"We are just a small factory." Ducati Review, Corse and the Factory.
I spent the last week in Bologna, Italy, visiting, working, and training with Ducati Corse on behalf of my team, Pramac D'antin Ducati. It was my first trip to the Factory, and it was a powerful and moving experience.
I walked to the factory from my hotel bright and early on Monday morning, tired from the previous day's travel, but excited to be visiting the birthplace of Ducati, and the home of Ducati Corse, the racing division of Ducati that is responsible for countless victories and championships in World Superbike and also several spectacular wins in MotoGP - most recently the 1-2 punch of Troy Bayliss and Loris Capirossi in Valencia at the final round of the 2006 MotoGP World Championship. As I mentioned earlier, Ducati Corse is a separate entity within the Ducati factory, much like HRC is within Honda. All similarities end there.
The view from the front of my hotel, Hotel Del Borgo.
"We are just a small factory."
This statement was told to me several times, by various people, over the course of the week I spent in the factory. It is absolutely true.
I checked in with security at the main entrance gate, and was then escorted through part of the factory's production lines by Cristian Gabarini, the Ducati track engineer who worked with the Pramac D'antin MotoGP team for the past two seasons. Security is pretty tight at the front door, but once you're inside the factory grounds the workers know you're there for a reason and they pretty much leave you on your own. Gaining access to Ducati Corse, on the other hand, is another story. It is very well protected and hidden away deep in the bowels of the main plant. It was nice to get a little tour of the factory with Cristian, or C2 as he is known, and besides, I needed him to get into the Corse raceshop because I don't have one of the special "swipe-cards" you need to open any of the doors to the raceshop, the R&D facility, and some of the other rooms where the good stuff is kept! Unforunately, (depending on how you look at it) C2 will be switching to the Marlboro Ducati team next year, working closely with newly signed Casey Stoner. We have worked well together this past year, so I'm sorry to see him move on, but I'm glad to have helped him work on his English a little - something he's going to need working with the young Australian!
By 9AM, the factory is in full swing, and you must walk through a maze of pathways in the main production warehouse in order to gain access to the Ducati Corse raceshop. The production lines are organized and efficient, and there is a buzz of activity on all sides. I passed men and women (yes, real women build these bikes!) busily affixing things, assembling engines, working the huge CNC machines (which run 24 hours a day), and more. There are large posters of previous Ducati racers and engine components on the walls of the factory, and also production goals and updates. You have to keep alert, as there are forklifts running around at high speed, factory messengers zipping by on bicycles, and visitors are not common this deep in the factory lines. I walked past the Sport Classics area, the Monster zone, the massive dyno room area, which ensures all engines are operating properly before the bikes leave the factory, and passed so many parts your eyes would spin. Row upon row of freshly powdercoated frames, huge racks of marchesini's, hundreds of bare cylinder heads waiting for valves, you name it. Ducati builds all their bikes here, and while some pieces are out-sourced, much of the detail work and final processes are done in-house. There are blanks everywhere, and the mills, lathes, and CNC machines are constantly grinding things out. The smell of cutting fluid and hot aluminum permeates the factory, and at times it can be overpowering.
All told, there are roughly 850 people employed fulltime at the Borgo Panigale factory, of which a staff of approximately 100 work within Duati Corse, the racing division of Ducati. While they are separate companies, the general feeling is that everyone works together towards a common goal. Everyone works for Ducati. When people would say that "We are just a small factory", it's really true. The total budget for Ducati Corse's racing activities is miniscule compared to the amount that HRC spends. And Corse's is for both WSBK and MotoGP. There is an immense pride in Ducati's racing pursuits, and it is fundamental in the Factory's philosophy. They are here to race, and they make bikes that are direct descendants of their racebikes. Sure, there are the touring bikes, monsters, etc, but the underlying feeling is that Ducati builds racing bikes. There is also an immense pride that emanates from the Corse workers, because it's such a small group of people. Everyone that works there actively has a hand in the company's successes or failures, and they take it very personally. I don't know what it is that makes the Italians so crazy about racing, but these people work for passion and for pride. Definitely not money. We'll get into that later. I guess it boils down to manpower, brainpower, and moneypower. Because Ducati doesn't have the same manpower or moneypower, the workers strive that much harder to do their best. The only word I have for it is Devotion.
