Tim Tuttle
Tuesday August 25th, 2009

It's been a rough season for Nicky Hayden, who arrives to this weekend's Red Bull Indianapolis GP in the unfamiliar territory of 14th in the MotoGP World Championship. Hayden has never finished worse than eighth in six previous years in the world's premier motorcycle road racing series, and was its champion in 2006.

Hayden, from Owensboro, Ky., closed out a 10-year relationship with Honda -- the last six with the Repsol team based in Barcelona, Spain -- following 2008 to move to the Ducati Marlboro Team, based in Bologna, Italy. Transitions are never easy, but Hayden's has been particularly problematic. The motorcycles were vastly different than anything he had ridden, and switching teams presented another set of challenges that included communicating during preseason testing and the opening three races of the season.

"I struggled in the beginning with the team," Hayden said. "It's a great bunch of guys, but the team had to make a crew chief change after the third race. The language barrier was too big. His English wasn't very good and my Italian wasn't very good. I have a Spanish guy now, Juan Martinez, and he speaks good English and is fluent in Italian and that was a big step forward."

Hayden didn't have a top 10 in the initial three races, but he's finished in the top 10 in five of the past six, including a season-best fifth at the USGP at Laguna Seca Raceway and sixth in the last race at Brno in the Czech Republic.

"I spent 10 years on a Honda and it was a big change when I came to Ducati," Hayden said. "I struggled more than I expected. It's been a tough road for me. That's how it goes sometimes, a big transition at the beginning of the year. A nightmare, really. We've started to chip away at it and the past couple of races have gone a lot better. I'm starting to enjoy it again and we're making progress. Is it enough? No, but it's good to see the hard work paying off."

Hayden crashed at 130 mph in qualifying for the season-opener at Qatar, and it left him with an extremely sore back and three stitches in his chest. Then two weeks later, in the Japanese Grand Prix, Hayden was taken out on the opening lap by Japanese rookie Yuki Takahashi.

"I was on my line and Takahashi just took me down," Hayden said. "Luckily, I feel OK. I actually landed in the same place on my back as the crash in Qatar and my leathers and helmet have exactly the same marks."

Even this deep into the season, Hayden's adaptation to the Ducati remains a work in progress.

"It's a lot different than the Honda," he said. "I grew up on Japanese bikes my whole life and this is Italian. The electronics package is different and the chassis is carbon fiber. The Japanese bikes are aluminum. I've ridden different Japanese bikes and they react somewhat similar, but the Ducati reacts different. It works when it's set up good, but we're still learning how to set it up. The electronics control everything, they're so advanced, and it changes how you ride on every part of the track and your corner entry."

Kevin Schwantz, the 1993 World Champion, has attended about half of the MotoGP events this year, and recognizes that the Ducati is a difficult bike to ride, but isn't sure what causes it.

"I've talked to Nicky Hayden a bit about riding [it]," Schwantz said. "It's just a bike that seems to be, from what they say, somewhat inconsistent. Watching Nicky and some of the things he does on the track, it just doesn't look like from lap to lap he's confident that the bike is going to continue to do the same thing in the same exact corner.

"So, as a rider, he can't quite start to compensate or make an adjustment from a rider's perspective to try to be able to do things a little bit better. I don't know whether that comes from the geometry of the bike, the chassis of the bike, the electronics of the bike, exactly what it is."

Hayden, 28, has a record of strong performances on home ground. He has two of his three MotoGP victories at Laguna Seca. In last year's inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, built specifically for MotoGP and running in the opposite direction of the course Formula One used, Hayden led 12 of 20 laps in the wind-and-rain shortened race, and finished second to Italian Valentino Rossi, a six-time MotoGP World Champion.

"I love Indy," the Kentucky Kid said. "There's something about coming home, that home crowd that gives you that extra adrenaline that gives you an extra couple tenths [of a second] a lap. I can drive to the race, my friends and family can come to the race. I'm a little nervous, I don't want to let them down. Hopefully, we can be competitive. This could be a good track for us."

Including Indianapolis, six races remain in the season. Hayden is 15 points behind 10th-place Chris Vermeulen and 24 back of Marco Malandri. There is enough racing for Hayden to salvage a respectable season.

"We've turned a big corner and we've certainly come a long way from where we were," Hayden said. "I think there is more to come. I'm bummed out that we only have six races to go because we're not going to get those last advances overnight. It's going to come with more hard work."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.