Valentino Rossi, Madonna and Ducati*

Motorcycles

Unless you’re at the sharp end of racing – frantically fettling in readiness of the new season – this can be a grey time of year.

Which is why we have to be thankful that Philip Morris still like spending money on the sport, even though they get precious little (virtually nil, in fact) coverage for it. Every January the “wicked tobacco barons” take over upmarket ski resort Madonna di Campiglio in the Italian Dolomites to present the Ducati MotoGP and Ferrari Formula 1 teams. The five-day Wrooom event must bring tears to the eyes of their accountants – the town is painted red, though Uncle Phil stops short of dying the snow.

Madonna is very flash – it seems like it’s a legal requirement for women to wear fur coats while promenading of an evening. Pretty much the only ladies who aren’t swaddled in deceased wildlife belong to the red army of PR operatives who fuss around Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa.

The climax of the week was an ice-racing evening in which Rossi took on Alonso, Massa, Giancarlo Fisichella and Marc Gené in karts and Fiat 500s. Rossi – who knows almost as much about going fast on four wheels as he does on two – won the kart race and finished second in the Fiats, behind Massa and ahead of Alonso. He’ll be trying very hard not to brag too much about that.

Traditionally Ducati uses Wrooom to reveal its new Desmosedici (16-valve desmo) MotoGP bike. Last year the GP11 was helicoptered to the top of a mountain where it was unveiled by the riders to great fanfare. The phrase ‘more money than sense’ comes to mind. This year, however, there was no helicopter. And there was no motorcycle either. The official excuse for the GP12’s absence was that the team was still finalising the livery. Yeah, right.

There are two more likely reasons for its failure to get to Madonna. Either Ducati doesn’t want its rivals to see the GP12 any earlier than necessary because the bike is so radically different, or Ducati mechanics were still wielding their spanners in Bologna, readying the machine for its first shakedown tests this week at Jerez. Rossi and Hayden (if he’s fit from a recent training accident) will get their first go on the bike at Sepang at the end of the month.

We already know that the GP12 is a whole new departure for Ducati – following the factory’s nightmare 2011 season it needed to be. Chief engineer Filippo Preziosi is trying desperately hard to please Rossi and has replaced his unique carbon-fibre monocoque with an aluminium beam frame, just like those used by the Japanese factories (though the GP12 item is fabricated by Buckingham-based FTR).

Some engineering purists consider this to be big step backwards, but Ducati hopes the new chassis will work better with MotoGP’s Bridgestone control tyres. It will also make it easier for engineers to adjust engine position from race to race in search of better front/rear grip balance.

The big mystery that swirls around the GP12 is its engine. Ducati only does one configuration – the 90-degree vee – which has been its trademark since the 1970s. All street bikes manufactured by Ducati are powered by 90-degree v-twins and the Desmosedici MotoGP bike runs a 90-degree V4 (which Ducati cheekily used to call a “super twin”).

Some insiders suggest that Preziosi has now forsaken Ducati’s beloved right-angled architecture and built a narrower-angle V4, like Honda’s RC213V. the man himself has even dropped hints that he might build a 72-degree V4 because he knows that a shorter engine would definitely help him build a more compact, more balanced chassis.

The bigger question is this: after decades of doing things very much its own way is Ducati turning Japanese?

*Apologies for the tricky headline, but it piqued your interest, didn’t it?

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