It was a Ducati 1-2 at the top of the charts after the two-day ASBK Test at Phillip Island last week. Wayne Maxwell led the way from DesmoSport Ducati’s defending champion Mike Jones. As the test sessions drew to a close we sat down with DesmoSport Ducati Team Owner Ben Henry for an in-depth discussion about ASBK, and his experience with the Ducati Panigale V4 R.
Originally from Western Australia, where he first started racing and preparing motorcycles, the 38-year-old is now a long-time Queensland resident and runs Cube Performance Centre out of the Gold Coast suburb of Burleigh.
Ben hung up his competitive leathers a few years ago while still able to run a top ten pace in Australian Superbike, all the while managing and running his own team and riders. He then turned his focus to concentrating on his Cube Performance workshop along with expanding Cube Racing. He then went on to develop the DesmoSport Ducati Team in conjunction with Troy Bayliss and the team won the Australian Superbike Championship with Mike Jones in 2019.
Always forthcoming with insightful observations, that are for the most part refreshingly non-partisan, Ben was generous with his time and candid with his thoughts.
Trevor Hedge: What were the most extreme of the challenges you faced in getting the V4 up to the speed of the 1299 V-Twin that Mike raced to great success last year?
Ben Henry: “The biggest challenge is the chassis, getting it to work as well as we had the twin dialled in, the motor – obviously they aren’t the same, but the power isn’t too far different, it’s just dialling in the chassis and probably electronics, that’s currently our patch.”
Trevor: That’s a time consuming process isn’t it?
BH: “Yes it is, it is time consuming. The electronics aren’t that bad, we’re going pretty fast, and Wayne is going pretty quick on his, and that’s all on standard stuff, so it’s clearly not too bad.”
Trevor: Wayne said his team are waiting on an ECU and a few bits and pieces, are you waiting for anything before the start of the season as well?
BH: “In ASBK they’ve homologated the MoTeC ECU for our bike, so we need to get that and make it work. That’s definitely the road they (Wayne Maxwell and his team), are going to go down, and we probably will. We just need to see if it’s better than what we already run.
“I mean it’s hard to argue with what we’ve got when we are running low 32s on it, and Wayne’s just done a 31.7, I mean that’s the fastest lap ever on a domestic superbike around here.
“So it’s hard to say that putting something else on there will be markedly better. We will wait and see what happens.”
Trevor: Do you get much help from Ducati Australia at all?
BH: “They are in a funny spot, NF Importers are theoretically finishing up, Ducati AU/NZ, which is essentially Ducati Italy coming into Australia to run the show, but yes they are helping us.
“It’s basically going to be a better situation once they get here, but while they are not here I’m dealing through Italy, everything has to come through Italy and it’s a little bit slower. But once they get here and have stock here, and a warehouse, it will be much better.”
Trevor: How difficult is it to get the budget for the season and what’s the ballpark figure, without giving too much away, to run Mike in Superbikes and Oli in Supersport.
BH: “It’s really difficult, it’s a strange time, with winning the championship last year you would think things would be easier, but it just didn’t pan out that way. Our major sponsor QBE left straight away – the next day – and our support from within the industry isn’t as strong, because they just don’t have the money. They are not trying to bullshit me, it’s just a different time now for the importers, it’s definitely difficult.
“How much… for a cash figure on top of everything else… you wouldn’t get away with anything less than 350k in cash, that you can spend on whatever you need. But then on top of that the tyres, everything else that goes into it is probably another… bike and parts and all that… it must be another couple of hundred, and then with the stuff we are getting given. It would have to be half a million bucks, it really would.”
Trevor: And that’s with you having your own premises, and not really adding up your time…
BH: “Yea, exactly, I mean I’m not making money out of it, obviously people come to my shop, but it’s a trade-off that’s for sure.”
Trevor: You raced and worked on various models of ZX-10R Kawasaki when you yourself were racing, and the riders on your team through those years were Kawasaki riders, including Mike himself when he won the title in 2015, the year the series was at perhaps its lowest ebb. What’s the main difference working with the Italian bike, on the Ducati, compared to the then more street bike focused Kawasaki and other Japanese machines?
BH: “They are much more basic – the Kawasaki – in short I always said this, if you can see a bolt on a Japanese bike, you can undo it. It’s not like that on a Ducati. Just because you can see a bolt does not mean you’ll be able to undo it.
“But the good thing about Ducati is that they are very, very focused on racing, and if you understand the way they build things, they are quite fast to work on. You pull big sections of the bike off in one hit, and things like that once you understand and think a bit more laterally about how you approach them.
“They are probably faster to work on once you get the hang of them. And notice the little bits here and little bits there, and you basically pull the bike apart in sections.”
Trevor: I’ve heard it’s about a 12 hour operation to fit a full exhaust on the V4…?
BH: “If you didn’t know what you’re doing, then yes, and honestly my toolbox has quadrupled since I started working on Ducati motorcycles, and it’s the tricky little tools, and the odd little thing you’ll make to help you. It has got to the point now where through my shop I am putting exhausts on in about five hours, something like that.”
Trevor: So if a punter turned up at your shop in Queensland, they’d expect to pay five to six hours to get one fitted?
BH: “Yea they would, I always quote eight as that’s what Ducati quote, in case we get into trouble, but generally the punters go home a bit happier.”
Trevor: It’s good you bought up the nuts and bolts, the rear wheel on that Ducati….I see your boys swing off some pretty big bars putting that big wheel nut on, there’s 230 nm of torque or something put on that nut..?
BH: “That’s right, I don’t even tighten it up as much as you’re meant to, as we take it on and off all the time, and it gets too much.”
Trevor: It’s almost horrifying to watch, how much force gets put through the big bar, to put that nut on.
