Nicky Hayden takes a quick look back on MotoGP career

Although the World Superbike racer has closed the door on his years on MotoGP, Hayden talks about his most memorable moments from Grand Prix

nicky hayden looks back on motogp career

Nicky Hayden is now history in the history of GP. After 13 seasons, 216 GPs and an FIM MotoGP World Championship diploma hanging on his house walls, the American rider will switch from MotoGP to World Superbike.

When a 21-year-old Hayden entered the MotoGP series in 2003, he arrived with the label of being the most talented American rider of the last decade. Two AMA championships as an American Honda rider opened up Team Repsol Honda’s doors, then easily the most powerful team in the MotoGP paddock. And he soon discovered that it was basically out of the frying pan and into the fire at his first race.

“That step was harder than I thought that gonna be”, remembered Hayden when asked about his feelings at his very first GP in Suzuka, Japan. “New bikes, new tires, new culture, but…man, the competition! You expect to be near the front and you get impressed by how fast the guys down the grid are; and that was a big shock.”

Nicky finished his first ever MotoGP race seventh, almost 30 seconds behind the winner, being the last of the Hondas to cross the checkered flag. It was a result he was not able to improve until eight races later, when, in Germany, he crossed the finish line in fifth. Step by step, Hayden got the rhythm of the championship, ending the season with two podium finishes and showing that he deserved the privilege of having been chosen as one of the HRC team riders.

nicky hayden reflects on motogp career
Although many in World Superbike, including many competitors, have high expectations for Hayden in his maiden year in the WSBK series, the Kentucky native knows that a MotoGP career won't guarantee anything, and even though he posted a lap in the last Jerez test that would have put him on pole at the last WSBK race there, he knows there's still a lot of work ahead.

“In my first year, I learned so much. It was big step coming from AMA straight to MotoGP. As I just said, the bike was a lot different, the brakes, the tires, the tracks, and the riders. The front guys are fast, but you never realize how fast they’re are going [until you actually race against them].”

In his rookie year in MotoGP, Hayden shared the Repsol pitbox with the series’ dominant rider, Valentino Rossi. But at the end of 2003, very upset with how Honda treated him, the Italian multi-champion made a sensational defection to Honda’s major rival, Yamaha. Ironically, years later both would be teammates once again when Rossi signed with Ducati in 2011 (Hayden had joined Ducati in 2009).

“Yes, we were teammates twice, which sounds crazy; but I’m not sure there will be third time,” jokes Hayden. “Obviously Valentino is special, because of what he has done in this sport. But I had the privilege to be teammates with a lot of fast guys, like Stoner and Pedrosa as well as Rossi, to watch and learn from.”

Fifth at the end of 2003, eight in 2004, and third in 2005, Hayden’s big moment arrived in 2006. At the penultimate race in Estoril, Portugal, he was leading the championship in front of his former teammate Rossi. But a controversial incident happened early on in the race when Hayden was knocked down and out of the race by his own Repsol Honda teammate Dani Pedrosa. In all the years Hayden has spent in World Championship, that was the one time we saw him upset…or, well, maybe it would be more correct to say furious.

nicky hayden jerez world superbike test
In his long and distinguished MotoGP career, Hayden has had the unique opportunity to be teammates with many former World Champions. Valentino Rossi (twice, once at Honda and once at Ducati), Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, Max Biaggi, etc. "I had the privilege to be teammates with a lot of fast watch and learn from.”

Almost with no options, a frustrated Hayden traveled to Valencia for the final round of the season. All of his family: his parents, his two brothers and his sister flew all the way from Kentucky to east Spain to support Hayden. The chances were remote, buy the Hayden clan stood together…and destiny decided to pay back what it had taken from him in Estoril.

“Honestly I really believed that after the crash in Portugal it was completely over…and then I saw that Rossi had crashed. It gave me a lot of hope and from there I believed that it was going to be my season.” Hayden makes a short stop in our conversation. For some seconds it seems he is reviewing these moments in his memory. “You know racing is really unpredictable. I think nobody wins a championship until the last race is finished, but this is the great thing about the sport”.

