Inside Ducati Corse

A veritable minnow in the MotoGP field compared to the behemoth that is Honda, Ducati Corse is becoming a genuine rival to HRC nonetheless...

Ducati Corse is, without doubt, a phenomenon in bike racing.

While the likes of Aprilia has nipped at the heels of Honda by winning in the small GP stroker classes, Ducati is the real deal.

For many years we have watched Ducati Corse beat all comers in SBK more often than not, watched them supply competitive bikes to half the world for domestic racing, watched them redouble their efforts after being beaten by Honda in SBK and witnessed them unflinchingly demote or ditch riders who didn't make the grade. And now even a MotoGP legend such as Kenny Roberts can count himself among the admirers of the way Ducati has kicked butt in SBK and now MotoGP.

How can one small factory, a minnow compared to any of the Japanese sharks, have outdone most of them with its first ever V-four prototype racer?

After watching Ducati Corse study form, join and then win in MotoGP at the first attempt in modern times, and keep their SBK and national Superbike efforts firmly on beam, the realisation dawned that it's simple enough, if complex in practice.

In creating Ducati Corse in 1999 Ducati Motor had copied, wittingly or otherwise, the format laid out by just about the most successful racing entity of all time - the Honda Racing Corporation - or HRC to you and me.

The ways of Honda's company organisation are inscrutable and labyrinthine, but in HRC Honda has an arm completely devoted to racing, staffed by engineers with a taste for the top step in numerous classes, and with Honda's money there to pay for their engineering experimentation.

In Ducati Corse, Ducati Motor has a separate but wholly owned company staffed largely by young and gifted engineers, who are all immersed completely in racing but are understandably facing very different financial circumstances than Honda. Their numbers are certainly fewer, their means of gathering funding are sometimes different - but the key facets of Ducati Corse and HRC remain solid under closer inspection.

They have autonomy of purpose and the same demands placed on them - winning and winning all the time. This need for victory, not just to go racing for corporate pride like some others, is the main reason why the HRC analogy seemed obvious in the first instance, even if there are as many differences as similarities.

It's easy to look at Ducati's MotoGP successes this season and think it remarkable for such a small company (maybe 120 or so full-timers) to form the only credible threat to the Honda hordes all season - but there is so much more to it than this.

With a new 999 F03 to race in SBK, the championship which first saved and then regenerated Ducati as a viable industrial entity (thanks largely to the 888s and then 916/955/998 dynasty), Ducati also had to win that - and beat its already impressive 998 satellite and customer bikes to boot.

Ducati Corse also supplied the same huge level of regular customers who pay a premium for their products, safe in the knowledge that they can then win Superbike nationals all over the world.

Oh, and more recently Corse has also had to develop a racing version of the 749, to take on the most intimidating bunch of Japanese 600s ever assembled next year.

Such was Ducati's instant speed in MotoGP that HRC had to plug the next level of performance into the awesome RC211V at midseason to keep in contention with Bayliss and Capirossi's sometimes wayward wonderbikes.

Now you know why the evidence demands that we pay Ducati Corse the compliment of calling them Europe's HRC and, as I found out, the unwitting error of drawing too many parallels with HRC. After all, HRC is a company that could possibly spend more money and man hours on a camshaft design than Ducati does on a whole new engine, and has the separate but related Honda R&D Co. Ltd., as a close working partner to boot. (Ducati's racing R&D department is contained within Corse itself, although obvious crossovers with the roadbike guys occur with the Superbike and Supersport machines). 

To get to the bottom of how and why Ducati Corse has taken the high ground in so many championships, questions were asked of three of the key men in the racing desmo firmament: CEO Claudio Domenicali, MotoGP Sporting Director Livio Suppo and SBK Sporting Director Paolo Ciabatti. Their comments were made in their natural environments - Domenicali from Ducati Corse at Borgo Panigale, Suppo in Rio at the recent GP and Ciabatti at the penultimate SBK meeting in Imola. We were also given photographic access to the inner sanctum of Ducati Corse, where new and existing Ducati racebikes of all shapes and sizes jostle for attention on design computers and workshops.

Claudio Domenicali

Domenicali presides over a small but intense bunch of technical, sporting, commercial and marketing personnel, who not only make racing bikes, but also sell the Corse Brand to potential sponsors. Ducati has been even more successful at this than anything else, with around 70 per cent of operational costs being paid for by a blizzard of sponsors, from the Marlboro, Fila and Shell millions to the one giving out free pasta for the teams' hospitality units. Yes, really...

Significant then that Domenicali is an engineer, but that the sporting heads of the MotoGP and SBK projects are basically marketing and admin people. As Domenicali's expansive answer to the first question bears out, it's not just about the motorbikes.

"Are we Europe's HRC? That's a nice story, in a way, but you can look at the success of the company as being a general company, not just a racing company," states the welcoming, if business-like, Domenicali from the conference table of Ducati Corse's modern offices in Ducati's far from modern factory buildings. "Maybe the point is that we are managing Ducati Corse as if it were a company producing products. It's not just racing, so it is not just about being enthusiastic and passionate, even if that is one of the most important things - but it is not enough."

Incongruously, there is no obvious chest puffing pride from Domenicali as recent successes for both wings of Corse operations are reeled off to him. In some respects for Domenicali, the engineer and company planner, the future is his domain.

His opinions about the impact of the Desmosedici MotoGP project bear this out.

