As the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ rang out over the Sepang International Circuit on Sunday in recognition of Nicky Hayden’s first World Superbike win its unfamiliarity was jolting. The dearth of young American talent coming into international road racing is well documented and finally being addressed by the new MotoAmerica series run by Wayne Rainey et al. PJ Jacobsen celebrated two wins in the Supersport class last year but otherwise you have to go back to Ben Spies’ dominance of the 2009 season to find evidence of American success in World Superbikes. In MotoGP, of course, only Spies and Hayden have taken the stars and stripes to the top step of the podium in the time since Kenny Roberts Jr’s last win in 2000.

It has been a long held opinion of mine that riders cling on for too long in a championship they know they can’t win. Self-belief is, obviously, the cornerstone of any rider’s psyche but sometimes a dash of realism isn’t such a bad thing. The truth is that most people in the MotoGP paddock look down their nose at World Superbikes and it seems that once a rider considers himself a Grand Prix rider it is difficult to revaluate that notion without a sense of having given up in some way.

Maybe this was the case for Nicky, an official MotoGP Legend who you have to credit for his commitment to the series even though, in the end, he did nothing to enhance his legacy by spending two years on an ‘Open’ spec Honda. Even more disheartening for his fans, and probably his friends and family, was the fact that he didn’t look to be enjoying himself for those last few years. That trademark grin and the wisecracking good humour of the Kentucky Kid, such a refreshing addition to the championship when he arrived back in 2003, were fading and Nicky was in danger of falling out of love with the sport he adored.

But then, how could developing an uncompetitive bike with the ultimate goal of an ‘Open’ category win or a handful of points ever recreate the buzz he’d experienced when winning those epic races at Laguna Seca and Assen, or lifting the title on that unforgettable day at Valencia? Shane Byrne, who has turned down several uncompetitive WSBK rides over the years in favour of dominating British Superbikes, summed it up well alongside me in the Eurosport studio. “There’s no feeling in the world like winning, that’s for sure. I remember Carl Fogarty in his heyday saying that if he wasn’t winning he didn’t care. I used to think ‘that’s so arrogant, you should just want to go and race motorbikes!’ But that was the winner in Carl and as your career progresses you find that being the case. Second’s alright, but you might as well be last. Once you have experienced winning, nothing comes close.”

Some people argue Fogarty was taking the easier option by not facing up to Mick Doohan in 500cc GPs, but that’s another story. Personally I take my hat off to the likes of Eugene Laverty and other young riders forsaking the chance to win races in World Superbikes in order to chase their Grand Prix dream. But for those that have already lived it, or have come to realise it is beyond them, it might be time to set new goals. Colin Edwards felt he had no need to go back to WSB, having won it twice in 2000 and 2002, but how much more fun would it have been to see him go back there and fight for a third title rather than flogging around fighting for CRT wins for three years?

Nicky revealed after Sunday’s race that not many teams were willing to offer him a chance in WSB, which is amazing when you consider what he has achieved in his career. Maybe they thought he was a ‘big shot’ but that could not be further from the truth and the Ten Kate Honda team were rewarded immediately during preseason with his dedication to testing, his work ethic and his development knowledge, which along with extra input from HRC has squeezed fresh life out of the ageing Fireblade. It took wet conditions to help Hayden to his first win but he’d have taken it however it came. The look on Nicky’s face, the quiver on his chin and the shaking in his voice when he gave his post-race interview show how much winning means to him. And, as fans, haven’t we missed it?

At the same time, the disappointment on the face of Jonathan Rea was evident despite the fact that a second and a third at Sepang were enough to extend his overall championship lead. Given his current form it’s hard to imagine Jonathan wouldn’t have had offers to move to MotoGP himself next season but, having experienced it as a replacement for Casey Stoner a couple of years ago, he has decided he enjoys winning too much. At the age of 29 and with 34 wins already to his name compared to Fogarty’s record of 59, a new two-year deal with Kawasaki gives JR the opportunity to become the most successful World Superbike rider of all time. And wouldn’t that be something worth smiling about?

Recommended Articles