John Hopkins returns to MotoGP at Jerez as a replacement rider for the injured Alvaro Bautista. Seeing the 27 year-old back in baby blue Rizla Suzuki leathers will be Grand Prix de je vu. Hopkins ended a five-year stint with the Rizla squad after his best season in GP, finishing fourth overall in the 2007 championship. The three years that followed were challenging ones for the Californian, who saw his GP fortunes fade and then dissolve altogether in the doomed Kawasaki GP garage. Subsequent World Superbike and AMA Superbike campaigns were marred by injuries, and those professional disappointments were teamed with personal struggles – the latter of which Hopkins was revealingly candid about in our quick interview. The worst behind him, Hopper claims to be back at full fitness and refocused on his ultimate goal – securing re-entry into the most exclusive paddock in professional racing.
John Hopkins' unexpected ride on the Suzuki at Jerez could be backed up by possible wild card entries later in 2011.
Motorcycle USA chatted with the Suzuki backup just a day before he marks his on-track return at Jerez, answering questions about his unexpected return to MotoGP, the upcoming British Superbike campaign and what else 2011 holds – including more possible GP rides.
MotoUSA: You’ve arrived at Jerez with this great opportunity to get back on a MotoGP bike. Tell us a little bit about it and your expectations.
It’s good. It’s a surprising kind of deal how the whole thing came up. I was very sad, obviously, to hear what had happened to Alvaro. Under any circumstances that’s not the best way to get back onto the MotoGP bike. So when I rode at Qatar [Hopkins turned laps after the pre-season Qatar test for promotional filming before flying home to San Diego
], we were already speaking to the team and Paul Denning about possibly doing some wild card events if we were able to get some sponsorship money together – for maybe Laguna Seca or some races throughout the year. I was home back in San Diego by the time I got the call that Alvaro had broken his femur. They initially wanted me to try and get out there to Qatar back from San Diego – complete opposite side of the world within 24 hours.
We were wondering how that conversation went. You probably just got off the plane after a full day of flying. How close were you to getting back on the plane and heading to Qatar?
John Hopkins turned laps after the Qatar test for promotional photos, but Bautista's injury has opened the door for legitimate GP rides for the American - though logistics prevented a quick return to run in the season opener.
It was close. My sister she had actually looked into it and the closest flight we could’ve got would have got me in basically a half an hour into Qatar before the start of the qualifying session – and that’s without customs or anything like that. Logistically, after just flying halfway around the world, I was jetlagged and hadn’t really slept much on the flight. I flew in economy back to San Diego, so I didn’t really too sleep much on the plane. I was jetlagged and jumping straight back on a plane again, it’s just kind of a recipe for disaster. I would have loved to have raced, and I want to ride under most circumstances, but under those circumstances it would have been far too dangerous and I’d be really less effective on the track.
Let’s talk a little about when you were riding the GSV-R at Qatar. What did it feel like to get back on the bike – was it a familiar friend, or more of a stranger to you?
To be honest it felt more comfortable than the majority of any bikes that I’ve ridden since I was back on the GSV-R. It felt really comfortable. MotoGP bikes I would say are basically more familiar to me and more at home to myself and my style. Just basically for the fact that I’d never raced a superbike in my life prior to jumping on a 500 Grand Prix bike, then I spent the majority of my career racing all prototype machinery – MotoGP machinery. So when I jumped back on a superbike in 2009 and 2010, those were more foreign to me than what the MotoGP bike feels like. So it did feel like I was getting back home once I got on the GSV-R.
Clearly there was a door open at Suzuki when you left. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Suzuki and what if feels like to be back with the MotoGP team.
Apart from being on the bike and feeling at home on the bike, that’s the most important, just feeling at home with the team. The team are all a really good group of guys. I really enjoy working with the Suzuki crew, always have, they’ve always been my favorite crew throughout my entire career. The guys are basically like my home-away-from-home family. It’s really good we’re always joking and laughing. As far as the Japanese and the engineers and that, we left on really good terms. And that was something I really aspired to do because when we did end the relationship in 2007, and I chose to move on, I wanted to keep the relationship as good as possible for that reason – that I might be back in the future.
Looking back do you regret at all leaving the team and moving to Kawasaki in 2008?
Hopper flashing a grin under the lights of Qatar during pre-season testing.
No, I don’t at all. Things could have been different. Things could have changed. But I would say there’s been some life experiences that I’ve had to go through in the last three years that have basically led me to who I am today. I can honestly say that I’m more happy, honest and way more comfortable with who I am than what I was at any point in my life. It took a lot of things to happen in my life over that last three years, so no I don’t regret it at all, because I’m very happy with who I am and where I’m at in my life right now.
What specifically did you learn in those three years? What is different?
