There was enough to learn without the rain. There were the intricacies of the new machine-the senescent, but infinitely adjustable and highly unforgiving, 185-horsepower Yamaha YZR500. Then there were the Dunlop tires, after a very brief but ascendant career on his preferred Michelins. Then there was the track, the vaunted Suzuka Circuit in Japan, with a challenging layout many consider in need of safety revisions. All this to consider in his very first race in the MotoGP class. And then came the downpour.
John Hopkins crashed on the second lap. It was understandable. The Red Bull Yamaha WCM (World Championship Motorsports) rider had never ridden on Dunlop rain tires, and had only a 20-minute warm-up in the morning to learn them and choose a race tire. The choice for the front was wrong, which was obvious when he ran off the track and into the mud. Nothing was damaged. Not so for the second crash, on the eighth lap. The 18-year-old pitted to replace a footpeg and shake the rocks out of his fairing. Unfortunately, the damaged shifter broke, and he was left to complete the race with a stub to change gear.
Undaunted, Hopkins soldiered on, his fellow riders falling all around him, but without his resolve. When the checkered flag fell, the young Californian had earned a 12th place finish the hard way, garnering four points in an impressive grand prix debut. "I never had a day so eventful in a race," Hopkins said at the time. Nor would he have a year so eventful.
Seven months later, Hopkins was finishing his first MotoGP season in Valencia, Spain. He'd fallen many times since Suzuka, and re-mounted almost as often, twice finishing in the points after crashing. Why, he was asked, didn't he just retire from the race? "It's natural for me. I just can't ever give up. It's not an option," he said, after finishing his rookie GP season in 15th place. It was that determination that made him the preferred target of several factories for the 2003 season. Suzuki would win the sweepstakes, signing the California teenager to team with former World Champion and fellow Californian Kenny Roberts Jr. on the factory GSV-R 990cc four-stroke. All this after only four full seasons of roadracing.
Coming into the 2002 season, Hopkins' resume did little to presage his success. He only began roadracing full-time in 1999, winning the Formula USA Aprilia Cup Challenge his first year out. That earned him a ride with the Valvoline EMGO Suzuki team, for which he won the 750cc Supersport title in 2000 and the Formula Xtreme title in 2001. Hopkins' rise was swift; he was young, fast and determined, and he didn't crash, even if he'd never ridden a Superbike. That he'd ridden different machinery each year was a plus; he didn't have time to develop any machinery-specific bad habits like, for instance, Max Biaggi, who many feel stayed on a 250 far too long while winning four world championships, causing the Italian numerous problems adapting to the bigger bikes.
Hopkins would enter a brave new world in 2002, riding a V4 two-stroke with Dunlop tires in the premier class of racing, a class newly joined by cutting edge three, four and five-cylinder four-strokes, as well as the all-conquering Honda NSR500. Signing Hopkins to the Red Bull Yamaha WCM squad was the culmination of team manager Peter Clifford's early interest in him, after Hopkins was recommended to Clifford by John Ulrich, a long-time friend, journalist, and owner of the Valvoline EMGO Suzuki team. But the Yamaha YZR500s he and teammate Garry McCoy rode were the runts of the litter. McCoy told Hopkins that he was on the same bike he'd been on since 1999.
The first adjustment would be the tires. Dunlop had made a concerted push into the premier class, but it hadn't gone well. By the midpoint of the season it was clear that Hopkins was better than the tires and the crisis was spiraling downward.
"The problem is you can really find yourself getting lost with setup choices, and lately this year we've been running into difficulties with tires as well," Hopkins said.
The British Dunlops were working well enough, but he could tell that others were hooked up better at the end of the race. Dunlop was working hard, making tire after tire for him to try; too many for a young rider with so much to learn and so little experience. "It didn't exactly go as planned with all the new tires coming out. Entrance into the corner, I definitely couldn't use edge grip. I like riding with a lot of edge grip. What I found recently with the Dunlops, they've been really tough on me edge grip-wise. Then we just tried to adapt the bike for the grip that we needed. And we ended up getting lost even more," he says.
