An exclusive interview with former MotoGP world champion and Honda World Superbike rider Nicky Hayden on his maiden campaign in the production series, hopes for 2017 and his view on the controversial race 2 grid shake-up.
Hi Nicky, good results for the season but this was always a two-year plan. Did you sign because you knew the new Blade was on the way?

Nicky Hayden:
Honestly, I've never been a guy who says 'This year is a learning year, it's a year to get my feet wet' and that kind of thing. I just don't want to go into the year with that kind of mentality.

But having said that I did sign a deal for two years and I knew there'd be a lot changes and learning to do in the first year and it has to be said that knowing a new bike was coming along just made it more enticing.
Did seeing what Sylvain Guintoli as a world champion was able to do on the bike the year before concern you?

Nicky Hayden:
You know, it did concern me but if I'm completely honest after two years riding the open class bike in MotoGP I didn't have a large number of good options.

When you're 34 and you've come off major wrist surgery the year before and couldn't show some good results to a prospective employer, in racing you don't get to take your pick. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get and prove yourself with it.

The deal was kind of late, I didn't have a huge amount of options but the Honda one was the one I trusted in most and I just went for it - it's a lot simpler than you might think.
Is there any direct Honda involvement or is your contract with Ten Kate?

Nicky Hayden:
No, my contract is actually with Honda Europe and there's no involvement from Honda Japan or HRC. Honda Europe are really supporting me and this project a lot and they're the ones who made it possible for me to come to WorldSBK and I've got to say that I'm grateful to them for this opportunity.
When you came to WorldSBK, did you start afresh or did any crew members come over with you?

Nicky Hayden:
I started completely afresh we'd had some discussions about crew chiefs and so forth but I basically started from new.

Ten Kate are a really well organised team and they know that bike so well so for me it was better to trust in them and let them put the team together.

It really is a great team to ride for, it feels like a real family and I feel right at home there. They put such a lot of effort into the bike and trying to get results.

It kind of reminds me of some of the dirt track teams in my early days where they're well organized and crucially spend their money on performance.

Some teams spend money more on show than go but Ten Kate keep it spent where it should be. Obviously last year we didn't have a major sponsor and having seen situations where you've got the spend of Repsol or Marlboro I sometimes asked for things which I didn't get but the teams job isn't to get you everything you want but to get you everything you need.

The team was really good at prioritising things towards making the bike go quicker particularly with the electronics and that was particularly shown when I first got on the bike when we had make some pretty big changes to kind of smooth things out.
The bike did seem to make a leap in performance when compared to the year before...

Nicky Hayden:
I think we actually got most improvement in the first couple of days I rode the bike - it was electronic work that helped with that. We were looking for a more direct feeling with the bottom end and generally smoothing out the power delivery.

But I think over time Ten Kate have just refined the whole bike and improved everything on the bike a little bit. It's a very complete package and at this point with that bike in that team I don't think you're going to turn it over and suddenly find a half-second all in one go.

The bike is pretty much towards the end of its development cycle so it's more of a matter of a couple of tweaks here and something small there to get what you're looking for. Unfortunately we weren't able to find enough to get us constantly battling with the top guys on the factory bikes.
Where do you think the bike was lacking?

Nicky Hayden:
I would say acceleration was where we needed something and also RPM. There were a lot of times that because I was coming back from MotoGP I really needed to be able to change the transmission to properly use the motor's RPM range. In WorldSBK now you've got a set gearbox where you can't change the individual ratios to suit the track.

I didn't have a lot of useful RPM to work with and every race it seemed that we had to find a compromise with the gearbox. You can change a big tooth or little tooth on the sprockets but you are still finding parts of the track where you have to make an extra shift or maybe you gear the bike for the straightaway but lose something in the first gear corner. It's something we had to work with and adjust to.

