AP Photo/Alberto Saiz
MotoGP fans swarm American rider Nicky Hayden, far right, before the Valencia Moto Grand Prix.
MotoGP: Hayden already in 2009 mode
Less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the 2008 MotoGP season, Nicky Hayden was full speed ahead toward 2009.
"The Kentucky Kid" turned his first laps on a Ducati Desmosedici GP9 on Monday in a test at Valencia, Spain, site of Sunday's series finale. Most of next year's field participated in the test, and the most intriguing sight was Hayden, off the Honda he took to the 2006 championship and onto the notoriously tough Italian bike.
"When I got in the first time I told my brother [AMA Superbike rider Tommy] that I'm not sure what they pay Casey [Stoner, his new teammate], but it's not enough," Hayden said. "They need to double it, because the bike is a bit of an animal."
Hayden was not only getting used to the new ride but also to new tires, running Bridgestone for the first time after years on Michelins. Hayden landed with Ducati in part due to tire drama in the Repsol Honda camp, when Dani Pedrosa switched to Bridgestones midway through the season. For next year, Bridgestone will be the sole supplier in MotoGP.
I can see that the potential is huge. I know it's going to be a lot of hard work, but I felt pretty comfortable with the bike, the team and everything.
-- Nicky Hayden
Hayden and the rest of the American representation in MotoGP are eager to move on from 2008, the first year since 2002 in which the U.S. was shut out of the top five spots in points. Of course, the leading man then was the same as this season -- Italy's Valentino Rossi. "The Doctor" clinched his sixth championship on his Fiat Yamaha well before Sunday's finale on the strength of nine wins in the middle 12 races of the season, including five consecutive starting with Laguna Seca (Calif.) and ending at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan.
Also within that streak was the inaugural Red Bull Indianapolis Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a likely fixture on the MotoGP calendar for years to come. Race day was a rainy, windy mess, but the entire weekend drew 174,052 fans, a promising start for motorcycles' return to IMS for the first time in a century.
Rossi won the weather-shortened race and Hayden was second in his return after a two-race absence following a crash in X Games competition. It was his best finish in a sixth-place season.
Colin Edwards of Houston finished one spot behind Hayden in the standings, in seventh. He didn't come too close to his first MotoGP win, notching two thirds at Le Mans and Assen, The Netherlands, but closed the season on an upswing with a sixth-place finish at Valencia for Tech 3 Yamaha.
"It has been a while since I finished in the top 6, and for this result to help the team finish fourth in the Team World Championship makes it extra rewarding," said Edwards, whose team sat out this week's Valencia test. "We had a couple of races where we gave a lot of points away, but for an independent team we have done a fantastic job together."
The third full-time American rider, John Hopkins, struggled mightily with his Kawasaki Racing Team, finishing 15th in points after fourth in 2007. The Californian's best finish was a fifth early in the season at Portugal.
"We have to start finding solutions to our problems so we can be competitive right from the word 'go' next year," Hopkins said.
That's certainly what Hayden is hoping for in 2009, armed with a new bike, a new team and a new outlook.
"I can see that the potential is huge," Hayden said after Monday's test. "I know it's going to be a lot of hard work, but I felt pretty comfortable with the bike, the team and everything. It has been a very intense day and full of many things to test and to understand, but it was exactly as I expected it to be."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.