Noyes on Nicky

Discussion in 'Racing' started by HarveyMushman, May 18, 2006.

  1. HarveyMushman

    HarveyMushman Long timer Supporter

    Jun 21, 2002
    LoCo, Virginia, USA
    Honda's 2004 Plan Now Working for Hayden in 2006
    Written by: Dennis Noyes
    London, England – 5/16/2006

    When Valentino Rossi left Honda after winning two MotoGP titles on the RC211V to join Yamaha and try to turn the M1 into a championship winning machine, Honda’s plan was to throw six Honda RC211Vs out on the track ridden by a half dozen factory and satellite Honda riders. The idea was that when Rossi and Yamaha had an off day there would be several Honda riders able to beat him and take away points.

    It wasn’t such a bad idea, if you consider that Honda riders took six of the first eight places, but Rossi won nine of 16 races and took the title by 47 points over Gibernau (Gresini Honda) who was followed in the points table by Biaggi, Barros, Edward, and Tamada, all on Hondas, then Checa on the second Yamaha, and finally Hayden, a distant eighth, tied in points with Checa and Capirossi.

    That eighth place finish, after having been fifth in his rookie year, hurt Hayden’s credibility in HRC and led HRC to put their faith in the hands of the two veteran riders who had finished second and third behind Rossi, Gibernau, a winner of four races working out of the Gresini team, and four time 250 World Champion Max Biaggi, who had a win riding for the Pons team in 2004. The 2005 Honda master plan was complicated and based upon supplying three riders, Max Biaggi, Nicky Hayden and Sete Gibernau (via the Gresini Honda satellite team) with the right stuff and also trying to get ahead of the game prior to the switch to 800cc machines in 2007 by having Max Biaggi and Gibernau doing development work on the “evolution” RC211V that is currently being raced by Hayden.

    Biaggi rebelled, became sulky, sullen and even began to suspect that Honda engineers were changing mappings and vital settings without his knowledge and for reasons that had more to do with acquiring data in real race conditions than in obtaining results. The only people who really know what went on on Max’s side of the Repsol garage last year are keeping it to themselves. Likewise Sete Gibernau let it out in statements to the Spanish press at the end of the 2005 season that he felt he was being used more to test parts and concepts than to win races.

    Hayden, on the other hard, who won the United States Grand Prix at Laguna Seca last year, was in his third season as a factory Repsol Honda rider and would have been expected to have been involved in development. He wasn’t. He also expected to benefit from the addition of legendary technician Erv Kanemoto as Technical Director of the Repsol team. He didn’t, because, either by Honda’s plan or by Max Biaggi’s manipulations, Kanemoto, the man who is best known for having worked with Freddie Spencer during the brilliant Honda rider’s glory days, worked almost exclusively with the Roman.

    That left the now 24-year-old American to concentrate on the task at hand. But the perception by the European press is that Hayden was skipped over because HRC did not consider that he was capable of developing the bike. The fact that Italian Marco Melandri took runner-up spot in the championship, winning the final two races of the season, led the European press to the conclusion that Hayden was not making it. With the arrival of 20-year-old Dani Pedrosa and the departure of Biaggi and Gibernau, Hayden has now been thrust into the role of developing a machine that he would rather not have raced, at least up until now.

    With that bike, a lighter, narrower version of the RC211V, he is leading the points table, but not being taken seriously in the European press as a title challenger because he has not had a win since that first one at Laguna Seca last July. Even Rossi, over preseason testing when his new Yamaha M1 was apparently working well, never counted Hayden as one of his prime rivals. Repeatedly the Italian pointed to Melandri and rookie Dani Pedrosa as the men to beat. In part this was because of what Rossi was seeing on the test tracks. Hayden, in spite of expressing his preference for the more standard version of the RC211V as ridden by Pedrosa, was “assigned” to the lighter, narrower machine that is, whether Honda want to admit it or not, clearly intended to test concepts and maybe even parts that will be used in the new 800cc machine that is being tested, we assume, in Japan.

