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Gigi Dall’Igna

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The Sepang MotoGP test proved to be most instructive, both for the fans, who got a first taste of what the 2018 season could look like, and for the factories, who put the first imaginings of this year’s bikes – and especially engines – through their paces.

We learned that Ducati has taken another step forward, that Honda has improved, that Yamaha has solved one problem but possibly created another, that Suzuki is showing promise, that Aprilia is still waiting on a new engine to match their new chassis, and that KTM is starting to realize that closing in on the top ten was much easier than getting into the top five will be.

From Sepang, MotoGP moves to Thailand, some 1300km almost due north. The Chang International Circuit – mostly referred to as Buriram among the MotoGP faithful, as the circuit is owned by (and named after) the main Thai rival to Official MotoGP Beer Supplier Singha – may prove a good deal less instructive than Sepang, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it offers more of the same, especially from a climate point of view. And secondly, it offers less, in terms of variety of corners and bike maneuverability.

The layout of the Buriram circuit is relatively simple. There are no real elevation changes, though the track has one or two crests and dips.

The track consists of three straights strung together with tight corners, and then an ornery section of tightish corners taking the riders back to the final first-gear corner, and back onto the relatively short start and finish straight.

It is, unsurprisingly, a Hermann Tilke track, and exactly what you would expect as a result.

That doesn’t mean the track is completely without entertainment value. Turn 4 is fast left hander with a lot of run off behind it, giving riders the confidence to attack it. The long Turn 9 is relatively slow, but it leads onto a complex left-right section taken at speed which demands a lot of effort from the rider.

The final corner is a favorite overtaking point, but it tends to bring out the worst in riders. The only pass available is one of the kamikaze variety, offering glory or the gravel trap. To see a lap of the Buriram circuit, watch this video on the WorldSBK website.

The difference in perspective between team managers and riders is always fascinating. Team bosses always have an eye to the big picture, to the coming year and beyond.

Riders are usually looking no further ahead than the next session or the next race. Anything beyond that is out of their control, and not worth wasting valuable energy worrying about. The future is a bridge they will cross when they come to it.

That difference was all too evident at the Ducati launch in Bologna on Monday.

While the people in charge of Ducati – Paolo Ciabatti, Davide Tardozzi, and Gigi Dall’Igna – were already thinking of managing rider signings and sponsorship deals for 2019 and beyond, Andrea Dovizioso and Jorge Lorenzo were mostly concerned about the Sepang test and about being competitive in the 2018 season.

New contracts for 2019 were on their horizons, but compared to their bosses, it was little more than a blip. First, there is a championship to win.

Andrea Dovizioso has spent the winter relaxing, and preparing for the new season. He starts the year as one of the title favorites, not a position he has been accustomed to.

A great sensation, and one I had lost in the last few years” is how the Italian described it. He did not feel the pressure of that sensation, but rather saw it as a challenge.

Sure, he was one of the favorites, but there were a lot of competitive bikes with riders capable of winning. “The level of competitiveness has become very high in MotoGP in the last three years,” he said. “There are many riders who can win races. It wasn’t like this in the past.”

MotoGP team launches are always the triumph of hope over experience. Each year, the bosses of every factory in the series tell the media that their objective is to win races and fight for the championship. Sometimes, they even believe it.

At last year’s launch of the Ducati MotoGP team, Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna said they hoped to be fighting for the championship. That, after all, is why they signed Jorge Lorenzo to what is reported to be a very lucrative contract.

The assembled press was skeptical, despite the clear progress that Ducati had made in the past couple of seasons, its first wins coming in 2016.

Such skepticism was unwarranted, though you get the distinct feeling that even Ducati was surprised at how close Andrea Dovizioso came to clinching the 2017 MotoGP title.

Ducati was delighted by the Italian’s first win at Mugello, amazed at his victory in Barcelona a week later, and impressed by the way he beat Marc Márquez at Austria.

By the end of the season, Ducati had come to expect to win races, and realized just how far they had come on their journey since the dark days of 2013, when they didn’t score a single podium all year.

So on Monday, when Dall’Igna echoed the words of Ducati CEO Claudio Domenicali in Bologna, that Ducati’s objective was to win races and challenge for the championship in MotoGP, they were deadly serious.

There is no doubt that Ducati is capable of doing just that – Dovizioso’s results and Lorenzo’s improvement in 2017 demonstrate that – and though they are all too aware of the dangers of complacency, Ducati start the 2018 season with both a firm expectation and belief that they are candidates for the 2018 MotoGP title.

Over the long weekend, we got our first real glimpse of Ducati’s new V4 superbike – just a few days ahead of the company’s debut of its new V4 engine, which has been named the Desmosedici Stradale.

