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GIGI DALL’IGNA | MECHANICAL MASTERMIND | INTERVIEW

Ducati’s genius MotoGP engineer Gigi Dall’Igna talks about his love of touring, his addiction to creating new tech gadgets and his vision of MotoGP’s future.

Fast Talk // Gigi Dall’Inga

Conducting interviews with MotoGP engineers is a bit like being a conquistador searching for Eldorado. Youre looking for gold, for the multi-million-dollar secrets hidden inside their brains. And usually all they do is try to baffle you with bullshit.

Ive interviewed Ducati Corse general manager Gigi DallIgna on numerous occasions during the nine years hes been in charge of the factorys MotoGP project. And during each and every one of these chats Ive marvelled at his ability to speak without actually saying anything, to talk at length without revealing a single nugget of technical gold. Because why would he want he want to reveal his hard-learned secrets to anyone outside his race department in Borgo Panigale?

This interview, however, is different. Were talking about his life in motorcycles – where he came from and how he got to where he is now. Gigi DallIgna drops his guard and becomes a different man – smiling, joking, telling stories, sharing his enthusiasm for all things two-wheeled.

GIGI DALL'IGNA Gigi Dall’Igna , Sepang MotoGP test, 5 February 2022

His journey is quite something: from skint student riding a clapped-out 1970s Vespa around Europe to master of the worlds most advanced motorcycle racing team, which continually unleashes new and controversial technology in MotoGP, from downforce and ground-effect aerodynamics to holeshot devices and shapeshifters.

The motorcycle has been something amazing for me since the beginning,” says the 55-year-old. But honestly speaking, Im a touring rider, Im not a real sports rider. I love to ride bikes, above all during the summer, travelling a lot in many places.

I had not a lot of money when I was young, so my first bike was a Vespa – an old, old, 1971 Vespa. With this Vespa I made a trip to Greece when I was at university.”

During the late 1980s Gigi DallIgna studied mechanical engineering at Padua University, one of northern Italys many centres of learning that produce the engineers who work for the countrys legendary automotive industry: Alfa Romeo, Aprilia, Ducati, Ferrari, Fiat, Lamborghini, Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta, Vespa, the list goes on.

GIGI DALL'IGNA Giovanni Sandi, Gigi Dalligna, Monza WSBK 2010

When I was young I wanted to study physics but I thought I wasnt clever enough, because physics is a big, big story, so I decided upon mechanical engineering instead.”

But, I say, you work in physics now, because motorcycle racing is all about working with the laws of physics, right?

Yes,” he replies. Racing is just a different approach of physics.”

DallIgna got his first proper job at Aprilia, working on the Noale factorys two-stroke GP bikes that dominated the smaller 125cc and 250cc classes in the 1990s and 2000s. I suggest that maintaining that ancient Vespa mustve taught him a lot about the inner-workings of the two-stroke engine. He laughs and nods vigorously.

Dall’Igna with 2006 and 2007 250cc world champion Lorenzo and RSW250, May 2007

In fact Gigi DallIgna very nearly ended up in car racing. His university thesis was a carbon-fibre chassis for a Michelotto Ferrari Group C racing car. He was all set to join Michelotto after graduation, but the project was shut down.

I did a lot of CAD [computer-aided design] work and a lot of training at Ferrari. I wanted to work in racing, so when Michelotto stopped this activity I tried to find a different job in racing, because I didnt want to work on production cars.”

Although DallIgna says hes not a real sports rider”, theres no doubt that he is a racer. More than any other engineer in MotoGP his mind is a racers mind, always searching for that extra hundredth of a second, however outlandish the technical innovation required.

Gigi DallIgna was born and bred in the town of Thiene, near Venice and a 70km ride from Noale, so in 1991 he sent his CV to Aprilias chief race engineer Jan Witteveen, who gave him a job. He was on his way.

Dall’Igna with 2008 250cc world champion Marco Simoncelli and team manager Giampiero Sacchi, October 2008

At that time Aprilia used [Austrian] Rotax engines in their 125 and 250 GP bikes,” DallIgna continues. Witteveen wanted to start designing and developing Aprilias own engines, so he needed someone to take care of that. So I was in the team that designed Aprilias first RSV250 engine.”

All two-strokes, of course.

But I am not a two-stroke engineer. For me, racing is the most important thing, so Im not a two-stroke engineer or a four-stroke engineer, Im a racing engineer.”

Aprilia was founded in the 1940s as a bicycle manufacturer, started selling motorcycles in the 1970s and only went GP racing in the mid-1980s.

