2003 signalled a dramatic change of direction. Pursued by both Honda and Yamaha for a ride in MotoGP, the young American ultimately chose to stay with the former, becoming part of the factory Repsol Honda team alongside world champion Valentino Rossi.

Catapulted into a completely new environment, Hayden was immediately respected for his open nature and ready smile, as well as his aggressive and spectacular riding style. In his debut year he achieved two podiums, at the Australian and Motegi GP races, finishing the season in fifth position and beating the likes Troy Bayliss and Colin Edwards to be Rookie of the Year.

Rossi rocked the MotoGP world by leaving for Yamaha in 2004, in turn putting pressure on Hayden to help carry HRC's title hopes. It would be a more difficult season, with results that see-sawed, and the season was complicated further when Hayden fractured his collarbone on a Supermoto bike. He finished the year down in eighth place, despite podiums at Rio and Sachsenring.

But Hayden bounced back in 2005, shrugging off a crash in the first race to bring a series of ever better results, culminating in his first MotoGP win at his home race of Laguna Seca. A further five podiums, in Germany, Qatar, Australia, Turkey and Valencia, saw Nicky close the season in third position.

 

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