It isn't every day you get to meet a world champion, whether past or present, so when the offer comes through to hook up with a former MotoGP champ, you don't take too long to say "yes please". The UAE is an obvious destination for the rich and famous for many reasons and, a couple of weeks ago, Nicky Hayden was in Dubai, where he was a special guest at the opening of the Middle East's first Ducati Caffè.
Situated opposite the ice rink in the Dubai Mall, it's Ducati's latest "concept restaurant and lounge bar", following Rome, Shanghai and Bangkok, and the owners are planning further outlets in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Beirut, Riyadh and Jeddah within the next couple of years. It's something we're all having to get used to, this dilution of a brand's magic with gift shops, merchandise ranges and even theme parks. I've come to accept this as a positive, though, because they help swell the company coffers and help them carry on developing and building superb vehicles.
And it's motorcycle racing that Hayden is famous for (he's Valentino Rossi's teammate at Ducati), so I arranged to meet him the day after the opening of the new venue. Far better, I reasoned, to sit down with him when there aren't hundreds of autograph-hungry fans baying for his attention. So the Ducati dealership just outside Dubai Autodrome seemed like a good idea.
He was quite obviously exhausted by the time he arrived, surrounded by a small army of flunkies, and it turned out that, just a day before arriving in Dubai, he'd done 80 test laps at the Mugello race circuit in Italy. No wonder his eyes were all over the place and it was obvious the last thing he wanted to do was to answer a hack's inane questions. So, eschewing the usual "what was it like to win the championship in 2006" nonsense, I thought I'd get his thoughts on how companies such as Ducati can attract new, young riders to life on two wheels - many of whom find the idea of motorcycling to be quite terrifying.
"We need to educate people," he slowly drawled in his Kentucky accent. "Riding bikes is a great think to do, a great sport. But you need to learn the basics before going wild out there. And while it can be dangerous, there are enormous benefits from riding a bike, no matter where you are in the world. You can cut through traffic, for instance, getting from point A to point B a lot faster than if you were in a car."
As he spoke, I couldn't help but notice some serious scar tissue on his forearms. Hayden has had some pretty big accidents in his racing career, so I asked him if this might be what puts off new riders. "If you think like that then maybe motorcycling isn't for you," he said, almost as a put down. "You could say practically anything in life is dangerous, so my advice would be to get the proper schooling, wear the protective gear and not ride like a moron." Quite.
How about Ducati recently being taken over by Audi? Does he think it'll turn out like a two-wheeled Lamborghini, where the parent company helps move a precious brand into the premier league? "Time will tell, but all I can say is that the vibe with everyone I speak to is good. They see it as a positive. Audi has a lot of resources and, if you're going to have a brother, you want a strong one. So far, they seem to be encouraging Ducati to keep on doing its thing and we're producing some incredible, next-level bikes, like the Panigale."
And with that, he was off to say hello to some invited customers who had turned up while we were talking. It was a whistle-stop visit, here and gone in 48 hours but, for sports people like Hayden, life is all about being in the fast lane, isn't it?
From / The National