Last year the Italian marque celebrated its 90th anniversary, releasing a giant coffee table book — Stile Ducati — filled with sumptuously photographed bikes and telling the company’s evocative story.
On the race track though, that story has its share of disappointing twists. Ducati’s last MotoGP title came in 2007, via Casey Stoner. It has been a long and often frustrating drought.
This year however, things have changed. Andrea Dovizioso has chalked up six wins this season, with two other podium finishes. The 31-year-old Italian led the standings at points this season, and arrives in Valencia in second place, behind Repsol Honda’s Marc Marquez, but still in with a chance of the title.
“When I led the table for the first time it was a period when we were going really well, so it was a well-deserved first place,” Dovizioso tells CNN Sport. “It wasn’t the start of the year, for example, and this makes you realize how competitive we have been.”
The mild-mannered Dovizioso has seen teammates come and go in his five seasons with Ducati. He replaced the great Valentino Rossi, who endured two nightmarish seasons with the team, and no one since has ever managed to tame the bike.
A ‘less brutal’ bike
A year after Dovizioso joined, team principal and much feted Italian engineer Luigi Dall’Igna arrived. The transformation has been gradual but profound.
“Dall’Igna arrived and the evolution got underway. Bit by bit the bike was improved,” Dovizioso says. “However, it always retained its Ducati characteristics, with strong and weak points.”
In MotoGP, “Ducati characteristics” tends to be shorthand for incredibly fast, but incredibly hard to ride. Dall’Igna says this is changing: “I don’t think our bike is as brutal as it was before,” he told CNN.
“Now there are several riders who can get good results with our bike. We still need to iron out some aspects, but generally we have achieved a well-balanced performance on many tracks.”
Dall’Igna’s influence has been felt across Ducati, and extends to the way the factory and the track communicate. “There were totally separate areas, the track and the working group back home,” he says. “That was the first thing I dealt with at an organizational level.”
The investment of Volkswagen, which bought Ducati in 2012, has also helped. “Ducati is a company that makes a profit and manages — on its own — to face up to its economic commitments, including racing activities,” Dall’Igna explains.
“But it’s also true that having such a solid and robust group behind it — on a financial and technological level — is certainly important, because it gives you the possibility of approaching the future in the best possible way.”
Away from the track, Dovizioso’s success has led to him being recognized more. “Obviously with all the wins things have changed a lot, and on the one hand it’s great because people recognize all the good things I’ve done this year, but on the other it’s not so easy to manage!”
The Italian also says the sport’s fanbase is growing increasingly intense. “Before it was mainly in Italy and Spain, but now also in Asia, Australia and America, the passion is increasing so much that there are now few places where it doesn’t exist.”
Season to remember
Ducati holds a now biannual event called World Ducati Week, in Misano, Italy. The 2016 event attracted 65,000 fans.
Dall’Igna says his first experience of the gathering was astonishing. “You can never have an idea of just what Ducati means until you go to a World Ducati Week,” he exclaims.
“You realize just how many fans and how much passion surround the name. I will remember it for the rest of my life.”
Dovizioso will become world champion if he wins in Valencia and Marquez finishes 12th or worse. But whatever happens on Sunday, this has been a season to remember for Ducati.
“This year, to work for an Italian team, with so many Italian engineers and technicians, and with an Italian rider, and manage to score such fantastic results, is a unique and memorable experience,” Dall’Igna says.
Dovizioso sees this season as a stepping stone to more success. “Luckily there have been many great moments this year. Many things have happened that will help me as well in the future to manage things even better.”