Hopkins had to do most of this development on his own. His teammate McCoy not only had a riding style so completely different that they could share little setup info, but he was injured in a pre-season testing crash and missed much of the season. Hopkins didn't mind. "I like, I guess you could say, learning it the hard way," he says. "I like taking everything on myself. Everyone has a different style, a different way of riding a motorcycle. For me it's really hard to actually take advice and use it." Hopkins made steady progress as the season went on. By the halfway point in the 16-race campaign, he was one of only two riders to score points in every race. The other was Valentino Rossi.
The highlight came at the Dutch TT in Assen, Holland. The historic Circuit van Drenthe had been reconfigured for 2002, a very unpopular change among the riders. Gone were some of the long, flowing sections. The changes played to the handling strengths of the two-strokes, and Hopkins made the most of it, finishing seventh, his best of the year.
"My goal was to hopefully get into the top 10 one time throughout the year," he said. That was my goal. I didn't want to set it too high." That it came in the sixth race of the year didn't raise his expectations. "I was happy with that and left it at that, because I didn't want to push it too hard. I think we started to push the expectations when we started wanting to change the tires a bit, and then that just went wrong from there."
Following Assen, Hopkins took eighth at Donington Park in England, something of a home grand prix. Though he was born in California, both of his parents came from Acton, West London, emigrating to the U.S. shortly before he was born in 1983.
Hopkins' father raced the Isle of Man TT, and introduced his son to motorcycles early on. He grew up riding dirtbikes in the desert and raced his first motocross as a five-year-old. His father died when Hopkins was only 12, but he had already introduced the youngster to roadracing. The British-American tattoo on his back (a woman holding the American and British flags, just above his name written in large scripted letters) is more than skin deep.
In the final four races-including the "flyaway" races in South America, Asia and Australia-Hopkins would score only four points, the tire problems coming to a head. "We were concentrating on different styles of tires and everything like that, and kept getting [even] more lost," he says. McCoy was now back, but of no help. "There's some tires that he liked that I just can't ride on. I think he went through the same problem with the endurance of the tires as well." The front tires were generally very good until the rear grip improved and then it would push the front. "We'd have to compromise one for the other."
Rossi's crew chief Jerry Burgess noticed that a lot of young riders (his two more famous riders, Mick Doohan and Rossi, included) had diminished results in the second half of their rookie seasons. His belief is that it comes down to a lack of concentration, that the new riders have never had to exert themselves that hard for that long. Hopkins agreed, with the caveat that the tires exacerbated the problem. "Mental preparation will be a lot stronger for next year, especially all the flyaways," he said. "That's pretty tough on you." Hopkins had been physically prepared for the season, though the grueling year-round test schedule began to wear on him. "The schedule, I've never had to go through such a long series. This first year, that's also been a big learning experience, mentally. I definitely got physically prepared enough to deal with it."
What he also had to deal with was racing in the back of the pack. "You can get a little frustrated there," he said. "The last two years straight I'm used to battling up front."
The riders farther back were still high caliber, which is not to say without fault. MS Aprilia's Regis Laconi was singled out. "I have no time for him on the track," Hopkins said after a run-in with the journeyman Frenchman at Valencia. "He rides well over his head, and he's pretty dangerous to ride around in general."
What he found he didn't have to think about were the tracks. "In America there was always that thought in your mind when you're going into a corner, you always have that thought that this can be a bit rough there," he explains . "It's in your mind in the U.S. when you're riding at some tracks. But here everything's so safe that you've got to give it 110 percent and nothing less. You have no worries about going and hitting walls and stuff like that."
Next year he'll start fresh, on a new machine, with Michelin tires, and the wisdom of a hard year. "I definitely met my expectations throughout the season. This whole season was just meant to be a big learning year to move on and actually get back onto the four-stroke, which I originally started out on. I met my expectation.
"I'd say the complete highlight was getting the chance to fulfill a dream and riding a 500 one last time before they're completely gone. I'll be one of the last riders that got to learn how to ride one. I'm definitely honored by that." Hopkins' future will surely be filled with more highlights.
This article originally appeared in the June, 2003, issue of Sport Rider.