Mat Oxley

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Last of the Americans

On November 8 Nicky Hayden rode his 216th and final MotoGP race. Next season he moves across to World Superbikes, motorcycle racing’s version of tin-tops.

Hayden’s departure from MotoGP is significant because for the first time in several decades there won’t be a single American on the grid. Since the late 1970s American riders have played a huge role in Grand Prix racing, with ‘King’ Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts Junior and Hayden winning 15 premier-class titles over 29 years. 

The element that unites these riders is their dirt-track background. From King Kenny’s day until fairly recently, GP bikes had more power than grip, so they had to be ridden sideways. That’s why US (and Australian) dirt-track riders dominated for so long, utilising the throttle skills hard-wired into their brains by years of making the best of low-grip conditions.

In recent years the development of tyres and rider-aid electronics have made those skills largely obsolete. It’s no coincidence that Hayden won his title in the early days of MotoGP electronics, before the men with laptops really took over. “Electronics have been a huge change,” says Hayden, who came to MotoGP in 2003. “Not just from year to year – they get more advanced every season. At first you changed the mapping for third gear and that was for the whole track, now it’s sector by sector, corner by corner, braking zone, acceleration zone, you name it…”

Hayden’s MotoGP statistics don’t make the best reading: 216 races and three wins. But all that matters is that two of those wins contributed to him winning the 2006 title. That year Hayden rode a Honda RC213V, one of the greatest race bikes of all time.

“That V5 was incredible, it really was. It fitted me very well: a lot of torque, a lot of power and not too many electronics, so it was quite sideways. I felt comfortable on that bike with the throttle right there, because you could control everything and ride around any problems; it was a real fun bike.”

Immediately after Hayden’s title win MotoGP switched from 990cc engines to 800s, which were all revs and electronics. It became more difficult for riders to make the difference and sideways was no longer the way forward. He struggled for two years on Honda’s below-par V4 and for five years on Ducati’s scary Desmosedici.

“The Ducati gave you no warning,” he says. “You’d be feeling good, thinking, ‘Wow, I can go faster’ and then you were down with no warning. The window on set-up was tight; if you missed it the bike was really bad.”

Throughout those dark days Hayden remained a proper Southern gent, always polite and decent. The frustration was always there, however, and would sometimes bubble up during his media debriefs; lips quivering, eyes welling with tears. “Racing means a lot to me,” he says. “It isn’t just a hobby.”

When Rossi joined Ducati in 2011 the pair became team-mates again – they had been together at Repsol Honda in Hayden’s rookie year – and the Italian’s megastar status began to have an effect, although too late to get either of them to the front.

“Valentino’s lack of results on the bike made Ducati understand they needed to make some changes. Once they hired Gigi Dall’Igna [the ex-Aprilia engineer who arrived at the end of 2013], they started to turn things around.”

Hayden won the 2006 MotoGP title at the final race, coming from behind on points to overhaul Rossi, then with Yamaha. It was a day he will cherish forever. Hayden elbowed his way past Rossi, who later crashed trying to keep up. Few expected that to happen.

“I was behind on points, so nobody gave me a chance. I still have a chuckle when I see the photos – we were on the podium and when all the smoke-bombs went off they were yellow [Rossi’s colour]; that was quite a good feeling. It still gives me tingles but I don’t get too caught up thinking about the past.

“Obviously I wish I could’ve had some more race wins, but I got what I wanted, I got a star on my back and that I get to keep. That one sticks, that one don’t come off!”

There is little sign of a resurgence of American talent in MotoGP. The last American to cross the pond was 2013 US Superbike champ Josh Herrin. He entered the following year’s Moto2 series, but lost his ride having failed to score a point in the first 12 races.

Now Hayden moves in the opposite direction. Riding a factory-backed Honda his aim is to become the fifth former GP rider to win the World Superbike title, following in the wheel tracks of Raymond Roche, John Kocinski, Max Biaggi and Carlos Checa.

***

The US is working hard to get back into the MotoGP fray. The country’s problem in recent years has been disastrous management of its national racing series. Last year the championship was reacquired by the country’s sanctioning body, the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association), and is now managed and promoted by the Krave Group, fronted by three-time 500cc world champion Wayne Rainey. However, it could be a long road before the series produces the kind of talent needed to compete in MotoGP. “They lost their way and it’s going to take a long time to get back,” says Rainey’s former mentor Kenny Roberts. “You don’t invent a new world champion overnight; it takes time and money.”