It’s hard to believe that American Nick Hayden just completed his 10th season in MotoGP. It seems like only yesterday that The Kentucky Kid celebrated as a rookie with wild, blonde-streaked hair on a MotoGP podium with Repsol Honda teammate Valentino Rossi in 2003.
On the surface, Hayden just finished his most trying year in the premier class in 2012. He failed to stand on the podium during a season for the first time in his MotoGP career, as his best finish was fourth at Sepang.
And in the eyes of some European experts, a year without a trip to the box is a failure. In truth, most of those Euro eyes need LASIK surgery. Hayden persevered to produce arguably the best of his four seasons at Ducati in 2012.
Hayden finished ninth in the standings, 41 points behind teammate Valentino Rossi. But Hayden also missed races at Indianapolis and Brno due to a concussion and broken hand suffered in a vicious, high-side crash in qualifying at Indianapolis.
That injury was a microcosm of Hayden’s season. He was beat up from start to finish, riding hurt nearly the entire trip.
Hayden didn’t participate in the first postseason test of the GP12 in November 2011 at Valencia due to a broken wrist suffered in a pile-up in the 2011 season finale. Just when that injury was mending, Hayden broke his shoulder blade and ribs in a flat-track training crash between Christmas and New Year’s.
He barely won the race to fitness to participate in testing at Sepang but was nowhere near full strength. The string of injuries put an anvil on his back before the season even started.
Hayden’s plight wasn’t helped by the continued problems Ducati suffered with the recalcitrant GP12. But Hayden continued to pound out laps and work on setups with Ducati and Bridgestone engineers as he regained strength through the spring.
Meanwhile, Ducati’s A rider, Rossi, was ensnared in a Venus Flytrap of confusion and apathy as he couldn’t figure out the GP12 after more than a year with Ducati. Rossi was clearly steering development on the Ducati with the entire team waiting on his every word. Unfortunately, he was lost, his crew had no answers and Ducati had no new parts. So where did The Doctor turn for help? Hayden’s setup, which he used at Estoril.
But the trials didn’t end there for Hayden. Your A rider giving up means you need a new B rider, seemingly. Ducati let its contract option on Hayden expire at the end of June, leaving him in limbo for 2013. It appeared a very real possibility that Hayden’s MotoGP career was over and that he might head to World Superbike or back home to take a final slog at a Grand Slam in dirt track.
Hayden – the 2006 MotoGP World Champion – was ignored in early July while Ducati courted and then jilted Cal Crutchlow, who is winless in two MotoGP seasons. Hayden remained in the shadows while Ducati briefly ignored the folly of hiring Scott Redding – who has a whopping one victory in five seasons of 125cc and Moto2 competition.
Then the blind passion of Ducati bosses probably was cooled and corrected by new German paymeisters at Audi once Rossi made it clear he was leaving Ducati Corse to return to Yamaha. Sanity prevailed as Ducati realized it probably wasn’t a shrewd idea to start 2013 on a cranky bike with two new riders, including a MotoGP rookie.
Hayden was asked back to Borgo Panigale, and he agreed to a one-year deal with Ducati for 2013. Then, as they say in the OWB, he just kept on keeping on. Cranking out the laps in practice. Riding at his maximum every session. Keeping his mouth shut while Ducati refused to analyze its repeated failures and celebrate its fleeting successes, like Rossi’s mirage of a dry-weather podium at Misano.
|Hayden was asked back to Borgo Panigale, and he agreed to a one-year deal with Ducati for 2013. Then, as they say in the OWB, he just kept on keeping on. Cranking out the laps in practice. Riding at his maximum every session. Keeping his mouth shut while Ducati refused to analyze its repeated failures and celebrate its fleeting successes, like Rossi’s mirage of a dry-weather podium at Misano.|
While some European media like to point to the end of the podium streak and the final point standings as evidence of Hayden’s supposedly poor season, a performance comparison to Rossi – on the same GP12 as Hayden – probably is the best barometer of success.
Hayden performed better than Rossi in 17 of the 33 qualifying and race sessions in which they were on track together this season. Hayden outqualified Rossi, 11-6. Rossi outraced Hayden, 10-6.
But perhaps most telling is that when Hayden was hurt during qualifying Aug. 20 at Indianapolis, he had outqualified Rossi, 9-2 (including Indy), and was even, 5-5, with The Doctor in race results.
So Nick Hayden didn’t finish on the podium this season. So what?
Arguably the greatest rider in history used his setups as a path from a mechanical wilderness. And one of the three factory teams at the highest level of the sport kept him for another year as its de facto team leader next season alongside MotoGP race winner Andrea Dovizioso, who finished fourth in the World Championship in 2012.