Interview: Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso
Andrea Dovizioso has lurked in the MotoGP background for years. Finally, he is a MotoGP title contender, because this year’s championship is a game of rubber roulette and the Italian is better at it than most
SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO ask riders questions even when you know the answer. So, I ask Andrea Dovizioso what predictions he has for the last half of the 2017 MotoGP season. He doesn’t even speak; he just grins and makes a zero with his right thumb and forefinger. Then he says, “Also, the same for this weekend.”
The Italian is talking about those black and rounds things which, more than ever, decide who wins and loses in MotoGP. Michelin’s MotoGP tyres work over a narrow temperature range, which explains the thrilling unpredictability of the racing. One weekend, one rider manages to adjust his bike to generate the right temperature in the tyres, the next weekend he misses that window and is left behind. That’s why we see someone like Maverick Viñales battling for the win at Mugello, then struggling to get inside the top 10 at Barcelona. It’s not the rider or bike making that difference; it’s the tyres.
Dovizioso’s transformation from also-ran (fifth overall last year, seventh in 2015) to championship challenger has little to do with him becoming a better rider or the Ducati becoming a better bike and everything to do with the way he works with his crew to make the Michelins work.
“The temperature range with the Michelins is very, very, very small and
if you are outside that range you are slow or you crash,” he says. “It’s very difficult to be in that range, which is why every race is different for everybody. All the tyres are the same; the only difference is the rubber mix, which they have to change for every race to suit different temperatures, because the temperature range of the tyres is so small
“So it’s all down to the track temperature we have at a race and the compound that Michelin brings to that race, which will work well for one bike but not the others. It’s very strange but it’s the reality, which is why it’s not easy and none of us have everything under control.”
Hence his inability to make any predictions for the next race, let alone then next half dozen.
Dovizioso admits this inconsistency in compound performance from one race to the next has turned MotoGP into a game of chance. But despite this game of rubber roulette he believes he is doing well for three reasons. Firstly, he thinks Michelin’s control tyres suit the Ducati better than the Bridgestones, which MotoGP used from 2009 to 2015. “Maybe, our situation would be worse with the Bridgestones. The Michelins seem to be positive for us. If you used one or two more degrees of lean angle with the Bridgestones, you didn’t have any rear grip, so you were slow. With the Michelins you can use a lot of angle and keep the grip.”
Secondly, Honda and Yamaha aren’t adapting so well to the everchanging grip situation. “There is almost no difference between our 2016 and 2017 bikes, and we haven’t had anything new this season, so we have realised that our competitors have more limitations than we expected. It’s more that than a matter of us having fewer limitations.”
Thirdly, his crew are working very cleverly to remove some of the risk from the tyre/grip gamble. “Some riders and teams start the weekend and they’re not fast, so they complain about the tyres and don’t improve. But sometimes there is a chance to improve the situation, if you work in the right way.
“Until you try something you never know. Now we change geometry and suspension a lot during a weekend, to try and get the correct temperature in the tyres. Like at Barcelona [where he won his second consecutive race], we changed both and it worked, but we didn’t find the last step until Saturday afternoon. My engineer, Alberto Giribuola, knows my style very well and he knows the Ducati very well, so we are able to play in the right way and sometimes we get it right. The last few races we have worked in a perfect way so we were able to fight. That’s why I say there’s always a chance to make a difference.”
There is one other factor in Ducati’s resurgence that he doesn’t mention: the entire grid now uses Magneti Marelli rider-control software; the same system the Desmosedici used a few years ago, so Ducati really know how it works.
Dovizioso has always been a thinking rider who uses his brain more than his balls. He
only pushes to the limit when the bike feels right. In a word, he is meticulous. “To go to the limit you have to feel the bike and you need the key to use the bike in the right way. My target is always to improve something. I don’t arrive at the track and start thinking about racing; my life is bikes and the world championship. At home I watch races and I study practice sessions, to understand things before the next race.”
Over the years Dovizioso has copped criticism from fans for his apparent unwillingness to take the kind of big, brave risks which make heroes. In other words, he’s not a Marc Marquez or a Kevin Schwantz. “When people say things like this, it means they don’t understand bike racing. Doing crazy things doesn’t mean you are a faster or better rider. For sure, the fans like to see riders doing something crazy, but to me this is not the key to winning. The key to winning is a lot of things. You must put everything together and you must understand how you can manage every situation. It’s about a lot of work in a lot of areas. It’s about having the right mentality. And I have confirmed that it’s possible to win without doing crazy things.”
