It's safe to say that at the season opener, the factory Ducati squad had a night to forget. With questions over their GP22 engine coming into the weekend, it was revealed that they had ditched the full GP22 engine spec, instead opting for an engine spec that was a hybrid between 2021 and 2022. While the engine spec was a headline that caught the attention of many, it wasn't the main or only reason why their Qatar weekend ended in disaster and saw Enea Bastianini (Gresini Racing MotoGP™) take up the reins of victory at the season opener.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the web of Ducati's contrasting fortunes from the Qatar GP.
What actually happened to Ducati in the desert at first appeared to be quite a mystery, with many giving a simple answer that perhaps the GP22 isn’t quite the bike that Ducati hoped it would be. But we know now the situation is far from that simple conclusion and in fact, is perhaps the opposite. But first, let’s give you the full story on the lead up into Qatar.
It became evident during preseason testing that Ducati were having some teething issues with their GP22. More power and more torque was playing havoc with the feeling of their bike. Initial throttle contact was harsher than before and it was causing the rear wheel to spin straight away and once it started, they couldn’t get it to stop. It made for a situation where Ducati, who in recent years have been king of acceleration off the corner and top speed, were struggling to use that strength and were seeing themselves making their big strength a lot smaller.
We noticed over the test that Ducati Lenovo Team’s Francesco Bagnaia had gone back to the 2021 exhausts, and we assumed at the time there was nothing more to it, but we now know that Ducati were testing a hybrid engine spec between their GP22 and GP21 that used parts from both engines.
Interestingly, the Pramac Racing squad have decided to stick with the 2022 engine, but they have differing exhaust setups. The long didgeridoo exhaust, which you can see sticking up at the bottom in the above picture, has been resigned to the history books on all the 2022 Ducatis. But the 2022 top exhaust, seen here, still remains on Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) and Luca Marini’s (Mooney VR46 Racing Team) machines but Jorge Martin (Pramac Racing) has elected to go for the 2021 top exhaust, like the factory team has.
Their choice to continue with the 2022 engine is an intriguing one as obviously it means they still believe that the potential for it is higher than the 2021 engine but as with everything in MotoGP™, riders and teams are against the stopwatch and they have to figure out how to extract that potential quickly. Losing too many points at the start of the season as they try to tame the 22 engine could see them fall out of the title race.
We know that the riders with the 22 engine have been looking at big electronic revisions to try and soften the initial throttle hit and use the traction control in a more profitable way so they can get their acceleration and top speed back.
However, they’ve also looked at setup changes, with riders putting more weight on the rear tyre to give the rear end more grip and reduce spin, but changing the balance of the bike changes one of the GP21’s biggest strengths; its front end.
Enea Bastianini has been given a GP21 by Ducati for the 2022 season. And while many questioned why he wasn’t getting a full GP22, perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise.
You see, Enea is one of the few riders on the grid that inherits a race-proven and race-winning motorcycle that’s ready to go, they know how it will behave and they know the spec it will be in for the entire season. Let’s not forget that while it may be a GP21, the bike isn’t necessarily a year old, Ducati were making updates to the bike throughout last year and so in reality it’s a bike that is only half a season of development behind the rest on the grid.
With Bastianini knowing that his bike spec won’t change for the 2022 season, his job in testing was simple, get on the bike and ride and ride and ride until you get comfortable. The riders with a GP22 were tasked with a much different job. The job of testing different parts and evaluating whether they work or not before then riding what they hope will be the final spec and trying to get comfortable with that. Simply, they had to ride an ever-changing bike in preseason testing and it’s hard to get used to the feeling of a bike when the feeling is constantly changing.
As we mentioned, one of the GP21’s strengths was its front end feel and consistency. Bagnaia was like a record on repeat in the second half of 2021 as he spoke of the amazing feeling he had with the front end. Over the weekend, Pecco mentioned that he hadn’t rode the same bike spec in two consecutive sessions up until FP3 and FP4. In other words, he was still testing and not in race mode on Friday of the Qatar GP. In FP4 he admitted that he finally got that front end feeling back that he had last year, but with riding so many different variations of his bike, he almost admitted that it’s going to take him a while to get used to the bike again. This looks the real reason the Italian and Ducati were off the mark for most of the weekend.
But how far ‘off the mark’ were they in the race?
Jack Miller (Ducati Lenovo Team) started in P4 but dropped six places by the end of the opening lap. The Aussie’s race was run very early on though, with electrical issues hampering his hopes and forcing him into pitlane after just six laps. His factory teammate Bagnaia also recorded a DNF under different circumstances after enduring a torrid start.
Launching from P9 and dropping to 16th on lap 1, Pecco climbed his way back up to ninth before crashing out. In those first 11 laps, the number 63 logged lap times, in traffic, in the range of 1:54.6 to 1:55.3 with only two of those laps being above a 1:55.1. Comparing that to race leader Pol Espargaro in open air at the front, the Repsol Honda Team rider logged lap times in those first 11 laps ranging from 1:54.5 to 1:54.9.
Espargaro’s laps over the 11 lap run are considerably quicker, but the Ducati rider battled past seven riders in that time and on those laps without having to overtake he ran similar lap times to the then race leader. Pecco’s pace was not too far from the front guys, but his race was hindered by poor qualifying and a poor start.
Interestingly Bagnaia has also given his verdict on the hybrid GP21/GP22 engine, stating that he think it is better than the GP21 spec, so as the Bologna bullets turn their philosophy to race mode and begin to work on just one bike spec rather than changing things, it might not take long before the Italian is battling back at the front and showing the kind of form he did last year.
But for now, nothing can be taken away from the brilliance that Bastianini produced on Sunday night.
His pace was incredible, particularly in the last 7 laps where he seemed to step it up a gear and show that incredible late-race pace that he so brilliantly proved he had last year. If Bastianini is to be a contender for the Championship, he’s going to need to use the advantage of the ready-made race-winning GP21 package that he has underneath him before Bagnaia, Miller and the rest of the GP22s start catching up.