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What next for Hopper?

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Matt Roberts | 12:37 UK time, Thursday, 18 August 2011

"Coulda, woulda, shoulda counts for nothing in MotoGP."

The comments of John Hopkins in our qualifying show on Saturday, as he reflected on the free-practice accident that ruled him out of racing as a wildcard at Brno, could have applied to a number of riders by the time the chequered flag fell on Sunday afternoon.

A crash for Dani Pedrosa and a poor tyre choice by Jorge Lorenzo allowed Casey Stoner to make it back-to-back wins at Laguna Seca and Brno, opening up a 32-point lead at the top of the championship in the process.

Before those races, Stoner's advantage stood at 15 points, a lead that could easily have been cut to 10 or even six by the time we left the USA had it not been for the diminishing physical fitness of the ailing Lorenzo and Pedrosa in the latter stages of that race.

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As at Laguna, Stoner's pace during practice at Brno suggested nothing more than a strong podium challenge. When a set-up experiment in warm-up backfired, leaving him fifth fastest and a second off the pace of Pedrosa, he had stormed out of the garage in a furious mood.

For the race, Repsol Honda switched back to Stoner's qualifying setting and - although there was no change in bike performance - the gritty Aussie decided, in his words, "to lay it on the line." When Pedrosa and Lorenzo attempted to break, as predicted, on the opening lap, Stoner responded with what would prove to be the fastest lap time of the race on lap two.

As Pedrosa crashed in front and Lorenzo floundered behind him, Stoner took maximum points for the sixth time this season. "I know you have to be consistent to win championships but you have to win races, too," he reflected.

The unfortunate loss of Hopkins to the starting grid was definitely the BBC's gain on Sunday. Having been out with the guys on track and lapping faster than most of them already that weekend, his analysis was second to none.

Some viewers who are relatively new to the sport may not be familiar with 'Hopper' or realise the significance of his presence at Brno, so let me briefly fill you in.

He made his MotoGP debut on the unforgiving 500cc two-stroke Yamaha back in 2002 at the tender age of 18, quickly gaining a reputation as a rider with huge potential and a wonderful personality but with a tendency to self-destruct away from the track.

After being picked up by the struggling factory Suzuki team in 2003, his fame and fortune began to escalate to the point where some brilliant form in 2007 earned him four podium finishes and a multi-million dollar move to Kawasaki.

However, a run of big crashes and serious injuries led to an increasing dependency on pain killers and alcohol, which in turn created major problems in his personal life. When Kawasaki withdrew from the series at the end of that season, he was left in the MotoGP wilderness.

A year in World Superbikes was fraught with more crashes and Hopkins competed in only six races before his season ended prematurely with a crash in Germany that left him with head trauma, as well as wrist, shoulder and hip injuries. He finally hit rock bottom at the final round of the season, when he travelled to Portimao, Portugal, to support the team but went on a three-day drinking binge that he later admitted was "the most unprofessional I've ever been in my life".

That fateful weekend two years ago proved to be the turning point in his career and his life. "I just decided I had to cut that completely," he revealed. "I wanted to go back and give it an honest shot without the partying or anything, just completely, solely, focused on the racing."

Building himself back up from scratch in the American Superbike series, Hopkins finally underwent career-saving surgery on a nagging wrist injury and, after proving his fitness with a run of podium finishes towards the end of the season, secured a ride for this season with the Samsung Crescent Suzuki British Superbike team, who have close ties with the Rizla Suzuki MotoGP effort thanks to team manager Paul Denning.

The American's form in the domestic series has been outstanding and he currently lies second in the championship and strongly in contention to win the title at his first attempt.
He gave a reminder of his class on the international stage with a competent return to MotoGP as replacement for the injured Alvaro Bautista at Jerez back in April, finishing 10th, as well as qualifying on pole as a wildcard at the British round of the World Superbike series this month.

Hopkins returned to MotoGP as a wildcard at Brno with a twin aim: to show the world that he still has the talent to compete at the highest level and to prove to Suzuki's Japanese bosses that they have a competitive package and a project worth extending into 2012 and beyond, as fears of an impending withdrawal increase.

Despite failing to make the start after a crash on Saturday morning left him with dislocated and broken fingers, Hopkins did enough in just two dry free practice sessions to complete both of those objectives. He lapped seventh fastest on Friday morning - ahead of team regular Bautista - and 10th in the afternoon, when he was just 1.4 seconds off the blistering pace set by Dani Pedrosa.

Not only was his performance impressive but his pace and input clearly provided the already improving Bautista with added impetus, the Spaniard dicing with Valentino Rossi for sixth place and lapping just three seconds shy of podium contention before crashing after 15 laps of his best race so far this season. Hopefully, the resounding message from both riders was heard in Japan because MotoGP can ill-afford to lose another factory as the series moves into the 1000cc era.