My whole perspective. Some of the actions and the partying and stuff like that – that I had done in my life. I don’t drink alcohol, whatsoever anymore. Also, you know, having to ride in injuries and basically just wearing my body down to absolutely nothing. Having to ride non-stop week in and week out, never recovering from injuries, and still trying to get back onto the bike. My home life was really s$#t, because I was living 24/7 in pain, so I wasn’t that pleasant to be around. I was basically using alcohol as kind of an outer device to try and hurt my mind away from the pain that I was living in. I thought, yeah, okay I’ll try and drink the pain away and race. Obviously, I’d never drink while riding, but when I was home and stuff like that. Basically it put me in a whole new place that I never wanted to be in my life and I really felt s#@ty and kind of depressed. It took that, me feeling like to that, to basically change my ways and get me to where I am today.
Was it difficult to give it [alcohol] up? Or was it easy once you saw that it was paying off?
Like I said, alcohol had taken me to a point in my life that I never really wanted to get. So no it wasn’t too hard to walk away from.
Hopper has kept himself busy this off-season getting his pro solo skydiving license. He’s also been more active mountain biking and riding motocross. Staying active and healthy has him revitalized and ready to race – not looking back with regrets.
The last race for Hopkins on the Rizla Suzuki payroll was a third-place podium at the 2007 Valencia finale.
“I’m enjoying myself much, much more. And my family relationships are a hell of lot better than they ever have been. Obviously on paper, anybody can see, the years since leaving Suzuki going from a good year to a bad year that he’d regret something. Fortunately, very fortunately for me, I don’t regret it at all.”
A lot of the problems stemmed from injuries, and you had surgery last year to repair your wrist. How do you rate your fitness right now, are you back to 100%?
My fitness right now is good and I would say I’m at 100%. I’m lighter than I’ve ever been. I’m mentally more focused. I’d like to say I’m in good shape – I do a lot of motocross, crosstraining and cycling… everything. I’m not bothered by the bike. No injuries. I’ve given my body plenty of time to recuperate. That’s what was good about spending so much time in the US last year, just taking time to heal up and get back to full fitness. So I think I’m ready to do some more racing – ready to enjoy it.
You’re born in California but both your parents are British. What would winning the British title mean to you on a personal level? (Hopkins main focus for 2011 is competing in the British Superbike Championship for the Crescent Suzuki team.)
It would be huge for me. I never knew it, but apparently no American rider has ever gone over there and won… …It would be a huge deal for me. I’d really enjoy winning a race and the championship, but I’ve never raced one of those tracks. I’ve never raced any of the competitors, except for a few of them, and none of them are slow or they wouldn’t be out there. It will be tough, but I just want to go out and do the best that I can. If we can get on the podium a couple races here and there, I’ll be pretty happy, but in the end we’re there to win. I’d like to say that we can go there and win, but getting on the podium first will be a big feat and then we’ll see what we can do after that. I want to give thanks to the team as much as possible by repaying them in good results
What are the career goals now? Have they changed at all? Are you still eyeing a return to Grand Prix, or World Superbike? What’s the future for you?
John Hopkins back on Rizla Suzuki for Jerez - the American back in baby blues a familiar sight in the GP paddock.
I want to get back to GP. I feel in myself mentally that I have a lot more to prove, not to anybody else, but to myself. I want to give MotoGP an honest fair shot – in my head what I think is an honest fair shot. Because I really just don’t think I ever was fully committed as much as I really could’ve been in my previous Grand Prix career. So yeah, I wouldn’t mind doing the steps – doing whatever I have to do to make it a possibility. But I do want to race again in MotoGP for sure.
Would you ever consider a return to the AMA?
Yeah. Right now I’m really, really enjoying riding a motorcycle again. Like I can honestly say over the course of the last eight months that I’ve ridden, I can say that I’m really having fun riding a motorcycle again. As long as I’m enjoying it there’s no reason why I wouldn’t want to race. At this stage in my life I’m extremely enjoying it, so if it stays that way I’m going to continue to race as long as I can – wherever that may be.
What are you expecting this weekend at Jerez?
] I don’t know man. It’s exciting to go out and have some fun and see what we can do. I have no expectations. If we can get into the top 10, that would be an amazing feat in my mind. I just want to go out and do the best that I can and have some fun and try and stay healthy.
John Hopkins and the rest of the MotoGP paddock kick off the Jerez Grand Prix weekend tomorrow morning with Friday’s pair of Free Practice sessions. Stay tuned for racing coverage throughout the weekend at Motorcycle-USA.com. Also, don’t forget to sign up and play MCUSA’s Fantasy GP Racing game – it’s fast, free and a whole lot of fun.
UPDATE: John Hopkins hit his goal during a wet Jerez race. Hopper finished in 10th, notably one position ahead of Loris Capirossi, one of Rizla's riders in 2010. Read more in the Four Americans Jerez MotoGP Insider Report and Jerez MotoGP Results 2011.