Ducati CEO Gabriele Del Torchio raised eyebrows last week when he mildly called out American Nick Hayden at the Wrooom launch event in the Dolomites, saying "We are delighted with the confirmation of Nicky, but we expect him to do better than last year."
There's no reason to believe that won't happen. This could be Hayden's peak time at Ducati, for a few reasons.
First, Hayden must be considered the unofficial leader of a team for the first time since 2006, the year he won the World Championship with Repsol Honda. Rookie Dani Pedrosa was his teammate that season, and despite Hayden's dream season, it became as obvious as craters on the Moon that Pedrosa was becoming the golden boy of both Repsol and HRC.
Just remember the contrast between Hayden's professionalism after Pedrosa submarined him into the gravel trap at Estoril, nearly costing him the title, and Alberto Puig's insane defense of Pedrosa's reckless rough-riding of a teammate at that race by saying Pedrosa still had a shot at the title.
Then HRC designed its 800cc bike for 2007 around the diminutive dimensions of Pedrosa instead of its returning World Champion Hayden. There was no question Hayden was the odd man out despite wearing the No. 1 on his fairing.
Hayden then moved to Ducati in 2009, which was Casey Stoner's team, full stop. Stoner won the World Championship for Ducati in 2007 and was the only rider who could consistently tame the tempermental, carbon-fiber Desmosedici into a race-winning bike.
Then Hurricane Valentino made landfall in Bologna in 2011. The pairing of Valentino Rossi with Ducati sucked all of the available oxygen from the Italian team, again leaving Hayden in the shadows. He continued to pound out endless laps of testing to help develop the carbon-framed GP11 and the aluminum-framed GP12, with a lost-in-space Rossi even turning to Hayden's setups early last season.
But Rossi always was going to be the center of the Ducati universe, regardless of how many arguments he had behind closed doors with Filippo Preziosi and regardless of how much damage he did to the Ducati brand by questioning the development of the bike to the Italian media.
Hayden finally is free to lead in 2013. Andrea Dovizioso is his new, low-key teammate, and many expect Dovizioso to encounter the same kind of adjustment period to the unique machine and working style of Ducati Corse that nearly every rider - except for Stoner - experienced after moving to Borgo Panigale from Japanese manufacturers.
There's also a sense of some urgency around Hayden this season. Unlike every other factory rider, he begins 2013 with just a one-year contract. Insiders confirm that Hayden only wanted a one year deal.
Last season also was a contract year for Hayden, and some already have forgotten that Hayden out-qualified Rossi and was nearly even in points with The Doctor before suffering a concussion and hand injury in a vicious qualifying crash in August at Indianapolis.
The Kentucky Kid has proven he can deliver under pressure.
Finally, Hayden either has defeated or hung close to new arrivals at his team throughout most of his MotoGP career. Hayden beat Repsol Honda newcomer Max Biaggi in the final standings in 2005 and did the same to Pedrosa in 2006 at the same team.
Rossi edged Hayden by one position - and just seven points - during The Doctor's first season at Ducati in 2011. Alex Barros was the only rider to step into Hayden's team and dust him in their first season together, beating Hayden by four positions and 48 points in 2004 at Repsol Honda.