Why Rossi has Ducati worried sick about their new superbike

1 of 2

It’s November 2011. MotoGP’s just finished with [insert Stoner/Lorenzo/Pedrosa/Spies here] and Rossi, um, fifth. Press releases are hurriedly despatched – ‘It was his shoulder!’; ‘It was mainly his shoulder but also the engine still needed a tweak!’; ‘You should see our 1000!’.

But the whole world knows ‘the truth’. It’s The Chassis. The frameless/stressed airbox/monocoque/call-it-what-you-will chassis, which comprises a stiff carbon-composite box section joining headstock to engine and which consigned the firm’s trademark trellis to the bin.

In MotoGP the design provides the chief distinguishing factor in engineering visions between the Italians and Japanese, and therefore serves as either its advantage or Achilles heel in the popular imagination.

Who would blame immortal-elect Rossi if the 2011 campaign flops when there’s a batty, minority-group technology just begging for a beating instead?

Such a failure (and really, would anything lower than third be anything but?) would be embarrassing for the race department, but the explosion of a PR landmine containable within a few circling motorhomes in the GP paddock. Or it would be if Ducati hadn’t staked the firm’s entire reputation on the same technology.

In that case, the failure of the world’s greatest test rider to demonstrate any benefits from the futuristic design becomes a dirty bomb with the power to contaminate Ducati’s marketability worldwide.

Late in 2011 – straight after MotoGP’s final round in fact – Ducati will present the world with a new superbike; its first – and possibly last – V-twin superbike to constitute a completely new clean-sheet design. New engine, new monocoque chassis, new tools, new production process.

It’s also the first to be produced while Rossi’s on the payroll. And it’s got a big job to do.

Convince the world Ducati retains a technological as well as a desirability lead over rivals from Aprilia to Yamaha; sustain sales in a sector that, while it dwindles, still makes up components A-to-X of Ducati’s brand value; and prove beyond doubt they deserve the strongest claim over buyers’ wallets and riders’ signatures.

In that regard recruiting Rossi is like submitting to a televised strip-search. Is the monocoque chassis idea going to come up smelling of roses at 2011’s end? Did you wash properly this morning?

At this point it’s important to distinguish between engineering facts and popular ideas about bike tech – the latter tending to be more numerous and more fixed than the former.

Whether the Desmo’s chassis is too inherently stiff to allow sufficient rider feel and max-lean forgivingness is open to never-ending debate. It’s a fairground ride of speculation fuelled by the low price of admission; carbon is way stiff, especially in short, boxy structures, and metal’s stiff but kinda bendy. Everyone can grasp that.

Lacking the long alloy spars of its rivals, the Ducati’s capacity to ‘bend like a tree’, as the Japanese engineers call it, indeed looks limited. But have we been too quick to buy that charming, haiku-like line? Do bikes need to bend like trees? Have you ever bent yours in the course of riding without actually hitting a tree?

Even the experts will admit a bike is a heinously complex platform from which to derive scientific results, and that’s before you add the blancmange of inconsistencies that is the rider.

The impression that forms in a rider’s head is still more important than the read-out on anyone’s laptop – and the same is true of bike buyers.

Ducati, already committed to a monocoque superbike future since 2007, wanted the Doctor not so much for his diagnostic skills as his reassuring voice – and the script read ‘This monocoque business, it’s really facking good for everyone’.

Previously Ducati haven’t been too bothered about rebutting arguments about the Desmo’s unforgiving nature – not much point while Stoner was making it look good, and Ducatis were never desirable because they were easy lays – but now it’s different.

2011 is the climactic preamble for Ducati’s monocoque-based rebirth and unfavourable attention must not fall on that part of the GP bike. Former Ducati man Pierre Terblanche says: “Stoner was just capable of riding what they gave him, so they never bothered to change it. But now it certainly could become a marketing issue.”

Hence the rush-release of positive quotes from each at-first-glance disappointing display. Post-Estoril they’re “pleased” about a test that sees them running a second and more behind Simoncelli.

Post Qatar Jerry Burgess is quick to flannel: “You could think the necessary changes might be with the frame, but it could easily be an engine response problem. We need a general re-tuning.

“There are lots of things that fly around in an engine and they all contribute a lot. Engine parts are far more important than a lot of people think”. Does Ducati protest too much?

