Ducati’s history of innovation and excellence in motorcycling goes back almost seven decades. It released its first motorbike in 1950 and within a year, riders were using it to set world speed records. In 1965, the Ducati Mach 1 broke the 100mph (160kph) barrier to become the world’s fastest road bike.
In the 1970s, Ducatis were ridden in Grand Prix motorcycling and they dominated production-based world superbike racing in the 1980s (maybe better ‘in the 1990s’). In 2007, four years after returning to motorcycle racing’s highest level after a 30-year absence, the Ducati Corse team won the MotoGP World Championship.
Faced with the might of larger and financially stronger competitors, Ducati Corse has to think outside the box. Midway through the 2010 MotoGP season, the team revealed one of its boldest and most radical innovations. Two ‘winglets’, small fins, attached to the bike, one on each side, to improve aerodynamics. Fans and rivals were surprised, but the experiment did not lead to significant advantage.
Despite the disappointment, engineers at Ducati HQ in Bologna knew they were onto something. They continued to winnow the idea, refining the winglet concept and subjecting it to extensive testing. After Luigi Dall’Igna became the team’s new general manager in 2013, he instigated a plan to build a brand new-bike for the 2015 season.
“In the beginning, everyone was surprised,” Ciabatti continues. “Some teams and manufacturers made fun of us because they thought it was more about marketing than racing. We didn't care because we knew why we were using them. Then we came up with even more extreme solutions, with additional winglets on the front of the bike, not only on the side.”
Extreme, perhaps, but by the end of the season, rival manufacturers had winglets on their MotoGP bikes. The following season, 2016, Ducati went one step further, with even more winglets. “Looking at the pictures now, the bikes looked like the Batmobile with so many winglets,” admits Ciabatti. “But it was working very well for us. We won two races, our first victories since 2010.
“The other constructors, however, had not developed their winglet technologies at the same speed as we had. They started to question the safety of winglets, suggesting that they could create turbulences and that a rider might get hooked during a close contact between bikes. All of it untrue, but together the teams had the power politically to get a limit put on the use of winglets.”
Contrary to common belief, winglets were not banned but were permitted under strict new rules preventing them from protruding from the general shape of the bike. Ducati Corse went back to the drawing board, looking for better ways to improve the bikes within the new rules.
“They tried to make it impossible for us,” says Ciabatti, “but we managed to make something new, again.” This commitment to innovation paid off in a 2017 season that was the team’s best in 10 years, with six race wins – a feat repeated in 2018, when Ducati Corse won seven races and took second again in the manufacturer’s standings, another best-for-a-decade placing.
“In 2018,” says Ciabatti, “we took the development further in the new rules, and now both riders use the same aerodynamic configuration throughout the season. Funnily enough, after a race test in Valencia before the start of the season, we saw one of our main competitors come out with a solution almost identical to ours. We can't always patent what we do, we can only try to come up with our aerodynamic package as close to the start of the season as possible, so that nobody has time to copy us immediately.”
Ducati's history of innovation helps here, because the team has always had to work fast to outsmart larger, better-funded teams. “The fact that everything is decided here in Bologna by a relatively small group of people makes our decision process quite quick,” explains Ciabatti. “Our competitors are a little more complex and take more time to do things. We know that, and we always try to move quicker than our rivals.” It’s a recipe for success that may make Ducati Corse world champion soon enough.