Interview: Paolo Ciabatti opens up on Ducati’s Motocross project

Image: Davide Messora | Interview: Andy McKinstry

After twelve amazing years in the MotoGP paddock, things are now different for Paolo Ciabatti from Ducati as he has took the role of Off Road manager. This means he has started work on the Ducati Motocross project which will see the brand enter the MXGP World Championship in 2025.

We caught up with the popular Italian to discuss his new adventure, plans for Ducati and more. You can listen, watch or read below.

GateDrop: Paolo, We’re here at Maggiore GP. Obviously you were in the MotoGP paddock for 12 years but here you are in the Motocross paddock.  What’s it like being in the paddock? Facilities aren’t quite as good as MotoGP…

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Ciabatti: It’s cool. I mean, Motocross was my first passion when I was a teenager so it’s kind of going back to my roots. I enjoyed a lot what we achieved together with Ducati in Superbike before and then in MotoGP. But I think it was time for a change. At my age, it was either should I retire or get a new challenge. And then, you know, I have a passion still. And this is a new challenge. You know, it’s good. I mean, hopefully we can bring Ducati to success in Motocross as we did in Superbike before and then MotoGP. We know it will take maybe some time but it’s a very interesting project and I’m happy to be part of it.

GateDrop: Like you touched on, after 12 years in MotoGP, a new motivation for you as well as the guys that you have involved in the project… So, it must be very exciting…

Ciabatti: Yeah, it’s very exciting, you know. We managed to put together a group of people, not only are they very skilled engineers, but who also have a great passion for Motocross, to involve Alessandro Lupino first and Tony Cairoli being part of the project. Obviously, they have lots of experience and they are helping us to really develop the bike in the best possible way. So I think for the moment it’s fun. Now it’s also time to choose riders for MXGP next year. Not so easy because most of the top riders already have a contract but we’ll try to do our best.

GateDrop: Obviously no team here this weekend, but next year from round one you’ll be present. You must be really looking forward to that, having a team in this paddock…

Ciabatti: Yeah, I mean, it was a target, as we already announced last year, the Italian Championship is probably one of the best ways to develop the bike in racing trim and this is what we’re doing. Actually, we spent the last three races working on the standard bike so to freeze the specification of a bike that is going to be produced in around spring next year. From now on we will work on the prototype and the racing version.

Image: Davide Messora

GateDrop: Before coming into the Italian Championship at the start of this season, what was the winter like working with Lupino, Caroli, Maddii Racing on the new bike? You’ve done a very good job keeping it a secret and keeping it out of the media…

Ciabatti: No, it was good. Actually, the first time we had Lupino and Caroli on the bike was the 1st of December. Actually, we were in Sicily doing some tests with Pirelli and the first impression was very positive. So you never know because it was the first time that two proven riders would be on our bike. I was very curious and maybe a little bit worried about the first comments. But the first comments were very positive. So I think it was a good start of this new adventure together with them. And we’re very happy.

GateDrop: With Alessandro Lupino, you probably couldn’t have picked a better rider to develop the bike. Because he’s raced many, many brands. And even better, he developed the new Beta bike recently.  What’s it been like working with him in the Italian Championship? I think he had an injury, maybe at the second round. But a good start in a few more races and a bad start in a few races so that’s good for the data.

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Ciabatti: Yeah, I mean, it’s good. As I said, Alessandro has so much experience with many different brands. He’s also a very nice person to work with. Very humble, very available to do racing and development. Some riders, they only like racing. So, the development sometimes brings where you just don’t like necessarily what you’re doing. But it’s needed and he’s always available for that. Obviously, we had a very good beginning because we won the first moto in Mantova. Then we worked with him on the starts. So together with him in Cairoli and in Montevarchi. The last race was quite successful. He was on the holeshot in both races so we improved that with him. We are working also on the bike and on the clutch. Well, we are still contenders for the Italian Championship but it’s not our main target. But obviously, it will be the icing on the cake if we can be Italian Champion in the first year of our racing activity.

