1 month ago | Words: Eric Johnson | Photos: Ducati Media House/Monster Energy

Paolo Ciabatti, General Manager of the new and upstart Ducati Corse Off-Road program, commented on the hiring and inclusion of nine-time FIM Motocross World Champion Tony Cairoli to help oversee and develop the Bologna, Italy-based motor company’s Desmo450 MX motocross bike.

“Tony Cairoli is helping push the bike to the limit,” offered the 66-year-old industry veteran Ciabatti, a significant variable in the calculus of Ducati’s earned 2023 MotoGP and World Superbike World Championships. “Maybe Tony will do some races as well. That has not been decided yet. Tony decided to join the project, and I think that shows that Ducati is taking things seriously. We want to be successful. We know it will take time because we know how long it took for some other manufacturers before they came to success. We know that we can get there, and that’s the target. The main target is developing the bike. There is developing the bike, and on the other side, we know with a rider like Tony, the expectation in racing is that we will be on top or fighting for the top. If it comes with some very good results, it is going to be the perfect situation.”

Enter one Antonio Cairoli. Red Bull KTM Factory Racing Team Manager in 2023, Cairoli, an Italian by nationality, was immediately drawn to the Ducati project, letting it be known in the global motocross media, “I am extremely happy to become part of the universe of Ducati, which has always been a symbol of Italian spirit throughout the world, and to begin this exciting new adventure, in an all-Italian project.”

Taking a break from what has been a lengthy and comprehensive testing period, Cairoli spoke with us from his home in Italy. “After so many years of helping KTM, of course for me, it was nice to have a new opportunity like this because first of all, I have always been a fan of Ducati and I always wished that they had the motocross bike earlier in my career, of course, to help them bring it to the top of the sport. Of course, they arrived with the motocross bike when I was already retired, but the project was really interesting because I had to develop a motocross bike from basically zero. This kind of situation was interesting to me, and that’s why I really take it seriously and try to do my best. Yes, it was very difficult for me to leave KTM because I had such a good relationship with them, and I still have that.

“On the racing side with KTM, I was involved as a Team Manager in 2023, but for me, it was more important to do something more racing-oriented and involving more action because I still enjoy riding and racing,” continued Cairoli. “This is still possible with my physicality at the moment, so I want still to use all of that, and this was a great opportunity with Ducati to have all of this.”

Born and raised to be a future motocross star in Patti, Sicily, Italy, Cairoli was intrigued with the Ducati project the moment he caught wind of it all.

“Of course, I have some friends in the MotoGP world, and the possibility that Ducati might start to make a motocross bike was already starting to spread around a bit, and I was really in touch with Paolo Ciabatti from Ducati,” explained Cairoli of how the Ducati project first got rolling for him. “He knew about my career and was a fan, and when this Ducati motocross news was coming around, I said to him, ‘Is this true? Is Ducati coming with a motocross bike?’ We started talking quite quickly. It was the end of last year. Everything came together quite quickly.”

And like Paolo Ciabatti has made clear all along the way, Cairoli is quite aware that all involved will be basically working off a clean, white sheet of blank paper. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is very difficult to do this. Of course, they are really motivated and of course they know how to build bikes. Motocross is a very different and difficult segment for them, but we have some good engineers, and we have some good riders testing the bike, so I think we will move quickly to the front.

“I’ve ridden the bike some time already, and the bike is very, very good. I mean the first time I rode it I was really surprised with the bike because it was only the second or third time that the bike was on dirt. I said to all of them, ‘Really? This is only the second or third time the bike has been on dirt?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we put the bike on a dyno for quite a bit of time, but never on the track.’ I was very surprised with the bike. It is very nice and very easy to ride. Of course, from here to arrive to be competitive, there is still some work to do, you know? It is a very good place to start.

“I’m completely involved in the development of the bike. We test new stuff and new updates to the motorcycle. Of course, the racing is not really the main part of my plan, at the moment. We’ll continue to develop the bike, and we’ll see how that goes, and then maybe I will do some racing. At the moment that is still far away because we have much work to do to be in front in the moto world. It’s still time to do some work.

“We were testing last week for three days, and now this week we are going to test the next few days. Of course, every time I test, I tell the guys everything, and they go back to the workshop and the factory and prepare the parts. Often times it takes quite a while because everything is still a prototype at the moment.

“You know, for me, this opportunity to go to the Ducati brand is nice, and I really enjoy it. Being a team manager for me came a bit too early. Last year I was manager of the KTM Factory Team, and now it is more riding. I still really enjoy it because I’m still quite fit. I can ride and test, and for me, it is very interesting at the moment. To be a team manager, I will have time later on.

“We are riding a couple of times a week. We have been testing and trying to make the bike ready because Alessandro Lupino, my other teammate and tester for Ducati, has a race next week. We have the first Italian Championship event, and he has to race it. This week and next week, I am trying to set up the bike the best way possible. I’ve been quite busy testing lately. At the moment this is the plan. We are trying to develop the bike for him to be as prepared for this approaching race as possible.”

Still very much a world-class racer at heart, Cairoli pointed out that if all goes well and goes to plan in the early research and development stages, he would very much like to line up behind a starting gate and compete upon the new Ducati this summer.

“If the bike reacts good and we have good response and I am happy enough on it, yeah, for sure I would like to do some racing this year. We don’t know which kind of racing or which races, but I would love to do some racing. When it comes to testing, the best part of it is the racing. That’s a good thing.”

A beloved racer the world over, be it as a competitor or even as just a retired multifold World Champion, Cairoli has been amazed at the positive and enthusiastic reception he’s received from motocross fans from all corners of Planet Earth.

“Yeah, I have gotten so much good feedback from all over the world,” mentioned a very enthused Cairoli. “My fans are really excited about this project. Everybody is really pumped about this. But of course, we need to be realistic and we know it is a completely new bike and we need to be patient and see what we need to do to and what we need to work on to make the best bike possible. For sure it takes time. It is not something quick.”

So can Ducati do well in global motocross and supercross competition?

“Yeah, for sure. I mean Ducati is a brand that goes to win all the time and in every discipline, and for sure we will try our best to make it to the top. The podium is our goal. Whenever we line up for the World Championship, we will go for this. For me and being Italian and having the opportunity to launch this big project for Ducati and its very first motocross bike is fantastic and let’s see what we can do.”

The Grand Old Man.

Meeting Enzo Ferrari Straight out of Modena, Italy, Enzo Anselmo Giuseppe Maria Ferrari was the founder of the Scuderia Ferrari Grand Prix motor racing team, and overlord of the Ferrari automobile marque. Globally known as L’Ingegnere (The Engineer) and Il Grande Vecchio (The Grand Old Man), Ferrari was a man Paolo Ciabatti met along the way.

“I met Enzo Ferrari a few times when I was a student,” smiled Ciabatti. “This was back in 1979 and 1980. A long time ago. I also had the privilege of having lunch with him in a small room they had in the Ristorante Cavallino. There were eight people present and I was there. As you can imagine, I was 20 years old and for me, it was just like, ‘Wow.’ Such an experience, right? Unfortunately, I have no pictures of that because we didn’t have phones and cameras as we have now. In the end that time, and before I left, he gave me one of his books and he signed it for me.”

You just can’t make up a story like that, huh?

“Yes. It also means I’m quite old, but the good things is at least I could meet a lot of people that were my heroes. And at least I had the chance to meet Enzo Ferrari a couple.”

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