In 1998, New Zealand motorcycle racer Simon Crafar won the British Grand Prix at Donington Park in the 500cc world championship. The 53-year-old became pitlane reporter for MotoGP series owner Dorna in 2018, covering all the races for MotoGP, Moto2, and Moto3. He also does an onboard lap before each race, describing each circuit.
The significance of anyone outside the MotoGP paddock being allowed to ride a million-dollar premier-class prototype is notable, but Crafar has proven himself worthy once before onboard a KTM RC16. The difference here is the Ducati GP22 ended the 2022 season as the world championship-winning bike — piloted by Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia — the first time in 50 years an Italian has won the title on an Italian machine. It also was Ducati’s second title since 2007, four years after the Bologna factory entered MotoGP competition. Here’s Crafar’s literal “seat-of-the-pants” account of the GP22:
I’ve known Ducati Corse directors Paolo Ciabatti and Davide Tardozzi for decades. Tardozzi was one of the original World Superbike heroes in the late 1980s. When I became a WorldSBK rider, he was a team manager for racers against whom I competed. During those same years, Ciabatti was working at the highest levels for the series organizers.
I suppose Ciabatti and Tardozzi’s first-hand knowledge of my international racing experience, together with their understanding of what a former top-level rider appreciates, inspired them in their current capacities within Ducati to ask Michelin’s Piero Taramasso for a set of the latest MotoGP-spec slick tires for my GP22 track experience.
Michelin slicks are strictly allocated within the MotoGP paddock. To function correctly, they must remain within a specific temperature window. In my experience, the general rule goes like this: The higher the level of grip achieved by a tire manufacturer, the narrower the operating window.
I wrung everything out of the engine along the front straight and braked for turn 1, where I had picked a marker on the previous lap. I must have been traveling a bit faster than previously because although I was stopping well, I felt the rear wheel lift gently into the air.
I understood the exceptional opportunity Ciabatti, Tardozzi, and Taramasso had arranged for me. I would test what turned out to be the world championship-winning machine on the tires for which its specialized aerodynamics, carbon brakes, chassis geometry, electronics, and suspension were designed. My experience would parallel that of a Ducati factory rider.
I sat in Francesco “Pecco” Bagnaia’s custom chair — red, of course — in the Ducati pit box beside factory test rider Michele Pirro and his crew chief, Marco Palmerini. Ciabatti told me Pirro would lead me around some laps and then let me in front for some laps.
“Three behind and three in front?” I asked.
If I had raced the Misano World Circuit–Marco Simoncelli in the current clockwise direction, I would have suggested fewer laps behind Pirro, but I wasn’t confident I could quickly figure out the two decreasing-speed right-hand corners after the fast right at the end of the back straightaway, which, for me, don’t flow naturally in that direction.
All MotoGP machines sound beautiful to me, but the Ducati possesses my favorite exhaust note of all those elite machines.The baritone growl literally makes the hair on my arms and on my neck stand on end with excitement. After the mechanics warmed the engine, I pulled on my helmet and gloves. It was time for me to ride.
Remembering my first modern MotoGP riding experience on the KTM RC16, I avoided the low engine rpm that I normally use to be nice to the clutch when taking off on a production motorcycle. MotoGP engines are designed to be most efficient in the rpm ranges used in the practice sessions and races.
In fact, these engines simply don’t want to run at lower rpm. They judder and “bunny hop,” making similar sounds to what you hear when the pitlane speed limiters are employed. I had spent time at races in my role as a TV commentator studying MotoGP riders leaving their garages, so I knew a slightly higher rpm is necessary to avoid looking like a complete novice.
I nailed the take off and might have felt pleased with myself if I wasn’t so busy thinking that I had just experienced the most perfect clutch feel of my life. As I motored down pitlane, I lightly dragged and gently pumped the front brake lever as Pirro was doing ahead of me to build temperature in the brakes while taking care not to add any lean angle.
This is no joke. Brembo’s carbon brakes do not perform well when cold. The first pull of the lever gives no result, which is very unnerving if you do not expect it or have somehow forgotten. Once the brakes reach working temperature, however, stopping power increases suddenly. You must be prepared for that aspect of their design, as well.
As we left pitlane, I got my first taste of the immediate throttle connection, breathtaking acceleration, and wonderful seamless gearbox. At this point, however, my immediate focus was on feeling the tires through the throttle and the suspension. A great deal of faith had been placed in me, and crashing this incredible piece of machinery was not an option.
Next thing I noticed was how responsive the bike was to inputs. It wasn’t twitchy. In fact, it was quite the opposite: stable, but also responsive. That wasn’t something I had felt previously; most setups usually create one or the other, not both. When I pushed on the inside handlebar, the GP22 tipped in willingly, at least at the relatively low speeds I was traveling.
Leaned over, the Ducati didn’t require further input to hold a line. I dislike setups or tire profiles that require more muscle to keep the bike on its side. This takes concentration and energy needed for other things, like feeling the limits of grip. I was far from that precipice, but it was nice to be riding such a neutral-handling machine while taking small, hesitant steps toward the edge.
Exiting turn 6 onto the straight was the first time I clearly felt the throttle connection — power delivery wide open through the full rpm range, stability under acceleration, front tire contact and wheelie, gearbox action, rear suspension movement, and tire grip. Professional riders learn to notice and remember these things from the very first lap on a new machine.
All this feedback elevated my confidence. Ambient temperature was 35 degrees Celsius and track temperature was even higher, so keeping heat in the tires was of little concern. Handlebar and footpeg position — everything on the motorcycle, in fact — felt comfortable, and my excitement grew, taking me back to my racing days, as I accelerated toward turn 8.
