More often than not the British Superbike Championship races are run in wet weather, but Hopkins has adapted well, usually running near the front in wet or dry conditions.
Hopkins has taken the British Superbike Championship by storm, learning the notoriously tricky UK racing circuits quickly, taking pole position at a number of races and winning several against seasoned competitors.
Hopkins subbed at the Jerez GP for the injured Alvaro Bautista (right), Suzuki’s sole MotoGP rider who was injured at the season opener in Qatar. Hopkins finished a very credible 10th despite not having ridden a current MotoGP bike or tires.
In his first year in the BSB championship, Hopkins has qualified for the three-event “Final Showdown” that pits the top six riders in a 10-race battle for the title. Here he leads reigning BSB champion Ryuichi Kiyonari (1), Stuart Easton (3), Josh Brookes (2) and main title rival Shane Byrne (67).
The first stage of Hopkins’ comeback involved a ride with the Monster M4 Suzuki team in AMA racing. Unfortunately wrist problems ultimately required surgery that forced him to miss several races, angering team owner John Ulrich.
Hopkins showed just how far he’d come by stunning the World Superbike regulars at Silverstone where he qualified on pole position as a wildcard rider.
Although he already has offers from World Superbike teams, Hopkins admits that a return to MotoGP is his ultimate goal. “I still think the best riders in the world are in MotoGP. And if you want to be the best, you have to race the best.”
Despite being a rookie foreigner in the British Superbike Championship, Hopkins has already garnered numerous fans in the UK for his aggressive riding style.
“There are no second acts in American lives.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Hopkins swings open the door of a very modest motorhome and invites me in. The first thing I notice are the tattoos, of which there are many. Hopkins has long been a fan of skin art, but the one across his chest is the one with the most meaning. Inked in a plunging neckline from shoulder to shoulder is the word “Forgotten.”
Sport Rider first interviewed John Hopkins back in 2002. Hopkins was something of a prodigy, winning the 2001 Formula Xtreme Championship for the Valvoline Suzuki team. That earned him a ride on the Red Bull Yamaha WCM YZR500 in the 2002 MotoGP World Championship, starting a Grand Prix career that stalled at the end of 2008 when Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP.
Hopkins managed to catch on with Stiggy Honda, a second-tier World Superbike team. Injuries consumed his season however, and soon he was in a tailspin. The bottom would come at the Portimao round where he made a fool of himself, drinking heavily and acting unprofessionally while attending the race during his recovery from previous injuries. His behavior was so upsetting that he swore off drinking and began the resurgence that would bring him to the point where he’s being seriously considered for a MotoGP ride in 2012. Hopkins is well on his way back and convinced that nothing is going to stop him.
How did he get here? The story begins at the end of 2007, his best MotoGP season. Hopkins had been with Suzuki for his entire four-stroke MotoGP career and had four podium finishes (including second at Brno) to finish fourth for the year, but it was time for a change. Hopkins had been in MotoGP for six years. He was getting complacent and needed a change of scenery. “I felt like how cool would it be to take a bike that isn’t proven to be that great at the moment, how cool would it be to take that bike and put it at the front right away?” said Hopkins of his move to Kawasaki for the 2008 season.
“We had loads of meetings all through ’07. They said ‘You’re going to be the main guy. We’re going to do all the winter tests. We’re going to have you in Japan, we’re going to do all the aerodynamics.’ And when they’re throwing that kind of money around and they offer that kind of salary, they didn’t seem to be screwing around.”
Unfortunately it never turned out that way. “We never got one new part. Whether Kawasaki knew they were pulling out at the end of the year or not, we never got one new part throughout the year.” I reminded Hopkins of being told about a new chassis at the 2008 Sachsenring event. “It ended up being a chassis that (Alex) Hoffman had used from ’06,” he revealed. Kawasaki brought an engine with a revised firing order, but “it felt just horrible, it just didn’t work. [It was like going from] the highest point in my career to the lowest point in my career.”
The strain wasn’t only mental. “I tore all the muscle off the bone in my groin to start off the year, and then I broke my back, completely fractured my L4,” he said of his physically torturous Kawasaki year.
Then the worldwide financial crisis forced Kawasaki out of MotoGP at the end of the season as a factory entity. Hopkins was paid his full year’s salary and they split on good terms — except that Kawasaki held him to the contract well into the 2009 season, by which time all the good rides in the major championships were taken.
