be deemed worthy of promotion to Ducati’s factory team, which currently consists of Australian Jack Miller and Italian Pecco Bagnaia, runner-up in the 2021 MotoGP world championship.
And there are further advantages. Although Miller and Bagnaia lead development during tests and racing, Ducati can use its other riders to do the initial evaluation of parts, which saves its engineers disturbing its factory riders, whose main business is winning races and the world title. Of course, there is a pecking order among Ducati’s customer teams. Pramac is Ducati’s number-one junior team. Both Miller and Bagnaia rode for Pramac before they were promoted. Pramac now runs the exact same GP22 bikes as the factory squad, while both Gresini riders and one VR46 rider use year-old GP21, except Rossi’s half-brother and VR46 rider Luca Marini who uses a GP22. The GP21 and GP22 are historic machines – the first in motorcycle racing history to benefit from genuine aerodynamic grip. Each bike features an F1-inspired diffuser either side of its fairing lower section.
The low-pressure created by the diffusers effectively suck the bike into the asphalt, increasing grip and turning. Chief engineer Gigi Dall’Igna reads the MotoGP rulebook more aggressively than his rivals. He introduced downforce aero half a decade ago, then holeshot devices, which lower the bike for faster starts, and shapeshifters, which lower the bike for faster corner exits. The Ducati’s crowning glory is its straight-line speed: 225.2mph at Losail last year. Ducati has always understood that top speed isn’t just about bragging rights. The rider with the fastest bike can overtake more easily, which means taking fewer risks and asking less of his tyres.
So, what effect will eight of these machines have on the dynamics of MotoGP racing in 2022? Most certainly the Desmosedicis will make life very, very difficult for the Suzuki and Yamaha, which use less powerful inline-four engines. Suzuki’s 2020 MotoGP champion Joan Mir had a miserable title defence last summer, often finding himself boxed in by one or two Ducatis and therefore unable to use his superior corner speed. His answer was usually quite radical – on the last lap he simply rode into them, hoping to barge them out of the way. Sometimes this worked, other times it didn’t.
Dall’Igna joined Ducati at the end of 2013, since when the Desmosedici has got better and better with each passing year. This season Ducati has the best chance of winning the company’s first MotoGP title since its only success in 2007, when Australian Casey Stoner won the crown aboard the GP7. And if Ducati swamp the 2022 championship should we feel sorry for other manufacturers? Of course not, because they had every chance to supply bikes to independent teams. By failing to do so they not only reduced their own presence on the grid, they increased the number of bikes they’ll have to beat.