After last year, when the riders market in MotoGP remained relatively static, with very few riders coming and going, 2008 looks like it could see a major shakeup in teams and riders. And John Hopkins could be the person who gets the ball rolling, as Motorcycle News is reporting that Hopper has jumped ship and signed with Kawasaki. Rumors of Hopkins' impending departure have been rumbling around the paddock for some time now, and were given further momentum when Kawasaki told the press they expected to announce a major name to join the team at the Sachsenring round. Now, news of that announcement has slipped out prematurely.
The move for Hopkins is a very big step. This is Hopkins' 5th year with Suzuki, so moving to a new team will require a major mental shift. It's also a risky strategy, as the Suzuki has improved hugely this season, winning a race and appearing on the podium. The question is whether Hopkins can be as successful on the Kawasaki as he has been aboard the Suzuki.
For Kawasaki, their motivation is clear: they feel they have been hampered by not having a top rider on the ZX-RR this year, despite the promising results of Randy de Puniet, and even Ant West in the two races he has ridden for Kawasaki this year. Kawasaki have a lot of confidence in the bike, and with the signing of Hopkins, feel they have a rider who can get the most out of the ZX-RR next year. The one problem with the teams chasing Hopkins faced were his wage demands, but Kawasaki, being the most desperate of the bunch, were willing to pay the necessary price.
This leaves a few questions still open. Firstly, the question of sponsorship: energy drink company Monster Energy's personal sponsorship deal with John Hopkins has already fueled speculation that Hopper would move to Kawasaki, with Monster moving to sponsor the factory Kawasaki team, as they already sponsor the Kawasaki factory teams in both the AMA Superbike and AMA motocross series. No news is yet forthcoming about Monster's intentions in MotoGP, but it would be a logical move, considering the US-based company's need to expand into the European energy drink market, currently dominated by Red Bull.
Another question mark hangs over Loris Capirossi. Kawasaki are reputedly still chasing Capirossi, and the Italian is said to be close to leaving Ducati, out of frustration with the Ducati GP7, which he has been unable to get on with. That failure raises its own question, as to whether Capirex would be able to get on with any of the new 800 bikes, with Capirossi possibly being the first of the victims of the switch to 800 cc bikes. Once Capirex makes the move to Kawasaki, a switch which is looking every more likely as the days pass, we will find out.
Hopkins jump to Kawasaki, and Kawasaki's expected signing of Capirossi leaves the current rider pair of Ant West and Randy de Puniet out in the cold. De Puniet is generally regarded as fast and talented, but he crashes too much and really needs a steady hand to focus his efforts. West has only had two races so far, but has already made a big impression in the paddock. The futures of both men are unclear, but both could still find a place inside the paddock.
Then there's the question of Hopkins' now vacant seat at Suzuki. Current speculation focuses mainly on Marco Melandri, who is almost certain to jump ship, off the Honda RC212V he has complained so vociferously about. Melandri is also believed to be a target for Ducati, in which case, Suzuki could take a gamble on a rider coming up from the 250 class. With Suzuki rumored to be adding an extra bike in 2009 to be run by the Aspar team, the most obvious name to take Hopper's place could well be Alex de Angelis.
Hopkins' move has opened up a vast swathe of possible new rider and team permutations. If Melandri takes Hopper's ride, for example, this could pave the way for James Toseland to move from World Superbikes. This, and all other speculation, is about to get a lot more intense over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.
~~~ UPDATE ~~~
According to Motorcycle News, Hopkins is rumored to have wanted GBP 2.7 million, nearly US$ 5.5 million, or 4 million Euros. Presumably, Kawasaki was prepared to pay that kind of money for top talent.