From the start of the Stiggy Honda WSBK ride, Hopkins knew it was a mistake. “I probably should’ve never been on a bike,” he said. “My personal life was bad. I was drinking all the time. I had no control over alcohol.” He’d drink all night, then train all day on long bicycle rides “and think you were sweating it out when you’re just wearing your body down and not recovering.”
He reverted to an old habit of overriding a bad bike and suffering the consequences. Hopkins broke his hip and shattered his femur at Assen. Then he came back only to crash at the Nürburgring and get knocked unconscious for 16 minutes, suffering a massive contusion to his brain. That put him out for the rest of the year.
At the end of the season he went to Portimao and “ended up partying the whole weekend and just completely making an ass of myself in front of the majority of the paddock in World Superbike,” he remembers. “I basically just decided right there, ‘This is enough. My life is s**t and I need to get on track.’ I quit drinking and that was the last time.” Finally sober, he decided to begin the road back where it all began: in the U.S.
The ride in the U.S. with the Monster M4 Suzuki team would be a mixed blessing. Team owner John Ulrich was a father figure to Hopkins and mentored him throughout his career. Ulrich was responsible for Hopkins’ early AMA rides as well as getting him a tryout on the Red Bull Yamaha WCM team that launched his GP career. But the season wouldn’t go smoothly and would end with the pair parting as bitter enemies.
“I was just living in a false reality,” Hopkins said of trying to race with the wrist he’d originally broken in Qatar three years earlier, and then reinjured in the Nürburgring crash. “It was purely bone on bone. There was no ligament, no cartilage, nothing left. So when I did the deal (with M4 Suzuki) I honestly thought my wrist would loosen up and just never bothered to get it checked.” Hopkins made it through the first three races of the season before the pain got so unbearable that there was no option but surgery. Unfortunately, that surgery (and a minor operation earlier in the season) forced him to miss a total of four out of nine AMA events during the season, angering Ulrich.
The M4 team owner slammed Hopkins on the WERA bulletin boards. “I didn’t even know there was anything wrong with him until after the AMA Pro race weekend at Fontana when he told CU (Chris Ulrich) he was getting what turned out to be the first of two mid-season wrist surgeries,” wrote Ulrich. “I did a good-faith deal with him based on being told that he was in the same condition as he was when he was getting on MotoGP podiums in 2007. I thought he was ready to win AMA Pro Superbike races in 2010. That’s not how it turned out and I won’t be working with him again.”
According to Hopkins however, the M4 team’s Monster Energy sponsorship that year was because of his $400,000 contract with the energy drink firm, and they “obviously weren’t going to pay me to just sit on my ass at home and do nothing, so they kept the deal alive by giving me the money and I forfeited every ounce of it to the team — the entire $400,000 — so we could have a deal set and they could supply me with an extra Superbike. (Ulrich) got his money and then he claimed like he didn’t get any money, which is crap. He got every ounce of the money, plus the bonuses at the end of the year. He got podiums for the first time in Superbikes for his team and stuff. I thought, everything considered, it was a decent deal.” (Editor's note: Ulrich counters that the costs involved with building the bikes, hiring extra personnel, redoing the semi's exterior and all personnel uniforms for the Monster sponsorship, plus Hopkins' manager taking his cut, basically wiped out the money and then some. "I lost money when the whole thing was said and done," said Ulrich.)
Hopkins accepts that he could’ve handled the situation better. “OK, maybe I should’ve been seen (by a doctor) before the year, but I didn’t. It was probably because I was more fearful of what the result might be. So, yeah, I guess it could’ve been my fault.”
Five doctors told Hopkins there was no hope for his wrist. Then he found Dr. David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon who works with the San Diego Chargers NFL football team. Chao gave him a 75 percent chance of having a useable wrist that wouldn’t have to be fused in place. The surgery involved grafting a cadaver tendon, followed by extensive physiotherapy. At the beginning of the season he had about five percent movement. When he returned for the final three rounds, “It hurt like hell…but I could at least use the throttle.” Enough to get on the podium in the last three races.
With the AMA Superbike Championship in decline and rides drying up, Hopkins started looking overseas. Paul Denning, the Rizla Suzuki team manager, was glad to help. Denning had been Hopkins’ boss in MotoGP and held no animosity to his leaving Suzuki at the end of 2007. “We stayed friends,” Denning said, adding that Hopkins visited his home in England during the off-season.
