2006 champ Nicky Hayden is the last USA rider left in MotoGP. Now he’s moving to WSB. Is he emotional? Well, just a little bit
e’s been in motoGP for 13 years, his debut coming a year into the 990cc project, back in Suzuka, 2003. Only Valentino Rossi has been here longer. But finally Nicky Hayden is moving to pastures new. Specifically, to the Honda Ten Kate squad in World Superbike.
Nicky, as your time in this paddock comes to an end how are you feeling?
In Japan I was emotional, but I think that’s normal. My childhood dream was to race GPs and win a world championship. Now that’s ending. But I’m also looking forward to the future.
These last two years with the ‘Open’ Honda have been, result-wise, terrible. I could go home and be done but I still like racing – riding motorcycles, working with the team, being around the fans, the thrill of riding on the limit. Why not go to Superbike, try a new challenge?
Were you always interested in Superbike racing?
People sometimes ask me what the best race was that I’ve ever seen. I can remember: Scott Russell’s performance at Daytona in 1995. I had a poster of it hanging on my wall. Actually, I’ve still got the poster.
I followed Superbike closely when I was growing up. Laguna Seca was a huge event when there wasn’t a GP. I always loved the racing there, and I’ve always liked four-strokes.
Some riders struggle to adapt from MotoGP to WSB. What’s the biggest change going to be for you?
The bike, I would say. Just getting used from the GP bike, which is quite stiff. Obviously the tyres are different too. I did some testing at Mugello when I was on the Ducati, though they’ve since changed from 16.5 to 17 inch. But even the half day I spent there wasn’t the big shock that I expected. The bike moved a lot more in a straight line, acceleration, braking, but I’m not creating too many question marks in my head. I just need to go there and try to gel with the team, the bike, the whole thing. Let’s get there and see.
Why have you opted for the Ten Kate team in WSB?
It’s clear the Fireblade is a bit old and it hasn’t proved to be a winner this year, but I’d like to finish my career with Honda. And they have a new bike coming in 2017, which was really appealing. It came together quite easy and it felt like the right place.
Jonathan Rea was at Honda for years before switching to Kawasaki. What’s your impression of the new champ?
He is a big talent – especially some of the things he would do on the Honda compared to whoever else was riding it. He left that bike [the Honda Fireblade] and won the first ten races of the year. He’s had a phenomenal season. But a lot of guys in the last races have been winning.
Is Valencia 2006 still your finest hour?
Winning the world championship was my ultimate goal as a kid. Of course I would have liked to win four or five of them! I hate that the last two years have gone like this, but you don’t always get the ending how you want it. I got the prize I really came for, so that moment with my family and a lot of people that supported me there was a great moment. Still brings back goose bumps.
So the last two years rank among your biggest disappointments?
Yeah, for sure. Last year especially, with the wrist injury, when I thought the whole show might be over. Waking up on race day and thinking, ‘I might get some points’ has been tough. On the other hand I don’t want to think they are ‘struggle days’ because GPs have given me a great life.
There was pressure in that first year  too, because people expected so much. There was so much to learn and adjust to. I remember thinking, ‘I need to get it together quick and gas it up’. HRC, they didn’t want to see their factory bike running around in mid-pack! Luckily I was able to win rookie of the year and beat some qualified riders. I mean there was Bayliss, Edwards and Melandri. There was deep water there.
You mentioned last year’s wrist injury. Have you had to adapt your riding style?
Sometimes in right-hand corners I can’t quite get into position as I once could. But I don’t really notice it.
You’ve shared a garage with some special riders in your time. Which ones stand out in particular?
Casey Stoner, when I went to Ducati. I remember coming home after the first test and telling my brother that he was the fastest guy I’d ever seen. He was like, ‘Really? The fastest ever?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure’. I think this was before some guys realised just how good he was. He had incredible talent for getting to the limit of the bike and tyres in a short amount of time. But also Valentino of course – what he’s still doing at 36. To have that kind of motivation and passion impresses me a lot. I mean, the numbers are astonishing. Both of those guys were the two. Also Dani Pedrosa on the 800 was really fast, especially getting off the corner.
Your departure means there will be no American in any GP class...
I don’t like it. I don’t know what to say, other than we need to give our kids better opportunities. I think now Moto2 and Moto3 is such a good training ground that we perhaps need to push some more. I don’t want to mention names in case I leave someone out but there’s definitely some young talent coming up. Giving the guys some time against real competition is the key. I hope it won’t be long before we see another American. I would think in the next year or two there will be at least someone in some MotoGP class.
Words Neil Morrison Pictures Scott Jones, Gold and Goose