Pit Pass - Monster Kawasaki's Jamie Hacking - Rejuvination?
Can Monster Kawasaki's Jamie Hacking become the oldest rider to sign a MotoGP contract? His substitute MotoGP performance at the Laguna USGP certainly didn't hurt
Jamie Hacking Never Had A Chance To Catch His Breath.
From the minute he was tabbed to replace John Hopkins on the Kawasaki ZX-RR MotoGP machine at the Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, to the finish of the AMA Superbike race on Sunday night, Hacking never slowed down. There was testing in Japan, rookie orientation, practice and qualifying for both AMA and MotoGP. And when it was over, after he'd finished a creditable 11th in his MotoGP debut and a tired fourth in the AMA Superbike race, Hacking was wistful about his career and hopeful for the future.
"It's too bad I'm not 25, but something could happen," he said days after the Laguna Seca GP experience ended. "It's just too bad I got started in the whole racing thing as late as I did and being so out of tune with everything at the beginning of my career. It took me so long to get to grips with everything and a lot of years went by that could have probably been spent doing something else. It's easy to say that I could have done that...the experience was great and those guys know that if there's any possibility of me riding the bike again that I'd love to do it."
Kawasaki's decision to put Hacking on the ZX-RR was met with widespread skepticism. First there was his age; at 37 he would be the oldest rider to make his premier class debut. With most of the field in their early 20s yet packing years of international experience, Hacking would be thrown to the wolves. He was the lone student when he sat down with race officials for rookie orientation. Mostly he learned about race procedures, when the pit entrance is open, where a rider can practice starts, nothing too difficult.
"They welcomed me into the series," he said. "It was very professional, very organized, something that we weren't accustomed to."
Unlike two years ago, when record heat scorched the hills outside of Monterey, this year's weather was unseasonably cool with morning temperatures in the 50s. The track was cold and the tires would take even longer to come in. The point was driven home early; his tires not quite up to operating temperature, Hacking ran into the gravel outside of turn two rather than risk a spill. "I was starting my fourth lap of warming up the tires, so I figured, OK, I can probably go now," he began, "but got a little warning that the tires weren't ready yet. It takes a little bit out of you as far as your confidence. I'm used to a tire that we can go hard right away on. Definitely, you get comfortable with the bike and you have a little slip like that, it knocks your confidence down just a little bit."
Hacking didn't want to make any mistakes. He was more concerned with being safe, bringing himself and the ZX-RR home in one piece, and contributing the sort of valuable feedback that Anthony West hasn't been able to provide.
Hacking tested the MotoGP machine at Kawasaki's Autopolis test track in Japan two weeks earlier. The test went well-so well, in fact, that Hacking set a new outright track lap record, taking 0.4 seconds off the previous mark held by longtime Kawasaki test rider Olivier Jacque. Hacking learned early on that "the harder you ride this thing the better it works. If you just tooled around on it, hit the bumps, it shakes its head off. It's stiff, it's angry. Just seems like the harder you ride it the more it reacts better, I think. So it's hard to ride at that pace all of the time. We try to ride that hard all the time on the Superbike, but realistically we can't do that. It's hard to hang on for that many laps. This thing here, once you get it dialed in and get comfortable on it, you're able to ride it that way."
"Right now I'm riding really timid and I'm really struggling to get the bike to turn through the corners due to a lack of tire grip," he said. "You know, with the time we've just got to do what we've got to do, and work up to it. The bike has super drive grip. I mean the drive grip is just unbelievable. But, you know, I'm a front end rider, that's why I've done so well in the 600s. And right now I don't have a front end underneath me that I feel comfortable enough to do what I need to do." With so much to take in, the team wasn't fiddling with the electronics because "that's nowhere near our priority list to start adjusting things like that."
The afternoon lap times didn't change much. The team made only small adjustments. The bigger adjustment came when Hacking had to ride his Monster Kawasaki ZX-10R Superbike. He said he wanted to put Buell stickers on it.
