In a tumultuous couple of weeks in MotoGP racing, one of the bright spots was Josh Hayes' job subbing for Colin Edwards.
The final race of the 2011 season could have been a non-event for Yamaha. Lorenzo was scrubbed -- still nursing a flayed finger, and there had to have been a question mark about Spies' health, after he was withdrawn in Sepang. Colin Edwards would not be racing for Tech 3, either; he proved to have been more injured than he'd looked at first, after the Simoncelli incident. And the whole weekend was, of course, colored by the fact that it was the first one after #58's death. All in all, the cold and rainy weather was apropos.
Cue Josh Hayes, who had been scheduled to 'test' a Yamaha M1 after the race at Valencia. This started out as a lark, really -- just a way for Yamaha USA to eke out a little more publicity from their AMA Superbike Championship. Suddenly, though, with not one but two riders out of commission, Hayes was invited to actually race.
There are those who described Hayes' opportunity as 'his shot' which, sadly, it was not. At 36, no one is seriously going to consider hiring Hayes as a MotoGP regular. People hoped that maybe Hayes would set the cat amongst the pigeons, the way Troy Bayliss did at the end of the '06 season. That was not going to happen because Bayliss had three big advantages over Hayes: he'd already ridden the track, he'd already tested the bike, and he was, after all, Troy Bayliss.
That's no insult to Hayes, who handled his first MotoGP race weekend perfectly. In shitty practice conditions, he kept the bike rubber-side-down and put in plenty of laps. Just not wrecking the equipment is a huge first step in building a rapport with any new team, and not taking anybody else out helps to build acceptance in the wider paddock. He seized an opportunity to top the time-sheets in the morning warm-up (a fluke, but still pretty cool) and then kept his head in the race, avoiding trouble with Katsuyuki Nakasuga, and passing series regulars when he got the chance. He finished ahead of Loris Capirossi and Tony Elias, who aren't exactly chumps. By any realistic standard, the goal for a first MotoGP weekend -- especially at the end of a season when you're the only newbie out there -- isn't to do something great, it's to avoid doing something stupid.
At the end of the day, seventh place in a MotoGP debut is eyebrow-raising, no matter who didn't start or who was taken out in the first lap. There will be those who'll say that Hayes got a gift last weekend, but that's not true. There's no such thing as being gifted positions in motorcycle racing. If Hayes had ridden over his head in the U.S. series, he'd be the one home recuperating from some injury. When someone crashes out in front of you, you beat them just as surely as if you'd stuffed them in Turn 1 and pulled off a nasty block pass.
Motorcycle racing is all about concentration, confidence, and focus; new stimuli (to say nothing of an unfamiliar bike, tires, and track!) are all concentration and confidence sappers. Hayes is now far more familiar with the M1 in particular, and MotoGP in general; getting that first race under his belt without a mishap sets him up to do even better next time, when he'll know what to expect.
What I'd like to see happen now is, I'd like to see Yamaha decide to enter an extra bike for him in the U.S. MotoGP rounds next season. And give Hayes at least a couple more testing opportunities. I think that if they did that, by the time he was in his third or fourth MotoGP race, he'd be mixing it up in top half of the field, even at races with a full grid and all the 'names' healthy and up on two wheels. Note that that is what I'd like to see, not necessarily what MotoGP wants to see (read photo caption for more on this.)
Would even that earn him 'a shot'? No. No chance. He's old enough to the father of the riders who'll get their shots at MotoGP stardom in the next couple of years. Is that unfair? Yes, totally. But motorcycle racing's become another youth cult. Get used to it. Josh Hayes will retire from motorcycle racing before he's ever seriously considered for a contract in the world's premiere series.
What Hayes would earn from that kind of showing -- and he's really almost earned it already -- is the right to say, "If I'd been given the right breaks, I could have raced with those guys."
I once read a mainstream media sportswriter describe Hayes as, "the nicest professional athlete I've ever met," but every racer has to have a massive ego. The racer's ego in Josh Hayes already knows he could'a been a contendah, but the chance to prove that to a wider public would almost be as valuable, to him, as a legitimate shot.