When John Hopkins lines up on the World Superbike Championship grid in 2012, it will not only signal a return to full-time international competition for the popular American, but also the full revival of a career that, as recently as 2010, seemed to be reaching its conclusion.
A child protégé, Hopkins began his rise to prominence at the age of 15 when a chance meeting with John Ulrich saw him taken under the journalist and team owner’s wing. Benefitting from Ulrich’s contacts and industry know-how, Hopkins swiftly ascended the national motorcycling ranks, winning the Aprilia Challenge Championship and impressing on an EMGO Suzuki Supersport machine.
Moving to the Supersport series full-time in 2000, Hopkins won the AMA 750cc Supersport Championship with two race wins and six podiums, forming the basis for his breakthrough season in 2001 when he triumphed in the AMA Formula Xtreme Championship, still aged just 18-years-old.
Such a performance convinced Ulrich that Hopkins was ready for his graduation to the international stage and duly arranged a deal to ride a Red Bull Yamaha in the 2002 MotoGP World Championship.
Despite his relative lack of experience, the determined Hopkins produced what was regarded as an impressive debut season on an out-dated 500cc two-stroke - in the first year of 990cc four-strokes - and finished 15th in the championship with 58 points, taking a best finish of seventh at Assen.
The performance was enough to convince the Suzuki factory team that Hopkins was a future star and he was given a manufacturer-backed 990cc four-stroke for the 2003 season alongside fellow American, and 2000 world champion, Kenny Roberts Jr.
However, despite the encouraging premise of the deal, the 2003 season would prove horrendous for both Hopkins and Suzuki. The 2003 spec GSV-R had serious handling problems from the start and was uncompetitive throughout the season, while Hopkins’s burgeoning reputation wasn’t helped by a controversial one-race ban after he was judged to have triggered a first turn pile-up at Motegi.
Despite this – and his lowly 17th in the standings -, Hopkins still had the distinction of out-performing and out-scoring Roberts Jr, earning him a chance to remain with Suzuki for 2004.
A pre-season Supercross injury hampered the early part of his 2004 season, but ‘Hopper’ delivered a strong second half of the year with a best result of sixth at the Portuguese Grand Prix. Hopkins finished 16th in the world championship despite being injured in a first turn Motegi pile-up - this time the result of another rider’s error.
Despite courting interest from other teams, Hopkins chose to remain alongside Roberts at Suzuki for 2005. Like Roberts, Hopkins battled for the lead in wet races in China and Britain - but was still unable to get his first podium. The highlight of his year was a best ever GP finish of fifth in Japan and front row starts at Motegi and Sepang, but he remained only 14th in the championship.
The 2006 season saw Hopkins enter his fourth season with Suzuki, although this time he was joined by WSBK star Chris Vermeulen. Continuing his upward curve, Hopkins secured a maiden pole position at Assen and two fourth place finishes en route to tenth in the championship, laying the basis for his breakthrough 2007 season.
Setting impressive pre-season pace aboard the new 800cc GSV-R, Hopkins was a frequent top ten rider in 2007, the American breaking his podium duck at Shanghai before repeating that feat at Brno – where he claimed a career-best of second -, Misano and Valencia. Finishing every race, Hopkins headed off Melandri and Vermeulen to finish a fine fourth in the overall standings.
Given his long-standing commitment to Suzuki and his linear ascension up the MotoGP ranks, many were surprised when Hopkins announced he would be switching to the fairly unproven Kawasaki in 2008.
Ending his five year Suzuki association to join the least successful MotoGP manufacturer was always going to be something of a gamble, and Hopkins’ 2008 hopes were hit further when he injured his groin during pre-season testing at Phillip Island.
When the racing season began Hopkins was still not fully fit, while the ZX-RR was rarely a match for its 2008 rivals. Hopper’s best finish of the season was fifth at round three in Estoril, and the rest of his season was marred by injuries; starting with a fractured vertebra in Friday practice at Catalunya and then leg fractures in a huge 230km/h qualifying fall at Assen, which forced him to miss both the Dutch TT and next two rounds.
Third on the grid in wet qualifying on his Brno comeback was a welcome surprise, but race results never improved and Hopkins finished the year just 16th in the championship, ahead of only future team-mate Melandri and outgoing team-mate Anthony West.
