Single Track Mind: Where to Ducati?

May 9, 2013
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Nicky Hayden is the last American to claim a title in Grand Prix, way back in 2006. But his results as the longest-tenured Ducati rider have been far from title-contending.

Which Way to Jump Ducati? The Rumor Mill is Working Double Shifts

One of the advantages of having spent a life-time around GP racing is that you develop a network of other ancients who both gossip a lot and tend to be rather well informed. I got talking to one such wrinkly, and very knowledgeable, veteran at the British Superbike round at Oulton Park, and he had just returned from a very entertaining, not to say interesting, MotoGP race at Jerez.

Amongst the cognoscenti in Spain, there is a very interesting, and highly credible, story in circulation. However I must stress that, at this stage, it is nothing more than well-informed paddock gossip. Here’s the situation.

First, things are not well at Ducati. The German owners of this famous marque have sat down and reached a firm conclusion regarding ever winning a World Championship with their current line-up of riders. Quite simply, they are never going to do it no matter how good the Ducati Desmosedici GP13 becomes.

Nicky Hayden, lovely, courteous, hard working and talented though he is will never, ever run with the Aliens.
Andrea Dovizioso is better, but not greatly so. When Audi fixes the GP13, which they will, Andrea may well be a podium challenger and could even win an occasional GP. But a place on the podium does not make a World Championship contender.

To become World Champion means that your man has to be on the pace for Pole, fastest lap, and a win at every single GP – Europe, America, Asia or wherever. Wet, cold, baking hot or in floodlights, you must be there.

You have to rock up not with the hope of being competitive but rather with a confident chance of winning. That’s what Honda has with Pedrosa and Marquez and what Yamaha has with Lorenzo.

Incredibly talented though he is, Andrea does not meet these criteria.

So where does this put Audi/Ducati? The answer is in a serious dilemma. First, Marquez cannot be bought at any money because he is on a two-year contract. The same applies to Lorenzo. This leaves Dani. If he wins the World Championship, and I am skeptical of this happening, Honda will not let him go to another factory with the #1 plate.
If he doesn’t, Ducati will get another rider who is a GP winner – but not a World Championship contender.

Ducati now starts to run out of options. The first, and most obvious, choice is Cal Crutchlow. I have always tipped Cal as a seriously class act and he is now proving to be the fastest of the satellite riders race after race. He is also crawling up the wall with frustration riding machines which, while good, are not the best.

At Jerez, despite being battered and bruised from two enormous crashes, Crutchlow was still on the pace. If he had machinery of the same standard as Rossi and Pedrosa he would be challenging for the podium at every single round.

Given that Cal is so good, what went wrong with his Ducati ride for this year? There were two elements and both are embedded in what makes Cal the rider that he is. Unlike some of the current superstars, Cal comes from a very ordinary, working class background. He was not an athlete as a young man but a van driver. This tough upbringing makes him physically and mentally hard, and he likes to personify this steel in public. The real Cal, which I happen to know a little of, is almost the opposite. He is a generous, kind and thoroughly nice person. He is also polite and thoughtful – a million miles away from his public persona.

Cal Crutchlow’s outspoken nature may have cost him the factory
Ducati seat in 2013. Could the new regime reverse course and
court the British rider for future campaigns?

Unfortunately, he is not nearly as media savvy as he ought to be and so when he made what might well be interpreted as intemperate comments about Ducati, as the bike was at its lowest ebb, the Bologna factory took umbrage and Dovizioso got to pocket the $3 million pay check.

Not that they needed much encouragement because the harsh truth is that Italians prefer to back Italians and so Cal’s media naivety cost him a lot of money – and a factory ride.

But that was 2012 and there is a very different sport now being played out at Ducati. To begin with, there is a not only a new owner of the famous factory but new senior staff too. The team which didn’t give Cal the ride have now gone. Of this, more a little later.

This brings us on to the touchy subject of racial stereotypes – always a dangerous area because there is no such thing as a “standard” person from any country. However, my experience of working with Germans is that they are far from the soulless automata, interested only in making money and winning, which they are often portrayed. On the contrary, I have always found the Germans to be full of fun, very humane, extremely open minded and willing to bury any prejudices they might have in order to win. Yes, they do like systems and order, but I infinitely prefer this way of working to the Italian style of smiles, hugs, fantastic lunches – and then nothing.

Is Cal likely to return to Ducati? Very, very likely – but this time he will be more controlled, more media aware and, with Germans in the team, more at home too.

Now here’s where the story gets really interesting. The wrinkly gossip is that life in Australia is not quite as perfect as Mr. C. Stoner thought it might be. Going from a world where merely having the holy Casey’s shadow fall on you was considered to be a blessing, to being just another rich, but not extremely rich, young Australian is, I am told, not sitting overly well.

Worse still, Casey looks at the current GP line-up and thinks, reportedly publicly, that he could whup all their asses regardless of what bike he rode. This may well be true, and I still believe that Stoner is one of the most naturally talented motorcycle racers of all times. Not the best, note, but the most incredibly gifted.

The flaw is that Casey needs to be loved and stroked and cared for in order to ride well. He also needs to be respected. In every degree, these are areas in which the Germans excel.

Hell would have frozen over 20 times before Casey would have ever ridden a Ducati when the old management team which, de facto, fired him was still in place. But now they’re gone and the orchestra has a different conductor.

If Casey truly is getting bored with the good life in Australia, and if he is actually itching to rejoin the pantheon of Moto Gods, then he will listen to Audi.

For their part, the Germans will tell Casey how much they respect him. They will also tell him that whatever he wants to win a World Championship he can have and, as a minor incentive, they will probably lay $15 million on the table.

Dorna, in their desperation, will weigh in everything in their toy cupboard to ensure that Casey becomes not merely very rich but truly, seriously wealthy.

Casey has already taken extreme delight in the fact that Valentino, despite his initial confidence, failed miserably with the Ducati. He will take the same pleasure in the travails of every other rider.

And if he does return, what will happen? The answer, as I and Audi both know, is utterly and completely predictable.
Casey will turn up at the first test and complain about the weather, his state of health, the color of the water in the cooler. He will then hold his head in his hands and look utterly miserable and on the point of wishing to end it all. Five minutes later, and without any familiarization, he will have put the Ducati on pole position.

This is why Audi executives will walk across the Pacific to Australia. This is why he will be loved and cherished and respected as only the Germans do for their racers. And this is why you might well see the best rider of his generation back on the MotoGP grid next year challenging for the World Championship.