“Winning the world championship standing on the podium in Valencia, was the best day I experienced in all these years; the feeling was incredible.” Unfortunately 2006 was the peak of Hayden’s passage through the World Championship. “Defending the title was harder than it had been to win it. Of course, I would have liked to win more, but the truth is that a lot of people would be very happy to have got just one title, and that’s what I did.”

In 2009, after two disappointing years, Hayden left Honda and signed with Ducati. Said in another way, he left the almost military organization of HRC to join the Italian way of racing. The ultra-orthodox approach of the Japanese was substituted by the passionate Italian way of understanding and living the racing…and it shocked Hayden.

Juan Martinez, Hayden’s crew chief at Ducati, once talked about the first thing he had to do when the American arrived in the Ducati garage was to make him understand that all these people messing around with the bike he was going to ride a few minutes later was normal.

“It was a different way of working, very different,” Hayden recalled. “And that time, with the carbon chassis, you felt the electronics much more than the Honda, and this gave a different feeling. I remember the first time that I rode in Valencia, it was something completely different compared with what I had ridden before. In the beginning I didn’t have the same feeling and feed back, but the bike improved a lot, specially going to the aluminum chassis, which gave much more feeling. I enjoyed my time in Ducati. I didn’t have the greatest results, but it was fun, and in 2010 I was able to beat Casey (Stoner) a couple of times in qualifying.”

nicky hayden world superbike jerez test
Hayden is one of the racers who leaves MotoGP with the unanimous respect of everyone in the paddock, from the journalists to the teams to the racers themselves. Rossi said upon losing the 2006 World Championship to Hayden, "If it is not me, then I am glad it is him. With Nicky there is not the polemic and s**t that there is with other riders. Nicky's a good guy and a great rider."

The former Kentucky Kid—at 34 years old now, allow me to call him a man—leaves behind 13 seasons in which good and bad memories have shared the years. “MotoGP has changed a lot. The 800cc period was a big change, the electronics changed a lot, the tires…I think MotoGP is in a good place. I think the competition is good, the tracks are safer every time, the bikes are getting more advanced. They are doing a great job and I think the sport is as popular as ever and exciting.”

What Hayden also leaves behind is the unanimous respect of his colleagues and the rest of the people who have shared with him the good and the bad moments. Hayden is one of these rare persons who will walk out the GP paddock without leaving behind any enemy or any person who doesn’t wish him the best in his new adventure. This says a lot about Hayden’s character.

“I got the opportunity to go WSBK with a factory team. Staying with Honda is something that I really want to do, so why not, take that new challenge and see what happens?” Nicky had the chance to do this same move two years ago when Ducati offered him a ride in their WSBK Factory Team. Then, he thought it wasn’t time to leave MotoGP, but looking back at the last two frustrating seasons, maybe he would have been better to accept that offer. “Yeah, you’re probably right. It hasn’t been two great years, but I don’t want to look back. Ducati also offered me a Pramac ride at that time, but 2013 wasn’t a good year for them either.”

WSBK will be a new scenario for Hayden. Some circuits are shared with major MotoGP series; others will be new to him. The script says he will need a run in season and wait Honda introducing in 2017 an all-new bike. “Obviously I am going to WSBK to win, but I need to stay calm, learn life, learn the tires. We know Honda didn’t had a great year; the bike is getting little bit old, but in 2017 I’ll have a new bike.”

“I have a lot of memories, some better than others, but I’m thankful for the great experiences I have had the opportunity to live. I rode on world’s best tracks, with the best bikes and have done and seen more than I could never imagine. Of course, I have some good memories, some bad, but even the bad ones haven’t been too bad.

“Fortunately I have been in a lot of factory teams, and I got to ride good bikes. I really don’t have bad memories maybe compared to other people.

“But that is all in the past, and I’m looking toward the future. It’s a challenge, and it won’t be easy. I have a lot to learn, but I’m looking forward to going in there and making myself known.”