Coming into last weekend’s opening race of the 2021 MotoGP season at the Qatar Grand Prix, one of the hot topics most up for discussion was the incredible top speed of Ducati’s Desmosedici bike, most clearly highlighted by podium finisher Johann Zarco smashing the series’ top speed record at 225.2mph (362.6kph) during practice.
It’s been a characteristic of the bike for many years, and in reality is a defining characteristic of Ducati’s entire philosophy, with the low and long machine (and its subsequent turning problems, especially on fast corners), all part of the result of a frame built specifically to harness the engine’s 300 plus horsepower.
In fact, it’s even rumoured within the MotoGP paddock that the bike has actually been much faster than the new record in the past, with stories of speeds topping 230mph showing up on the bike’s onboard telemetry at Mugello – the track where the record previously stood, but where the speed trap point is infamously within the start of the braking zone for turn one.
Yet despite the almost-insane speeds they were able to produce in pre-season testing and practice at the Losail International Circuit, Sunday’s race showed something rather different – a Ducati that, while very fast, was nowhere near as quick as it had been only one day previously.
In fact, rather than the untouchable missile of Saturday, instead, we saw the Yamaha of race winner Maverick Vinales, among the slowest machines on the grid, able to sit comfortably in the Ducati’s slipstream once the race got underway.
So where did their huge advantage disappear to? And does this mean that Ducati isn’t quite able to rely on its speed to destroy the rest of the pack the way it had hoped when racing returns to Losail for the Doha Grand Prix this weekend?
Well, there are two reasons for the sudden absence in power. Firstly, the weather conditions played against the Italian marque, ironically turning a support system for its power into something that hindered rather than helped.
It’s no secret that Ducati has invested serious time and resource over the past five years into the hitherto unexplored art of aerodynamics, using increasingly complicated wings to help its riders tame the power.
Adding the first one then multiple sets of wings, resigning them after they were banned or restricted, and continuing to innovate, the dual point of it all is to keep the front wheel on the ground during acceleration and to create downforce in the corners to help alleviate their turning issues.
But with every protrusion from the front of the bike comes not just increased downforce but more drag, acting to steal away a little bit of top-end power. Combine that finely tuned balancing act with the high winds that hit Losail for Sunday’s race, pushing as a headwind down the start-finish straight, and you’re going to lose even more.
However, there’s another issue that’s more likely than the wind to have caused them to slow down during Sunday’s race: MotoGP’s mandated 22-litre fuel tanks. It’s all well and good having an engine vastly more powerful than your rivals, but with the same amount of fuel as them to burn, there is a finite amount of power that can be created over the course of a race.
It’s not an issue in practice or qualifying, when different engine maps allow the riders to fully utilise as much as they need for four-lap runs rather than for the strict one litre per lap they have to ensure they stick to on Sunday evening, but it means that they’re forced to self-handicap just to make the finish line.
“I hope that one day I can turn down power too,” joked Aprilia rider Aleix Espargaro after the race, “because it’s not a problem for us! I use our qualifying map in every single session, even the race! They remove power because of the fuel consumption, but they’re very good with the engine and that’s why they can play with the power.
“That’s why they can do a 52.7s lap in qualifying, which looks very fast, but it’s what happens when you can increase the power so much compared to the race.”
So while the Ducati might remain the fastest bike on the grid again for this weekend’s second round at the Qatari track, its top speed advantage is once again highly unlikely to play the decisive effect we expected it to, especially if the initial weather forecast is once again for high winds on race day.
Except, of course, for one particular time in the race, as unfortunate world champion Joan Mir found out on the run to the line last weekend. Coming out of the last corner in second place, but only crossing the line in fourth as both Zarco and Pecco Bagnaia blasted past him, he joked afterward about the incredible display of power from the Bologna missiles.
“I overtook Zarco in the last second and I thought that to finish second would be great, but I knew I had two angry Ducatis behind me,” he joked, “and that it would be hard. I saw the finish line really close to me, and then both rockets overtook me! It was a bit frustrating.”
That’s because while Ducati might have been moderating their power (and its fuel) for the entire race, it’s obvious that with the finish line in sight both riders were able to revert to its qualifying engine mapping with the push of a button on the handlebars, burning the remaining contents of the fuel tank in a last-lap lunge that rewarded both of them with podium finishes.