Suzuki's decision to field just a single MotoGP bike in 2011 may have helped save the factory money, but it also left them with a serious problem. Any injury or illness to Alvaro Bautista leaves the Suzuki team riderless, not a situation that Suzuki can afford to happen.
At Sepang, Rizla Suzuki team boss Paul Denning revealed his plan to cover this situation: Denning will be keeping Suzuki's former MotoGP rider John Hopkins on call, to step in for Bautista should the young Spaniard be forced to miss any of the races, the Suzuki manager told MCN and MotoGP.com. Denning already has Hopkins under contract, as Hopper has signed with Denning's Crescent Suzuki BSB team to contest this year's British Superbike championship. Hopkins will get his first chance to get reacquainted with the Suzuki at the final MotoGP test of the year at Qatar, where he will assist the Suzuki team with testing and some promotional work.
The move is a logical consequence of both Crescent Suzuki's signing of Hopkins and Suzuki's decision to run just one bike for 2011. MotoGP's commercial rights holder Dorna had already taken a very dim view of Suzuki's semi-withdrawal from the series, only backing off on threatened legal action after Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta received assurances that Suzuki will be back in 2012 with two machines. Should Bautista be seriously injured and be forced to miss multiple races, Dorna would be in no mood to treat the wayward Suzuki with any leniency, and demanding that the factory fulfil its obligations under the terms of the contract it has with Dorna.
Hopkins has strong ties with the Rizla Suzuki team. The American rode for the squad from 2003 to 2007, before leaving for better-paying - if far less successful - pastures at Kawasaki. Hopkins had scored 4 podiums on a Suzuki, his best season coming in 2007 when he finished 4th in the championship, behind only Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Valentino Rossi. When Kawasaki pulled out of MotoGP at the end of 2008, Hopkins was left without a ride, only securing a seat aboard the Stiggy Honda in World Superbikes at the third WSBK round of the year. That year, the American was plagued by injury, suffering a smashed femur, a wrist problem and a serious concussion, topped by the folding of the Stiggy Racing team at the end of the year.
Hopkins spent last season in the AMA, back with Team Hammer, led by John Ulrich, the man who discovered the American as a youngster. But Hopkins' departure from the team was a much frostier affair, after surgery to reconstruct his wrist left the American riding with a handicap throughout the first half of the season. Ulrich revealed his discontent with the situation in a post on the WERA board, a forum where racers and fans following the WERA racing association in the US meet - a story covered in some detail on the Asphalt & Rubber website.
It appears that Hopkins is now fully recovered from that wrist surgery, as he was keen to point out when his signing to the BSB Crescent Suzuki team was announced. If Hopkins' wrist is at anything less than 100%, riding a MotoGP bike - either in testing or during a race - will prove very difficult indeed.