INTERVIEW: Nicky Hayden, 2016 World Superbike Rookie The Kentucky Kid talks challenges and expectations ahead of his first World Superbike season.
With the 29th edition of the World Superbike opening round at Phillip Island, Australia, this weekend, motorcycle road racing fans all over the world are gearing up for a championship that promises to be both interesting and exciting. The 2015 season was not particularly enthralling, with Kawasaki having dominated the series with 18 victories out of 26 rounds. What shall we expect from the 2016 season?
Traditionally held on the same day, the two WSBK races are now split between Saturday and Sunday to meet the TV needs and hopefully also to increase fan attendance. Both races will be held at 1 pm (local time), with the exception of Phillip Island that will be at 3 pm local time.
The lineup has improved in terms of numbers and quality with 24 riders and seven different manufacturers. Kawasaki takes the start as the favorite with its all-new ZX-10R, plus reigning World Champion Jonathan Rea and 2013 World Champion Tom Sykes, who are already looking very comfortable on the new bike.
Yamaha has returned after a four-year absence and Ducati looks forward to fighting for the title that it’s missed out on since 2011. Meanwhile, BMW has doubled the efforts with four bikes, Aprilia will line up with two bikes, and MV is also there, while Honda plays its ace card by lining up the former MotoGP World Champion and AMA Superbike Champion Nicky Hayden. The American returns to his superbike roots after 13 years on prototype machinery and the expectations are high for his new career with the Ten Kate Honda Team.
As a rookie, Hayden has already shown good speed in the pre-season tests, but he will have to face a new race format, new rivals, and even new circuits. To get his thoughts on these challenges and more, we sat down and talked with the Kentucky Kid on the eve of his first World Superbike season.
Now 34, Hayden admits that sometimes experience can be a negative because you know too much. “Sometimes it’s easier to go fast when you don’t know anything and you just go there and open the throttle,” he says.
Cycle World: What motivates you as you head into this new adventure?
Nicky Hayden: “I love motorcycles. I’m 34 but I want to keep racing. Last year it was not fun to ride with an Open Honda and I’m really happy to have had the opportunity to race in the World Superbike. It looks like we will have fun. It’s a fresh new challenge.”
CW: How are you getting along with the Honda CBR1000RR?
NH: “I felt pretty comfortable since the beginning. We had to strengthen the rear brake because I use it a lot, plus work on the electronics because I like a very direct throttle connection. But all in all I have a good feeling.”
CW: Have you had the chance to study the competitors?
NH: “We don’t have the acceleration of the Kawasaki, but we will try to improve.”
CW: And how are you adapting to the Pirelli tires?
NH: “It’s a different feeling because the bike moves a lot, but the grip is good and I like the tires. I had the chance to test them on three different tracks [Aragon, Jerez, and Phillip Island]. I am still learning.”
After 13 years on prototype machinery, 2016 marks Hayden’s return to production bikes. After successful pre-season tests though, Hayden says the feeling is good and that he’s mostly just worked on getting more rear brake and better electronic control.
CW: Looking at the calendar, are there any particular circuits that you are looking forward to racing at?
NH: “Yes, there is one in particular and it’s Laguna Seca. I haven’t raced there for a while so I’m really looking forward to it. I am also excited about Thailand. I have never raced there, but I have attended some promotional events and I was impressed by the warm welcome of the fans. It’s incredible how much they know about us! Looking at the calendar, Donington is also not a new track, but I haven’t raced there since 2008 or 2009 so it will be interesting. I enjoy going to new places even if I know that it won’t be easy.”
CW: Who do you think will lead the way in 2016?
NH: “At the moment Jonathan Rea has the number one plate so until someone else steps up he is the man to beat. He is fast and a really good rider.”
CW: What do you think about the new format of the championship?
NH: “It’s difficult to say. On one hand we have one less day to learn some new tracks and some new settings. The first race is on Saturday, so that’s very short track time. We have only two 50-minute sessions. It will be tough. But on the other hand it’s useful to have some time to sit down, study the data, and get ready for the second race on the following day.”
CW: Do you feel comfortable with the qualifying format?
NH: “I tried the qualifying tires in Jerez [Spain] to get used to them and I really enjoyed them. The tires are really intense and I had a lot of fun. This year we have only one qualifying tire that lasts one lap so I need first to be sure I’m in the top ten, which won’t be easy for me because with the new schedule you only have Friday to get in there. That and these tires work better in cooler conditions, so it means that the best time will probably come on Friday morning. It’s a short time for me, especially on the new tracks. For sure there will be a lot of pressure for the riders though.”
CW: You know Phillip Island from racing in MotoGP, how different is it on a superbike?
NH: “It’s different, because the bike moves a lot more in the faster corners and in the change of directions, so it’s difficult to be as precise as I used to be. But also the weather conditions are different. In MotoGP we race in the colder months and you really have to be careful on the right hand corners to keep the heat in the tires, while it doesn’t seem to be an issue now with the hot temperatures we’re riding in.”
CW: Where do you see yourself in the championship at the end of the first season?
NH: “I believe I can be competitive but I don’t have a number. We will see how the first race goes. I will do the maximum and try to learn as much as possible.”
CW: What is the bigger factor at this stage of your career: motivation or experience?
NH: “It’s all important. The experience you have is important, but sometimes it can be too much. Sometimes you know too much and you want to know too much. Sometimes it’s easier to go fast when you don’t know anything and you just go there and open the throttle.”