And yet the company became a huge force, despite its tiny race department, winning 40 riders and constructors titles between 1992 and 2011, along the way giving Valentino Rossi his first taste of global glory.

That was an amazing period,” he says. There were a lot of ideas, a lot of things to do. There werent a lot of people there. When I arrived I was the 27th employee of Aprilia Racing, so it was a really small group of people, but really strong, really passionate about their work and great friends too.”

Dall’Igna with 2010 and 2012 WSB champion Max Biaggi, Portimao 2012

Between races he still went touring. When I started at Aprilia I bought a Pegaso, making many rides all around Europe, Turkey and so on.”

At the turn of the century MotoGP started regulating two-strokes out of GP racing, so Gigi DallIgna switched to four-strokes, first with Aprilias first MotoGP machine, the mad 990cc RS Cube triple, which became the first GP bike to surpass 320km/h, at Mugello in 2002.

The Cube sounded beautiful, looked evil, was evil and was never competitive. Aprilia gave car company Cosworth the job of designing the engine, which probably wasnt the best idea, although DallIgna wont say so, because as a race engineer he must also be a diplomat.

I dont think it was a mistake because Cosworth is a really good engineering company. But for sure, Aprilias target was maybe different to Cosworths.”

GIGI DALL'IGNA Dall’Igna with 2010 and 2012 WSB champion Max Biaggi and RSV4, May 2011

The Cube was the first MotoGP bike with pneumatic valves and a ride-by-wire throttle, so it was very advanced. Perhaps too advanced, because four-wheel tech doesnt always translate to two wheels. When Piaggio bought Aprilia in 2004 they closed down the Cube project.

The following year Piaggio appointed Gigi DallIgna technical director of all their racing activities – Aprilia, Derbi and Gilera – so he was in charge when Jorge Lorenzo won the 2006 and 2007 250cc titles, when Marco Simoncelli took the 2008 250cc crown (with a Gilera-badged Aprilia) and when Marc Marquez won the 2010 125cc crown (with an Aprilia-badged Derbi).

Increasingly, four-strokes were his priority. His biggest job yet was Aprilias RSV4 superbike. You could call the RSV4 the Italian RC30 – a V4 superbike conceived for the racetrack and civilised with registration plates. Gigi DallIgna invested all his GP knowhow into the bike, which won the 2010 and 2012 WorldSBK titles with Max Biaggi, who had won Aprilias first 250cc world title in 1994.

The RSV4 won its third WorldSBK crown in 2014, with Anglo-Frenchie Sylvain Guintoli, but by then DallIgna had moved from Noale to Borgo Panigale. Ducati had spent months wooing him, because their Desmosedici project had been in disarray since their 2007 champion Casey Stoner defected to Honda in 2011.

GIGI DALL'IGNA Dall’Igna with 2010 and 2012 WSB champion Max Biaggi, team-mate Eugene Laverty and Chaz Davies, Nurburgring 2012

When Gigi DallIgna joined Ducati at the end of 2013, it hadnt won a MotoGP race in more than three years.

The Desmosedici of that time wasnt even a motorcycle,” remembers rider Andrea Dovizioso, who had joined Ducati at the start of 2013.

DallIgna knew he had a huge job to do. When I arrived at Ducati I spent the first half of the first year getting to know the people, because in the end the people are the most important thing.

Then I reorganised the racing department and it all started from there. In the second part of 2014 I started designing the new motorcycle, the new concept. The new bike was completely different, maybe only the wheels were the same as before.”

Progress was slow at first. DallIgnas Desmosedici didnt score a single dry-race podium in 2014, but 2015 was different. On his good days, Dovizioso fought with Marquez, then at his rampant best. In 2016 MotoGPs new technical rules – Michelin tyres instead of Bridgestone and same-for-all electronic rider controls – changed everything.

This is when the Desmosedici spread its wings, with four huge winglets at the front of the bike, to increase load on the front wheel to reduce wheelies and thereby improve acceleration. In fact downforce aero wasnt DallIgnas latest brainwave – the concept had been floating around in his mind for years.

Id been convinced since the beginning of my career in motorcycle racing that aerodynamics was something that hadnt been developed enough. But I didnt have the competence to develop my ideas in a proper way, because its very complicated, absolutely more complicated than car aerodynamics. So when I started work for Ducati I thought this was something we need to push forward in order to win again, because when your riders arrive 30 seconds behind the winner you have to take risks, you cannot be conservative.”