Given that the carbon-too-stiff argument is likely to be fatally oversimplified, and Ducati’s GP team have the world’s best problem-sorting personnel on the case, you wouldn’t think they’d be too worried. But their very strength in marketing makes them equally sensitive to its ill winds.

Unless the ‘racing improves the breed’ portion of Ducati’s DNA is re-written, the firm must follow the lead set by its MotoGP project and be seen to succeed for the reasons it subsequently wishes to market.

It’s a model that has served Ducati well and which the firm has adopted at its very core, with engine, chassis and road model planning responsibility one by one falling under the aegis of ‘subsidiary’ Ducati Corse, led by Ducati’s now General Manager Claudio Domenicali.

But this time the stakes are higher since the new innovation comes at the cost of one of the firm’s best loved technical staples – the stark, bony trellis which speaks so eloquently of the racing thoroughbred – and because the new frameless concept is so important to the firm’s halo models and their profitability.

In a dwindling market the new superbike mustn’t just be better to keep people interested, it must be better still to keep the price of the bikes justifiably high. And it can’t be much more expensive to produce than the still-pretty 1198.

What place does an exotic carbon-composite monocoque have in that formula? The answer is none.

Because while the GP team will continue with hand-laid carbon for its stressed airbox with all the high cost and subtle tuneability that entails, the road bike will use an alloy equivalent (long since tested successfully on the GP bike) that’s actually cheaper to produce than steel trellis and which makes for savings on the assembly line too.

That goes a long way to offsetting the costs of the all-new engine – whose compactness, ultra-short stroke, and new cam drive make their own contributions to the bike’s technical sales pitch – but it will all be for nought if Rossi doesn’t once and for all validate the monocoque concept.

If it demonstrates no clear advantage in the hands of superman, what marketable benefits does such a chassis conceivably have for Steve the superbike buyer from Southend?

Whether or not we need a monococque chassis to pull out 0.5sec a lap on the ring road isn’t actually the point. It’s this kind of technological jewellery which sells bikes – and you only get one chance to be certified diamond or diamante.

Ducati’s next superbike – what we know

Ducati’s next superbike – what we know
The 1198-replacement will take a bigger leap over its predecessor than any bike since the 1992 Fireblade, and conceptually everything you need to know is contained within the project’s in-house name: ‘Estremo’ (extreme).

Ducati aims to make its base-level performance high enough for WSB versions to be more like true customer superbikes than the factory near-prototypes they have become.

‘Stressed airbox’ monocoque design in two-part alloy joins headstock to engine, from which single-sided swingarm pivots. Possible carbon-composite version for homologation. At least 10kg lighter than current.

All-new higher-revving 90-degree V-twin with gear-and-chain driven cams reducing the engine’s length and height. Designed by GP-team staff. Canted slightly back to allow for a shorter wheelbase. At least 10bhp over 1198.

An evolution of the 1198 theme, by 1098/Multistrada designer Gianni Fabbro. More modern, aggressive and faceted than the smooth GP machine. LED lights feature and 999-style concessions to comfort are non-existent.

Monocoques – too stiff, right?
Ducati’s brutally simple MotoGP bike aims to connect a-to-b-to-c in the most direct way possible, a job carbonfibre (happiest in short, straight, planar applications) does extremely well.

Unlike with alloy though, building in just-so amounts of flex isn’t a simple or intuitive matter.

Chassis engineer Greg Taylor: “The amount of finite element analysis, variables in plies and resins and the difficulty of making and proving stuctural calculations before you even start the difficult process of making structural carbon members is vast.” 

But that’s not to say that’s actually Ducati’s problem. Prodrive chassis engineer Damian Harty explains: “In cars in the 1920s, when roll moment distribution wasn’t understood because ladder frame chassis’ couldn’t be made stiff enough to distribute it, people got confused when they stiffened the chassis and the breakaway behaviour became rather unmanageable.

“In the 1950s when tyre contact patch pressure distribution wasn’t understood, people got confused when they changed flexible spoked wheels for nice stiff dished steel ones and the breakaway behaviour became unmanageable.

“In the 1970s when kinematics and compliance was poorly understood, people got confused when they went from soggy crossplies to crisp radials and the breakaway behaviour again became unmanageable…

“For each of these, it became for a time accepted wisdom that the new thing was just too stiff and it wasn’t what God had ordained. The truth was we just hadn’t finished understanding some other part of the system yet.” 

• This story was published in MCN on 13 April. Get the best coverage first – subscribe to MCN for £1 an issue

Guy Procter

By Guy Procter