American John Hopkins is back in MotoGP action as a wildcard at Brno, but will there be space for him on the grid in 2012?
This period represents the summer holiday for MotoGP riders, but there is little chance of Hopkins taking things easy. His comeback tour makes its next stop in the Czech Republic, and I for one am glad to see 'Hopper' back in the thick of things.
Hopkins has been a victim of circumstance in recent years, left in the grand prix wilderness due to unforeseen events. One doesn't go from fourth in the World Championship to not having a ride without a large dose of misfortune, and that is exactly the career swerve that the 28-year-old experienced between leaving Suzuki at the end of 2008 and the midway point of his Kawasaki contract.
The move to Team Green represented ambition and a financial step up, but didn't work out. What started as a switch from one developing project to another ended as a move from one hospital bed to another. One disappointing season also did nothing to convince Kawasaki that their involvement in MotoGP was worth pursuing. Hopkins didn't fancy the Hayate and there were precious few options to be found in the World Championship in late December.
Taking the Superbike route in 2009 lowered his stock, and nearly ended his career after he suffered a series of horror crashes. That golden season in 2007 only made seeing him on inferior machinery more infuriating, because with a decent bike he has proven to be a podium contender.
This is almost the charm of Hopkins, though. A wild, Tasmanian devil of a rider who is also human. The guy who provided his share of fun in the paddock and didn't take it all too seriously. The one in the press conference photo in China making bunny ears behind Dani Pedrosa's back. The mystery man in the background exposing his backside on a scooter while I was interviewing Randy Mamola.
When asked about his reputation as a party animal, he was unapologetic. He had the best of both worlds, and wanted to live a little instead of being a robotic racer. Mistakes were made a couple of times (Friday practice at Misano in 2008 wasn't Hopkins's finest moment, and I'm sure that it isn't something that he looks back on with any particular fondness either) but it has been injuries, rather than attitude, that have really stalled his career.
Hopkins Version 2.0 is wiser, healthier, over a year sober and just happy to be riding. A divorce, a battle with the bottle and the prospect of retirement due to a wrist injury have hit him hard over the past two years, but also given him perspective. The road back to MotoGP is a tough one, but the American is putting in the work.
Credit should also go to Paul Denning for his efforts. With no hard feelings over the 2007 parting of ways, he has scratched Hopkins's itch with a competitive British Superbike project. It's a professional move, but also a compassionate one that reflects well on all involved. The manager has a top rider under the Suzuki banner, and the rider never tires of emphasising how grateful he is for every opportunity. He also has Crescent Suzuki's backing as he looks to open more doors.
A nice pole position watch for his troublesome wrist was the big result from a wildcard World Superbike appearance at Silverstone last weekend, and BSB has made him a winner again. Success breeds success, and a top 10 at Jerez as Alvaro Bautista's replacement shows that he can get the most out of a MotoGP bike when given the chance.
So which path should Hopkins follow when decision time for 2012 comes around? The British series is fun, but a step below his aspirations. Bautista is out of contract soon and the Spaniard's old Aspar team will have a second Ducati available, so Suzuki may have a space...
Or Suzuki may not have a presence on the grid. They have yet to announce the nature of their 1000cc project, have not produced a prototype yet and may not do so for a while. It could be 2008 all over again.
So, there is a tough choice to be made. CRT would mean another year on an uncompetitive bike. The factory team places are pretty much sewn up. The satellite teams have been struggling. World Superbikes is maybe his best option of finding a winning bike, but does not represent where his ambition lies.
There is still time to convince though, and I for one am hoping that Hopkins gets a result that brings a smile from MotoGP's pearliest of whites at Brno.
What do YOU think Hopkins's next move should be? Comments welcome below.
- John Hopkins