Dall’Igna with Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati Corse technical director Davide Barana (right) 2019

And yet DallIgna didnt have an easy time convincing his riders that wings were the way forward. Pioneering such tech can be downright scary – what happens if a strong gust of wind gets under the wings of your 300hp MotoGP bike as you attack the 330km/h left kink that precedes Turn 1 at Mugello?

Absolutely the engineer must be strong with his riders, but in a proper way because you cannot fight with your riders,” he says. And yet this is exactly what happened between DallIgna and Dovizioso, who won 14 MotoGP races together before parting company. DallIgna argues that science is on his side, whatever the riders may think.

If you look at the data you can easily understand that wheelies are one of the main problems in MotoGP, so if you want to improve your lap times you have to do something in order to reduce wheelies.

At some tracks like Jerez the horsepower of the engine means nothing, but with wings you can start to use the power.”

Downforce aero was only DallIgnas first aggressive push into MotoGPs rulebook. While the other manufacturers flattered him with imitation, adding wings to their own machines, DallIgnas brain was already fizzing with other ideas.

In 2018 he equipped the Desmosedici with a holeshot device, which riders engage before the start. These gadgets, which had been used in motocross for many years, lower the motorcycle, transforming it into a drag bike, so it wheelies less, increasing acceleration towards the first corner. And once again his rivals copied him.

Andrea Dovizioso, Austrian MotoGP race 16 August 2020

In June 2019 Dovizioso drove an Audi in an Italian round of the DTM car championship, which got DallIgna thinking. Again.

We were talking about the race and Andrea told me he had to flick a switch that sprayed water to cool the brakes. I thought that if a car driver can flick a switch during the race, why not a motorcycle rider? From this I started thinking about a system that the rider could use to lower the motorcycle, not only at the start but also during races.”

Four months later Ducati riders were using a dynamic ride-height device, otherwise knows as a shapeshifter, which lowers the rear of the bike to reduce wheelies exiting corners. The improvement in acceleration and top speed was significant –  362kmh! – so of course the other factories followed suit.

This year DallIgna added a front-end shapeshifter to the Desmosedici, but finally his rivals cried enough. MotoGP owner Dorna banned the technology from the end of this year, which makes MotoGPs number-one boffin unhappy.

Honestly, I get quite pissed off when they ban technologies – its not fair. Whats important in MotoGP is that we develop new ideas and new methods. When you develop technologies like aerodynamics you can use them to increase the performance of your racebike and also to improve your production machines, by improving engine cooling or keeping hot air away from the rider.

Its the same with ride-height devices – you can use them on production bikes, for example, to help smaller riders when they are riding in the city.”

Dovizioso, Austrian MotoGP Race 2019

So, whats churning around DallIgnas brain right now?

I have some ideas but Id like to develop them a bit more before tell you something,” he grins. But now I think its time to think what MotoGP will be in the future, because I dont think we can stay with the current solution for a long time.

First of all, if you want to reduce CO2 emissions its very important to increase the efficiency of the bikes. That means the brakes will have to be different, because we will have to try to recover the energy from the brakes. At the moment we just put all this energy into the air.”

DallIgna isnt wrong: during every MotoGP race the brakes of each motorcycle produce enough energy to power a family house for a day.

Motorcycles are smaller than cars, which adds to the complications, so for this reason MotoGP is absolutely the right place to develop new technologies. You have to be clever, this is the most important thing.”

Dall’Igna with Jack Miller and Pecco Bagnaia, celebrating 2021 MotoGP constructors title

Ducati has won the last two MotoGP constructors championships and soon hopes to finally repeat Stoners 2007 success in the riders championship. If Ducati succeed they can thank Gigi DallIgna, who has given up a lot to make the legendary marque competitive again.

Like much of the paddock he is on the road for around 200 days a year, so no Multistrada tours around Europe for him.

The problem is that motorcycles are not a family thing and when Im home I have to stay with my family,” says DallIgna, who has two kids. I had an Aprilia Falco, which I sold and bought a campervan, because Im away a lot, so when Im home I need to be with my family.

Sometimes I say to my wife we should buy two motorcycles – one for her and one for me, with the kids on the back – but she says no! I absolutely miss riding, but life is what it is. Maybe in five years, when the kids are older, Ill get another roadbike.”

I wonder if that motorcycle will feature a shapeshifter and radical aero?  

WORDS // MAT OXLEY
PHOTOGRAPHY // GOLD&GOOSE