The Potential Rise and Possible Fall of Ducati
The road racing season is as fresh as a daisy and already there have been plenty of surprises. The last weekend in February—motorcycle racing in February!—saw the first round of the World Superbike Championship get underway at Phillip Island.
The fact that Carlos Checa won both ends of the double-header was not that unexpected; in testing at the Australian track during the off-season, the veteran set a fastest lap that was only seven-tenths of a second shy of Casey Stoner’s record on the Ducati MotoGP machine. In fact, Checa’s time was so fast, he would’ve placed third on the grid for the Australian Grand Prix behind Stoner and Jorge Lorenzo.
So there was little question that the Spaniard arrived down under as the race favourite—what is a bit startling is how fast the Ducati remains after the Italian manufacturer pulled out of the championship. Their team manager has called for calm in the face of the double win, stating that the Australian circuit suited the Italian machinery to a tee and future tracks may not be so welcoming.
There were reasons for this statement and for the team’s withdrawal from the series in an official capacity, of course. While Ducati had been a stalwart in World Superbike competition from the get-go, they had often threatened to withdraw if the rules didn’t mesh with their vision for what a Superbike should be. This time, they acted upon those threats, leaving the series, and the likes of factory rider Noriyuki Haga, high and dry.
(There are indications that the factory is planning a return for either 2012 or 2013; former World Superbike champion Troy Bayliss is currently leading the development of the new machine.)
But there were other opinions on what forced the hand of Ducati last season—and those reasons focused on Valentino Rossi. The factory knew they wanted to sign the world’s greatest living rider to a Moto GP contract and they knew it had to be a very compelling offer. Since winning the championship with Stoner in 2007, the red machines have told a tale of unrealized potential.
In the hands of Stoner, the Desmosedici has, at times, seemed unstoppable. But the rider proved to be the weak link in the chain, falling often and falling ill with some mystery malaise. The Aussie’s teammates remained strong throughout, but their performances were far less inspiring. These results led observers to conclude that any rider apart from Stoner—Valentino Rossi included—would find it difficult to win on a machine that required a very specific riding style, namely, Casey Stoner’s riding style.
If Ducati didn’t come to this same conclusion, they certainly weren’t hedging their bets, either. The consensus was that a Rossi contract offer must have included a blank chequebook with which to transform the Ducati into a machine with which Rossi (and perhaps other riders) could win races and championships.
If this was the case, it was a reasonable investment: After all, the Doctor had delivered on that same promise when he jumped from Honda to Yamaha prior to the start of the 2004 season. In the years leading up to Rossi’s arrival, the Yamaha M1 had been a petulant machine capable of occasionally stellar performances in the hands of Max Biaggi and others, but ultimately it was not enough to derail the Rossi-Honda express.
With the champion newly installed at Yamaha, his faithful crew led by Jeremy Burgess in tow, the results were immediate: first race, first win. First season, first title. Based on the proceedings of this off-season, for Rossi to duplicate that 2004 season would be an incredible achievement, even for a rider who delivers the “incredible” on a regular basis. But the early signs are that 2011 will be much more difficult for the perennial champion.
In fact, after struggling with niggling injuries, reduced riding time and a bike very much in need of development during the official pre-season tests, Rossi himself has said this season would be a bigger challenge than his earlier high-profile switch.
Little wonder: Over the course of three tests, the Italian has barely managed a time in the top-10, while the Honda triplets—Stoner, Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso—have dominated proceedings. Behind these three, a fourth factory-supported Honda belonging to Marco Simoncelli has proven fast, as have the factory Yamahas of Lorenzo and Ben Spies. Everyone else on the 2011 grid, including Rossi, has looked fairly lost at one point or another.
The situation at Ducati will be much different from the one Rossi faced in his final seasons with Yamaha. Despite the fact that he brought the Japanese manufacturer their first championships in decades and developed the promising but unfulfilled M1 to the very heights of MotoGP competition, he was being edged out of the spotlight by former teammate Lorenzo.
The Spaniard, who joined the upper ranks with Yamaha in 2008, was no match for Rossi in his first or second seasons—he showed genuine speed, yes, but he also crashed far too frequently. Last year as a different story altogether as a more mature Lorenzo cruised to the title while his more experienced rivals, including Rossi, struggled to keep pace or nursed injuries from the sidelines.
Recognizing that Lorenzo was a threat, Rossi ordered a wall to be built between his garage and that of his teammate’s last season—the better to keep set-up information to himself. This year, the Doctor won’t be building a wall for two reasons: New teammate Nicky Hayden isn’t the biggest threat to his title chances and Rossi may well need all the help he can get in order to turn the Desmosedici into a race-winner.