    When Dani Pedrosa finished second to Loris Capirossi in round one at Jerez, Tadayuki Okada, the former 250, 500 and MotoGP rider (and winner) who is working now on the 800cc development program, was very surprised, but he was not as surprised by Pedrosa’s second place in a race that lacked Rossi (knocked off in turn one) at the front, as he was by Hayden’s third place. “Tadi” told American Randy Mamola, now a Eurosport TV analyst, “I never expected Nicky to be in the top five with our bike today.” “Our bike,” then, in Okada’s mind, refers to the project bike that Hayden is riding.

    Unlike Max Biaggi, Nicky is very careful not to rankle HRC. Only on one occasion, at the post race press conference at Qatar for the second Grand Prix of the season, did I hear an edge to Nicky’s voice when he was repeatedly asked if his factory Honda was better than the Honda’s ridden by other Honda riders. On that occasion he said, “I know you guys need something to write about, a new swing-arm or something, but I’ve said before that whenever I tested the two bikes I was always more comfortable on the standard bike but Honda said they want me to concentrate on this thing and we’re making progress, but we still need to improve it a lot.”

    In Qatar Hayden and Rossi battled over the final laps, with Rossi picking up the win and Nicky taking second, and, again, Honda technicians seemed surprised to find the experimental version of the RC211V so close to the M1 and so near the top of the points table. At that point, Hayden said that he had been told that he would have a “more competitive” bike after the fifth race. With Hayden’s second to team mate Pedrosa in China, we now have four races in the books and Hayden, who left Turkey with a one point lead over Capirossi (and 12 points over Rossi), is now leading Capirossi by 13 points, Pedrosa by 15 and Rossi by a significant 32 points…significant because that gives the American from Kentucky an advantage of a full race (25 points) and seven points.

    A New Frame in May

    Generally speaking, the last thing you want to test in practice for a Grand Prix is a new frame. A new frame in his garage this weekend at Le Mans means that the Yamaha M1 project is in trouble fighting off chatter. Given the problems that both Rossi and Colin Edwards complained of in China, the changes could offer some respite from chattering problems that have been a wall for the Yamaha riders in dry conditions at both Jerez and China. Trailing by 32 points after four or 17 round is such not a huge hole to dig out of considering that Rossi won the championship last year by 147 points, but the difference between the two years is clearly seen in the tension in the Rossi garage.

    “With the Honda,” said Valentino in Turkey, “I used to get the bike sorted out with 25 minutes to go before the end of the final session of qualifying. Now I get the Yamaha ready for the qualifying run with about five minutes to go.” And it is becoming very clear, although Rossi neglected to mention him during the winter, that the guy who is looking the most threatening in the battle for the 2006 MotoGP title is Hayden, a rider from AMA Superbike and AMA Grand National training, who knows that a single crash or a DNF takes months of work to overcome in the standings.

    In Jerez Hayden was a well-beaten third on a bike that Honda didn’t think could finish third. In Qatar, where the iffy grip of the Losail circuit masked the Yamaha’s chatter tendency, Hayden clearly still not comfortable on the “project” Honda, kept Rossi honest, even taking the lead back briefly with three laps to go, and was less than a second adrift at the flag.

    Chatter is one of motorcycle road racing’s relative mysteries…resonances, harmonies, something to be cured by just changing things, by burying a toad under the back porch or by trying to bring back some flex to an overly rigid chassis. Honda suffered the chatter curse when Michelin introduced a new rear tire just prior to the start of the 2004 season, but on that occasion the Yamaha liked the new tire and the Rossi-Burgess lead team at Yamaha quickly adapted to the new side grip that was available while Honda riders, “comfortable” with the 2003 tires and the 2003 bike soon realized that they had been left behind.

