The million-watt smile is back.A third of the way into his most difficult season as a racer, Ducati Marlboro's Nicky Hayden found a reason to smile after a radical new set-up helped propel him to sixth place in Friday's first practice session for Sunday's Catalunya Grand Prix on the Montmelo circuit north of Barcelona."I was telling them upstairs, I'm no poker player so I'm not going to try to put a poker face on," Hayden said on a sunny afternoon in Spain. And to be "running around in the back ain't no fun at all - I can tell you."Hayden wasn't entirely over the moon - he knew he was 1.114 seconds off the fastest time - but it was the sort of progress he'd been hoping for, but hadn't seen all season. He said sixth wasn't great, but that he was "competitive and enjoyed riding the bike and hopefully we're on to something here and it can be the beginning."The Kentuckian lapped the 2.94-mile track in 1:44.152, off Valentino Rossi's leading 1:43.038 but only half a second off the time set by teammate Casey Stoner, who was third fastest. The breakthrough was the result of a radical new approach to setting up the Desmosedici GP09, which Hayden has been wrestling all season. Finding himself at the bottom of the time and results sheets was something he'd never experienced and he didn't much like it. His best qualifying position this season has been 12th, which is also his best finishing position, achieved three times in five races."They say there's only one guy who could ride this bike and to me that's a big challenge," he said. "I mean, sure I haven't always won on every bike I've ridden, but I've ridden a lot of half-milers, TTs, short trackers, you know, 600s, V-twins, inline four Superbikes, and I've always at least been competitive on everything. I hope I don't have to end the season knowing I failed at a big challenge. So for me it's a personal challenge to say, ‘Hey, I can do it' and I'm motivated by that."Hayden said he was gratified to see his name on the results board as he went down the front straightaway."Well, my pit board told me, but it's still nice to see that you're at least hitting the board [which shows the top 10 bikes]," he joked. "That's a start. That's not our main goal. So single digits, that's a start. We work on them single digits and then see if we can move it up."Hayden knew straight away that he was aboard a different motorcycle, saying, "like I said yesterday, we changed everything but the grips on it, as far as the bike goes. Riding-wise, I just feel that it's more comfortable and I can push harder. When I'm fast on this bike, it's not easy, because if it was easier you'd go faster. But any time, you know, a couple of tests, I've been in the top five at different times, the faster you go the more comfortable and feels like the more you risk your life. I mean, you can be three seconds off the pace and it just feels like it's not possible to find another 10th. But then when you get close, within a second, every time I think, ‘God, sure I could've been faster if I'd just done this and that.'"Like I say, I don't want to get too carried away. We're not completely out of it, but hopefully we're on to something. I enjoyed it today."

The biggest improvement was the Ducati was turning better."Sure, it was pumping a lot less, but I could turn the bike now and when it would start pumping, I had it picked up and wasn't on the very side of the tire trying to get it turned and get the throttle open."Among the changes was a 20mm thicker seat pad. That put his weight over the front, but it was one of so many changes that he couldn't pinpoint what was most helpful."Sure the turning must be coming from the ride position. Also the electronic system is different too."The electronics helped with the pumping that's been bedeviling him and Stoner all season."The first touch of the throttle, it helps me get the bike picked up a bit more before the power comes in."Hayden was effusive with praise for the test team and test rider Vito Guareschi for the majority of the improvement."They got one rider winning the World Championship and they tested there and a lot of it they were testing to try to help me. I can't say they forgot about me yet, so I'm thankful for that."Once he realized the changes had helped, it was a relief, he said, "because we trust a lot in Vito and some of the last couple of things he had tried wasn't a big help for me. So I had joked, said ‘Only rider's got more pressure than on me is Vito,' because he said some stuff that I really hoped was right." He added, "So a good test rider is a very important part of it and we've got a good test rider."

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Henny Ray Abrams | Contributing Editor

Abrams is the longest-serving contributor at Cycle News. Over the course of his 35-some years of writing and shooting photos, he’s covered events from MotoGP to the Motocross World Championship - and everything in between.

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