Updated with quotes from Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall'Igna, speaking on Friday evening at Sepang.
It's official. Ducati has broken ranks with Honda and Yamaha by switching all of its MotoGP entries from the Factory to Open class for 2014.
Ducati Team riders Cal Crutchlow and Andrea Dovizioso, plus Pramac's Andrea Iannone, had been provisionally listed as remaining in the 'elite' Factory class - but will now join Iannone's team-mate Yonny Hernandez in running under the new Open rules.
Despite differences in fuel limits, rear tyres, engine changes, engine development and ECU software, Factory and Open class competitors will fight for the same world championship titles.
The long-rumoured move was announced to the Sepang media by new Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall'Igna at the end of the second pre-season test, which coincides with the deadline for submitting Factory or Open class entries.
“The most important reason is the freedom that we have with the Open solution. It is what Ducati need to develop the bike in 2014,” began Dall'Igna.
“We did quite well in these two tests. I'm really happy with the results today. It was quite good, but not enough.
“We have to develop the bike and the freedom we have with the Open solution is, I think, one of the key points to see Ducati on the podium in the future.”
Dovizioso finished this week's Sepang test in a close third place, just 0.068s from joint leaders Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa whilst using the Factory software. New signing Crutchlow was eighth on the timesheets (+0.791s), also setting his best lap with the Factory software.
Ducati said Dovizioso's best lap was a few tenths slower on the Open bike, while Crutchlow said he had managed a 'very similar' lap time to his Factory best. However no Ducati riders used the softer compound rear tyre available only to the Open class - and, according to Dall'Igna, probably won't do so until the opening round in Qatar.
Had Dovizioso used that tyre it is safe to assume he would probably have been fastest at Sepang. It is unknown if the softer Open tyre will last a race distance, but it should certainly help Ducati be serious contenders for pole positions this year.
From Dall'Igna's comments, the crucial factor pulling Ducati to the Open class was the new Factory class engine freeze.
Without a podium last year and seeking to end a three-year winless streak, being locked-in to running the same engine design all season would have severely handcuffed their hopes of closing the gap to the front.
Meanwhile the only technical differences between the Factory and Open class versions of the 2014 Desmosedici are the control ECU software and a larger fuel tank.
The new Open category is an evolution of the previous privateer CRT class, with Ducati's shock switch possible due to the removal of the former 'claiming rule', which meant entries to the class risked having their machinery obtained by a rival.
The claiming rule was dropped to encourage the three official manufacturers to offer competitive MotoGP machinery to independent teams in what had been a grid-boosting lower class.
But intentionally or not, the more relaxed Open rules have cleared the way for full specification prototypes - albeit fitted with the new control ECU software - whilst offering an even greater range of performance perks relative to Factory status than were available under CRT.
Open riders will have four litres more fuel per race than Factory riders (CRTs had three litres more fuel), twelve rather than five engine changes during the season, the softer specification rear tyre and will be immune from the in-season engine development freeze.
Both classes must run the same ECU hardware, with the main performance benefit of Factory status being continued use of each manufacturer's own, more advanced, ECU software. But that was not enough to prevent Ducati breaking ranks.
Dall'Igna - architect of the CRT-dominating Aprilia ART bike - appears to have looked at the new rules with an 'open' mind and selected the option that he feels offers the best chance of success, regardless of the political implications.
The big question now is whether - or more likely when - the Open fuel and engine benefits will out-weigh the disadvantage of the standard ECU software.
“It's really difficult to tell you [the size of the disadvantage with the standard software] because we spent most of the test developing the bike,” said Dall'Igna. “For sure the set-up is not perfect and we have to work on that but I think we can find a good balance from the advantage and disadvantage of the Open.”
The Open software has already received a major upgrade
for this week's test - although the changes were so big that it could not yet be used by the teams - and with Magneti-Marelli having built Ducati's Factory ECU, it is not hard to imagine that Ducati will be pushing for much if not all of their Factory software to be transferred to the Open ECU.
“We will ask for some things to Dorna, because I think we have to develop the software, but this is normal,” said Dall'Igna of the ECU. “So I will ask for some things and if it is reasonable I think that Magneti-Marelli and Dorna will follow us in this direction.”
This input should benefit all Open class riders (barring anything unique to the Desmosedici) since Open software is shared - a sacrifice Dall'Igna is happy to make: “For sure.”
The response from Honda and Yamaha to Ducati's decision is yet to be heard and it remains to be seen what Ducati's move means for its membership of the MSMA (Manufacturers Association). The MSMA has a place on the rule-making Grand Prix Commission alongside Dorna, FIM and IRTA (Teams' Association).
“We took the decision today so I haven't spoken to anybody else,” said Dall'Igna. “I think they [Honda and Yamaha] can understand and we don't want to create a problem with anybody. We need to develop the bike. That's it.”
The decision may also cause Suzuki, due to return to MotoGP in 2015, to think carefully about which class it wants to race in - especially having previously struggled for success under Factory rules.
While most believe the Open ECU will eventually become mandatory throughout the grid, Honda has warned it would leave MotoGP if it cannot continue software development - an area it regards as vital for future road motorcycles.
Reports that Ducati were considering the shock Open move first surfaced from Italy in early January, but it wasn't until Thursday at Sepang - the fifth day of pre-season testing - that Dovizioso and Iannone confirmed their debut on the Open software.
Comparisons between the two machines then continued today (Friday), when new signing Crutchlow made his first confirmed Open laps.
While Ducati emphasised that the ability to develop the bike is the main factor behind its Open decision, Aleix Espargaro's stunning form on the new Forward Yamaha surely helped convince any doubters.
Espargaro was a leading contender throughout the six days in Malaysia, setting the fourth fastest lap at both tests. The Spaniard was only 0.102s from the top at the end of this week's final outing.
The Ducatis will run exclusively in Open spec from next week's final pre-season test for the manufacturer teams, at Phillip Island.