For those just awakening from time under a rock, the leakiest secret of the season was released to the world today...
According to the Ducati website, Nicky Hayden will be joining Casey Stoner on the second GP9 next season. Perhaps the worst-kept secret in the MotoGP paddock for the past several months, Hayden’s move to Ducati should be a new lease on life for the 2006 World Champion, who has been more or less abandoned by HRC since Dani Pedrosa completed his rookie MotoGP season.
From the press release: "We are really happy to have Nicky join us," declared Claudio Domenicali, Ducati Corse CEO and Ducati Motor Holding Product Director. "We are certain that his never-say-die attitude, riding style and character will be great additions to our team in 2009. I would like to thank HRC for allowing Nicky to start testing our bike immediately after the Valencia Grand Prix. I would also like to thank Marco Melandri for his professionalism during a difficult year, which was below all our expectations. Unfortunately his feeling with the Desmosedici was never good enough to allow him to ride as well as he can. We wish him all the best for the future."
The timing of this announcement must be particularly sweet to Hayden, who finished second in the rain-soaked Indianapolis round, showing the pace he had before being forced to ride a bike developed for someone with a different riding style and of considerably smaller stature.
Hayden’s dirt track background is thought to be the key to his expectations of coming to terms with the Ducati, as Marco Melandri been unable to do, since American dirt-trackers learn to race without even the presence of a front brake.
Ducati is likely very pleased to have a second competitive rider on their factory team, as well as an American to help street bike sales in the world’s largest market. Hayden’s move leaves Honda without an American rider in MotoGP, and with the uncertainty of how next season’s AMA Superbike class will sort out. HRC may be left with no Americans on a competitive Honda in either series, if there are no successful attempts at getting Ben Spies aboard a satellite machine.
As long as Hayden can tame the GP9, he will certainly be going to a better situation than the one he’s leaving. On the Thursday press conference at Indy, he had some very candid remarks about what it has been like in the HRC garage recently. When asked if he was going to complete the season with Honda, given everyone’s expectation of the Ducati announcement, and rumors that Hayden would leave early, he replied, “…I owe it to Honda to go out. I think they know that, at least the guys on my team know I’m not going to lay down until the very end, until Valencia. So, no, I fully plan on doing the whole season unless they lock the door over there on me… That could happen. I mean, you know, there’s probably people in that box that if I didn’t show up probably would never notice.”
Though these comments drew laughter from the crowd, the stage, and even a smile from Pedrosa, they make clear that Hayden has been largely written off by HRC management this season. Livio Suppo, Ducati Team Manager, has gone on record many times as having wanted Hayden for his team even before the 2008 season.
Even amidst this bittersweet situation, some interesting quotes have come from HRC brass, and it bears pointing out that this sort of language is rare, even for departures under the best of conditions:
HRC president Masumi Hamane: "We wish to thank Nicky for all he has achieved for Honda both as a rider and a man. Nicky and Honda have shared much success and a few disappointing days but in each case Nicky has always behaved cheerfully and has led the team in a positive way. His warm-hearted character has been much loved by all who have worked with him. Together we have won two AMA titles and the most important title of all, the MotoGP World Championship. Nicky raced the 990cc RC211V with great success but since the technical regulations reduced MotoGP engine capacity to 800cc, both Nicky and HRC have tried our best but we have been unable to find the best balance between rider and machine necessary for Nicky to show his full potential, so we have decided to part company at the end of the season. We want to thank Nicky who always tried positively under tough conditions. We respect him for his brave challenging spirit. We wish Nicky good luck for the future with his new challenge. Nicky is a good guy loved by all, but also he is a tough competitor and I am sure he will be tough to beat next season."
And from Repsol Honda team manager Kazuhiko Yamano, speaking for HRC's hands-on racing personnel: "On behalf of HRC employees past and present, both engineering and software staff, I wish to thank Nicky for all he has done for Honda and our racing teams. The success he has brought to Honda is well recorded but has also made a valuable contribution to our race development projects. Nicky has been an excellent ambassador for Honda, his genuine polite and friendly personality has made him a favourite with racing people, the media and race fans wherever he goes. Nicky is a racer, a tough man on track and always a gentleman with whom it has been a pleasure to work. He always gives 100 per cent to everything he does. He won two AMA national roadrace titles for Honda before joining the Repsol Honda MotoGP team to race the 990cc RC211V. Nicky and the RCV were the perfect rider/machine combination and together they won the 2006 MotoGP World Championship. We all wish Nicky good luck and success with his new challenge he will be a fierce rival for our team in 2009."
This is high praise of character, even if not for a world famous road racer. Given Hayden’s outstanding work ethic and loyalty, it will be good to see another World Champion in a garage where his talent and professionalism are a bit more appreciated.
Now, if someone with some American cash would just step forward into the Alice Ducati offices with a phone number for Ben Spies…