Borgo Panagale, Italy
February 21, 2008
By Sam Quarelli Fleming
Making History, Part 1
There are a few things about Filippo Preziosi that are immediately apparent: the bright intelligence of his eyes burning beneath his mop of hair, the friendly boyish smile, the humility, and lastly, the wheelchair. Filippo (Preziosi is universally referred to as Filippo within Ducati and so your correspondent is going to use a familiarity grossly disproportionate to the relationship) is welcoming but a little tense. The tension is recognizable to anyone who has felt that pre-green flag anxiety rising up while simply changing out brake pads in the garage; the sense that any mistake at this crucial, yet banal, moment could make or break an upcoming race. The tension that arises from the knowledge that, in racing, everything matters and yet much cannot be controlled. Filippo is tense because he is always preparing for a race.
Filippo, 40, is the Technical Director of Ducati Corse, which means he is in charge of designing and building both the MotoGP and Superbike machinery. The weight he carries is not mere servicing, tuning or maintenance; it is the fundamental design choices that will dictate the future race success of Ducati and, therefore, the commercial viability of the entire company.
Ducati Corse is a subsidiary of Ducati. Originally a small race department, Ducati Corse now employs 115 people or about 10% of the overall work force of Ducati including technical, logistic, design, research, communications and more. Ultimately none of their efforts will be fruitful if Filippo makes a mistake. Given those stakes, he seems remarkably cheerful, welcoming, and exudes an awareness that he has the only job he has ever wanted and, for a gear head mechanical engineer, the ultimate position in the world.
He attended two years of university in his hometown of Perugia before transferring to Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Although Bologna is known primarily for three things, it is also home to the oldest college in Europe (established 900 years ago) and many engineering and manufacturing firms including Ferrari and Ducati. At the time mechanical engineering was a total of five years of training in Italy and there were no graduate programs available. Filippo completed his three years at Bologna with a thesis on detecting imminent engine failures through data analysis of conventional engine sensors. This thesis so impressed his professor that he was offered a position at the university or a job interview at Ferrari. These were the two most prestigious career paths he could have been offered.
But Filippo had other plans: “There was only one problem: Ferrari doesn’t make motorcycles.”
With a job at Ducati as his only desire, Filippo prepared extensively for his interview with lead engineer Massimo Bordi. Bordi, a bearish, gifted and opinionated engineer, would be an intimidating interview for anyone, including the top of the class. “I was very nervous. After ten minutes Bordi said ‘Relax, I am going to hire you’ and I never even got to show my presentation.”
After completing his (at the time) compulsory military service in the Italian navy - “I cruised in the Mediterranean for fifteen months, I think, for the military, it is not so bad.” - he began work at Ducati in 1994 doing finite element analysis; the study of strengths and stresses in materials.
In November he was called in to meet with Bordi. Bordi was starting a new project with a dedicated design team tasked with the work for this special project. Filippo had been selected to be the lead and, with three other engineers, would be designing the World Superbike version of the 916. Filippo, at 26, was to be the seed crystal that would grow to become Ducati Corse.
At the time Ducati was owned by the Castiglione brothers and part of their large Italian conglomerate that included a variety of other motorcycle brands and far reaching other commercial interests. The Castiglione brothers ran into some business issues requiring cash infusions. That cash came from Ducati at the expense of development and, worse, production of motorcycles.
At the edge of collapse and bankrupt, Ducati was sold to the American private equity firm Texas Pacific Group. TPG brought in new money, new machinery, a new business plan and new management.
In the year 2000 Bordi left Ducati. Although no one at Ducati likes to talk about Bordi’s departure it is it tough to believe that anyone would willingly stop working on motorcycles to start working on tractors so presumably Bordi’s departure was part of the management turn around of Ducati. With Bordi’s departure, Filippo became the lead engineer at Ducati.
That same year a motorcycle accident (“It was a stupid motorcycle accident – I don’t really like to talk about it”) put Filippo in an Italian rehabilitation hospital for ten months. A high spinal cord injury left him with partial use of his hands and arms, and a wheelchair.
“The hospital is north of Milan in the Alps. It was very beautiful but not easy to get to. We had just begun the MotoGP project so my engineers would travel to the hospital each week with drawings. The hospital let us convert a nursing station into a design room so we would have drawings spread out across the table with medical equipment all around. I could see the drawings on a computer but sometimes you need to look into the designer’s eyes to really understand his thinking.”
