Though Ducati have told Nicky Hayden that there is no room for him in their factory MotoGP team, it is no secret that they would like to keep him within the Ducati family. The American retains a huge following in his native country (according to Google Trends, he is the second most searched MotoGP rider, after Valentino Rossi, though Marc Marquez is hot on his heels) and is a favorite with sponsors thanks to his willingness to help the people who help pay his salary. Hayden has been a great ambassador for Ducati in the US during his four and a half year tenure at the Italian factory.
So Ducati are doing all they can to persuade Hayden to move to World Superbikes, and take on the challenge of racing the 1199 Panigale R. To that end, Hayden rode the World Superbike-spec version of the bike at Mugello last week, to assess what he was getting into before making a decision. Hayden was fast: according to reliable reports from the UK site Bikesportnews.com, Hayden was quickly under the unofficial WSBK lap record at the track, posting a time of 1'51.2, faster than Troy Bayliss went at the iconic Italian circuit when he rode the Panigale there earlier this year, according to Superbikeplanet.com.
Though Hayden was immediately fast, his biggest shock was adapting to the soft and squishy Pirelli WSBK tires. According to Bikesportnews.com, Hayden's initial reaction when coming back into the pits for the first time was to jump off and squeeze the front tire, to see if it was really as soft as it felt. His test was brought to a premature end when he suffered a relatively minor crash. Reports say that the bike was damaged too badly to be repaired at the track. That phrase is usually something of a euphemism: in this case, it means the bike caught fire and burned itself to a crisp.
Hayden is known to be seriously considering the option to remain with Ducati in WSBK, but he is wary of the task he faces there. On the one hand, Hayden told reporters before the summer break, the notion of trying to become the first rider to win both the MotoGP and World Superbike championships was very appealing. On the other hand, his main objective was to be on as competitive a bike as possible. Hayden was cautious of taking on the Panigale, saying that at this stage in career, trying to develop a bike into a winning machine was not the challenge he was after.
Given Hayden's speed on the Panigale, a switch to WSBK could well be one of his best options, as well as his most lucrative. Attempts by American Honda to put the 2006 World Champion on a production racer at LCR Honda have stalled, as so far only half the budget has been found. At Silverstone, rumors emerged that CAME, the Italian manufacturer of security gates and other equipment, were considering backing Hayden at LCR, but recent reports on Infomotogp.com suggest that CAME are also giving serious consideration to remaining with the IODA Racing team. Remaining with IODA is an attractive option, as the team has scored excellent results with Johann Zarco in Moto2, and with Pol Espargaro and Scott Redding moving up to MotoGP next year, Zarco will be one of the favorites for the title next year.
Hayden is also one of the riders tipped to take one of the two FTR-outfitted Yamaha M1s being leased to the NGM Forward team, which will be using the Dorna software for 2014. While having a Yamaha M1 (or most of one, the lease package includes the engines, swingarm and chassis, with fuel tank and bodywork being built by FTR) underneath him could be Hayden's best chance of being competitive, the question of how good the bike will be with the spec software is still an unknown. The difference in performance levels between the spec software and Yamaha's proprietary software is likely to be significant, which will have an impact on how good the bike will be.
Hayden is also believed to be on the radar of Aprilia, who will be supplying a totally revamped version of the ART bike to Aspar next year. Again, Hayden's combination of competitiveness and marketability is the driving force behind Aprilia's interest: Hayden would be used to market not just Aprilia, but the entire range of Piaggio brands in the US, including Moto Guzzi. The bike itself is expected to be a major improvement, with a new engine, pneumatic valves, a new chassis and perhaps even a seamless gearbox.
The NGM Forward team have told reporters they expect to make an announcement this week. Hayden, on the other hand, told reporters at Silverstone that he did not expect to be making a decision in the short term, though he did say he expected it to be announced before the flyaway races in October.