After riding the WorldSBK Ducati 999 F03 machine back in 2003, Alan sat down with Neil Hodgson to chat about what he thought of the machine and his 2003 season... Photos: Kel Edge.
Tearing himself away from the beach for a couple of hours to watch my flawed efforts to imitate his impressive performance during the 2003 season aboard the Ducati 999 F03, was Ducati’s main man, Neil Hodgson. Check out what he had to say about the machine…
AC: Neil, when you first rode the 999 last year, how did it feel compared to the 998 you’d been riding for GSE all season?
NH: Well, the first time I rode it was at Mugello, and it was actually the week after the last round at Imola, so everything was pretty fresh in my mind. The feeling, in just the first two laps, was I couldn’t believe how low I felt like I was sitting in the bike – you’re really deep inside it, rather than perched on top of it, like the 998. Pretty much straight away I felt I wanted to be sitting more forward in it – it was hard to ride, because in the middle of the corners I was consciously thinking, I’ve slid to the back of the seat, I need to be much further over the front. That’s something we’ve worked on to make it a little bit better for me, but even now past halfway through the season, we’ve not much improved on that initial feeling, just sort of adapted to it. You forget about it and don’t criticise it any more, but when we have our debriefs at the circuits I still come round to wanting more weight on the front, as on Day One.
The bike is more roomy than the old one, but for me aerodynamics have always been important, because I grew up racing in 125s, where you’re taught to minimise frontal area by pressing your elbows in tight to the tank in a straight line, like I still do on the Ducati. At tracks like Phillip Island or Monza, I’ve always been faster than Ruben, even though we’re on exactly the same bike, and that’s because aerodynamically I fit perfectly on it, whereas he’s got his elbows and knees all stuck out. They’ve raised the front of the fairing for me so I can do that, because when I first tested the bike, the fairing didn’t protect you enough, so going down a long straight like at Mugello, you’d be literally straining to hold yourself on the bike at 300 k’s, with the wind doing its best to blow you off. My arms would be at full length, stretched out, and I’d be on the back of the seat, puffing and panting to stay on – the most physical effort when I first rode that bike was going down the straights. Weird!
I’m moving around on it constantly, and with my style, where I’m leaning off it the opposite way when I come out of a corner, that’s not because it looks good on TV, it’s because you feel you’re sitting deep and low on the bike. When you accelerate, you’re moved so far back in the seat that the bike goes light on the front and wants to go straight – but I want it to steer over to the side. So you have to exaggerate everything to make it go where you want – especially to stop the front end going light going down the next straight, in which case it starts flapping the ‘bars in your hands. Then, as you found out for yourself, you cannot make it stop doing that except by getting off the throttle. The position of your body weight is all important on this bike.
AC: I’ve noticed watching you that the 999 seems to work well with your riding style in terms of saving track distance – you can hold a tighter line under acceleration, like out of the chicane at Silverstone, or exiting the final hairpin here at Misano before the last chicane, where Ruben for example runs wide and loses a lot of distance on the same bike.
NH: Yes, that’s quite right – but a lot of that is actually my style. The way the Michelin tyres work, the side grip’s not fantastic compared to a Dunlop, but the drive grip’s brilliant, so I try to brake late and deep into the corner, almost stop and get it onto the fat part of the tyre, where I’ve got maximum control, so I try to make the corners pretty pointed – stop, turn and fire it on out, which is the complete opposite of what I did last season on the 998 with the Dunlops. I’ve had to totally change my riding style this year, because the old Neil Hodgson used to carry lots of corner speed, which coming from 125s I was always good at and felt confident with. I learnt this at Valencia, which to be honest is why I won quite easily there – just get into the corners, make nothing of them, then get out of there as upright as possible and use the great acceleration of this bike, which is one of its big advantages over the rest even if the engine isn’t so different from last year’s.
AC: You haven’t done much testing this year – is that a problem?
NH: Next to nothing, really – just pre-season at Valencia and a day after Oschersleben, that’s all. To be honest, I know why – it’s because Ducati wants to make a show out of the racing this season, when they’re the only real factory team, and if they’d done more testing, they could probably have improved the bike another 5-10%. But I don’t think they wanted to make the championship even more of a two-horse race than it already is, but for sure there’s a lot of improvement locked up in there which more development can bring out – when necessary! If Honda come back in next year, for sure there’s lots of scope to improve the bike.