This is my favorite photo I took all week. There is so much testing going on, and parts are constantly evolving. I was absolutely amazed by the workers in Corse, because they are far more skilled and talented than you might think. Many of the mechanics are also skilled machinesmiths, and it was common to see them carrying parts back and forth, modifying them constantly. Grinding? Welding? Milling? Painting? These guys really do it all, and I take my hat off to them. While I was in the raceshop, I saw pieces of the new 1098 being modified for it's eventual foray into WSBK racing, and parts of the new GP7 and also it's engines were also subjected to interesting modifications. Personally, I love building engines and transmissions, because it's very exacting and precise. What they don't teach you through a manual or in a school, is that "the touch" becomes very important the more you do this kind of work. There are factory specifications that parts must adhere to, but setting up a good race engine is far more difficult that just reading a sheet of paper and measuring things. This is where "the touch" comes in. It's been around forever, but slowly and surely it is going away as more and more production motorcycles feature a new repair process - that is, if it is out of spec, throw it away and replace it with a new one. There's no "rebuilding" of anything these days, and that kind of bums me out. On the other hand, building any of the MotoGP engines, and particularly the Ducati, I think, requires a slightly different approach. I won't go into specifics, but I will say that although these machines have already been run on the track, they are still prototype machines and are under constant development and evolution. Case in point: every day I was in the factory, I was subjected to a constant howling coming through the factory walls. Waaaahhhhhhhh, Weeehhhhhhhh. There were 800's on the dyno undergoing stress tests and tuning regimens in order to find an even more optimum engine baseline setting. It was eery and thrilling at the same time, knowing that the new blood was already in the water, and it was on the move.
The factory workers in the main plant wear either a Ducati jumpsuit, or a combination of Ducati sweatshirt/pants. Some of the machinists wear an old-school red lab-coat, and you definitely get the impression that they've been doing this for years. Decades, even. It was also nice to see that every employee in uniform wore the badge of Shell Advance racing oil/fuel on his or her sleeve, further proof of the two companies commitment to one another's success. Meanwhile, the Ducati Corse people wear a different uniform, usually a Red Ducati Corse sweatshirt, also with Shell patch. The uniform requirements are a little more lax for the Corse employees, because many of them wear what they want, but that doesn't mean they work any less. In fact, the Corse personnel are regularly there for ten hours a day, and there are periods of the year where they will go 12 or more hours a day for weeks on end.
This is the new coffee machine that was installed while I was there. I was pretty fortunate because I managed to be at the factory at a really neat period of activity. First of all, the new 1098 had just become public, and I also saw the machine on several occasions, running around under power outside on the small test track on premises, getting refueled, and also in the secret workshop near the cafeteria (caffe-te-RI-a). Actually, there are a couple of the new 1098's. To be honest, the first time I heard it running, I thought it was a stock Buell going by. Doh! Anyway, about the coffee machine, as Luigi Mitulo told me, this is the most important machine in the factory. It's a gathering place and it helps keep everyone's momentum going. Coffee breaks are common, but they are usually very short, lasting five minutes or less.
There were a lot of cool things happening at the factory while I was there. On Tuesday, Troy Bayliss dropped by the Corse raceshop to have a victory celebration with everyone. I didn't expect Troy to be able to speak a little in Italian, and with his thick (THICK) Australian accent, it was hilarious. "Motto Contento!" All the Corse personnel showed up in the afternoon for the get together, and there were bottles of Champagne for everyone to enjoy. There were a few speeches, and after Troy spoke, there was a thunderous applause that went on forever. The people were really happy about Troy's win, and it showed. I stood for a moment and just took it all in. The Ducati Corse people live for racing, and a victory against the best that Yamaha and Honda can throw at them is truly something special. There was such gratitude in their eyes as they looked at Troy, I don't really know how to describe the scene, other than that it was very touching, and it showed me a side of Corse that I hadn't expected. These are real people, passionate people, who are very dedicated, very committed, and I felt honored to be there. This was my second celebration with the Ducati folks, the first one was a dinner on Sunday night following the Motegi race. Both times were unforgettable. This wasn't really my victory, so I didn't partake of any of the victory bubbly, and besides, I had a ton of work to do that afternoon. Later in the week, the crew from the Marlboro Ducati race team showed up. It was a joyous reunion for me with the Factory boys, and we caught up on a bunch of things because we had a little bit more free time to talk. Usually, at the racetrack, we can say hi, good morning, that kind of thing. Mark Elder gave me a tour of their race garage/area, and it was pretty trick. They have their own machine shop and storage area, and their semi trucks are parked inside while they are loaded and unloaded. They team showed up because it was time to build next season's GP7 800's. Everyone was hustling around working on something, like assembling the wiring harnesses, or preparing the new chassis'. Oh, there will be a couple neat changes to the color scheme of things next season, so that will be cool. I hung out for a few minutes getting a feel for everything and then rushed back to my work. My team will travel to the factory in early December to prepare our own racebikes. I'm not exactly sure which GP7 Barros will be running later this month at the Jerez test. It could be one of three machines. . . .
The White truck belongs to the 3T team (tire test team, with Shinichi Itoh), the Red truck is the Ducati test team, with Vitto Guareschi piloting, and the Black truck, well . . . . . good guys wear black, haha, for this year. Next year? Who knows what colour scheme we'll be running - but I hope that the trucks aren't black. Those things are a bitch to keep clean!