This is not the name of Ducati’s new superbike, as some outlets have been reporting, instead we learned the name of the actual motorcycle, at the same time the spy photo dropped. It will be called the Ducati Panigale V4.

Though the letters are blurry, and the photo is disappointing of low-quality, just knowing this new superbike’s name tells us a great deal about Ducati’s new superbike program, and where the brand is headed for the future.

When spy photos of the Panigale V4 first debuted, it was obvious that the machine captured by photographers took a number of visual cues from its predecessor.

This wasn’t a test mule in sheep’s clothing however, with there being enough key differences in the bodywork shape for it to be obvious that Ducati was keeping the general look and feel of the Panigale for its V4 successor.

Now with Ducati recycling the Panigale name, it is clear that the Bologna factory isn’t quite ready to do away with its namesake. This is an interesting development for the Italian brand.

More factories racing means more factories testing. The usual one or two-day shakedown test ahead of the first official MotoGP test of the year organized by IRTA has expanded this year to become much more than that.

All six MotoGP factories are present with test riders – Aprilia, Ducati, Honda, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha – as well as a couple of factories testing Superbike machines ahead of the 2017 season.

The reason? The more factory teams there are, the cheaper the cost per factory to rent the circuit, and the more time they get preparing for next week’s test.

From one presentation to another. Having the Movistar Yamaha and Ducati Factory team launches on consecutive days made it a little too easy to make comparisons between the two. There was much complaining on social media about the fact that large parts of the Yamaha presentation were in Spanish only, causing the international audience watching the live streaming to lose interest. Ducati’s approach was better: while everything in the presentation was in Italian, there was simultaneous translation available on the live stream, so those following could hear it in English. That was no good to us in the hall, of course, though we would find out later that there had been headsets available with the live translation available. But nobody had thought to tell us about that, of course.

The Monday after the final race at Valencia has not been the first day of the official test for a few years now. This is a good thing: the riders are exhausted after a full season of racing, and need a lie in and a day to recover.

The team members aren’t the same, mechanics moving from garage to garage, and crew chiefs shuffling around to meet their new teams.

The riders might get the day off, but the rest of the staff do not. Mechanics are being shown the ropes in the new garage, and learn how the bikes fit together by helping to strip and reassemble them for the start of Tuesday’s test.

Factory bosses are also busy, going through test schedules with existing and new riders to sort out who will be testing what, and what to expect.

They also make time on Monday to talk to the press. Or at least some of them do. The top brass of Suzuki, Ducati, and Honda all held press conferences to talk to the media, and to go over their plans.

The three different press conferences also gave an insight into the different approaches of the teams. HRC was there to present the management team that will take over from Shuhei Nakamoto, who retires as HRC Vice President in April.

Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio held a solo press conference in English, to discuss the plans for the team. And Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna spoke to the media in Italian and English about the 2017 bike and the arrival of Jorge Lorenzo.

It has been three years in the making. Ducati have been chasing Jorge Lorenzo for a very long time, almost since the moment Gigi Dall’Igna took over as head of Ducati Corse.

Dall’Igna came to Ducati with a master plan. “Ducati had a plan when we started with Gigi at the end of 2013, which was to develop a competitive bike and – once the bike was competitive – to attract one of the top riders,” Ducati MotoGP boss Paolo Ciabatti told a specially convened press conference on Thursday.

The candidates who qualified as “top riders” (for the linguists, this is the English phrase the Italians use where English speakers would use the term “alien”) are few and far between. Ciabatti made it perfectly clear what he meant.

“With all due to respect to all the other riders, including the two Andreas, there are a few riders who have been showing their potential. They are able to win championships. Obviously if you look at history in the last six years three times Lorenzo, twice Marquez and once Stoner. So obviously to be sure to be in a position to fight for a world title we needed to aim for one of the two riders which are Lorenzo and Marquez.”

They call it Silly Season for a reason. Every year, the MotoGP paddock engages in intrigue and speculation as to where certain riders will land for the upcoming season.

Lately, this means that the MotoGP Silly Season has its ebbs and flows, as the contract cycle for many of Grand Prix racing’s riders have come into synch with a two-year cycle. As such, it is game-on for this year, as the 2016 season has turned into a perfect game of contractual musical chairs.

We have already seen Valentino Rossi sign a two-year deal with Yamaha Racing, likely The Doctor’s last contract in MotoGP, as many expect the nine-time world champion to retire at the end of that stint.

We have also already seen Bradley Smith sign a two-year deal with KTM’s new MotoGP entry, which is perhaps the ideal situation for both the Austrian factory and the British rider.

These are both important pieces to the Silly Season puzzle, but the seat that everyone is watching the closest is that of Jorge Lorenzo, and whether the reigning world champion will remain as a Yamaha rider, or try his hand elsewhere – likely at Ducati.