While it was late to the MotoGP party, entering a year after the series started, the Ducati made its mark straight away. Despite unconventional engineering and a fraction of the resources of the Japanese factories that dominated, the Ducati was instantly competitive.
It’s been through a huge range of design changes and seen its fortunes rise and fall dramatically from one year to another, but Ducati is one of only three firms to have taken championship titles since the start of the series, the others being Honda and Yamaha.
Gestation of the Desmosedici
Ducati dominated production-based world superbike racing in the 1990s but the switch to four-strokes for MotoGP meant the firm was inevitably interested in taking part.
Although it opted not to compete in 2002, the first year of the new series, Ducati made a public announcement of its intentions to enter MotoGP back in early 2001, two years before it would actually race. That announcement led to a year of speculation; what route would Ducati take?
Inside the firm, discussions were just as intense. With a strong reputation built around its Desmo V-twin engines, there was initially interest in making a twin-cylinder GP bike. Ducati was concerned that if it moved away from its trademark configuration, it would reflect badly on its road bikes. The first plan was to make an oval-piston V-twin, with eight valves per cylinder. While the 2002 regulations allowed such designs, they did add 10kg to the minimum weight for oval-pistoned engines, so such a twin would have to weigh the same 145kg as a four or five cylinder rival.
With oval pistons adding design complexity and no real advantage over a four-cylinder, the idea was dropped. Instead, Ducati opted to make a V4, but initially planned to use what it called a ‘Twinpulse’ arrangement. Each bank of pistons would rise and fall together and fire simultaneously, giving the same sort of sound and power delivery as a V-twin.
Ducati realised this arrangement would reduce peak power, but hoped that the improved traction and rideability would make up for it.
During testing, though, a conventional V4 arrangement was also tried, and found to result in faster lap times, so that’s what Ducati initially opted for when it started racing in 2003, while continuing to work on the Twinpulse – basically a big-bang version – behind the scenes.
Away from the engine, Ducati employed F1 aerodynamicist Alan Jenkins to help sculpt the Desmosecidi’s bodywork, while using its traditional skills with steel trellis work to create a chassis unlike any other on the grid.
The first prototype broke cover in April 2002 and tested through the rest of the year to ensure it would be ready come the start of the 2003 season.
2003 Desmosedici GP3
Despite the plans for a V-twin replicating ‘Twinpulse’ engine, Ducati was more interested in being competitive than trying to persist with the idea that the Desmosedici was some sort of traditional V-twin in disguise. So the GP3 debuted with a conventional, screamer firing order.
Ducati claimed over 220bhp, and right from pre-season testing the combination of that engine and the slippery, F1-inspired bodywork meant the Desmosedici was the fastest GP bike of all in a straight line. That’s been a consistent theme for the Desmosedici ever since.
Technically, the bike was much like the prototype tested in 2002. The chassis was a minimalist trellis, with the engine already providing much of the structural strength – something Ducati would later take even further. The swingarm looked like a basic and brutal solution, and would be refined over time.
Heat quickly proved to be an issue, and soon the GP3 gained vents in the slab-sided fairing as a result.
On track, Ducati amazed with its performance, which surpassed expectations for a team new to MotoGP. Loris Capirossi took a podium in the bike’s first ever race, with third at Suzuka. After a string of retirements, his next finish was second place in Italy, followed by Ducati’s first MotoGP victory at the next race, Catalunya. Three further podiums took him to fourth in the title race. Teammate Troy Bayliss was sixth, with three third places to his name.
2004 Desmosedici GP4
In 2003, the Desmosedici set a speed record of 202.5 mph, the fastest seen in MotoGP, but just a year later its successor achieved over 215mph at the IRTA tests in Catalunya.
Power was up to around 230bhp for 2004, and the bike’s fairing became even more complete – it was now impossible to even glimpse the engine or frame under the skin of carbon fibre. In fact, the chassis remained a steel trellis and the engine was a subtle evolution, revving a little higher to create its extra power. During the season the team also revisited the Twinpulse engine concept, starting from the Dutch round at Assen.
Aerodynamic changes includes new intakes on the tail along with slots in the top to allow the exhaust heat to escape. The swing arm was much less agricultural than the previous design, but still looks frail compared to later evolutions.
After the stunning first season, 2004’s results were disappointing. Ducati achieved only three podiums – a lone third place each for Capirossi, Bayliss and Ruben Xaus.