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Nicky Hayden: The Pressure Is On

When young American Nicky Hayden went straight from the AMA Superbike Championship to the Repsol Honda MotoGP team three years ago (as Valentino Rossi’s teammate), it raised quite a few eyebrows. In America, however, we thought Nicky could walk on water, and he got that lofty position with Honda following solid endorsements from former World Champions like Freddy Spencer and Mick Doohan.

We all learned to be patient as Nicky learned the European lifestyle and the new tracks his first year, but we expected some solid results thereafter.

Indeed, the “Hayden believers” strongly suspected he would challenge for the world title in his third year in MotoGP, particularly if he was still aboard the best Honda MotoGP bikes available (he is). This has not worked out. Far from it.

Hayden’s results thus far include a DNF (crashed out of third in Spain), seventh in Portugal, ninth in China, and sixth place at Le Mans. Hardly championship-caliber stuff. Meanwhile, as usual, Valentino Rossi is threatening to run away with the championship.

After reading a commentary by former 500cc GP star Randy Mamola written for a British publication, it appears Nicky Hayden is feeling some serious heat from his employer over his poor results. Hayden is in the first year of a two-year contract extension given him by Honda after showing strong potential last year. His crash at the first round undoubtedly shook his confidence to some extent, but riders at this level need to bounce back the very next week.

We have mentioned it previously, but it is worth reminding our readers that Hayden is not known for his bike setup skills. The master at this is Valentino Rossi, himself. Furthermore, teammate Biaggi is known to have some idiosyncracies that rarely allow his own settings to be useful to a teammate such as Hayden. Frankly, Biaggi “rides the front” like the four-time 250cc World Champion that he is, while Hayden was schooled in American dirt track, and slides the rear of his bike as skillfully as anyone.

So, perhaps the problem lies in the inability of Hayden and Biaggi to develop the Honda in a way that keeps pace with Rossi’s Yamaha and the other top-level MotoGP bikes. This is far from a sufficient excuse for Hayden, however, because testing and bike setup are now a huge part of a MotoGP rider’s job, particularly with the new, four-stroke prototypes that clearly require so much developement from season to season.

As always, time will tell, but Honda certainly is expecting podium finishes, if not wins, from Hayden this season. It is likely that Honda has the option, under its contract with Hayden, to move him to a satellite team next year, and promote another rider to the Repsol squad, such as Marco Melandri. Melandri is even younger than Hayden, and he has developed rapidly in MotoGP. He lies second in the points to Rossi, while Hayden sits in 8th place after four rounds.