Ducati, despite its racing success, is a tiny company compared to the Japanese competition. Ducati, for instance, has less than 1% of motorcycle sales in the US. Its staff is dwarfed by the Japanese corporations. Its only advantage is that in its current configuration, Ducati exists solely to win high profile races and sell that romance in the form of Ducati branded motorcycles. There are no bulk carrier cargo ships, Civics, pianos or SUVs, there are only frighteningly fast motorcycles.
That said, the staff at Ducati are a little bewildered by their own success. Whereas the argument can be made that in Superbike Ducati has always had a displacement advantage, there exists no such rules tweaking in MotoGP. They went up against the best in the world and, in 2007, made everyone else look silly.
“At the beginning of the season we had a 14km per hour advantage over the next fastest bike. That would be 25bhp advantage as, in the beginning, our aerodynamics is better. I think, they change a lot their bike so now they are close. Small fairings improve maneuverability but hurt top speed so we bring multiple fairings to each race to be able to find a balance between speed and handling.”
MotoGP bikes are limited to 21 liters of fuel. A typical high performance motorcycle engine will use about 40 degrees of advance on the ignition. That means that for 40 degrees of crank rotation the piston is still compressing the burning, and therefore, expanding gas. This creates a huge amount of parasitic loss but is required to give the fuel time to burn at high RPM.
Fuel engineers figured out for high performance racing applications that if the fuel could burn faster then the engine designers could use less advance and make large horsepower gains. “With no fuel capacity restrictions in Superbike for sure we did that. In MotoGP we work with Shell because with a high performing fuel the consumption is higher so we have to compromise. We also search for more thermodynamic efficiency, less friction in the engine and put less (unburned) fuel into the exhaust pipe.”
But in a full circle back to the 1950s, Filippo credits the desmodromic valve actuation with giving Ducati an efficiency which translates to both higher power and better fuel consumption. The desmodromic system mechanically opens and closes the valves without the use of springs. This system allows for precise control of the valve position and allows the use of incredibly aggressive cam profiles without the risk of valve float. In and of itself it can yield power gains simply through aggressive cam profiles as compared to metal valve springs. Metal valve springs also incur significant horsepower loss through the energy used to compress the valve springs, particularly at high RPM. The higher the RPM, the stronger the springs must be and the greater the horsepower loss. Desmodromics allow freedom from that dynamic and thus, for a set amount of fuel, the Ducati can be in a higher state of tune.
“Even compared to pneumatic (using air instead of metal springs to close the valves) the desmodromic allows the same performance with better fuel consumption.” Or, of course, higher performance with the same fuel consumption.
“Motorcycle racing is a very human sport. It is very difficult and, therefore, fascinating. We analyze the data from the motorcycle and often the data is so different from the rider’s impression. The truth is in the middle. There is no ‘right’ set-up.”
“The real secret is the right person in the right place without fighting.” Of course, to have the right people you have to hire the right people, bringing Filippo to a full circle with his predecessor Bordi. “Ah yes, but I do very long interviews. I ask questions about physics. I ask to see if they can model a complex world in a simple fashion. I am a little bit of a bastard because I want to see them solve problems under pressure. It is what we do. Solve complex problems under pressure. Bordi and I do not speak too often but when we won MotoGP he called to congratulate us.”
“I sometimes wonder who the other designers are that I am racing against. Is it difficult to know because it seems like the designers change and the project leaders change and I have been doing this for fourteen years. I would like to meet them and to see who they are.”
With MotoGP stealing the spotlight in motorcycle racing the World Superbike series remains very important to Ducati and to Filippo personally. “The superbike is my first son. You cannot ask a father to choose which is his favorite.”
“When you are young you spend a lot of money to modify your motorcycle to make it faster. Now I get to spend a lot of other people’s money to build faster motorcycles. Is it the best job in the world….I think…yes.”
Making History, Part II
In the mid 1980s Ducati was just another Italian marque on the brink of survival. Their bikes were quirky and for the rider that was interested in actually being able to ride home from the club if it started raining that night he would probably be astride a Moto Guzzi Le Mans instead of a 900ss. In the company of Laverda, Gilera, Cagiva, Benelli, Bimota (MV was at that time out of production completely) Ducati seemed to be just another company that was traded amongst Italian businessmen more than a producer of motorcycles. Cagiva was the dominant brand.
Serendipitously arriving at the Ducati factory gate on a July afternoon in 1992 as a private citizen with a laden BMW K100RS and, perhaps more importantly, a pretty blonde girlfriend with decent Italian skills, I met with a somewhat surprised guard. They were not accustomed to receiving visitors at their factory gate. After some exchange between said pretty girlfriend and the guard, a plant manager arrived at the gate and happily agreed to take us through the factory.
