By Peter McLaren and Andy Stobart

There comes a time in every rider's career where they must cross the line from potential star to proven performer - and Team Suzuki's John Hopkins needs, and expects, 2005 to be the year in which he takes that step.

Former Formula One driver Martin Brundle, now a successful commentator on the sport for British television, claims that an F1 driver is either giving pressure to his opponents or receiving pressure from them - there is no comfort zone in between - and it could be argued that the same applies to MotoGP.

Hopkins, on the eve of his fourth season in the premier-class, is the first to admit that his GP career to date - which began on an outdated 500cc Red Bull Yamaha in 2003, before being supplied with marginally better machinery by Team Suzuki since then - hasn't matched his own high expectations; with a best finish of sixth (2004) and highest championship standing of just 15th (2003).

However, 'Hopper' has taken the pressure during those often gloomy, injury stained, years and with his 2005 Bridgestone shod GSV-R looking like a potent weapon, the fully fit 21-year-old is ready to collect: Hopkins expects nothing less than podiums and race wins this season - while beating team-mate Kenny Roberts Jr and factory Honda rider Nicky Hayden are among his primary targets.

"I've known in my head all along that I have the talent to do it. It looks like I have the machinery and tyres to do it this year so it's only natural that I go out and basically prove to the world what I can do," the straight-talking Californian told Crash.net.

"We're looking at our best year yet and we're definitely looking at earning our first podium, especially at the season-opener at Jerez. I've had a good race there in the past and I tend to like the track. I'm going to be disappointed if I'm not on the podium. I will accept a top five, but I will be extremely disappointed outside of the top five," confirmed Hopkins, who has vowed that his next alcoholic drink will be podium champagne.

The Anglo-American then declared that his 2005 ambitions extend further than just finishing in the top three, and the #21 fully intends to join the list of six active (four-stroke) MotoGP race winners by taking victory at both his home events this year.

"There will be certain tracks where I expect to win; Donington I expect to win, Laguna Seca I expect to win," he stated confidently. "I've always enjoyed Donington, I like Donington as a track and it's a track I expect to win at. As far as Laguna Seca; I expect to win there. As far as any other track; I want to be on that podium. That's my mindset at the moment."

Ever since joining Suzuki, Hopkins has been teamed with the factory's 2000 world champion Kenny Roberts Jr - a rider who has often come under criticism for an alleged lack of effort since his title winning season. So, how does Hopper rate Roberts - who took pole position at Rio last season - and does he anticipate being the faster of the two this year?

"Well yeah, definitely, there's no question about it," replied Hopkins, sounding almost surprised at the question. "Kenny has been unmotivated for a bit over the last couple of years - for not really the best reasons - but when Kenny's riding well, he's riding well; he's extremely good when he wants to be and I want him to be as motivated as possible, because it drives me to find it within myself to beat him.

"It's tough when he's riding hard, then it's definitely extremely difficult to beat him. It's all part of it, right now we're basically working together to get the bike to a level where we can get it to the top, then we can compete with each other," he continued.

"But yeah, Kenny is on the same machinery as me and he's the first person I definitely want to beat besides Nicky Hayden."

Hayden? Any particular reason for wanting to beat Nicky?

"For certain reasons... it's not anything personal - he's a nice guy - but being the other young American, besides myself, he's definitely by far the first person I want to beat. I mean there's no question about that," replied Hopkins.

And the ideal place to beat Repsol Honda rider Hayden - under pressure to win his first race this year after spending two seasons on one of only two full factory RCVs in the paddock - would surely be in front of their home fans at the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca, an event which will mark the return of Motorcycle Grand Prix racing to America for the first time since 1994.

"I can't wait to get there," enthused John. "Laguna Seca is such a great circuit for me, and it's in California. I love it, the atmosphere is really great there and it's going to be great to expose what this sport is like to America - not what it was like - what it will be like.

"The fans are going to experience it first hand and hopefully we can get the interest of American sponsors so it's not just Spanish and Italian riders getting free rides because they have multi-million dollar sponsors behind them."

Finally, what are his 2005 world championship aspirations? "Well, within my prediction of not wanting to get off the podium, I would expect to be within the top five definitely," John concluded.

And what does his new team manager expect? Paul Denning, whose appointment Hopkins credits as instrumental to much of their pre-season improvements, will be making his MotoGP race debut at Jerez - but has no doubts about the potential of the Hopkins/Suzuki/Bridgestone combination.

"Suzuki is serious; they've won the championship before, fully intend to do it again and two or three slightly difficult years don't mean that a manufacturer has lost its way with regard to what it takes," began Denning, when asked about the company's level of commitment to MotoGP.

"My target is to improve dramatically over 2004," he added. "It was a very, very difficult year last year and we have to show Suzuki riders near the front of the field and challenging for the front group. That's what everybody is after at Suzuki; it's a realistic position (but) I think the riders, particularly Hopkins, are looking for more than that - immediately."

"I was out watching Hopkins going through the stadium section at Jerez last week and his corner entry speed was like a Formula One car! He is just so committed to going quick," he added later in the interview. "Bridgestone have built a tyre pretty much around his riding style - the high corner speed and high edge grip requirement - and he's starting to use those tyres to the full now."

"Hopkins has got a very focused and very professional approach to his racing for a 21-year-old. He is only going to need to start knocking on the door and it's going become very clear that he's a big talent," Denning warned.

Day one of the season-opening Spanish Grand Prix, at Jerez, takes place this Friday.

The full interview with Hopkins can be found in the Crash.net Radio archive...

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