AC: Is it true that, with so little testing, you’ve had trouble finding the right suspension setup?
NH: Yes, I find it is a demanding bike, which is strange because you’d expect it to be the opposite compared to the 998, where you’re sat on top of it so you expect it to be twitchy, whereas on the new one, you’re sitting in it. But for example here at the last chicane but one over in front of the pits, I can go through there much faster than I am already, but if I try to move the bike and my body at the speed I want to go at, the bike just goes into a massive tank-slapper. So I have to be really patient – I have to purposely slow myself down, because otherwise it won’t accept what I want it to do. At Silverstone, I really struggled because of all the fast changes of direction, plus there were all the bumps. That was typical of what we’ve been doing this season with a new bike that’s got a chassis so different from the old one, where we don’t have any data on setup – I went out on the first practice session, and I was a long way off on my settings, then four hours later, I’ve got close – but now it’s race time, so you have to run with what you’ve got. Makes it good for the spectators, I suppose!
AC: So far we’ve only talked about the 999’s chassis – but how about that fabulous engine?
NH: The engine has saved my life this year, on so many occasions. With that extra topend power which starts from about 4,000rpm, it makes the bike very rideable. The bizarre thing is, there’s no flat spot – it sails up to 13,500 just like that, which is where I always change up. It’s totally deceptive, but very fast. That’s why we can pull tall gears on a lot of the tighter corners, because it’ll pull and drive from so low down. We don’t change the internal gearbox ratios, ever – just throw another gear at it and it’ll pull it. Very impressive. I give the engine ten out of ten, personally – I couldn’t want for more. Also, we use second gear in a lot of turns where other people use first, and what that’s going to do is give you less tyre wear, certainly on the rear. With this bike, at almost all circuits we’ve run softer race tyres on this bike than last year with the old one.
Plus, the engines are so reliable, despite revving higher with the shorter stroke. Here at Misano, I’m coming out of the last chicane in second gear, then holding it all the way down to the next bit to save a couple of changes, with the engine bouncing off the limiter big style for one-and-a-half seconds, at 13,700 revs, every lap. That’s fantastic! I ask the team if it’s OK to do this and they say, sure, no problem, don’t worry about it. The old works Ducati, five years ago, if you hit the limiter once at much lower revs, they’d change the gearing because they’d say it wouldn’t last two races like that – but this one’s on another planet in terms of what it’ll take.
AC: The slipper clutch is a big help in stopping hard at the end of the straight, isn’t it?
NH: Yes, it’s better still than before – and last year’s bike was already pretty good. I don’t use the back brake much, because the slipper clutch is so consistent – for me, the clutch lever’s the back brake, and the brake pedal’s the anti-wheelie device! I don’t ever just release the clutch, I feed it out slowly as I go down the gears, and always with the last gear as I brake deep into the corners, I’ve still got the clutch lever partly pulled in. It’s so consistent, it allows you to do this.
AC: Compared to the Suzukis that are restricted at the moment, how does the 999 stand up?
NH: I’d say we’ve still got an advantage on top speed at the moment – our bike is faster, which is an advantage we’d maybe lose if we had to wear restrictors next year, which doesn’t look like it’ll happen now. It looks like to me that they’ve got more midrange power – but they can’t use it, certainly out of slow corners like at Silverstone, where you could really see it. We’ve possibly got less, or maybe ours is more manageable – take somewhere like the Parabolica at Monza, where Gregorio was smoking the back tyre in third or fourth gear, at a point where I’m wide open. That’s what won us both the races, irrespective of the different tyre brands. It’s one thing having the power, but the thing is to use the power you’ve got. I reckon next season will be one of the best Superbike years ever, especially if one of the other Japanese manufacturers comes in, which I hope they do. But for sure it won’t be a Ducati Challenge, which it is a bit at the moment. Nobody wants to see that – and I’m sure next season is going to be ever so close and exciting. Anyway, this year’s not been exactly boring, has it?!
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