I want to give credit to Ten Kate though because it's not as if they promised me a perfect bike or anything and I knew that there wouldn't be a new bike initially and overall I was satisfied with the performance of the bike. It was what I expected and what they told me it would be and you've got to say they did a good job.
When you say a lack of acceleration, are we talking something that can be found with electronics or sheer power?

Nicky Hayden:
Power, we just needed more sheer torque from the bottom end.
Did you find you had to change your riding style?

Nicky Hayden:
For sure you have to make some adjustments and you've got to do that even when changing between bikes in MotoGP but now at my age it's not easy to totally change how you do things from one session to the next.

I didn't for example change my style to the well-known Superbike straight to the apex, onto the fat part of the tyre and power out style though the Superbike does make you change your lines and brake markers a little. Also, you can get on the throttle a little earlier because you just don't have the power but overall I certainly didn't radically change my style.

More importantly were the things I had to adjust to like the gearbox and the one bike rule. The one bike rule isn't really a change but that does influence your overall strategy and approach. For me though after all these years it's really just all motorcycle racing and twisting the throttle.
To many 5th in the championship in your first year with a new bike would be seen as a success, how do you feel?

Nicky Hayden:
Well as a racer, I can never say 'Wow! I'm satisfied with 5th'. But being realistic, I still believe in myself as a racer or I would never have changed over to Superbikes and you see some people from GP's who can't get adjusted to WorldSBK.

Also the bike last year didn't exactly dominate the championship so everything considered... satisfied isn't exactly the right word, but lets say I'm encouraged by the season.

There were definitely some good aspects of the season; I enjoyed the change and had some fun races where I was dicing with the fast guys. Malaysia was a really nice feeling for myself, the team and all my supporters. Also getting on the podium at Laguna Seca is always great for me.

I had three mechanical DNF's, a start from pit lane and could have been a little higher if it wasn't for that. So it's not like I'm going to throw a party for 5th but I feel encouraged and certainly had some fun along the way.
You're using the word 'fun' a lot when talking about your year in WorldSBK whereas you didn't use it a lot in your recent years in MotoGP - do you think you could have changed series earlier, was riding the customer Honda demotivating?

Nicky Hayden:
I don't want to use the word 'demotivating', in my last years in MotoGP the motivation wasn't the problem. I just wasn't in the right place to get the best out of myself or get good results but I was certainly motivated.

It has to be said though that those weren't the most fun days of my life when you're in a different class trying to race against guys on full factory MotoGP machines. It wasn't nice but that's where I was. I'm the one who chose to ride that bike, it just didn't work out how I hoped, maybe the level of the bike wasn't as high as we expected.

To say that I should have gone to WorldSBK earlier? Well, I don't know. I try not to look back with ifs and buts, I try not to have any regrets. Things play out for a reason, now I'm here and I still think I've got something left in the tank.
How would you rate the level of competition you're getting in WorldSBK given that MotoGP managers seem not to really notice the riders there when looking for talent?

Nicky Hayden:
The level is high, there's no doubt.

The speed is high too, I mean there were some tracks this year where I was doing some lap times faster than I was doing the year before on the open Honda, tracks like Jerez or Philip Island and that's on a bike which costs a lot less than a MotoGP bike.
Coming back to the new Fireblade, Honda make brilliant motorbikes but sometimes not the prettiest but this one looks nice, you've had a test ride of it, what do you think?

Nicky Hayden:
Yeah, I did some filming on the new model at Valencia. As you said Honda make great bikes and this one's no exception. It's incredible how advanced street bikes have become.

When I got on it it felt like a real race bike and the electronics on the standard street bike are in some ways more advanced than those on the one I rode at the Suzuka 8 Hour because the rules ban them from using fly-by-wire throttle.

People ask me what I think of it as a race bike and to be honest I can't give a good answer because I rode the production street bike with street tyres and that's just too far from race trim to give an informed opinion. I'll only be able to make my assessment once I've got it out in full race trim and get to uncork it properly but as a street bike it was impressive.