Hopkins has slowly made his way back into the MotoGP fold. Photo: Getty

Paul Denning tweeted on Monday that, as he waved Hopkins off to California for treatment on his latest injury, the rider was already "threatening to cut his cast off at check-in if BA didn't let him on the plane with it", which brought back memories of one funny anecdote from Hopper's MotoGP career.

After injuring himself at the Japanese GP back in 2004, Hopkins was struggling to lift his bag into the overhead locker on the plane that was due to take him back to London. A steward came over to offer assistance and he told her that he was in a lot of pain because he had broken his ribs earlier that day. "In that case, you can't fly - not without a doctor's note," she informed him.

As Hopkins began to panic at the prospect of being left behind in Tokyo, an unnamed television commentator stepped in, claiming to be his doctor and insisting the patient was fit to fly. A waiver document was swiftly produced for the self-proclaimed medical expert to sign, which he duly did, and Hopkins gratefully took his seat. It was an uncomfortable flight for the commentator though, who was woken up in the middle of the night to assist the stewards with a drunk passenger!

They do say that what goes around comes around and I hope that's the case for John Hopkins in a positive way now that he is faced with another fightback from injury. I'm sure I'm not his only fan praying that he finally gets the fortune his endeavour deserves: the British Superbike title and a full-time return to MotoGP with Suzuki in 2012.

I can't sign off from this blog without mentioning a first ever podium for Marco Simoncelli. The man they call Sideshow Bob finally took centre stage at Brno with his first podium at the 11th attempt in a 2011 season that has seen him gain notoriety and support in equal measure thanks to his wild riding and even wilder hairstyle.

"I think he'd get a little more speed if he cut the hair!" Hopkins grinned at the end of our show, but there's no doubt he has full respect for a man who could challenge for the title next year if he can add consistency to his game now he has broken his podium duck.

Speaking of bad barnets, I should mention our build-up to Sunday's race, which I hope you enjoyed. We had more pre-recorded features than we normally like but we felt it was worth compromising a few minutes of live coverage because of the quality of the pieces.

The only problem for me was dashing around the paddock to record everything on Thursday. After filming with Karel Abraham out on the track ran slightly late I had to grab a scooter and make a mad dash in strong winds to the Repsol Honda hospitality unit for my chat with Pedrosa - hence a larger than normal bouffant and a torrent of abuse on Twitter, with comparisons ranging from Joey Essex to the entire Spandau Ballet line-up via Phillip Schofield and Davy Crockett's hat!

The last one made me laugh out loud so please keep the banter coming, along with any other thoughts about the programme. It is amazing to think that we only have seven races left, so if you think there's anything we have missed out or could improve on before the end of the year then now's your chance!


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting blog on one of bikings favourite characters. Another disappointing factor for me at the weekend was the poor race form of Cal Crutchlow and his apparent inability to stay on the bike. It appears that he has last confidence with the front end. Anything official coming out of Yamaha about his future?

  • Comment number 2.

    I enjoyed the article Matt and I always enjoy the programme. I recently saw John Hopkins doing some laps at a Brands Hatch track day on his Suzuki BSB. It was good to see him riding well on a circuit of which he only knew half. He is clearly very talented as he is able to compete in many different series. Let's hope we get to see him in MotoGP again soon!

  • Comment number 3.

    "Hopper" was always one of the wilder characters of the MotoGP circus, it was a shame when his "demons" began to affect his performance. It is to his immense credit that he appears to have overcome those demons and is back to showing the world his full talent. Wishing you a speedy recovery and good luck in the BSB final showdown.
    Let's just hope that the Suzuki MotoGP team can find the cash to run Alavaro Bautista and John Hopkins next season; that would be a good team.

  • Comment number 4.

    Nice blog, didn't know Hopkin's career had plummeted so dramatically - great to see him back!
    Funny how the commentator who gave Hopper medical attention remained so very unnamed, maybe its written into his BBC contract...;)

  • Comment number 5.

    Interesting article - there are many talented riders around who should be in MotoGP full time. It's just a shame there aren't enough bikes to ride these days, a situation which will hopefully be rectified from next season onwards.

    And give my regards to Dr Parrish...

  • Comment number 6.

    Harvey54, comments a little harsh for Cal, but maybe more out of frustration than any real criticism. I think Cal will improve, I just think he is trying a little too hard at the moment and would be better completing more laps more slowly, something he himself has commented on as well as others. Early days, and as Cal points out on twitter, he has a contract through to the end of 2012.

    Glad you mentioned Marco, Matt, thought this is the turning point in the season for him.

    I didn't know too much about Hopper, but even if he doesn't do too much on bike, reckon he will have a career as a pundit :-), look out he will be after your job.

    Also like to mention the apparent change in the pace of the Ducati this weekend, apart from Casey, Ducati seemed to be pretty much in the same ball park as the other front runners.