Denning saw Hopkins spiraling into decline, but didn’t want to interfere. “For that difficult period of time, me and most of the guys on my team, even though we knew John well and what have you, really it was letting him try to work it out for himself and get things sorted out.” When Denning ran into Hopkins at last year’s Red Bull U.S. Grand Prix, he saw a completely changed person. “All credit to him. It’s not like he came out with a big placard and said, ‘Right, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that.’ He just did it for himself, not for anyone else. I think it was a step-by-step thing to get himself fixed up.”
Fixed up both mentally and physically to the point that Denning didn’t have second thoughts about re-signing him, this time to the Crescent Racing Suzuki team in British Superbike. Denning adds, “The bloke can ride a motorbike. That was always clear. I didn’t have a second thought about it, frankly speaking.”
So now Hopkins is back into the gypsy lifestyle. “I didn’t have money to rent a home, so I’m just basically living in my van,” a Ford Transit van, though he has a small motorhome at the races. He’s living with his crew chief and sometimes stays with his girlfriend, whom he met after his divorce was finalized. “I mean I just can’t say the year could’ve gone better at this stage.” That includes his results, mostly on tracks that he’s never seen.
The BSB season began slowly on the short and dangerous Brands Hatch Indy circuit. But in the second round at Oulton Park, Hopkins was second in Race One and won Race Two. The victory was his first in nearly ten years: His last win came in a Formula Xtreme race at Loudon in June 2001.
“I mean, that was hugely emotional,” he said. The win came on May 3, which is “around the day my dad passed away. I couldn’t be more grateful for that weekend. That was awesome.” Four rounds later he won again at Snetteron. In between came podiums in four of six races, putting him in the three-race “Showdown” for the British Superbike Championship.
“This year I felt like I’ve ridden well within my limitations, and on occasion when things are great and everything gels together, we’re able to make a break. The one at Snetterton I gave it absolutely everything I had and put it all on the line. Like when I put it on the line for the one lap when I got Superpole in World Superbike last weekend,” he said of his stunning pole position as a wildcard at the Silverstone WSBK round. “Yeah, most races I normally feel I’m well within my limitations. I don’t make as many just really stupid mistakes. It feels great.
“I’ve always believed in my talent, but for multiple reasons — personal life choices and just certain situations — it’s diverted from being able to really show what I think I can do,” Hopkins said. “And so I knew when I had my wrist back and things started coming together at the end of last year, the last thing I wanted to do is retire. I finally got my personal life back; I felt extremely good and more focused than I’d been in my entire life. And that’s why I invested,” said Hopkins about putting $50,000 into the Crescent Suzuki team before Samsung came onboard, guaranteeing him as second rider to Jon Kirkham. “It was a huge risk putting that money in…because where I was at financially it would’ve made more sense securing myself a normal job where I had an income at least, because I wasn’t getting paid. I had my personal sponsors come in and pay some money. But I paid for the ride, basically, and we put together a really good bonus program if I were to get on the podium.
“I can say honestly right now, I feel like I’m riding better at the moment than I did back in ’07 when I felt like I rode at my best to get on the podium in Valencia. I feel way more focused. I believe I’m riding a lot better now because I feel like I’ve got a second chance. I’m not doing anything to take it for granted. Everything I do is fully focused towards the sport and trying to achieve my goals of getting back to MotoGP, basically. So now that I have this second chance, I’m just trying not to — I still make mistakes — but trying not to take anything for granted and just doing everything I can.”
Hopkins knows getting back to MotoGP will be difficult. Rides are sparse and Suzuki’s future in MotoGP is uncertain. Hopkins has no interest in being a grid filler on one of the proposed Claiming Rule Teams. “No, no, no,” he said. “I’m not going to put myself into the position where I will have to override the bike to achieve points or a decent result. I don’t think that would be, at this stage, beneficial to my career. I want to give myself a chance to win championships and races.”
If MotoGP doesn’t happen, Hopkins has a list of World Superbike offers, “so I definitely want to be in a world championship. No question. I still consider World Superbike as a steppingstone for where I want to go,” which is MotoGP. “I still think the best riders in the world are in MotoGP. That’s always been where my heroes are and everything. That’s just the premier for me mentally…the best racers in the world are in MotoGP. And if you want to be the best, you have to race the best.” sr