When Ducati announced its intention to contest the World MotoGP championship back in 2001, no-one seriously expected the small Italian factory to challenge the mega-buck budgets of Honda and Yamaha, and the exquisite talents of Italian Valentino Rossi on the Honda factory V5.
In 2002, Ducati announced it would build a four cylinder machine for the championships - its first four cylinder and a radical departure from the big rasping V-twin fare we have come to know from the Italian manufacturers.
Suzuki, Aprilia and Kawasaki were expected to be the best of the rest in the MotoGP class this year because they had a 12 month development head-start on Ducati.
Yamaha and Honda are the frontrunners in MotoGP, with Honda winning 14 of the 16 races in 2002 and Yamaha taking the other two.
Suzuki and Kawasaki have been producing large-capacity four cylinder racing machines for many years and Aprilia has a track record in producing winning Grand Prix machines, with its more recent Superbike effort producing a highly competitive machine almost immediately.
Despite its wonderful race-winning heritage in Superbike racing, Ducati has only won four Grands Prix - well short of the Honda's incredible 539 wins, Yamaha (401), Suzuki (153), Aprilia (143) and Kawasaki (85). Whatsmore, the Ducati marque last graced the top step of the GP podium in 1959, and that was in the 125 class in the hands of a promising young lad named Mike Hailwood - a VERY long time ago.
Ducati 's main Grand Prix success came in the 125 class where they gained four GP wins in the late fifties, and the only time a Ducati rider placed in the ultimate GP class, the 500cc, was in 1972 when Bruno Spaggiari scored third place at Imola.
So despite optimism from the Ducati camp, there was a great deal of cynicism from most quarters that Ducati could be competitive during its first serious attempt at the premier class in three decades in 2003.
But in the three races contested so far this season, the Ducati Desmosedici machines have made the most impressive debut of any machine in Grand Prix history. Not so much from a winning point of view - other machines have won first up, but not against the richness of competition which graces the grid in a MotoGP these days.
In all of the official testing sessions prior to the beginning of the MotoGP season, the Ducati Red Rockets were the fastest motorcycles in a straight line - at the Valencia tests a Desmosedici posted 328kmh through the speed traps. In Japan on April 6, the two Desmosedici machines scored third and fifth places, topped the trap speeds (see www.motogp.com for a comprehensive set of stats on every aspect of every race) and made lots of genuine Ducati noises.
In the second race of the season, Australian Troy Bayliss led the race for the first ten laps before his rear tyre submitted to the power and he dropped to fourth. In the first European race of the season at Jerez in Spain on May 11, the Ducatis ran one-two in qualifying and Bayliss scored his first podium position (third) and moved into third place in the championship.
The evolution of the Demosedici motor is an interesting one - it seems like just a few months ago that we were seeing the first computer renderings of the motor and now we are seeing it producing tyre-shredding horsepower.
Ducati realised early in the piece that its staple diet of V-twin engines would simply not be able to cut it in the world of MotoGP.
In February 2002, when the announcement of the engine details was made, Ducati Corse Managing Director Claudio Domenicali explained the decision-making process behind the choice of the new engine as follows:
"After analysing all the possibilities offered by the regulations and on the basis of computer simulations, we are convinced that a massive power output is required to be competitive in MotoGP. It would have been difficult to obtain this power with conventional twin-cylinder engines, which amongst other things are only given a 10 kg weight advantage over 4 and 5 cylinder engines in the regulations. As a result, the bore size would have to be taken to an extremely high value, with the risk of incurring serious combustion problems."
"For this reason, in the preliminary study phase, we considered a twin-cylinder oval piston engine to be an excellent layout for the new regulations. With the same weight as 4 and 5 cylinder engines, this layout combines the typical advantages of a twin in terms of power output and delivery, with the performance necessary to compete at the same level as the multi-cylinder units".
"But further analysis led us to decide that the best solution was a 'double twin' and therefore we designed an engine with four round pistons which, thanks to a simultaneous two-by-two firing order, reproduce the working cycle of a twin. This will generate the 'big bang' effect, making the rear tyre work in a way that extends its duration and improves rider feeling when exiting curves".
"The Desmosedici engine", continued Domenicali "will have a relatively short development period and reasonable costs and it will then be easily available also for external teams, since it is Ducati Corse's intention to become a point of reference for private teams in MotoGP, as already it is in World Superbike".
Whilst we have not yet seen the Ducati engine become available to external teams, there's no doubt that there will be plenty of interested parties once the "for sale" sign goes up.
Remaining MotoGP races - 2003
Events are broadcast live on Fox Sports, and sometimes live-sometimes delayed on Channel 10.
May 25 Grand Prix de France Le Mans
Jun 8 Gran Premio Cinzano d'Italia Mugello
Jun, 15 Gran Premi Marlboro de Catalunya Circuit de Catalunya
Jun, 28 Gauloises Dutch TT Assen
Jul, 13 Cinzano British Grand Prix Donington Park
Jul, 27 Cinzano Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland Sachsenring
Aug, 17 Gaulois