Is Ducati Losing Its MotoGP Riders?

We’re not even halfway through the 2014 season, and the paddocks are already “boiling” with rumors and secret plans: this year marks the end of contracts for the top riders, new teams are announced for 2015, and in certain garages frustration is building up. The anti-star for this season has been Ducati, with this huge team not only unable to provide factory-level racing entertainment save for Dovizioso’s podium, but it has also demolished the rather high hopes of its new rider Cal Crutchlow.
It looks like Crutchlow’s deal with Ducati had a 1-year clause, so the Isle of Man rider, who inked a 2-year contract with Borgo Panigale, could pull out from the team after the 2014 season. With all the (almost) non-racing we all got from Crutchlow this year and his outspoken disappointment, it’s natural to wonder whether the Manx rider will be still wearing his red clothes in 2015.

Some say it’s his fault, because he went over to Ducati dreaming to be the next Casey Stoner. I am pretty sure he hoped he could do better than Rossi did aboard Ducati’s prototype, but he was definitely no dreamer. He knew that the bike had not been dramatically changed or improved since Rossi rode it, and there was nothing huge to be expected from it. Still, I guess both him and Ducati hoped it would be a much better machine, which was not the case.

Now, some might argue that Crutchlow’s declarations are just the result of him being a very frank guy, who rejoices when it’s time for celebration, but who is not “tame” enough to be silenced when things are not rolling smoothly. While this could, of course, be true, it’s hard to believe that Crutchlow is not thinking about packing up after Valencia, especially as Ducati has not had enough time to come up with a package that works like a charm.

While time was always been the number one enemy of any rider out on the track, it looks like off track, it is an even bigger enemy for Ducati. And this is not affecting only Crutchlow, as his team mate Andrea Dovizioso is in pretty much the same predicament. The former 125GP world champion knows he can do better, but aboard a Ducati, his chances of being a regular presence on the podium are null. He indeed brought a podium this year for Borgo Panigale, but that was not the result of riding a better machine, but of him being smart, staying out of trouble, and having a bit of luck.

Gigi Dall’Igna set out to restore the Ducati glory, but it looks like the bike his team is currently fielding is not good enough, not even with good riders such as Dovi and Crutchlow. He expressly said that he would build a new bike from scrap if necessary, but now things are depending on whether he will be able to convince his contracted riders that the new machine is worth (at least) one extra year of mediocre placements.

And that is, because it’s impossible for Ducati to come up with a new, competitive bike by the time the Valencia post-race test kicks off. If I was paranoid, I might not completely rule out the possibility that Ducati was already working on an all-new bike and was keeping it ultra-secret, testing some new components on the lab-bike to make sure they make a smooth transition from the old machine. This rather far-fetched hypothesis is however flawed, because I believe that Ducati really has better ways to spend time (it doesn’t have) than making smoke screens.

To make things even worse for Ducati, Suzuki has been talking to Dovizioso’s personal manager, Simone Battistella, pretty much the same way it did with other riders with decent chances of getting a Suzuki factory ride. While Battistella said that no offers were made or accepted, he was not shy to admit that such a perspective sounded quite appealing to Dovizioso.

Such open talks, though a pretty common thing in around mid-season in the final year of contract, are definitely not making Ducati happy, because time IS running out. Truth is that Suzuki is out hunting for the best rider duo it can afford, and team boss Davide Brivio was clear on this matter, and this might also lead to the house of Hamamatsu “stealing” one from the other teams.

We already know that Dani Pedrosa could go to Suzuki in case Honda is not willing to have him in the team for the next two years, but this is just one of the potential futures. On the other hand, Suzuki will gladly have Dovizioso on one of its bikes in 2015, especially with him having ridden for Honda, Yamaha and Ducati, his experience would be a great help in developing the XRH-1, so it would not be a surprise seeing him wear Rizla (or whatever sponsor will Hamamatsu get for 2015) leathers. One of the wild scenarios is seeing both Dovi and Crutchlow aboard Suzuki machinery, even though no new rumors of Crutchlow discussing this matter with Suzuki have surfaced.

Alongside the bike which continues to fail in providing significantly better results despite having more engines, more fuel and softer tires, Ducati has to deal with what its riders feel deep inside. Crutchlow is mad because he can’t exactly say he rode at his best in the first 4 races of the year, while Dovizioso is pondering whether riding another manufacturer’s works bike could help him finish closer to the podium each race, on the podium in some, and why not, even winning.

Today Ducati is at Mugello in Italy, testing a new chassis for the GP14 machine, with Dovizioso, Crutchlow and the factory’s test rider Michele Pirro. Maybe the new frame wasn’t ready for the official Jerez test, or maybe Ducati though there were too many stopwatches and cameras in Spain...

Either way, I’d say that something big should happen with the GP14 really soon if Ducati wants to field Dovi and Crutchlow next year. Or maybe Gigi Dall’Igna will make them an offer they simply can’t refuse for waiting to see if the new MotoGP bike he and his team will build was worth the money, the time and the frustration.
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