Worse was to follow for Hopkins when Kawasaki, despite having signed Melandri and conducted a series of post-season tests, announced it was withdrawing from MotoGP ahead of the 2009 season, leaving Hopkins without a ride.
Hampered by lingering injury woes and behind-the-scenes personal issues, Hopkins looked set for a year on the sidelines, only to receive an opportunity from burgeoning World Superbike outfit Stiggy Racing two rounds into the season.
Seizing the chance to rebuild his reputation on the World Superbike stage, Hopkins’s season was once more beset by continued injury problems, beginning at Assen when an accident during only his second WSBK appearance left him with a dislocated hip.
Unable to complete a full race weekend until round ten at Brno, a crash at the following Nurburgring event, when he was knocked unconscious after being unintentionally ‘run-over’ during a pile-up, brought an early end to a frustrating season.
With Stiggy Racing withdrawing from WSBK competition and Hopkins still unable to work his way back into the MotoGP paddock, he opted for a return to the United States in 2010, joining forces again with Ulrich and signing with his M4 Monster Suzuki team.
However, more injury problems – this time an ongoing wrist complaint – kept Hopkins out of action for much of 2010, even if three consecutive podiums on his return signalled a welcome boost for the ailing American. Even so, behind-the-scenes wranglings between Hopkins and Ulrich had taken its toll, the latter accusing his former protégé of misleading him over the condition of his wrist before he signed.
With Ulrich declaring he would never work with the rider again, Hopkins – by now confident of full fitness and a recovery from his personal issues -, happily accepted an offer from Paul Denning, his former Rizla Suzuki boss, to sample the British Superbike Championship with his Crescent Racing outfit.
A popular addition to the BSB grid, though three seasons in the doldrums raised questions as to Hopkins’s competitiveness, victory in only his second event at Oulton Park promptly answered them. In fact, Hopkins went beyond front runner, swiftly emerging as a title contender with another win at Snetterton.
Cruising into the ‘Title Showdown’, Hopkins’s three consecutive wins at Donington Park and Silverstone installed him as the favourite heading into the Brands Hatch showdown. However, mechanical gremlins in the second of three races left him on almost level-pegging with Tommy Hill into the final race, and when the Yamaha rider beat him to the finish line by 0.006secs, Hopkins was forced to settle for second by the most agonising of margins.
Even so, despite the desperately disappointing conclusion to his BSB endeavour, Hopkins was applauded for his performance and captured the attention of those further up the motorcycling hierarchy.
Indeed, as well as his BSB commitments, Hopkins made his presence felt again on the MotoGP stage in 2011, using his renewed Suzuki links to deputise for the injured Alvaro Bautista at Jerez, where he went on to finish tenth. Though planned outings at Brno and Sepang were shelved because of a finger injury, Hopkins had still done enough to remind the paddock of his worth and was duly linked to several teams heading into the off-season.
In the end, Hopkins’s dreams of a full-scale MotoGP would be put on hold, his most likely deals at LCR Honda and Rizla Suzuki being scuppered when the former chose Stefan Bradl and the latter withdrew altogether.
Nonetheless, Hopkins will still be a world championship rider in 2012 after deciding to stick with Crescent Suzuki, who in turn will graduate to the World Superbike Championship. Motivated by Hopkins’s extraordinary wild-card performance at Silverstone in 2011, when he finished inside the top five having qualified on pole position, Crescent assumes the reins as Suzuki’s representation.
Quite the turnaround for a man that was being written off less than two years ago, Hopkins will certainly be a popular addition to the WSBK grid in 2012. Career Highlights2012:
With no MotoGP deals available, Hopkins follows Crescent Suzuki in graduating to the World Superbike Championship. 2011:
British Superbike Championship, Samsung Crescent Suzuki, 2nd (5 wins)
World Superbike Championship (2 races), Samsung Crescent Suzuki, 19th
MotoGP World Championship (1 race), Rizla Suzuki, 21st2010:
AMA Superbike Championship, M4 Monster Suzuki, 10th2009:
World Superbike Championship (6 races), Stiggy Honda, 23rd2008:
MotoGP World Championship, Kawasaki, 16th2007:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 4th2006:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 10th2005:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 14th2004:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 16th2003:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 17th2002:
MotoGP World Championship, Red Bull Yamaha, 15th2001:
AMA Formula Xtreme, Hammer Suzuki, Champion (2 wins) 2000:
AMA Supersport 750cc Championship, Hammer Suzuki, Champion