Josh Hayes finished a spectacular seventh in his MotoGP debut at the season-ending Spanish Grand Prix. The 36-year-old American completed the 30-lap race just half a minute behind winner Casey Stoner and second-place Ben Spies. Stoner’s Repsol Honda teammate, Andrea Dovizioso, rounded out the podium.
A replacement for Tech 3 Yamaha regular Colin Edwards, injured two weeks ago at the Malaysian GP, Hayes showed steady progress throughout the weekend. He even topped the timing sheets in Sunday morning warm-up.
“The session started off wet,” explained Hayes, “but it was drying quickly. I had roasted a set of rain tires—blown ’em up so bad that I couldn’t ride on them anymore. When I came rolling down pit lane, the guys had a ‘dry’ bike ready for me with my slick tires from qualifying. I needed all of the experience I could get, so I rolled back out with 5 minutes to go. I got two flying laps.”
Spies was the last Tech 3 rider, at Indianapolis in 2010, to lead a practice session. “I had good timing,” admitted Hayes. “All of the guys were quite excited.”
Prior to the race, 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz fired up the San Carlo Honda Gresini RC212V of Marco Simoncelli and led all of the 125, Moto2 and MotoGP riders on a tribute lap to the fallen Italian. The entire paddock then congregated at the start/finish line to watch a fireworks display.
“I never met Marco,” said Hayes. “But I felt like I lost a brother. I’ve lost more friends than I would have cared to have lost in the last 17 years as a motorcycle racer. I understood. You could see it on the faces of all the competitors.”
The race was full of drama, too. At the start, Rizla Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista crashed entering Turn 1, knocking down the Ducatis of Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden and Randy de Puniet. Hayes’ biggest problem? He couldn’t hear his motorcycle. “Being last on the grid, I had a lot of exhaust pipes pointed straight at me. I got the clutch out way too fast and bogged the engine. So, I got a terrible start and was dead-last into Turn 1.”
Stoner sped away, leaving Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa to battle with Spies. Hayes picked up two spots on the first lap then spent the majority of the race trading blows with Yamaha test rider Katsuyuki Nakasuga, who was subbing for injured Jorge Lorenzo.
“Nakasugo was a lot more consistent than I was,” admitted Hayes. “I was still learning the track during the race. He was aggressive, and our lines intersected pretty badly in a lot of areas. Not knowing the limits of the machine, I put myself in a couple of silly spots. I was thinking, ‘Uh, oh, can I get out of this?’
“Mind you, it was drizzling the entire race. It got better then worse at times on different parts of the track.”
With a handful of laps remaining, conditions really went downhill. “When that happened,” said Hayes, “[Toni] Elias just stopped riding. [Loris] Capirossi did the same thing. They either had major problems or just gave up. We caught them really fast, within two laps.”
Then, Czech rookie Karel Abraham crashed, gifting Hayes with another position.
Watching from the television-commentary booth, Lorenzo said about Hayes, “These bikes are very, very sensitive. You must be very prepared to be competitive. He’s doing well.”
Ironically, Hayes was not in peak mental or physical condition. “I wasn’t prepared to ride,” he said. “I took quite a break—seven weeks—after the AMA season ended. I did three days of testing on our SuperBike and played a little bit of tennis. Otherwise, I relaxed, something I haven’t done in six years.
“I knew that I was going to test the Yamaha, but I didn’t think I was going to do a 30-lap race! Physically, I was still squeezing the brake well. I could still muscle the bike from side-to-side. But with all of the changing conditions and figuring out the race, my focus just wasn’t quite there when I needed it to be with six or seven laps to go.”
Still, Hayes is happy with the progress he made this weekend. His fastest race lap was just seven tenths of a second slower than that of his teammate, Cal Crutchlow. “I didn’t take many chances,” he said. “I used common sense. I knew how much it would hurt me to fall down and lose track time. I can’t learn anything from the gravel trap.
“I am overwhelmed by the support that I’ve gotten this weekend. The team was incredibly gracious. They took me seriously. They were head-down, moving forward and made big changes to the motorcycle trying to make me happy.
“Doing well here helps legitimize the AMA series. It’s a good series, and I wanted to show that Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden and Ben Spies are not the only American riders worth anything that came out of the U.S. I’m just thankful that I got the opportunity.”