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DUCATI: Back on Track By Developing Innovative Products

Although the Italian bike maker was given up for dead by some, new track-inspired designs and innovative engineering has put the company securely back on track.

Mugello, Valencia, Imola, Le Mans, Laguna Seca—mention these locales to any motorcycle aficionado and you’re likely to see tears well up in their eyes. These are among the storied places where MotoGP racing finds its roots. They also influenced what could be best described as one of the most exotic motorcycles to hit the market—the Ducati Desmosedici RR, an engineering tour de force that is one of the rare examples of taking lessons from the track and moving them onto the street, literally. The idea began a few years ago, when Claudio Domenicali, head of Ducati’s product development organization and managing director of the Ducati Corse racing team, and members of the Ducati racing organization came up with an idea to develop a street version of the famed Desmosedici GP6. The task was simple: keep as much of the track-engineered GP6 as possible, while making the bike amenable to traversing regular roads, meeting emission and safety standards throughout the globe.

ENGINEERING THE ENGINE. “The general concept and scheme is untouched [from the GP6], down to the bore and stroke and the uneven firing order,” Domenicali says, noting that just about every part of the exhaust and engine are borrowed from Ducati’s MotoGP stable. The 200+ hp 989-cc 4-cylinder engine is configured in the traditional Ducati “L” shape, with four titanium valves per cylinder, arranged in an asymmetrical Twin Pulse configuration, complete with Ducati’s signature desmodromic distribution, providing precise valve control at the highest revs with reduced friction. To help manage the weight of the engine, engineers relied on racing-derived materials, including sand-cast aluminum crankcase and cylinder heads, titanium connecting rods and valves, and sand-cast magnesium engine covers. Engine management falls under the responsibility of the Magneti Marelli 5SM ECU and high-speed CAN electronics. The 4-cylinder will be reserved only for the Desmosedici RR’s limited run of 400 bikes per year at a cost of $65,000—first year volumes sold out in a mere 30 days after opening of the order bank in spring 2006. “This engine has been on our dyno for a couple of years already,” Domenicali says, pointing to his confidence in its reliability. 

The frame of the Desmosedici RR—a tubular trellis hybrid design—is the same geometry of the GP6 racing bike, complete with a rear seat support made of high-temperature resin-type carbon fiber. Body work is constructed from carbon fiber in order to maintain overall authenticity, but Domenicali says the high cost of using the material continues to limit any possible application of carbon fiber on a mass production basis. “We really have no problem (using) carbon fiber technology, the main problem remains the cost,” he says.

ROAD TO RECOVERY. The Desmosedici RR is the latest in a long line of new motorcycles from Ducati, a brand that has seen its fortunes recoup in recent years after some had already declared it dead. U.S. sales have rebounded from 4,618 bikes in 2003 to more than 8,500 expected this year. Credit goes to a refreshed product lineup and change in design direction, which gained a fair amount of criticism when Pierre Terblanche took pen to paper and crafted the 999 and Multistrada, two bikes that were ridiculed by loyal Ducati owners for being too “out there” and overly aggressive. A new management team was installed in 2003 and they set to work building upon Ducati’s history with a series of retro motorcycles, including one based off the 750 Imola Desmo Paul Smart rode to victory at the Imola 200 in 1972. There’s also a slew of new bikes based off current models, including the Monster S4R Testastretta, Monster 695 and all-new Hypermotard, designed for light off-road riding. Domenicali says it is important for Ducati to have bikes like the Desmosedici RR in the lineup because they bring added credibility to the entire Ductai line: “It makes a bold statement about the nature of Ducati—sporty, racing-oriented with advanced technology. It’s a flagship bike that will help all the other models to be perceived better,” he says.

DEVELOPING PRODUCT. Ducati remains hampered by its small size, although being small also provides an advantage in that the Italian motorcycle manufacturer can design and develop a new bike in as little as 18 months. “We feel we have developed in-house enough experience to be able to introduce to the market in the next five years a new generation of twin-cylinder bikes, where the main target will be to improve the pleasure of sport riding, mainly through substantial weight reduction and torque increase,” Domenicali says. By placing product planning at the heart of the company, Ducati has moved to a retail pull model, as opposed to its previous practice of being primarily a wholesaler operation. “We know that there is no good company that does not have good product,” he says. One piece of advice Domenicali hopes the auto industry will embrace is listening to the customer and being true to history: “They have to listen to the customer, then look at themselves and their history and find a place in the market that fits their brand and remain loyal to that position. The critical factor is being different in something the customer values. The second lesson is to avoid thinking the intangible value of a brand can substitute the real feature and benefit for the customer,” he says, adding the real winners will improve their after-purchase relations: “We want customers to be a part of our family.”