Quick, someone give Nicky Hayden a beer.
Instead of putting on another lackluster performance in his final MotoGP season finale this weekend, Hayden delivered a rock-and-roll almost-man’s victory that put a huge exclamation point on his otherwise lackluster performance this season. He is not a bad winner, though. In fairness, his fall did a bit of tweaking with his tire pressures.
Despite not winning a race this season, the 36-year-old, and 2006 world champion, romped to a victory in the Indianapolis Grand Prix that saw him claim a commanding victory in the distance. (Time tends to sap your energy and you have to hurry, but I think it’s safe to say he noticed he was going from the flat to the banked tire at Barber Motorsports Park in a matter of meters).
Hayden put a charge into the leaderboard early in the race, going on a nice run and winning in a time of two minutes and 9.295 seconds. To be blunt, he should have won at least one race this season.
MotoGP is a mix of cars and riders. Cars are small open-wheel machines from which riders can win in their eyes by performing trick maneuvers, especially sideways ones. A tire and suspension changes throw a huge wrench in your strategy, therefore neither riders nor teams can really trust each other to do anything they truly want to do.
So it really didn’t matter if Hayden had a good tire or not, because he would just sail. That’s how he won last season’s Indianapolis GP too, but even then he just kept on moving until he eventually got to the finish line first. He just wasn’t quite quick enough to win races this season, as he lost 10 seconds to his closest rival.
MotoGP is similar to NASCAR, which has no valid governing body of sorts. Rather, there are motor sports bodies that cater to specific versions of each racing discipline. Of course, NASCAR has a lot of important governing body roles because it deals with safety, funding, prize money and/or other concerns that actually do involve them. Motorcycling, unfortunately, does not have those same responsibilities.
In practice and in a race, a rider’s driving is the only truly important aspect. Sure, some champions have perfect bikes and a great ride that they’re just perfectly lucky to ride, but for the most part, the bikes and the race course are basically static.
What you are mainly trying to do is set the fastest lap time for the race. There are many systems that comprise that clock. You may want to push your bike and your mechanics to do better, but who cares if you’re in Victory Lane on a good day? That’s just a speed record.
You are always racing to maintain the fastest lap time. But you’re also racing with a different piece of machinery and a different mindset. Although the MotoGP teams have tried to eliminate all the freakish crashes (or at least mitigate them with early pit stops), the advantage of the rider is in driving the bike.
Bombs can do whatever they want and crash very fast. Riding sideways can do that as well. So simply having the best machine doesn’t give you an edge. That’s why the best riders drive fast because they have to, they have to keep up with the other riders’ speed.
Hayden displayed that in Indy. He drove his bike like it was going to burn up the track, threw everything at it to see what would stick. And it did.
This year, everyone expected Hayden to win the world championship. After his stunning turnaround in 2006, the sport was expecting that from him. At one point, he was a decided favorite to win the title and it was in doubt. That should have seemed scary, but instead, it seems like everyone and their mom agreed he wasn’t going to win the title this year.
Instead, Hayden found redemption and now he is positioned for a comeback. Next year, he should be right back in the mix at the world championship, and everyone just might hope he finally regains his title form.