Nicky Hayden talks Rossi and Ducati

The Kentucky Kid isn’t fazed by all the attention on the nine-time World Champion, as he’s been in this position before

at Wrooom 2011 in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011.Henny Ray Abrams
at Wrooom 2011 in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011.Henny Ray Abrams
at Wrooom 2011 in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011.Henny Ray Abrams

MADONNA DI CAMPIGLIO, ITALY, JAN 11 – You could forgive Ducati Marlboro’s Nicky Hayden if he felt a little ignored by the world’s media at the annual team intro in the Italian Dolomites. This is Valentino Rossi’s homecoming.

Nearly half the questions asked of Hayden in this morning’s press conference were about Rossi, who was to speak just after. One reporter even apologized for asking a question about the nine-time world champion. And when Rossi slipped into the congress hall auditorium, well into Hayden’s press conference, the photographers stopped focusing on Hayden, almost in unison, to shoot pictures of Rossi, who took a seat between team manager Vitto Guareschi and Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio.

Hayden flashed a wry smile when Rossi stole some of his thunder, but it didn’t rattle him. Very little does. As he’s often said in the past, these guys will have to go a long way to test his resolve as much as it was tested during his years of dirt tracking.

The first Rossi question was whether the changes Rossi made would adversely impact him. That questioner may not have been aware that Hayden has been repeatedly asked that question since Rossi’s possible move to Ducati first surfaced early in the year. So he was able to bat it back without breaking a sweat.

“Not too much,” he said. “For the most part from what I know so far, a lot of his comments are very similar to what I think. In some ways, I’m looking forward to having his information and feedback. He’s been around a long time with a lot of experience. He is no fool and he knows what he is doing, so hopefully his experience and his team can help make our bike better.

“When I was in Bologna last month his guys were building the bikes and the relationship between his team and my team looked pretty good. I look forward to having his input, but we will see how things go as it moves on. He will want some changes, but for the most part I see it as a positive.”

Hayden’s and Rossi’s riding styles are much more similar than Stoner’s and Hayden’s, or Stoner’s and anyone else’s, for that matter. As Rossi would later point out of Stoner’s approach—“Let’s say his style is a bit special”—is unique, but it works for him. The Australian is generally considered the fastest rider in MotoGP, but he’s lacked the consistency to be a championship contender. The problem this year was a number of front-end crashes, for both Stoner and Hayden. Making the Desmosedici more consistent over the course of the season is the team’s number one job.

The front end, Hayden said, is “one of the places we want to improve. We need to make the front better for feeling. Casey (Stoner) found a few problems and I was on the ground quite a bit last year, more than I think I’ve ever crashed in a season in my life, eleven times. So I’ll try and cut that down a bit.

“We need to understand the front more and have a little bit more of a cushion there so when it is pushing you understand it and it is not too late. Our bike, sometimes we struggle with turning, especially off the brakes. We got some ideas to try in Malaysia to improve front end feeling and feedback, but also to make the bike steer better and turn better with the brake off. A lot of times we struggled in corners last year where we just closed the throttle and didn’t use the front brake to load the front. It didn’t steer so well. That’s one area we need to look at.”

Asked if he was confident he could beat Rossi, Hayden said, “I’m looking forward to it. We have made some changes and again next year a couple of little tweaks by adding some staff and a few engineers to help me. I think I have a strong team around me with good guys and I know the deal to be teammates with Rossi won’t be easy. But really, I don’t get too caught up in that. I got to focus on my job and my side and that’s why I think it will work with me and him. I know he brings a lot when you got a guy who has won as many races as he has. But I don’t really see it fazing my side of the garage too much and I look forward to the challenge.

“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for, but a strong teammate is what you’re measured up against in our sport. I don’t want to get brushed aside over there, so I need to gas it up and stand up and be known. It will be a big challenge for me, but I look forward to it. I think it will be fun and I know our team; the motivation is really high and in Italy the excitement for the fans is really high. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere will be like when we get to Mugello, so I think it is a pretty exciting time for our time.”

Hayden was asked if he’d discussed the bike with Rossi. “We spoke a bit,” he said. Did they run similar settings at Honda. “At that time the Honda, you didn’t change a whole lot, you more or less put gas in it and put tires on it.” Will he be sharing data with Rossi? “We haven’t really spoken about it.” And finally, “Apart from Valentino, who would be your hardest rival?” “Just start at the top; there’s really no slackers in MotoGP. The guy right now is Lorenzo, he’s the guy with the title. But you go down the list, they’re all solid, they’re all players, none of them sleep on nobody, that’s why I love MotoGP. It’s going to be a big challenge this year, I’m not going to single out any hardest rival because they’re all contenders.”