The signing of Hayden to the Ducati Marlboro MotoGP team is big news for both the racer and the manufacturer. For Ducati, this is the first time an American has served on the elite GP team, so Ducatisti on both sides of the pond will be keeping sharp eyes on the progress of the eminently likeable Hayden. And there’ll be no excuses from the machinery, as Casey Stoner, Hayden’s new teammate, won the 2007 MotoGP title on a Ducati and finished runner-up to Valentino Rossi in ’08.
The 27-year-old was greeted by an affectionate crowd numbering in the hundreds at Southern California Ducati, a top-ranked Ducati dealership in Brea, California, that recently was revamped into a shrine for fans of the Italian brand. Billed as a VIP charity event, the party included a Q&A session with Hayden and a silent charity auction benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
|Items up for bid:|
|• Roland Sands custom art piece|
|• Ducati helmet from Troy Lee|
|• Oakley Sunglasses|
|• Limited edition Nicky Hayden Tissot watch|
|• Casey Stoner signed helmet|
|• Nicky Hayden signed Lavazza Espresso Machine|
Hayden put on his winning smile for the adoring fans throughout the night. We were lucky enough to get some private time with the Kentucky Kid, posing a few questions about his move to Ducati and what he expects from the upcoming season.
Hayden will get his first ’09 test February 5-7 at Malaysia’s Sepang circuit The Desmosedici GP9 is a significant departure for Ducati, as it abandons Ducati’s traditional steel trellis frame, swapped out for one built from carbon fiber. The carbon structure begins at the steering head and with twin-spars attaches to the V-4 engine that works as a stressed member of the chassis. Ultimate power is said to be unchanged from last year, but the drivability has been improved, perhaps with help from variable-length intakes.
For the Kentuckian, it could be his final chance on a top-level factory team – he hasn’t won a race since 2006, and he knows the pressure is on. Meanwhile, he’ll also need to adapt to new Bridgestone tires after spending his entire GP career on Michelin rubber. At the 2008 post-season tests, Hayden was the quickest Ducati rider at Jerez, Spain, though teammate Stoner wasn’t present. He was fifth fastest, behind pairs of Hondas and Yamahas.
With a lot of weight on his shoulders, Hayden is nonetheless up for the challenge.
Motorcycle.com: How come nobody else but Casey can make the Ducati go fast, and doesn’t that put a lot of pressure on you?
Nicky Hayden: I gotta believe it’s not a bike only for Casey. Sure, he’s got special talent and I think his determination to get it around the track is the difference. Before I signed on the dotted line, I was nervous because a lot of good riders have almost ended their career on that bike (trying to match Stoner’s pace). So I knew it was risky, but I just like felt it was a risk worth taking. If it works for me and I could get it, then we’re gonna be cooking with grease. And if not, it’s going to be a nightmare (laughs).
MO: Some so-called smart people say that riding the Ducati fast is all about trusting the traction control. Is that your impression?
NH: Certainly the traction control is a big part of it, but it’s not as big as people think it is.
There’s a bit of misconception there – like it’s magic. It’s not like you just hit the switch and go wide open on the exit of the corner. But, sure, the way the electronics work, you definitely have to be able to understand with your engineer and know what works and when it works. More than anything with the bike, there is no half stepping – you have to commit and twist that throttle. And I think I can do it. So, I could sit here in January and tell you this and that, but until we get on the track we’re not going to know.
MO: How about the difference in corporate philosophies. We have Honda, which is fairly rigid. And then you have Ducati which is a bit more Italian loose.
NH: Yeah, there’s certainly a lot of things different in the culture – one’s Japanese and one’s Italian. Honda gave me a great career and a great life, so I don’t want to knock it. But certainly the passion the Italians have for racing is something pretty cool, and so far everybody there is treating me great and have been a lot of fun to work with. I do need to understand a bit more the language and the culture of how they go about doing work, but we’ve got a little bit of time (smiles).
MO: It seems like there might be a little more fun with this team. Would you say that?
NH: If you get the results, yeah, every day is a holiday! If you’re getting results, you’re having fun. And if not, it’s a disaster – and I probably won’t be a very happy guy.
MO: What is the difference in feeling from the Ducati as opposed to the Honda?
NH: It’s actually a lot different – it’s probably more different that I realized. I’ve ridden only Japanese bikes, and they all feel about the same. But this thing is a completely different feel – the way you ride it out of the pits, the way the traction control works, the carbon chassis, and the clutch is probably the biggest difference. And also the (Bridgestone) tires – I love the tires, and I think it’s really made things easier for me.
MO: What is the difference in the clutch?
NH: Well, just the way it works and what you don’t do. You don’t use the clutch – it’s definitely one step ahead of the bike.
MO: So you just use it for launching and then you’re done with it?
NH: Yeah, basically. I mean, a little bit into the corners, but not nearly as much as with the Honda. And there’s things the Honda did better. With the Ducati, the engine is certainly the strong point – it pulls for days, and it’s stable in the fast corners. But I don’t want to give Honda a list of where they could improve, so I’ll keep that to myself (laughs)!
MO: Maybe you could say what the Honda did better?
NH: The Honda was obviously a good bike. I mean, the 990 certainly suited my style better (than the current 800cc bikes). But Honda makes nice bikes – things work, they’re easy to work on, and there’s a lot of things nice about them.