Nicky Hayden believes his sixth place in practice at Catalunya marks a breakthrough in his adaptation to the Ducati GP9 after a very tough season so far.
The 2006 world champion has been a long way off the pace since joining Ducati from Honda at the end of last season, but the team has worked hard to make the bike more suitable for riders other than team leader Casey Stoner, who has always had a big margin over his teammates on the 800cc Ducatis.
Today in Spain Hayden was not only sixth fastest, but was only half a second behind Stoner – a much smaller gap than at previous rounds.
"I know it's only sixth position but still I'm pretty happy because I was running up front throughout the session and having fun, which is what racing is supposed to be about," he said.
The American praised the work done by test rider Vittoriano Guareschi, who has been tasked with helping make the Ducati more suitable for a wider range of riding styles. The team had also reshuffled its engineering lineup in recent weeks to devote more resources to getting all its bikes on the pace.
Hayden said this project had resulted in massive – and successful – changes to his setup.
"Basically, Vitto stayed on in Mugello and tested a lot and we have changed almost everything on the bike other than the handgrips," he said. "We've altered the electronics and the geometry a lot to help me get the bike turning and we've taken a big step. I don't want to get too excited because it's only Friday and we've got to keep working hard but I want to say that I am very grateful to the team and to Vitto, [technical director] Filippo [Preziosi] and 'Pippi' [engineer Cristhian Pupulin] and the test team in particular."
He also praised the team for standing by him during his struggles.
"Nobody here has given up on me even after a few bad races and I have always made it clear I won't give up on them," said Hayden. "We have had to stay mentally strong and keep positive, even though that hasn't been easy. Hopefully we're on to something here and all the hard work will start paying off."