Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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Italy’s other red star

Ducati is a remarkable company. It builds just 40,000 bikes each year and yet it can humble the combined might of the Japanese industry in motorcycling’s biggest race series. The little Italian marque’s domination of last year’s MotoGP World Championship was undoubtedly its greatest success in six decades of existence, cementing the legend that it is the ‘Ferrari of motorcycling’.

Ducati Corse staff don’t know whether to laugh or cry when the two brands are mentioned in the same breath. They enjoy the reflected glory but worry that fans might believe their race-winning secrets come from Maranello and not from their own race shop in Bologna.

But like it or not, the two companies are united by friendship, by a shared iconography and by common cliché; after all, they both produce scarlet, high-performance Italian thoroughbreds. They even shared the same logo for a while. Fabio Taglioni, the engineer who made Ducati great, painted Ferrari’s prancing horse on Ducati fairings during the 1950s, paying tribute to Italian WWI flying ace and former cavalryman Francesco Baracca, who hailed from his home town. Ducati quietly retired the horse from its bodywork after a chat between Taglioni and Enzo Ferrari, who first met at Taglioni’s father’s workshop before WWII. Tazio Nuvolari, then European motorcycle champion, was there at the same time; must have been quite a meeting of minds.

Enzo did everything he could to lure Taglioni away from Ducati (Ford also tried), but the independent-minded genius preferred creating complete racing motorcycles for Ducati to engineering smaller cogs within Ferrari’s greater wheel. And anyway, he loved bikes, not cars.

Nevertheless, it seems that Taglioni’s greatest achievement at Ducati was inspired by Enzo, who in the mid-’50s encouraged the youngster to master desmodromic valve technology. At that time Mercedes-Benz was already using desmo valve actuation in its Formula 1 cars, but Ducati was the only marque to stick with the technology, thanks to Taglioni’s superior design. His first desmo racer, a triple-cam 125, made its debut at the 1956 Swedish Grand Prix and lapped the entire field. If fiscal woes hadn’t forced Ducati out of racing soon after, it’s possible the company might have made valve springs obsolete.

The desmodromic system opens and closes valves by cam for better valve control at higher revs and for higher lift, with benefits in power, torque and fuel consumption. The complex but highly efficient technology has become Ducati’s trademark, featuring on all its road and race bikes. It is believed to be a crucial factor in the success of its Desmosedici MotoGP machine.

Legend has it that Enzo wanted Taglioni to make him a Ferrari desmo engine, but mostly the relationship has worked in the opposite direction. Half a century ago Taglioni was allowed to ‘borrow’ bits and pieces from nearby Maranello for his financially challenged masters. In the early ’90s Ferrari built a carbon-fibre chassis for Ducati’s sister brand Cagiva, the first of its kind in premier-class motorcycle racing. These days Ducati Corse insists it does it all without its four-wheel friends.

“We have no particular link with Ferrari, apart from the fact that we breathe the same air and have the same spirit,” says Ducati Corse CEO Claudio Domenicali. “Of course, many people in both companies are good friends, so we do exchange opinions and information, but in a very informal way.”

Even more so than the desmo engine, Ducati’s biggest advantage in MotoGP comes from its sophisticated electronic control systems. Persistent paddock gossip suggests there’s some kind of information superhighway between the electronics departments at Maranello and Bologna. But it’s not quite like that, claims another Ducati Corse staffer: “We both work with Magneti Marelli, so this partnership helps us in terms of new concepts and new products, because Ferrari has the resources to push Marelli, which then helps us”.

Perhaps the most intriguing connection between the two companies is their relationship with the mechanical engineering department at Bologna University. Ferrari’s technical director Aldo Costa, Desmosedici creator Filippo Preziosi, Taglioni, Domenicali and many other Ferrari and Ducati minds were forged at Europe’s oldest university. Bologna also granted Enzo Ferrari an honorary degree in mechanical engineering. “There is a synergy between us,” agrees Domenicali.