Incidently, these Malaguti scooters are for sale, if you know of anyone that wants one. Two years of running around in the paddock - so maybe they have 50 or a 100 miles. Practically brand new.
This is one of the original Ducati Factory buildings. It's run down and effectively abandoned. I was continuously struck by two worlds while I was at the factory, and it's because of this that I have such strong feelings about Ducati now. There is such a contrast and rigid dichotomy between old and new here. I'm not sure how to put it into perspective, but for the international Icon that Ducati is, all the innovation they represent, I fear they are fighting an uphill battle on all fronts. Much of the factory machinery, trucks, and equipment is old, and the factory's building are all showing their age. Although Ducati has always been at the forefront of bold, new, and stylish designs, their homebase is anything but. It seems like all the money coming in to the factory goes right into developing the next machine. There is not a lot of money here, and what little gets put in to Ducati Corse is used to the utmost. These people make do with whatever they can, and the workers really put themselves out to do their best under the circumstances. A typical factory worker makes what I would consider to be minimum wage back in the United States, maybe less. They look tired and rundown. There's a strange hollowness in their eyes, but this could be something I'm totally misreading, because the Italians have different eyes than normal. Much like the people of Holland, there is something unique in the way these people look at you. But to me, the factory workers looked a little disheveled. Shaggy hair and scruffy clothes or not, these people can work, and they do so with a pace that makes me feel like I'm not working hard enough. It's the same all over the world, I suppose. They are building machines that only the affluent can afford. It's a completely different world here in Europe, and for me, coming to the Ducati factory (THE FACTORY!) was nothing short of eye-opening. Everyone who's working in the motorcycle industry does so for a reason. I've always said that we work for passion, because obviously we're not here to get rich. The factory workers at Ducati take that to another level, and because of this, I understand the company that much more. Ducati is here because of it's employees. It's here because of what's running through their employees veins. Ducati is in their blood - racing is in their blood - they are the backbone of this place. It's also interesting to note that every single Ducati motorcycle has come from the Bologna factory (to my knowledge), and to me, that makes this someplace special.
The Ducati factory, constantly churning out the new models, comes to a halt around noon, when all the lines shut down so everyone can eat lunch. The entire factory eats in the cafeteria, which offers up typical dishes, in a first and second plate format. Everyone is able to eat from a variety of dishes, but the only beverage available is San Benedetto water, normal or with gas. It comes in a nice one liter bottle, and I polished mine off everyday. Most of the people I ate with took care with their food, eating healthily - lots of fruits and not so much on the pasta. There's a restored Cucciolo in the center of the room, and the workers come in waves, timing their meals so there's never a huge back-up in the food lines. At times, I felt like I was in living in the past, because this could have been fifty years ago. And it could be fifty years in the future, as well.
There's a nice coffee shop next to the lunchroom, and also a small play room filled with a couple foosball machines. I didn't really feel comfortable taking pictures of the workers during their "off-time", and I wanted to be as respectful as possible at all times. In fact, I took only a single photo in the Ducati Corse area, and I'll show that later. I really felt like an outsider walking through the factory halls, and this had nothing to do with my non-existent Italian language capability. I just felt that I didn't have the same value system, the same hardcore dedication, the same single-mindedness, the same devotion. I don't know. I just felt different and that if I was lucky, I could come away with a unique experience, one that would be something I could carry with me for a long time. And I did.
While I have never considered myself a true Ducatista, I have a newfound respect and admiration for this historic marque. I learned a little about the companies successes and failures, and I learned how about Ducati goes about racing. It is a very serious business, and this mentality and methodology would hit me time and again as I worked closely with and observed the different people from Ducati Corse. Everyone - from the engineers, the electronics whizzes, the mechanics, and the engine builders - everyone was focused and professional. One thing that struck me was that although many people were very tired looking at this point of the season, weary, they still continued working well throughout the day and into the evenings, tinkering with this or that, and generally trying to do their best to improve Ducati's chances of winning. Another thing that impressed me was that there seemed to be very little direction coming from the managers, or bosses. It appeared like everyone knew what they were supposed to do, all the time, and they just went about steadily doing their jobs without having to deal with someone looking over their shoulder the whole time. If someone had some free time, they'd pick something up and clean it, or try to find a way to make it better. Periodically throughout the day, engineers and designers would come downstairs from their offices and check something out in person, be it the fit or the functionality of a particular piece. People were constantly moving, checking things, testing things, and all day long there were track engineers studying data on their laptops. It is an all consuming focus on improving. On winning. Everyone and everything working in unison, like different parts of a body. I'm very proud to say that I will be working hand in hand with Ducati Corse next season, and I hope that I can continue to learn and grow with them.
More thoughts and experiences as they come to me.
Oh, and that Ducati Corse raceshop photo?
The fastest toilet in Bologna! And, yes, I test rode it!