    Something of the sort seems to have happened now with Yamaha, as the latest Michelins have suited the various Honda packages (there are three, “Standard” RC211V as ridden by Stoner, Melandri and Tamada, factory RC211V as ridden by Pedrosa, and the factory “evolution” RC211V as ridden by Hayden) but the same tires, a bigger, grippier rear and a new, wider front, have given Rossi and Edwards chatter problems in grippy tracks.

    Rossi’s problems with chatter sound serious. In Turkey he said he was faster after the tires and lost their grip and in all four races he has said that he can only go quickly when he has burned off half the fuel load. I was incapable of writing the words “defective Michelin front tire” following the Chinese Grand Prix, in spite of seeing how the front had thrown a chunk that destroyed the front mud guard. Wayne Rainey once told me when I said that Sete had had a defective Michelin, “There is no such thing as a defective Michelin!” So let’s just say that the front that Valentino wore out and destroyed in China may have met its demise because of how hard Valentino had to work it as he came through from the depths of the grid (13th) battling for each place with riders who fought him for every meter…fought him, as Melandri did to Valentino’s annoyance, because they could.

    Now Yamaha returns to a track where they won from the pole last year and where Rossi was first and Edwards was third. But they don’t have last year’s bike anymore, nor do they have last year’s confidence.
    Horsepower Alley

    Le Mans is a stop and go track that favors bikes with big horsepower and the electronics that let that power get to the track. There are nine right-handers and four left-handers and a fifth gear right-hander before the final straight that ended Alberto Puig’s career when he tried to take it in sixth on a 500 in qualifying for the 1995 French Grand Prix. Puig, the man behind the amazing career of Dani Pedrosa, will obviously caution his protégé about any heroics on that corner next weekend.

    This is not a track that Nicky Hayden or Valentino Rossi likes, though Rossi had his first ever 500 podium there and has won there twice in last four years. Hayden’s results there have been poor: twelfth, eleventh and sixth. But things change where you are leading the points table. Honda will dial in as much extra horse power as Hayden’s V5 can use and Nicky, who is very aware that he has a real shot at the title, will play it smart. He knows that HRC have answers to his traction and balance problems in the pipeline.

    This will be a charged race for Pedrosa, now emerging as a real championship challenger after that win in China. Fans from Spain will be there in large numbers and you’ll see more Catalan and Spanish flags than French flags when the MotoGP bikes roll out on Sunday.

    Regular readers may recall that I went out on a limb last year and predicted that Hayden would win the USGP at Laguna Seca. That was a little more than just a hunch, but it was certainly not an opinion shared in the MotoGP media center.

    I’ve seen a lot of championships develop since I started doing this for a living in the middle seventies, and I’ve got a growing feeling that this will be the year that Nicky Hayden wins his first World Championship. If he does it will be because he continues to think like a dirt tracker chasing a Grand National title…knowing that two thirds are always better than a win and a crash. If he does it will be because, whatever idea Honda HRC originally had at the start of this season, they will have realized by now that this one is there to be won. The rookie who wasn’t supposed to win yet has already won in China and the “evolution” bike that probably has a lot of 2007 ideas being tested in it, is not only leading the points chase, but leading Rossi by 32 points.

    And that old 2004 idea of throwing six Hondas out there to take points from Rossi when he has an off-day certainly worked at China where Rossi complained after the race that Melandri was fighting too “strong” when they two diced for eighth place. With the likes of Stoner, Melandri, Elias and a revitalized Tamada running downfield and Rossi continuing to qualify badly, his run from the middle and back rows to the front has been thwarted by stubborn resistance for every place.

    It would be a kind of minor miracle is Rossi’s new chassis worked immediately and chatter problems were suddenly gone at Le Mans. Of course, miracles are always possible when Rossi is involved. That Honda 2004 plan just might work anyway because in 2004 Rossi seemed to own his rivals and seemed to know just how to get into the heads of Sete and Max, and both his rivals were obsessed with beating Rossi. The difference is that Hayden seems oblivious to Rossi, unlike Sete and Max, and the young guns Pedrosa and Stoner, are so used to winning and racing with each other that when they hook up with former 250 and 125 rivals like Melandri and Elias, they take up where they left off, racing each other and anyone else who happens to be out there.