GateDrop: Antonio Cairoli, what’s it been like working with him, with his development? He hasn’t raced yet. I believe he might be racing the Italian Championship next weekend (note: this interview was done before the Italian championship at the weekend)?

Ciabatti: I think it’s going to be good news for the fans. Because obviously seeing Tony back in racing mode and on the Ducati, it’s probably a big thing. At least it’s a big thing for Ducati fans and for us if it happens. So, I mean, what can you say? Having a nine-time world champion joining us on this new project. It means a lot for him. It means a lot for us. It means a lot for the Ducati fans. Because maybe people would not expect Tony to leave his previous manufacturer and join this project. But, you know, there are a lot of values in common that we have. Obviously, we are very proud to be Italian. To be able to bring possibly to help bring Ducati to success. Also in a very different field from what we’re used to race.

GateDrop: This year, do you think there’s any chance we might see Cairoli and Lupino maybe do one or two MXGP’s? I have to say, when I booked my flights for this GP, I was hoping they’d be here… But obviously not yet…

Ciabatti: Never say never, obviously. I think the main target is now to develop a bike with racing features. As I said, the first three rounds (of the Italian Championship) we were working basically on the standard bike. Standard suspension, standard engine. Just to freeze the development for the production.

And now, from now on, we will work more on the racing side of it. Showa will bring factory suspensions early July. So from then onward, we can really start to do some tests in full racing mode. From there, we will see. Obviously, I think it would be very good for the fans and for Motocross and for MXGP in general if we can do that. But we will only do it if we think we’re ready.

GateDrop: Just on MXGP next year. Obviously, when it comes to MotoGP, the Ducati guys have a mega big budget. Any ideas on the budget for next year yet for MXGP? And have you thought about how many riders you might have? Is the plan to focus on one rider or maybe have two?

Ciabatti: Two riders and that’s it. Obviously, we are normally quite good on getting support from our sponsors. But we don’t have a mega budget for this. Obviously, the budget will come eventually later when the bike will be on the market successfully. Then from the sales, we will also be able to fund maybe an extended program. But for next year, it’s going to be two riders and they will be racing in MXGP.

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Image: Maddii Racing

GateDrop: The 250cc project, I believe, is going to begin next year also with the Italian Championship. Is the idea for Lupino and Cairoli to develop that bike? Would you maybe consider signing a young rider for the Italian Championship who could maybe race EMX as they probably won’t be ready for MX2 but EMX is still quite good for the exposure…

Ciabatti: At the moment, because it’s going to be another new project, we think we will go ahead with Alessandro (Lupino) mainly in racing. Even though it will be exciting to have a young rider. But, you know, a new bike always needs some help from a rider who knows that eventually there might be some technical problems at the beginning. Hopefully not, but it can happen when you’re developing a bike. So I don’t think we’re ready next year to put any young rider because we need more to gain experience then to go for the results.

GateDrop: I think you were in America for a round or two of the AMA Supercross. How was your experience of that and what’s the idea for the project in America?

Ciabatti: Supercross is a great event. Obviously, it’s attracting so many spectators. It’s a big, big show, obviously, on one side. On the other side, it’s quite different from motocross. So you need specific development and you need huge budgets because the logistics are quite expensive and also the riders’ salaries are quite high. So we have a plan to enter in Supercross. We’re still wondering when it would be appropriate for us to do so because if we do it, we need to do it in a proper way. And as I said, budgets are a kind of concern at the moment. We are confident we can raise the money needed to make it happen in the Ducati way… But whether it’s 2026 or 2027, we’ve still not decided.

GateDrop: You’ve obviously had a very big influence in the MXGP project. Is the idea, once the MXGP kicks off and gets on its feet, will you spend a lot of time in America then or will you be back and forth between MXGP and America?

Ciabatti: Too early to say. Obviously, America is also the largest market for off-road motorcycles. So for sure, we will have to pay extra attention to the U.S. market and U.S. racing because being successful there, not only racing, but also selling the bikes is going to be vital for the success of this project. So we will decide. Hopefully, health is helping me to stay fit for another few years. And I love the U.S., so why not?