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GP Week : Issue 63
THE Ducati Conundrum has been thrown into ever-sharper focus by the absence of Casey Stoner -- the one man who (instinctively, it seems) knows how to turn the red Desmosedici V4 into a race- winning missile. People seem to forget that Loris Capirossi had seven wins on the Duke when it was still 990cc. And that Alex Barros and Sete Gibernau had a couple of strong runs. But since the arrival of the even more exacting 800cc GP6 in 2006, only Stoner has been able to get it to the front end, and he has done so often: 18 times in 46 races, and on the rostrum for many of the rest. The first and most prominent victim was Marco Melandri, a winner-turned-sinner as he lurked moodily at the back. The bike hated him, and he felt just the same. He left a year early by mutual consent: jobless 2006 champion Nicky Hayden stepped up to take the challenge. It has been a true test of character, starting out with a nasty crash at the first round, and with Hayden battling even to get into the top ten. It is pleasing to record that as the season runs into its second half there has been a significant improvement to Nicky's result, including a heartening rostrum at Indy, close to his old Kentucky home. Another case history in the Pramac satellite team: Mika Kallio joined the class, and immediately started to impress. As the season wore on, he struggled more. But he too has gained strength again, showing well on the factory bike while substituting for Stoner. And another: Aleix Espargaro -- only known so far as a spirited but currently unemployed 250 rider -- has shown it's possible to get right on and ride aggressively: his impressive second run at Misano yielded fifth-fastest lap, though he faded at the end. It is clear that something has happened to the bike, and Nicky Hayden confirms that he has made a step forward since the German GP. Earlier in the season he had consistently complained of the bike's inconsistency: "It feels different lap by lap, corner to corner." In Germany he spoke of a more responsive bike, that he was beginning to be able to ride the way he wanted to. The changes seemed too simple to make so much difference: "It's my seat -- tilted up a little and 25mm higher. And the bars are 10mm higher, and a bit wider." Surely there had to have been some electronic wizardry as well? Well some, yes, but not really very much, as Ducati Corse's revered engineering chief Filippo Preziosi explained, in some detail at Misano. Raising the rider even by such a subtle amount had changed the weight distribution, and especially the weight transfer front-to-rear during acceleration and braking, enough for at least a small transformation. "The main goal is to have better driveability, because we realised we had a problem," explained the engineer. The bike is able to be fast, and the physics do not make an exception for Nicky Hayden and Stoner's temporary replacement Mika Kallio at the San Marino GP 36