    The mix is different and Honda, with nothing left to hold in reserve since the RC211V in 990 trim is in it’s final season, is giving their half dozen riders all they have on the shelves back at HRC, plus something extra for Pedrosa and Hayden. If the changes in balance and rigidity that Hayden has asked for, and which he should have by Catalunya at the very latest, are the improvements that the American is imagining, this could be the first American title since Kenny Roberts Junior in 2000.
    Does Pedrosa have a weak spot?

    Inevitably the rivalry within the Repsol Honda team will become more obvious. I live and work in Spain where, logically, sentiments run high and in favor of the reigning 250 World Champion. One by one Pedrosa has silenced his critics by disproving all the popular and conventional wisdom. He was thought to be too small to ride a big bike. But this 5’2” 112 pound young man was on the podium in his first race and has just become the second youngest winner in the big class (500/MotoGP) since Freddie Spencer. Many thought he would not be able to handle the bike on worn tires, but he was the fastest man over the final laps in China and put the race out of Nicky’s grasp by refusing to crack.

    His starts have been poor, but he comes back to the front very quickly as we saw in Turkey. He even managed to bump start the big Honda after his last lap crash in Turkey. So about the last real question mark about Pedrosa as a MotoGP rider is how comfortable he is dicing in a pack, something that Hayden, trained in the cut and thrust of dirt track racing, is very much at home with.

    But something tells me that the only real weakness that still limits Pedrosa is his rain-riding. Like Rossi, he arrived in the big class with a reputation of being a fair-weather rider. And, as we saw in 1981 with Randy Mamola, that can be a flaw that costs titles. (Randy lost the 1981 500 title to Marco Luchinelli when he lost confidence and faded in the rain at Anderstorp, Sweden. Mamola overcame that flaw to become recognized as the best rain rider of his day, but he never again want into the final round of the championship with the title within reach.

    Many in Spain believe that Pedrosa is HRC’s pre-ordained choice for future glory and they bolster this theory by the fact that for Repsol a Spanish rider as World Champion is ideal. Repsol claim that the got more benefit nationally from the one year that Álex Crivillé won the title than form the four titles taken by Doohan in Repsol colors (he won his first in generic Honda HRC colors in 1994).

    But it should not be forgotten that, while Pedrosa has strong support from the Spanish-Argentine petroleum giant Repsol, Hayden carries the full support of American Honda. There have been cases in the past where Honda “intervened” to further a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stories like this float in the media center air. And many people whose opinions I respect have told me that at the Eight Hours of Suzuka Honda fumbled the final tire change on Alex Barros’ machine to make sure that the winning bike was the one ridden by Valentino Rossi (and Colin Edwards), but with a real chance to vindicate themselves and retire the RC211V in glory, you can be sure that Honda will give both their factory riders their best material.

    Hayden, it is true, would have preferred to have started the season riding the same spec machine as Pedrosa, but he is an employee of Big Red and accepted the important role as the man to develop the final “evolution” of the 990cc V5. He has done it so well that he may now just be a few new parts away from having made a Rossi beater out of it…not just in the points table but also on the track. If Hayden can come out of France and Mugello, two tracks where he has never gone well, still in the thick of the points hunt, expect him to get stronger and stronger over the final eleven rounds, which include all his favorite tracks.
  2. Kropotkin

    Kropotkin Big Girl's Blouse Supporter

    Dec 20, 2003
    Dieren, The Low Low Lands of Holland
    What a great article. That's what I want to be like when I grow up...
  3. dagwood

    dagwood Banned

    Aug 25, 2003
    Vancouver, Not! BC...
    your there man. you there already...:deal
  4. Kropotkin

    Kropotkin Big Girl's Blouse Supporter

    Dec 20, 2003
    Dieren, The Low Low Lands of Holland
    Thanks, but I'm not so sure. It's good to have something to aim for, though...