    I would be disappointed if there weren't 2 Suzuki's next year and would also hope to see Kawasaki back in Motogp in the future.

  • Comment number 7.

    It'd be a bitter irony for Suzuki to withdraw just as they are starting to look dangerous. And it's clear that they have got two riders who are capable of getting great performances out of the bikes.

  • Comment number 8.

    Well written, Matt. And thanks for the added insight into the Hopper's travails. Quite a character.
    I disagree somewhat with your initial assessment of the reasons behind Casey's success. Sure, Lorenzo and Pedrosa had their problems, but Casey did ride two great races. It is faintly reminiscent of when people used to say Casey won because of the bike. Now he is winning because his rivals are falling off. Tad unfair, no?

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice piece Matt, the coverage this year has been pretty good so far and so has the racing too. At last Simoncelli has finished where he should be, hopefully this is a turning point now and he can be a contender. If you look back at Stoner and Lorenzo they both started out very sketchy with crashes and "hard" overtakes. Although with the changes to the bikes next year this will again sort the men from the boys out as nobody will have anybody elses coat tails to hold onto. We definitely need more bikes on the grid so suzuki should stick with it as they have a decent pace.

    Another thing that has been mentioned in the coverage recently are the digs at Capirossi and retirement. I think these are unfair as hes still finishing in better positions than various other riders, he is good for the sport and unless he totally misses the race pace he should be left alone to race.

    P'S. Love the hair, im growing mine to be just like you...

  • Comment number 10.

    Very nice piece Matt. The coverage this year has been very good with you at the helm.

    I watch the 125cc and the moto2 on the red button - the racing is amazing and I wish more people could see it - the stars of the future are there for sure. Marc Marquez and Bradley are doing well and Zarco in the 125cc is doing a great job.

    Hopper deserves a place with suzuki next year if they run two bikes - he seems to be able to ride anything so is worth the gamble now he is now 'sorted'.

    It's not rocket science Stoner is leading the championship this year - after all he was the only rider able to make the Ducati go quick - Rossi my favourite rider is getting it adjusted to his liking.

    I feel Stoner will win this season - he seems to be able to put in lap after lap at the same pace whereas others can't!

  • Comment number 11.

    Hopefully he gets a ride on the thousands next year. I think all gp fans are hoping the introduction of the larger engine size will mean more riders fighting for wins rather than just the 'aliens'

    Lastly some advice for 'hopper'
    Less time eyebrow waxing and more time riding !!!!!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    Great to see Hopper back and demolishing the field in BSB, his ability just shows pure class and passion. Wish there were more like him in Moto GP, where have all the personalities gone ?
    Is Pedrosa the new Aaron Slight, the guy who will never win MotoGP on any engine size yet still gets rides because of his passport and Repsol money? Would love to see Marco take his place at Repsol. How long will Honda keep paying for Pedrosa and Puig ?

  • Comment number 13.

    You have to feel as sad for Suzuki as you do for Hopkins; 2009 preseason was very promising, and Capirossi and Vermeulen did so well in preseason at Sepang, yet it all fell apart when they began the year. Despite the fact that John is way too gifted to be languishing (I use that word with the maximum respect to BSB riders) in a national series, you doubt that until he can get a full season at world level again, on WSBK or Moto2 that he is really the man to revive Suzuki. On the other hand, MotoGP right now is a bit of a snowball; without money, a factory cannot develop a fast bike, yet without a fast bike, a factory cannot pull in sponsors or sell road bikes. The fact public sympathy seems so obviously to be with John would at least guarantee Suzuki good publicity plus Monster cash if he did more wildcards.

    Full credit for his fine performances at Silverstone in World Superbikes though, to have your BSB teammate at the bottom of the timesheets whilst you take superpole is no mean feat. Heres to hoping he comes back and his BSB title shootout is not so badly compromised.

  • Comment number 14.

    Great blog thanks Matt, lets hope Hopper can get a bike for next season, he's clearly a talent and its good it seems his personal problems are now behind him.

    As for suggestions, could both the qualifying session and Motogp Extra be put on the iplayer please??!

  • Comment number 15.

    For an improvement of BBC coverage, can I second the request to put both Qualifying and MotoGP Extra on iPlayer, preferably from the next race, rather than next season.

    Oh, and get Top Gear moved to a different day next year for the Laguna Seca race, which is pretty much the best circuit of the year!

  • Comment number 16.

    would like to add support to suggestions above ie please put the qualifying plus motogp extra on the iplayer! my money's on stoner for the championship but also want to see dovi do well - shame he'll lose his factory ride even though he's ahead of pedrosa albeit mostly by staying on the bike more.. also really hope to see rossi get it back together and be up there before the end of the season and on it from the word go next year.. some great racing, also loving the moto2

  • Comment number 17.

    back in the 70's Hopper would have been the working man's hero - along with Sheene & Hunt etc - where did it all go so wrong?


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