At first glance, Nicky Hayden’s move from MotoGP to World Superbike seems like a step backward. Hayden is moving from a series where a crankshaft is probably as expensive as an entire superbike. This is something we have seen other riders do toward the end of their careers. Talented riders like Carlos Checa, Max Biaggi, and Marco Melandri (all of whom had the misfortune of racing in MotoGP during the Rossi era) have made the same transition when they were no longer as competitive in the “premier class.” Superbikes, despite their name, are usually several seconds slower on the same track than MotoGP machinery. They do not lean as far, accelerate as fast, or turn as nimbly. Some equate the difference even more extremely, and compare MotoGP to Formula 1 and World Superbike to touring car racing.
So then, why is this author so stoked to see a name that many American motorcycle road racing fans practically worship taking such a big step down? Because to the author, it is anything but a step down. Technical sophistication, lavish hospitality tents, and absurd factory budgets do not, alone, beget great racing. Sure, MotoGP, as a championship, is even older than Formula 1. World Superbike (as we know it today) did not emerge until the late 1980’s. But to the author, what matters most is the quality and authenticity of the on-track product. It does not matter how many millions of dollars a MotoGP machine costs when “grands prix” turn into really, really fast motorcycle parades. Nor is the domination of a couple teams on budgets alone impressive. Nor the nearly NASCAR-like rule-making MotoGP is beginning to become accustomed to. With the exception of Johnny Rea’s dominant season in 2015, World Superbike has historically produced the best racing on the planet. There is usually a battle at the front, or at least several good scraps in the midfield. A number of different riders win races each year, and manufacturers have had a much easier time getting to the front. Moreover, the machinery and environment is much closer to what we here in the States are accustomed to. In short, MotoGP may be the technical pinnacle of the sport, but WSBK has, time and again, proven to be the “sporting” pinnacle of road racing.
Moreover, Nicky is now in an arena where he will finally be able to show how great of a rider he is. He may not have gotten on the podium at Phillip Island. That said, to score a P4 and P9 on one of the oldest bikes on the grid speaks volumes. Nicky’s stop-and-go, throttle happy riding style will find a compliant home on WSBK’s soft-carcass Pirelli tires. Nicky hasn’t lost a thing. Rather, he has finally shed a series that was designed around one particular riding style. Moreover, Honda is rolling out a brand new, redesigned bike in 2017. This will give Nicky a chance to test the new bike and provide feedback to Honda. Perhaps next season Nicky will get a bike that matches his talent for the first time since 2006.
So why is the author so happy for Nicky? Because Nicky is racing in a series to means more to many of us for many reasons, and will let the world see just how good he still is.