I was cautious mid turn — that is where I knew I could get caught out — but opening the gas and pulling on brakes while relatively upright, I felt confident to push with low risk, so push I did. The brakes on the Ducati did not surprise me; I raced with carbon brakes in the 1990s on two-stroke 500s. The latest-generation carbons heat up easier and faster, making them safer.
I knew the Ducati GP22 was going to be good but I did not expect it to be that good. It is the first motorcycle I have ever ridden on a race track that I did not want to change a single thing.
My Turn To Fly On The Ducati GP22
The next moment Pirro was waving me past with a completely clear track ahead. I wrung everything out of the engine along the front straight and braked for turn 1, where I had picked a marker on the previous lap. I must have been traveling a bit faster than previously because although I was stopping well, I felt the rear wheel lift gently into the air.
What happened next was completely unexpected. While off the ground, the wheel stayed perfectly in line and came down gently as I reduced brake pressure. When the tire made contact with the track, it did so more smoothly than I have ever experienced. Wheel speed was perfectly matched to the speed of the bike. I felt no change — no sliding or stepping out.
That meant I could then push on the right handlebar to enter the turn on the line I wanted while using the same front brake pressure. How the hell had the bike done that?! I had not used the clutch to match the rear-wheel speed while braking, the bike had done it by itself. Or a Ducati engineer had told it to do so.
I grew up riding Superbikes with conventional clutches. Slipper clutches arrived in the mid-1990s, but still I used the clutch to precisely match wheel speed and engine braking with ever-changing grip. What I am saying is, I am good at matching rear-wheel speed with one finger on the clutch, but this bike did it better than I had ever managed.
Electronics of the Ducati GP22
No other motorcycle I have ever ridden has acted this way under those conditions. No matter the manufacturer, the year, or the price tag, they had all swung around and/or backed into the corner while I was hard on the brakes and going down through the gears. Unless, that is, the electronics were adjustable and had been set to “no engine brake,” which I don’t like.
Turn 3 at Misano forces the rider to accelerate at big lean angles. It is possible to change lines and reduce lean angle, but in the end, it is largely unavoidable. This is where I felt how the Ducati electronics were working, as I wasn’t confident or fast enough on the rest of the corner exits, and even this one I was a bit hit or miss.
After an entire career racing without electronic rider aids I absolutely hate to feel the bike slowing down when I am opening the throttle. Wheelie control on most stock bikes makes me angry, so I turn it off. If traction control is too intrusive, I set it to minimum, but TC does help keep riders — and racers — safe.
The dream balance is when you don’t notice any intervention, the electronics letting you feel the rear tire move and believe that you are in control but always lurking around ready to save you if you get it wrong. This is how the GP22 felt the couple of times I got close to nailing a corner exit. The bike kept going forward, allowing me to feel as if I were the boss.
I felt the turning capability of the Ducati chassis in turn 8. The corner entry did not expose my weak point, quickly getting to big lean angles. I had been staying on the brakes too long and reducing speed too much because I was afraid to put my faith in the front tire. This was the best front tire I had ever used, but throwing the most expensive bike I have ever ridden on its side at very high speeds takes more than six laps to muster.
I braked hard in a straight line, continued braking toward the apex, and in a slow transition, gradually reduced pressure and leaned in. I released the brake to enter the corner still carrying some speed and felt that the bike wanted to turn. I had expected less turning for such a long-looking V-4, but the bike was good in this area, too.
I headed down to the tricky right-hand corner that leads onto the back straight. Again, being a chicken, I was slow mid turn and rpm dropped out of the range where valve timing is correct and the aforementioned stutter momentarily replaced the otherwise perfect engine feel. Two seconds later, it pulled out of that range and was ready to go, just in time for the exit.
Smooth Is Fast
I stood the bike up a little more, opened the throttle, and I was off like a shot, racing through the gears. It was then I realized that more than fast, the engine felt incredibly smooth. The delivery was so smooth all the way through the rev range that it didn’t feel superfast. I know that sounds ridiculous because the engine is superfast.
Because we perceive changes in acceleration more clearly than acceleration itself, the power delivery on the GP22 must be so linear that my brain thought we were not accelerating as fast as we were. At the end of the straight in sixth gear, approaching the fastest turn on the circuit, I felt surprisingly confident, testament to the accuracy and stability of this incredible machine.
I used my decades of knowledge tackling fast turns, and the bike responded. Once through the corner, however, I was lost. I didn’t know whether to brake or stay in the throttle, so I just rolled through the next two corners. I wasn’t much better going into or through the tight right hander; it has a few bumps, and I was afraid they would catch me out.
I felt okay in the last two left handers, but I had a big smile on my face as I accelerated out of the final corner to complete the lap. Five laps in, I was tired and afraid of making a mistake. I did the sixth lap while struggling to do the voiceover for a video. On the in-lap, I was huffing and puffing but absolutely buzzing from the experience.
I knew the Ducati GP22 was going to be good but I did not expect it to be that good. It is the first motorcycle I have ever ridden on a race track that I did not want to change a single thing. It was better than me in every area — a true masterpiece. Back in pitlane, I hugged Pirro, thanked him, and apologized for being lost on certain parts of the circuit.
Pirro replied that I had done a 1-minute, 35-second lap and that he would happily sign up now for a 1:35 at 53 years of age. I imagined he was just being kind to a very happy ex-rider, but I secretly hope he meant it. All I could think at the time was, “Once I get my breath back, I would love another run on this GP22.”