BH: “I can’t remember what it’s called, there’s a basic engineering thing, but if you have a threaded pipe and put a nut on the top of it, and torque that nut, it strengthens the pipe like ten-fold, and that’s why they do it. I can’t remember, it was so long ago that I learnt it.”
Trevor: So it effects the rigidity of the bike?
BH: “Absolutely, when you look at the axle, it’s so thin, the bit the wheel is hanging off is just so thin, and you would think not strong enough, it’s no special metal, there’s no magic there, but it’s the engineering that goes into it. When you do something like that and torque it that tight, the structural strength it gives the axle is incredible.”
Trevor: What are the power and torque figures of the V4 in ASBK race trim, compared to the 1299?
BH: “The 1299 was a little bit stronger…”
Trevor: You’d expect that with a bit more torque..?
BH: “The 1299 was stronger up top, maybe five horsepower up top, just over 220-ish. The V4 is making peak power at 15,800rpm.”
Trevor: Overall, I guess this goes for everyone in Aussie Superbike, that race winners seem to be decided by who can make their back tyre last a race distance. Just how exacting is the suspension set-up required to give your rider the tyre longevity to race for the win in ASBK?
BH: “One mm, a click, half a turn of preload, it’s so so close, but I sometimes think that’s half in the rider’s mind. Put half a turn of preload and is it any different? You’d be doing well to tell. Tyre life is a combination of so many things, if I could put a percentage on it, I think its 70 per cent suspension, 30 per cent electronics, or say 20 per cent electronics, and 10 per cent good tyre management by the rider.
“You could vary those figures sometimes, different riders, some guys just roast the tyre out of it, no matter what you do. Some make tyres last longer, they just have a different technique.”
Trevor: In what specific ways does the machine setup vary between Mike and TB. I would imagine it would be a big difference between the two?
BH: “Honestly, not really, like when Mike rode our bike for the first time – on Troy’s set up – he was immediately fast on it, and there was just little stuff to tweak. Even this one (V4 R), Troy rode this one first, and did his thing, and pretty much from what Troy had to say from all the notes, is very similar to what Mike had to say.
“They do a few little things differently, like gearing, Troy really lets the bike do a lot of work, letting the bike go down and lug from low, but Mike revs them a lot more. If I could pick one thing that’s markedly different, Jones likes it stiffer in the front. They are actually pretty similar, yet they ride nothing like each other.
“They ride different, Troy can use a tyre, Jones is really good at looking after a tyre, everything is so different, but I really believe if Troy rode Jonesy’s set up, he’d be happy. And Jonesy, even when he’s not completely happy has the same thing to say about the bike as Troy.”
Trevor: What’s your expectations for Oli in Supersport this year?
BH: “I think he needs to knuckle down and he could win it. He certainly has the resources around him, and he’s a pretty talented fella when everything clicks for him, then he’s unreal. I’ve seen it happen for him a few times and it’s a bit special, which is nice for him. I reckon he could win it for sure, he has some really good people around him now this year, that should see him in the right direction more often, last year he was just learning, and there was nothing wrong with the team from last year, they were perfectly fine, but he is just trying to learn at 15, and have a crack at it.”
Trevor: What ASBK rules would you change if you could?
BH: **Long pause**
“To be honest, I like it just how it is. It’s quite good, and the proof is in the pudding, as there’s a lot of good riders on all different brands going fast. Really any brand can potentially win here.
“What would I change, currently not much. What I can see happening moving forward in ASBK, I can see a change is coming and I think it will be bad for the sport.
“For instance, the way the electronics side of things is moving forward, if they don’t make an effort to reign that in, we are probably two seasons away from privateers not being able to afford to race to win anything. And currently as it stands, it’s already hard enough for them, like I’ve been there but if they (M.A.) are not careful – and they are not careful – because sometimes *pauses*…. they have the right people, just not quite *pauses*…. it’s hard to say without sounding rough, but they perhaps don’t have enough resources, and they maybe don’t have quite the experience on the latest machinery. People like this, someone like me can manipulate very simply, and they don’t understand what I’m doing to them. And I don’t do it, but I know I can for sure.”
Trevor: So what would you suggest is the answer, going down the line of a control ECU like BSB use or something along those lines?
BH: “It’s nice for everyone to have a race, and you know you have a race in all aspects, I like the tyre war that maybe is going to happen. It’s going to happen, I don’t know who’s going to be best or what yet. I like all the different things that go down, and it is a race.
“It’s nice to race in all aspects of the term, but for sure if they are not careful, very soon I think they will find some of the manufacturers are not going to be that interested in racing in a race that then they can’t win. It just doesn’t make good sense. It’s not good for their brand, doesn’t make good economic sense and that’s why you see people ending up pissing off to do their own thing, that suits them, and that’s just business.
“So that’s a strange way to answer your question. But as it was last year it was much better but what I see happening rolling into this year will open a can of worms.”
Trevor: What is different this year?
BH: *long pause*
“Sort of the progress the electronics are making, in short, and I would say there will be a change as new models roll out, if M.A. aren’t careful, then I think they’ll find people will struggle to continue to compete fairly. At least not throughout a whole year.
“A privateer is not going to be able to turn up and win. Looking at Jonesy at the beginning of last year, as a privateer busting their ass like usual, and he turned up and banged the thing on the box and did the fastest lap here. That’s good, it’s great to see that. We already knew what he was capable of, but that gave us another opportunity to see it again, and then for him to ride our bike. If things move forward the way they eventually will, then you won’t see that again. It’ll be more like a handful of guys, always the same…. that’s what I think.”
The 2020 Mi-Bike ASBK Championship season gets underway in conjunction with the WorldSBK season opener at Phillip Island over the March 1 weekend.
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