Q&A: Claudio Domenicali Talks Frameless Chassis, Sacred Cows, & The Future for Ducati

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When I sat down with Claudio Domenicali at the Ducati 1199 Panigale R launch, the now-CEO of Ducati Motor Holding was still just the General Manager of the Italian motorcycle company. Four weeks after our interview though, Gabriele del Torchio would leave Ducati for Alitalia; and Domenicali, a 21-year veteran of both the racing and production departments of Ducati, would take his place at the top of Italy’s most prestigious motorcycle brand.

An engineer by education, I found Domenicali just as astute about the nuances of Ducati’s brand as he was skilled on the race track earlier in the day. Our conversation was brief compared to other interviews we have done here at Asphalt & Rubber, but we had time to talk about why the frameless chassis of the Panigale still works while the MotoGP program struggles, the links between Ducati and Ducati Corse, sacred cows for the Italian brand, and the company’s future direction.

Concise, yet insightful, the more I think about Domenicali’s unexpected succession of Del Torchio, the more I think he is the right man for the job. With all the worried talk about the possible “Germanification” of Ducati by its new owners Audi, the German automaker has picked someone who is keenly aware of the importance of the company’s racing operations and heritage, and how that ties into the Ducati brand and what it means to Ducatisti around the world.

With all the internal and external changes that are occurring in the company, Ducati is currently in a state of flux with its new owners, new product lines, and new world-growth plans, and could easily lose its way as a brand, but I see Domenicali as an anchor for Ducati going forward. Greeted to his new job by the revving engines of his employees outside his office window, Domenicali to me now seems like the logical pick for Ducati’s new CEO. After reading our interview from Austin, Texas after the jump, I think you will agree too.

Q: Starting with the Panigale, obviously the big change is the frameless design that started in MotoGP. I think one of the questions a lot of people are wondering is why does this design work so well on a street bike, when you’re having so much trouble with it on the race bike?

That’s a nice question, and a most common one. The only reason we can figure out is that MotoGP runs a spec-tire. So, you cannot really suit the frame with the specific tire. With Pirelli, we made a really good job, and this I think is the major reason why the bike works really well with the other brand of production tire, so our expectation is that there is maybe something in the carcass of the MotoGP tire that causes this problem in MotoGP.

Q: So all this speculation that we hear about how the MotoGP bike will only work with the tires that were built for it back when there was a spec-tire, that doesn’t seem to be the case, because the street bike is working on other brands…

Yes, but it is very much depending on where Bridgestone have taken the development of MotoGP, you know? You cannot run the bike with other tires, it is just forbidden by the rules, even in testing. So, it is very difficult to take an answer. So, you have not other possibility, except to try and adapt the bike to the tire.

Q: With the MotoGP team now, you have four riders doing development together. Will we see the MotoGP team then go back to this frameless design, or will they stay on course with the twin-spar aluminum chassis?

I think is part of the development that the team operates in with Mr. Gobmeier. They will do during the next month, I’m sure is difficult to say now, but let’s say we have since the 1st of January split all the responsibilities, the racing side is run by Mr. Gobmeier directly, and I am heading the production development, so of course we are exchanging information, but it’s his decision what type of direction to go.

Q: So then is it not important for you, on the production side, to have the Corse using the same technology?

On the racing side, you have to win. So, you have to do whatever is necessary to make the bike faster. On the production side, we need to make the development in order to make the customers as happy as possible. In our case, a lightweight design is the kind of our main focus, and there is no way you make a lighter bike than the Panigale — because you can just remove pieces.

On the other hand, when you ride the bike on the track, you can see that the bike works perfectly. There is no problem on the front. You were just out on the track — on the bike you can correct the line, you have perfect feeling from the front — with these tires, nothing wrong is happening. So, there is no reason why that we know of not to continue on the street bike to progress and make an even lighter bike by following this design.

Q: You said for the street bikes, you have to keep the customers happy. Are there a certain things about Ducati motorcycles that you cannot change? Will it always have to be a 90° twin? You got rid of the trellis frame in favor of this chassis design.  Are there other aspects of these bikes that have to remain constant in order to be true to the Ducati brand?

I think that there is no kind of ‘untouchable’ things. Everything has to be discussed from time-to-time, and depending on the technology, and depending on the times… The trellis frame was a very good structure, because it was very light and the right stiffness at the same time.

But, if you want to make a further step, in terms of lightweight design, you have to go the Panigale route. It is not a problem of being a trellis frame, twin-spar frame, aluminum frame, or whatever, if you continue to have a frame, you continue to have something that is eight, ten, eleven kilos. But now with the Panigale, we have something that is four kilos. So, it is a massive change.

Q: Do you think looking down the road, at future production bikes, is this chassis design what future Ducati fans can expect from future generations of machines, or is it something special to the Panigale?

It is not to be applied to all the model range, but will be expanded in the future. The main point is that you need to design an engine that is able to cope with this type of frame. It has to have all the fixing points for the frame in the heads, and it needs to have the fixing points on the rear for the shock. So you cannot just take an engine and bolt on a frame. This is the reason why it will take some time to have this concept expand in the range.

Q: You said in the presentation that the Superquardro is going to be sport bike specific as a motor, whereas with the Testastretta, it ended up in the Streetfighter, Multistrada, and Diavel. So will that motor always be for Superbikes, and in the future a different motor will come in for the other street models?

I would say that for a while it will remain in sport bike models. It is a very sophisticated engine with vacuum pumps and other very sophisticated component. We will continue in a parallel way of development with the Testastretta, and the Superquadro will remain for the sporting machine.

Q: For World Superbike obviously, a big portion of the street bike design is made with racing in mind, what were the biggest hurdles developing the Panigale. I know you talked about the connecting rods, the pivot-position for the swingarm…What were the other challenges in trying to hone it for World Superbike?

I think these were the biggest ones, and I think we have sorted it out. The biggest challenge is to get out from the v-twin, at this cc [displacement], to get the horsepower you need to compete with the four [four-cylinder motorcycles]. In Superbike rules, the four-cylinder bikes are less-restricted than the twins.

So, they can change the connecting rods, change the pistons, and they have no restrictor. So it is very difficult for us to make those powers. Now we have a bike that I think is very, very good on the short straight and is very good on the corner, as we showed during the qualifying at Phillip Island, but we are still struggling on the long straight.

It is a bit weird, that we are suffering on the straight, and being penalized with an air-restrictor, no?

Normally you use a restrictor when you want to balance performance across the series. If you have an engine that is more powerful than the other. So, you want to balance the horsepower of two different configuration.

Q: Is there any consideration to go back to a 1,000cc displacement, and run without an air-restrictor? Or, is it at 1,200cc’s you’d like to keep things?

Ah, there is no way that a 1,000cc, even without air restrictors, can compete with a four. No way.

Q: Do you feel now that Dorna is taking over World Superbike that Ducat’s voice in World Superbike is going to have more or less power?

We had a very good relationship with the Flamini brother and Infront also, but we have a good relation with Dorna, so I think we go along very well together. We were going very well also before, I think it is just a matter of there being many manufacturer, and we have to compete.

Q: Lastly, I just wanted to hear your opinion on electric motorcycles. What do you think about the technology and its future?

I think it’s a nice technology, so we are positive on that. But we feel it is still not mature for the market. All these things with the battery and everything are not yet ready, so we are looking at this and something for the future.

Photo: Ducati