The problem at Ducati


It is good news that Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso have re-signed with Ducati, because if Gigi Dall’Igna hasn’t forgotten how to design a racing motorcycle, then his 100 per cent brand-new GP15 should stop the rot at Ducati.

And there’s a lot of rot to stop. Think back a decade to when Ducati could do no wrong: they were winning MotoGP races and World Superbike titles, performing David versus Goliath feats every weekend. Now they can’t win a thing. Last season was the first in a quarter of century of WSB that they didn’t win a single race and I can’t even remember when they last won a MotoGP race. Hang on, I’ll look it up. It was Phillip Island in 2010, with a certain Casey Stoner on board.

When was the last time Ducati won a MotoGP race without Stoner on board? Back to the history books: it was Loris Capirossi at Motegi 2007, when he made the right call in a wet-dry race. There have been 118 MotoGP races since then. In other words it seems like Ducati have forgotten how to design a racing motorcycle.

Capirossi, Motegi, 2007

I’ve recently had a few chats with several mechanics and engineers who have worked with both Ducati’s MotoGP teams and for the factory itself during the last three seasons. They all spoke of their time working on the Desmosedici while shaking their heads in frustration and raising their eyes in disbelief at the weirdness of it all. One mechanic, now back with his former employers, described each new day not working on the Desmosedici as “like waking up in paradise”. In other words, the bike is as much a nightmare to work on as it is to ride.

From their experiences, it seems like it isn’t so much that Ducati Corse has forgotten how to design a racing motorcycle as the company is suffering from some kind of ego problem: an unwillingness to believe that it’s doing anything wrong, despite the might of evidence against them, and an unwillingness to listen to the wisdom of people who’ve achieved much more MotoGP success than they have.

Does it matter if the bike is difficult to work on? Of course it does. Another mechanic told me about the overabundance of 7mm, 8mm, 9mm and 10mm nuts and bolts on the Desmosedici. While chatting to one of Ducati’s hallowed university-trained engineers, he suggested that these bolts should be either 8mm or 10mm.

The engineer looked at him quizzically: but how will that make us faster on the race track? So the mechanic explained: “I can’t quickly tell the difference between a 7mm and an 8mm nut or a 9mm and a 10mm bolt, but I can visually tell the different between an 8mm and a 10mm nut or bolt. So, if we’re in the middle of a 45 minute practice session, trying to make a shock change, I have to look carefully at every nut and bolt to work out its size, so every job takes longer than it should.

“So while Honda might be able to make two shock changes in a session, we’ll only have time to make one. And Honda’s second shock change may be the one that finds them that extra few tenths a lap that wins them the race.”

The engineer still didn’t get it. Why should he listen to a lowly mechanic without a string of letters after his name? The 7mm, 8mm, 9mm and 10mm bolts stayed.

I say lowly mechanic because another told me how they were treated like second-class citizens by senior management. There’s a class system in operation, he said. “Derision” was a word he used. The thing is that, along with the riders, mechanics are the front line troops. If you don’t listen to them, you’re in trouble, just as the military leader who has no time for the opinions of his troops on the front line is doomed.

He told me that Ducati’s chief chassis engineers would rarely visit races, relying instead on detailed race reports from the team to the race department outside Bologna. That’s not good, added the mechanic, because the chassis engineer needs to be at the track every weekend, looking into the rider’s eyes, seeing the sweat on his brow and the anguish in his eyes.

Riders who follow Crutchlow on the GP14 see him saving the front on his knee at every corner, a gut-wrenching feeling that will gnaw away at his confidence like a rat chewing on a bone. A chassis engineer needs to be there every weekend to see that fear to understand there really is a problem with the way the bike goes round corners.

I’ve suffered some Ducati management derision myself. Some years ago I used to do some work for one of their sponsors, which required an occasional chat with the boss. He used to look down his nose at me like I was a reeking vagrant, begging for 50p for a cup of coffee. I thought it was just me, I now realise it wasn’t.

Casey Stoner, Phillip Island 2010

Stoner also spoke of his disrespect for Ducati management, while praising the men sweating on their knees in the pit box. Valentino Rossi too spoke of how Ducati Corse engineers would take critical comments about the bike as personal insults, instead of gladly taking his invaluable opinion on board and working to fix the problem.

All of this reminds me of the great John Surtees speaking of his days as a Norton factory rider in the 1950s. He spoke of a culture of “them and us” between the management and the mechanics and riders. Thus his opinion as the rider carried little weight with the people running the company. And we all know how Norton ended up.

Perhaps it’s the same management malaise that afflicts so many companies today: over-rewarded executives who are entirely out of touch – in all kinds of ways – with those working at the coalface.

Of course, all this was pre-Dall’Igna, whose first comment after joining Ducati Corse last autumn criticised the lack of communication between those at the race track and those in Borgo Panigale. One of the mechanics I spoke to put it like this: they need to put the coffee machine right in the middle of Ducati Corse, so that the engineers designing the stuff and the people racing with it actually talk to each other several times a day.

Ducati’s MotoGP co-ordinator Davide Tardozzi recently said that every nut and bolt on the GP15 (or as some wag put it, the GG15) will be new, which is great news. But perhaps the question shouldn’t be, can Dall’Igna design a better Desmosedici – which he almost certainly can – rather it should be can he successfully transform the company culture and bring a little humility to the egos?

I really hope he can, because I hanker for those far-off days when Loris Capirossi, Troy Bayliss and Casey Stoner used to stick it to Honda and Yamaha on their big red Ducatis.


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