The factory was a somewhat moribund place. Old men smoking cigarettes while utilizing antiquated machinery to bash valve seats into heads. It was the Italy of hand made ham, cheese and wine, not Armani, Perle or D & G.
The American Ducatisti (I mean, did that term even exist twenty years ago?) of today wear the ‘vintage’ jackets and ‘vintage’ t-shirts nostalgic, perhaps the way all nostalgia is, for a time that never was. The Abercrombification of Ducati and the creation of a rich tradition and history of Ducati left many of us who had lived through helplessly trying to kickstart a ’74 SS scratching our heads.
The mystique and imagery of modern Ducati has, therefore, been created through a carefully crafted deployment of semiotics.
Meet David Gross, Creative Director of Ducati Motor and the man behind the curtain. Gross is an American mergers and acquisitions attorney from NYC with a life long interest in motorbikes. Educated at Brown and Harvard with some time at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) he was recruited by Texas Pacific Group to be part of the management team that rescued Ducati in the late 90s. Along with Federico Minoli and Cristiano Silei, Gross brought a blend of law, finance, NYC glitz and a design background to Ducati. His vision was to build Ducati as a distinctly Italian brand to be able to add value to the marque through romance and style which would allow for pricing disproportionate to the intrinsic worth of the vehicles.
To accomplish that task Gross became a historian for Ducati. He found photographs, records, examples of motorcycles (there were no old bikes on the premises) and people (racers, engineers, designers). He created the excellent museum at Ducati in 1997 to encourage pilgrims to the factory. He personally oversaw the creation of the merchandise, the new logos and all the branding. Remember the black and white “Ducati people” ads? That’s him.
As Gross puts it: “I consciously created a history for the company. I wanted Ducati to be synonymous with high performance, quality, exceptional design that, at its base, was real and exciting.” In this context the Manhattan Ducati store, the advertising, the World Ducati Weekends and the term ‘Ducatisti’ all become much more understandable. “At the time our model for brand development was Harley-Davidson, but based on racing.”
Gross is not only the creative director; he was able to put his NY financial experience to use taking the company public and has a brand new book called Fast Company, Life, Love and Motorcycles in Italy.
After salting the Earth of MotoGP in 2007 one would expect confidence verging on hubris at the Ducati factory. Instead one hears a familiar refrain about how Ducati is trying to ‘Get back on track’ and ‘be like Porsche and the 911’. One hears these terms so often it begins to sound like talking points had been distributed by Claudio Domenicali (current CEO of Ducati Corse and Product General Manager at Ducati) to the barista in the employee café.
The 911 reference is to creating an iconoclastic model that evolves slightly year after year while still being true to its roots in mission and style. Of course, in order to do that Ducati would have to stop naming its models after the displacement of the bike and adopt a single name since, “you know, the ones that all kinda look like the 916” is a little cumbersome for café argument.
Gentle questioning about this sense of malaise reveals that much of it comes down to the controversial styling of the fairing for the 999. Basically, although the bike was a performance and technological success, it was widely seen as having an ugly fairing. Also, Ducati’s branching into adventure touring and sport touring is seen as a dilution of the main image of the company akin to Ferrari starting to sell economy cars with 1.5 liter TDI engines.
Since it was obvious to anyone who was a fan of the 916-esque styling that the 999 was aesthetically challenged, why didn’t anyone stop it from going into production? Why didn’t anyone tell Terblanche (designer of the 999 and the Hypermotard) to go draw another fairing that would be more pleasing to the eye and stirring to the heart?
Apparently Terblanche is a powerful personality in a room and, as Gross says while admirably defending the 999’s styling: “We didn’t really have a structure in place for that sort of review.”
This internal consternation of a massive styling misstep for a company that is, to a large extent, based on image and style shook up the management at Ducati once again. Christino Silei was given a lateral management move and Claudio Domenicali was brought over from Corse to fertilize the production machinery with pure Ducati Racing DNA. The results, of course, have been the stunning GP replica: the Desmosedici (Desmo sixteen) and the beautiful and formidable 1098 designed by Giandrea Fabbro.
“Hey, hot is hot. I think the 999 was a great bike but it didn’t work visually for many people. The hypermotard works and that is a classic Terblanche design. The 1098 works. Hot is hot and that’s what we are going to do from now on.”