When Ducati signed Dovizioso in 2013 to replace Valentino Rossi, many paddock people thought they had hired him for his ability to develop bikes, rather than win races. In fact, he’s done both, although it’s taken a while. His first few years with the Bologna factory were spent dragging the Desmosedici out of the abyss. When Casey Stoner defected to Honda in 2011, the bike became the joke of pit-lane — not even Rossi could ride it — and Dovizioso quickly found out why.
In 2013 he scored his best dry-weather result at Mugello, where he finished 19 seconds down, almost a second a lap slower than the winner. “The 2013 bike? I can’t even say it was a bike!” he laughs. “The difference between then and now is huge — I can’t compare anything on that bike to this year’s bike.”
Modern factory MotoGP teams are huge — 40 or 50 people at the track — but it’s amazing how much difference one man can
‘Doing crazy things doesn’t mean you are a faster or better rider. For sure, the fans like to see riders doing something crazy, but to me this is not the key to winning’
make. In 2014 Masao Furusawa turned the Yamaha around, with a little help from Rossi and Jeremy Burgess. A few years later, Shuhei Nakamoto did the same for Honda. And Gigi Dall’Igna had the same effect when he arrived at Ducati in the autumn of 2013.
“For sure, the biggest change was Gigi’s arrival, but also the work of the factory engineers changed everything. The most important thing Gigi did was make a good structure with the guys at the factory, the test team and the race team. Everyone followed him 100 per cent and what the engineers have done since then is something incredible.”
Dovizioso has also played his part in Ducati’s renaissance. His analytical mentality and his refusal to chuck motorcycles up the road make him a good development rider. Very few riders crash less: he has fallen 23 times during the past four-and-a-half seasons compared to Marquez’s 69 offs and Cal Crutchlow’s 73.
Of course, Ducati still have work to do. “We have some limitations which we must improve if we want to fight for the championship to the last race. At some races we finish too many seconds behind the winner, so to be competitive in every situation we need to improve a few things.”
The big problem has been the same for the past few years: getting the bike turned mid-corner, during the transition from off-throttle to on-throttle.
Dall’Igna and team-manager Davide Tardozzi believe this problem is an engine issue, not a chassis issue. The desmo V4 is easily the most powerful bike on the grid, which is a hindrance when the rider first touches the throttle at full lean. “This is one of the main issues we are working on,” says Tardozzi. “Absolutely it affects the turning.”
Dovizioso isn’t so sure. “Nobody at Ducati knows exactly the reason for this problem!” he laughs.
When the engineers can’t fix a problem, it is the rider’s job to ride around that problem. Dovizioso uses the rear brake in corners, which is why he uses a thumb-operated rear brake, so he can use it at full lean in righthanders, when his right foot is tucked out of the way. “I also used a thumb brake when I was with the factory Honda team [2009 to 2011] but not when I was at Yamaha [with Tech 3 in 2012] because the bike didn’t need it. I use the thumb brake to slow down in the middle of a corner and to turn the bike. But from the moment I touch the throttle and pick up the bike, I use the foot brake to stop suspension pump and so on, because the brake pressure I can use with the foot brake is much greater than with the thumb.”
MotoGP’s king of the rear brake was Casey Stoner, who now works parttime as a Ducati test rider. Dovizioso has examined Stoner’s data, but admits he cannot use the rear brake like the Aussie, who won the 2007 and 2011 MotoGP titles with Ducati and Honda. “No one else rides like Casey! The amount of rear brake pressure he uses is off the scale. This is his style, not just to calm the bike; it is his way of loading the rear tyre in the middle of the corner, then in the first part of the exit he uses the brake like traction control. You can only ride like this if you rode this way from the beginning — it is impossible to learn to ride like that!”
This is Dovizioso’s fifth season with Ducati, so presumably he is helping Ducati’s highly paid, struggling newcomer Jorge Lorenzo to learn the weird ways of the Italian V4? “Jorge and I spoke a lot during pre-season tests and at the early races, but now not so much. Our team structure is really good, so there are a lot of people working in the middle of the team, so they know everything about both riders. Also, Michele Pirro [former Moto2 winner and Ducati’s full-time test rider] talks a lot with Jorge about riding the bike.”
If Dovizioso does win the 2017 MotoGP crown, you can bet your bottom dollar that his combined salary and win bonus won’t match Lorenzo’s sign-on salary.
Dovi has been racing on and off the track since childhood with massive support from his dad
Dovi’s first GP title came in 2004 when he was crowned the 125 cc champion