However, Ducati’s greatest strengths come neither from Bologna University nor from Maranello, they come from inside the company. First, Ducati has a determination to do things its own way. Not only does the Desmosedici’s valve system distinguish it from the rest of the MotoGP grid (the four Japanese factories all use pneumatic valves, Kawasaki and Suzuki having bought their know-how from former F1 engineer Osamu Goto), the bike’s apparently old-fashioned steel trellis frame, another Taglioni brainwave, is a wholly different philosophy from the aluminium beam frames used by the Japanese manufacturers.

Second, Ducati takes racing very, very seriously. In reality, the company is a small factory attached to a large race department. One hundred of Ducati’s 1000 staff work at Ducati Corse, while there are 125 engineers within Honda’s bike racing arm, the Honda Racing Corporation, just 0.4 per cent of Honda’s total workforce. Kawasaki has only 30 staff in its MotoGP race shop, Suzuki a similar number. In other words, Ducati’s commitment to racing is far greater than that of the Japanese.

Ducati therefore lives and breathes on its racing successes. In the late ’80s the company was again on the brink of bankruptcy when it was saved by the arrival of the World Superbike series, biking’s WTCC. Ducati had just built its first eight-valve, liquid-cooled v-twin, which proved to be the perfect superbike, more than a match for the four-cylinder Japanese machines that dominated the grids. That v-twin, developed by Taglioni disciple Massimo Bordi, also used car technology, with Cosworth-inspired cylinder heads and 40-degree valve angles.

Ducati’s 851cc v-twin begat the 888 which begat the 916 and its successors, which became the iconic Superbikes of the modern age, carrying Carl Fogarty, James Toseland and many others to World Superbike glory. These remarkable successes saved the company, made Ducati the über-cool brand name it is today and laid the foundations for the marque’s phenomenal MotoGP triumphs. So, maybe now is the time for Ducati to do something for Ferrari, to belatedly fulfil Enzo’s wishes and build a desmo F1 engine…

*****

Doohan’s warning to Schuey

Motorcycle Grand Prix legend Mick Doohan has told Michael Schumacher not to take bike racing too seriously. The five-time 500cc World Champion recently visited the seven-time F1 king in Switzerland, where they discussed Schumi’s impressive, though recently crash-strewn, career on two wheels.

“He seemed quite excited about it but he’s still at a very early stage of understanding what happens on a motorcycle,” said Doohan, who dominated GP racing during the 1990s, winning 54 GPs for Honda. “He isn’t yet at a level where he could understand what I was talking about. He’s got a bit of learning to do and unfortunately the only way you learn in motorcycle racing is by making mistakes. It’s great that he’s got into it, I just hope he enjoys himself and doesn’t start taking it too seriously to the point where he might get injured. You don’t start racing motorcycles at 40!”

Schumacher – who has raced KTMs, Hondas, Triumphs and other machinery at low-key events – has also sought guidance from former GP winners Randy Mamola and Jeremy McWilliams.

*****

Hayden eyes dream ride at Ducati

Former MotoGP champ Nicky Hayden looks set to join Casey Stoner at Marlboro Ducati in 2009. The deal will be a dream come true for the ’06 title winner who looked unlikely to retain his Repsol Honda ride following two lacklustre seasons.

Ducati wants the 27-year-old American because it believes his all-attack style will suit its Desmosedici V4, the fastest and fieriest bike on the grid. Matching riding style to machine characteristics is vital in MotoGP, and Hayden grew up racing on dirt tracks, just like Stoner did in Australia. Racing on dirt ovals encourages a looser, more aggressive style which might be the key to unlocking the Ducati’s performance. Hayden comes from a family steeped in dirt track heritage: his father and both brothers raced, even his mother and sister rode in so-called ‘powder-puff’ events.

Hayden’s Honda ride is likely be taken by Italian rookie Andrea Dovizioso, while Stoner’s ’08 team-mate Marco Melandri is expected to join Kawasaki alongside John Hopkins. Valentino Rossi recently inked a two-year deal to stay at Yamaha.

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