"On the engine side we are now at the state of the art, I think we are at a pretty good level, pretty much comparable to Formula One in understanding and designing the engines," he affirms. "On the chassis it still needs time to have a complete understanding of performance which is very complex. The dimensions of the motorcycle industry are far smaller generally than in cars, and Ducati is a medium/small company. But this is where we are spending most of our efforts - in making software 'tools' in order to continue our growth."

As with other industries all over the world bike racing design relies heavily on computer assistance nowadays, and Corse has already used the logic of the intransigent microchip to overcome some potential emotional baggage. "We did not just design the MotoGP four-cylinder engine based on our conviction," states Domenicali when asked why he plumped for a four and not a twin. "We tried to prove the most on the theoretical side. The MotoGP rule was written to stop the twins from being competitive. I don't know why because we were not inside at that time but racing is about competing for the win not just being there with a twin. The difficulty was the back-up to allow us to make the decision. Then with that, the decision is very easy."

What Ducati did have to keep hold of was a link to the streetbike brand in some ways, and opted for the very one that may actually allow them an edge over at least some of their competitors - the desmodromic valve system and their 10 years of design software on the subject.

"We kept desmodromics because we wanted to keep something that was specifically Ducati," asserts Domenicali as he looks at the scale models of a 999 and Desmosedici on his desk. "We didn't want to make just another MotoGP bike - we wanted to make it a Ducati MotoGP bike. So we opted for desmodromics, with a trellis frame, L-cylinder layout - with those features that make it look like a Ducati. But we had to re-invent every system in order to keep it up to performance."

As Domenicali espoused the benefits of having a good core of engineers all pulling in a single direction, it was tempting to think that some of Corse's success is simply down to its smaller scale and passionately motivated workforce. Can small and flexible firms actually have an advantage over the big and bureaucratic ones?

Not so, says Domenicali, who can clearly see how many hours his lieutenants and private soldiers have to work to get to where the company is now.

"If I had the choice I would choose a very big number of talented guys and I would just find a way of managing them all," says the boss. "This project is very complex so with more numbers we could go even deeper. I wouldn't be scared about being too big."

A fair point when you consider just how much Ducati Corse has had on its plate recently, in all classes. How tough was it then, developing so many bikes almost simultaneously?

"It's a matter of experience," says Domenicali the engineer once more. "Once you do it once or twice, you can make it faster. Really our Superbike was pretty much a different bike every year... So we had a good idea of how long it would take to make casting, do new pistons, develop on the dyno and so on. Our structure did not start from nothing."

So a vast experience in SBK and a bunch of clever people have got Ducati Corse to its current enviable position. Plus the commodity Domenicali did not mention, but is self-evident anyway - the sheer balls to take on Honda in MotoGP the same way they have in Superbike.

But Honda is the biggest, the proven best for many years in GPs and if they decide to get hyper serious then maybe companies like Ducati, no matter how clever or experienced, may just get swamped?

This strikes a nerve with Domenicali, who has very definite ideas about that scenario. "I think that it is not a written game," he explains. "If I thought it wasn't ever possible to win this battle then we wouldn't have started. It will be very tough, but I think we are in pretty good shape. I don't see us as losers, for sure."

Livio Suppo

Red Storm Rising

Sitting on a packing case in the Rio pitlane, dragging on one of the sponsor's products, Livio Suppo is as unmissable Italian as the bike being wheeled past his right shoulder.

He's worked in a lot of places though, cars, bikes, other stuff in other countries. Not by any means a life-long Ducati guy, he is possibly better placed than most to ask about Ducati's HRC-style approach to racing.

"I think it was in their minds to build up a company that was only concerned with racing," allows Suppo. "Racing for Ducati is important, more important than for other brands. If you also make scooters then racing is not so important for you, but our products are premium sportsbikes and we have a great tradition of racing. Ducati Corse was built up before the MotoGP rules. The best example I can give about Ducati Corse's approach is that in America people are much more specialised than in Europe. If you are a doctor then you know something very detailed about one field of medicine, and you know almost everything about it. We are something like this."

No stranger to GP paddocks, Suppo was more expansive than Domenicali about why most of the other manufacturers haven't enjoyed the same success as Ducati so far.

"It is difficult to talk about other manufacturers because you do not know how much they have to spend and so on," said Suppo by means of explanation. "Maybe for some of them they had to build the bikes a certain way because of the marketing department. Our technical guys were left to do the bike the way they felt it needed to be, without interference from the marketing department. "

Paolo Ciabatti

Fila The Force

Like Suppo, Ciabatti has more of a marketing and commercial background than an engineering one. With the overall technical aspects of both MotoGP and SBK operations directed by R&D Chief Filippo Preziosi, Ciabatti spends his time looking after the needs of the SBK teams, and like Suppo has had special influence in Ducati Corse's unique way of selling its image to other companies.

This is one truly important difference between HRC and Ducati, which generates its own money from more than just the parent company or sales/leases of machinery. "When we started Ducati Corse there were lots of engineers plus a few people working on sales and marketing. With Livio and me in there now the group is a little bigger. So we started to make packages for the interested companies. We would sell the racing exposure plus the benefit and uniqueness of Ducati, so then we could do some merchandising deals to spread the image and to help make some profit for the company."

The fiscal side Ciabatti knows very well, but that does not go all the way to explaining why a company such as Ducati can succeed with limited bike sales to back it all up.

"I think the reason we are a successful company is that we are a smallish group of people, very young - I am the oldest at 46 - but the average age in the company is 29-30. We are highly motivated, knowing that racing is the best way to promote the company. In the end we all like what we do. This helps because sometimes maybe you have to work more than you would like to."