Nicky Hayden produced the best race of his Ducati career in Sunday's 2010 Qatar season-opener, when he partially erased the factory's pain at losing Casey Stoner from the lead by keeping his Desmosedici in the subsequent victory battle.
Following Stoner's lap six tumble, the fast-starting Hayden was promoted to second behind only reigning MotoGP champion Valentino Rossi.
Against expectation, the American was able to match the factory Yamaha star, while Honda's Andrea Dovizioso made it a three-man lead group for much of the race.
Rossi finally gained breathing room in the closing laps, while a late surge by Rossi's team-mate Jorge Lorenzo left Dovizioso and Hayden fighting over third.
Hayden looked to have claimed his second Ducati podium with a pass just a few corners from the finish, but Dovizioso used his superior straight-line speed to snatch third back by 0.011sec at the line.
“Man! I really didn't expect to be so tough in the race but the team made a couple of small changes that made a huge difference and right from the warm-up lap I felt good,” said Hayden, the 2006 world champion.
“I got a great start and Rossi didn't seem a lot faster than me. In a couple of places he was getting away but I just tried to stay in there and learn something - it's been so long since I ran at the front.
“If you offered me fourth place, two seconds behind Rossi, before the race I would have taken it but to be so close to the podium and not actually up there… it hurts.
“Still, it's a long season and there are a lot of opportunities ahead of us. I'm sorry for Casey but fourth place with all the other heavies in there has got to be my best result. We got some good points in the bag so we'll take it, get out of here and move on. Big thanks to the team and everybody at Ducati for sticking behind me and for all their hard work this winter. I hope I can repay them this year.”
New Ducati team manager Vittoriano Guareschi praised Hayden's performance.
“Nicky was fantastic. We have worked all winter to give him a package that works for him and he has repaid us,” said the former Ducati test rider. “We didn't see his full potential in practice but the world champion in Nicky came out in the race.
“I would have loved to see him on the podium, for him and for the whole team who have worked tirelessly, but anyway we can take huge satisfaction from his performance. We now travel to Japan with a great package and two riders who we know can fight for the podium.”