"It's like jumping out of a Ferrari and jumping in my motor home," Hacking said. "The bike turns good, but...it's two different things. Our superbike is really fast. I mean, it ain't no damn turd. It's every bit as fast acceleration-wise as the GP bike. It's probably not, but it feels like it. The torque is just unbelievable on our superbike.
"The biggest thing is how tight and small the package is on our GP bike and the degree of handlebar rake that we have on the bike. The superbike, I don't have that. I almost felt like I was riding one of those naked street bikes. My bars are so high and I thought to myself, 'Wow, how do you ride this?' To me the bike's the best feeling motorcycle I've ever ridden, until I threw a leg over a GP bike. And obviously the American superbike is still a very good bike for me and a comfortable bike. It's just that you get spoiled when you go over [to the MotoGP bike]."
The bigger surprise was that Hacking would crash the more familiar superbike. Exiting the Corkscrew, he thought it was "a little combination of the new [harder compound] tire and maybe some part of me being a little bit more aggressive on the throttle. And the thing spit me off pretty good. And luckily we came out OK, but the bike didn't come out too good."
By Saturday Hacking and the MotoGP team were having fun, something the team hadn't had much of this year. Hacking was delivering more than they'd expected, first with his test in Japan and now by giving the sort of detailed feedback that only an insightful veteran can provide. His reward was a new chassis. After practicing on the old frame on Saturday morning, he had one each, old and new, for qualifying. After testing them back to back, the new version won out. "It just seemed like it was a little bit more controlled in the middle of the corner," Hacking revealed, but "it didn't fix problems they were trying to address. Maybe a little more feeling in the front.
"I could just comfortably do low 23s on the bike and I was behind Chris [Vermeulen] for a while and I felt comfortable right there sitting with him. And I think we've got a lot more room to improve on the bike. I was happy. I was kind of thrilled to kind of see the bike coming along that much."
Hacking was continually impressed by the GP experience, but nothing prepared him for the Bridgestone qualifiers. Riders often have three qualifiers, some which last for only two laps with the final lap offering the most grip. Corner after corner he was shaking his head.
"It was something I've never experienced before," he related. "Around [turn] two there, I was on my knee, and just coming off my knee and I was at 100 percent throttle. And it was just incredible. And then the drive I had out of turn five, I was shifting at least 200-300 yards earlier than I was with the race tire on there. I was just like, 'Wow!' I just couldn't believe it. And everything was going good. The first few corners I knew I was getting in there and I knew it was right on the edge of the grip level of the front. It was getting a little iffy, like in five and through six."
Exiting the Corkscrew he picked up the throttle, shifted gears, "and it just drove the front right out from under me. Just lost it there, through Rainey (Curve). Pretty loaded up corner there and just washed the front end out." The lap would have been his fastest. Instead he slid into the gravel and had to scramble to get back to the pits. "I just explained to them that I overrode the front of the bike. They were just agreeing with me. It was a little upsetting that I couldn't put in a good, decent qualifying position. And I think we could've easily knocked a second off what we had. So that would have put me in the low 22s." Unfortunately, Hacking would have to start his first Grand Prix from the back row; he was 17th on the grid, but with a time that was 1.2 seconds quicker than his teammate West, the last rider on the grid.
Hopkins had told Hacking that Laguna Seca is one of the worst tracks for heating up the tires, "so I was really tentative in the first laps to try and get some heat in the tires and just make sure I got settled in. I knew once I got settled in that I could run low 23s like no tomorrow." Once he had heat in the tires, "they just start sticking really well, the lean angle is just incredible. After three or four laps the tires come up to temperature and you can definitely start screwing the throttle on and seems like more and more every lap. You get a little bit more used to it and open the throttle earlier and I'd go around and the next corner I'd open the throttle a little bit earlier.
