Nicky Hayden has declared his fighting fourth-place finish in Sunday's Qatar Grand Prix as his best performance since joining Ducati in 2009.
The 2006 world champion, who missed out on a podium finish by 0.011sec when he was passed on the finish line by Honda's Andrea Dovizioso, admitted that while he was encouraged by his improved form he was gutted to have just missed a top-three finish.
"Man! I really didn't expect to be so tough in the race but the team made a couple of small changes that made a huge difference and, right from the warm-up lap, I felt good," he said. "I got a great start and [Valentino] Rossi didn't seem a lot faster than me.
"In a couple of places he was getting away, but I just tried to stay in there and learn something – it's been so long since I ran at the front.
"If you offered me fourth place, two seconds behind Rossi, before the race I would have taken it but to be so close to the podium and not actually up there...it hurts. Still, it's a long season and there are a lot of opportunities ahead of us."
"I'm sorry for Casey [Stoner] but fourth place with all the other heavies in there has got to be my best result."
Hayden's strong finish was assisted, ironically, by the fact that his teammate Stoner crashed out of the lead. The Australian had been in commanding form through the weekend and looked set to ride off into the distance when he lost the front-end of his bike. The 22-year-old accepted the blame for the accident after the race.
"Once I got to the front I started to get into my rhythm but I lost the front end a couple of times in long corners so I made the decision to try to ride a bit smoother and not put so much pressure on the front tire with the full tank," explained Stoner. "Unfortunately, that is what led to the crash because looking at the telemetry I didn't have enough load on the front, so I guess in hindsight I should have stuck to the way I'd been riding all weekend.
"It's my mistake and I apologize to the team because we'd done a great job this weekend and we leave empty handed.
"Having said that, it's not a complete disaster because we've found this weekend that the bike has improved in areas where we have struggled in the past – for example the rear grip was unbelievable – and we have a long, long way to go."