The important thing for us is that the team needs to get their hands on the bike and that's the worrying thing. Unless they've got one since talking to the team in the middle of last week, we're still waiting and that's a bit worrying. They've got a lot of work to do.

[Interview conducted on the 21/12/16]
So Ten Kate literally just buy a straight street bike from Honda's normal production?

Nicky Hayden:
Yeah, that's how it works and the rest is down to them.
How important is it that the new model has a homologated ride-by-wire system?

Nicky Hayden:
Well, that's probably not going to help us too much because with the current rules we were able to use that last year. It'll be a big help for street riders or Superstock but for us, in race trim that won't make a big difference - we were already using a system which did the same.
People have often mentioned a lack of power in the old model and I believe that in standard form the motor makes about 11bhp on the new model, does that map onto that increase in race trim and is that enough to make the difference?

Nicky Hayden:
At the moment I don't want to give an opinion on something where I haven't got enough information because until the team start running it on the dyno we won't know where we are but I'm hoping and expecting that in race trim we'll get that much or even more because the new bike will allow them to do more with the engine. It's the team who can tell you about that.

Power at the back wheel doesn't come from the engine alone though, there's exhausts, air intakes, weight and of course electronics so it's maybe not sheer numbers that will make the difference in the new year.
Talking about the new year, what do you think of the ideas being put forward for the grid order for the second race?

Nicky Hayden:
Well, I guess I'd say lets wait and see. I don't want to say too much before we see how it works out. I think I'll just try them out before making a final judgment.

Maybe as a pure racer I can't say I love those suggestions though, I grew up with the idea that if you qualified fastest then you should be on pole regardless. On the other hand I recognise that there's a business side to the sport and we need to entertain and honestly it could work out quite good from that point of view.

You know what, people don't like change, I remember when we went to the new qualifying procedure in MotoGP people didn't like it but it seems to work OK. I think that people try to find reasons to back up their basic dislike of change and then go on a message board to spread it.

There's a lot of logic to the ideas. You're not talking about moving guys to the back of the grid, it's only moving back a couple of rows and the races are long. We saw Chaz Davies win plenty of races from 6th or 7th so it's not the end of the world. It might just spice things up a bit and make people tune into race 2 knowing that they won't get a repeat of race 1. I'm excited to see how it it'll work out where you get a couple of different bikes in race 2. Maybe it doesn't reward performance as we see it now but it's really what the fans experience that counts, it's the fans that drive the show.
I've noticed that you seem to put a lot of effort into your relationship with your supporters, is it something you see as important?

Nicky Hayden:
Oh for sure, it's their backing that allows me to be in this incredibly lucky position of racing bikes. Over the years I've had some great support and without the fans, people buying motorcycles and watching on TV I don't get to lead the life I've dreamed of, I don't get to race, I might even have to get a real job!

Racing on an empty track is just nothing, it's the people there who make the show, they supply the intensity and excitement for the rider. The riders need the fans and much as the fans need the riders.

I've never really thought about fame though, I just see myself as a bike racer, but I have to say that the recognition I get is always pleasant and respectful and sometimes being known can kind of make things work out for you. I'm just genuinely grateful that I get to play almost a child's game for a living - not a lot of guys can say that and as I get older I feel all the more grateful.

Some riders don't much like aspects of the sport but I've got to say I like it all, being with the team, being with the fans, publicity events, I like it all.
Just lastly in looking at your background I didn't realise how deep motorcycling went with your family and that even your mother was a pretty strong competitor - has she ever beaten you?

Nicky Hayden:
Oh she raced for sure and my father who was also a racer used to joke that that was important so as to get a good bloodline for the future Hayden racers. He felt it was important to make fast babies!

As for my mother, she hasn't zipped her suit up in a while and she's never beaten me but she does watch every session and is our biggest fan - she loves it all.
Thanks for talking to us Nicky!

Nicky Hayden:
That's no problem and appreciate your time.



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