So at last it's official. "This will be my last year in MotoGP. I will be moving to World Superbikes next year with Honda and the Ten Kate team," Nicky Hayden told the press conference at Motegi. The move had been long expected, as Hayden's options of a competitive ride had petered out. "These last two years haven't been so good, I haven't been able to get the results on an Open Honda to really keep a high level bike in MotoGP," he acknowledged.
That had prompted his decision to finally move to World Superbikes. "I've always thought World Superbikes might be something I'd like to try, I've always liked the racing there," Hayden said. "The opportunity just felt like it would be a good fit. Obviously I'm getting a bit older, but I still enjoy the sport and the game, and thought it would be a fresh challenge and a new opportunity, to go there and try to have a bit more fun. Of course I'll miss MotoGP. I had a great opportunity here. Was part of some great teams and worked with some great people. But nothing lasts forever, and that's life. Have to keep moving. Go to Superbike with Honda and hopefully have some fun."
Hayden is to stay within the Honda family, and join the Ten Kate squad in World Superbikes. He will be with the team for two years, the first year on the aging Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade, the second on a rumored updated version of the bike. According to the Dutch magazine MOTO73, that bike will be based on the current SP version, but with an improved engine with an extra 10 to 15 horsepower. Given the results with the underpowered existing bike, 15 more horsepower should transform the Fireblade into a much more competitive package. Rumors also about of a new bike to replace the Fireblade based on Honda's V4 powerplant. But given that such rumors have been doing the rounds since the turn of the century, they should perhaps be regarded with a pinch of salt.
Honda was not Hayden's only option. While we had always expected the move to World Superbikes, Hayden had long been linked with Aprilia, the idea of being on a competitive bike an appealing prospect for both Hayden and Dorna, who are keen to have a fast American in the series to help boost its international profile. But a future at Aprilia was uncertain, the factory having recently announced they would not be fielding a factory team in WSBK, as the MotoGP project was using up more resources than they had planned. After a long courtship, Hayden rejected the deal and decided to stay with Honda instead, continuing his relationship with the manufacturer which has existed for most of his career, interrupted by a five-year stint at Ducati.
Ducati was his first option to head to World Superbikes. After it was announced that Cal Crutchlow would be taking his place in the Factory Ducati team in MotoGP, Hayden was given the offer of a factory ride with the Italian manufacturer in World Superbikes. Hayden rejected that move at the time, as he was in talks with Aspar, who were due to run Open class Aprilias with factory backing for 2014. When that deal fell through, in part with as a result of the departure of Gigi Dall'Igna to Ducati, Hayden found himself on board the Honda RCV1000R. Despite being teased by Honda as being just a few tenths of a second off the pace of the factory bike, the Open class Honda proved to be woefully underpowered. The uprated version for 2015 has been only a little better, having plenty of horsepower, but lacking the factory electronics and seamless gearbox to put that power on the tarmac.
Hayden will get his first taste of the WSBK Honda at a test in November. He faces plenty of challenges: he must adapt to the much softer Pirelli tires used in WSBK, and to a heavier, much softer bike. Hayden still has issues with the wrist he damaged in 2011, though the surgery to remove the row of bones in his right hand has made a huge difference there. The combination of less stiff Pirellis and a more pliant chassis may make it a little easier on his right wrist for the next few years.
Hayden's departure from MotoGP leaves the series without an American rider for the first time in 40 years. He leaves big boots to fill, as Hayden has always had a huge following, and more significantly, he is the last American rider to win a MotoGP title. The MotoAmerica series is still in the early stages of rebuilding after years of decline in the hands of DMG, but there are hopeful signs that it can produce new talent. Cameron Beaubier, Joe Roberts, Jake Gagne, JD Beach and Hayden Gillim have all been touted as future world championship contenders, but none of them have yet made the jump across the ocean. Ironically, the US' best chance of a championship could come in the shape of the man likely to be Hayden's teammate at Ten Kate. PJ Jacobsen is reported to be close to a deal with Ten Kate for 2016 to race in the World Supersport championship. The American will finish as runner up to champion Kenan Sofuoglu this year, and along with Jules Cluzel, was the only rider to take the fight to the Turkish multiple champion. With increased support from Honda next season - either as part of Ten Kate, or with Ten Kate backing inside the CORE Motorsports team - Jacobsen has a good shot at a title.
The challenge for Hayden is greater, especially given that the 2016 Honda CBR1000RR will still be lacking performance. But his goal will remain the same, to become the first rider to win both a MotoGP title and a World Superbike title. Max Biaggi and John Kocinski both won WSBK titles after becoming champions on a 250, but nobody has won titles in the premier classes of both series.