"At the beginning there...when I took a little time, we're dealing with some of the fastest guys in motorcycle racing, so giving those guys a little bit of time is a lot. I managed to get around a few guys at the back and once I got around those guys and set my sights on the pack that was ahead of me, it was a pretty good distance I had to close in. Once I closed down on those guys, I just picked them off one by one."
Hacking moved into tenth behind his friend (and fellow temporary MotoGP rider) Ben Spies on the 13th of 32 laps. The tires dropped off a little bit at mid-race and then came right back. Hacking's fastest lap was the 18th , and the next lap he closed the gap to .225 seconds on Spies.
"I was running low 23's, and caught those guys in front of me, and when I got up to them, I could see from my lap charts that the two laps I got up on those guys I became a second slower on my times," Hacking said. "Once I got around them and got up on Ben, I think he sort of realized he needed to pick the pace up a little bit. I managed to stay with him. We had some good racing there together, close. I wasn't able to step it up to go past him. Once he stepped it up, he was running outside the range that I wanted to stay in comfortably. I wasn't able to make any attempt of a pass on him. He stepped it up a couple more tenths after that and that's when he pulled the gap on me."
Hacking could see Alice Ducati's Toni Elias coming. The Spaniard picked up his early pace and passed Hacking on the 24th lap. Then San Carlo Honda Gresini's Shinya Nakano "came on strong at the end and nipped me for 10th there. It looked like I was closing in on Nakano at the end, but I just ran out of time. I think I did a great job coming from dead last to 11th place." After the race, Elias came to Spies' motor home to compliment Hacking and Spies on their riding.
The mission was to give Kawasaki "valuable information, finish the race and get a good result. In my eyes, I feel like I fulfilled everything they wanted me to do. They seem like they are super happy with what we did. I tested some parts for them, chassis and stuff like that. That's pretty impressive that the first weekend on the bike I'm testing parts for them and stuff. Big respect for that and it was great. I feel like we made improvements with the bike every time we got on it. I think with some more valuable time on it we could make it even better. That's the whole key goal. I think they are struggling right now with making some improvements on the bike."
The end of the MotoGP race wasn't the end of his day. An hour later, Hacking had to ride in the AMA Superbike event.
"The entire race, I never really came to grips with the Superbike," he said. "The grip level is totally different. Our electronics package is different. Obviously our chassis on the Superbike is nowhere near as stiff as GP. And then after falling off the bike Friday, from just being a little bit too aggressive with it, it was make a mistake and lose a few points.
"I couldn't bring it out in me to pick up the pace. As far as muscle fatigue, I was a little worn out, but cardio-wise I was there. I just couldn't pick the pace up. I never really got a breather. It was a shame to give up my third place spot," to Jordan Suzuki's Aaron Yates. "At the end of the day the main goal was to secure third place in the championship and that's what we did."
As he was leaving the team dinner on Sunday night, Hacking ran into Kawasaki's MotoGP boss Ichiro Yoda. "He said, 'I'll see you in Brno.' I agreed with him and told him he'd have to get with [Monster Kawasaki team manager Mike] Preston and make some things happen.'" Unfortunately the Brno MotoGP round was the same weekend as the Virginia International Raceway round of the AMA Superbike Championship, and Hacking needed to maintain his third place in the championship, so the idea was scuttled.
"I'm thinking I might as well just shoot and break a record and be the oldest guy to sign a GP contract," Hacking said. "Nobody ever told Lance Armstrong he can't enter back in the Tour de France. I'm sure if he got back into shape at 37 years old he could probably go back and win it. At this point age doesn't really matter, even though age does really matter in GP. Matter of fact is that these guys need some development on the bike and some decent results and they know I'm capable of doing it with just some extra time on the bike.
"That's all I'm looking at. If I could do it for next two or three years, if I got the opportunity to do it, I'd be a fool not to jump on it. I think it's something if it does arise and I get the chance to do it I'm going to do it. Who knows? You never know.