Aussie Chris Vermeulen embarks on his second year in the MotoGP world championship next week when testing resumes at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia.
The former World Superbike runner-up had a memorable rookie year with the British-based Rizla Suzuki squad and is hoping Suzuki’s early promise with its new generation 800cc machine will help him add to the two pole positions and one podium finish he scored in 2006.
We caught him up with him to gather a few opinions on the campaign ahead before he jetted off from Australia to Sepang.
The seven week testing ban must have been a well earned break for you? “I’ve done three years in World Supersport, two years in World Superbike and now my first year in Grand Prix, it feels like putting all five of them together. It’s a long old season, a lot of racing, a lot of testing and promotional events. I’m sick of travelling in planes and glad to be home and sitting still for a while.”
The amount of testing on top of the races must take a huge toll on you, both mentally and physically?
“There’s a lot of work to do. From Suzuki’s point of view we are their number one riders in the world and every bit of information we give them they use, not only for our bikes, but road bikes as well. So we do a hell of a lot of work, but you know what, I don’t complain about it, because I love riding the bike. When it’s the end of the year it’s good to leave a cold Europe and come home.”
To race Moto GP has been your lifelong dream, was it everything you thought it would be?
“I always wanted to go there, but I didn’t know what to expect and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I feel really lucky and fortunate to be in the position I’m in. I’m with a great team, probably one of the best in the world, on the fastest motorbikes, doing what I want to do. Even when I’m home I love riding motorbikes, so I feel lucky and yeah, it is a dream come true.”
In 2006 did you achieve what you wanted?
“My ultimate goal was to finish top ten and I finished eleventh, but we had a bit of bad luck with engines at the start of the year, so from that side of things we did reasonably well. I didn’t expect to get a pole position and the goal was to stand on the podium, but realistically, if I didn’t get there I wasn’t going to be surprised. Being a sports person and I think any sports person is the same, once you do something like that, your goals move up straight away, you want to do more and you expect more out of yourself. So it was a good season, but next year we’re going in with bigger expectations trying to do better.”
“They are. The factory itself was so excited with the pole positions. Suzuki had never had one on the four stroke machines, so from that side of things they were very excited and then to get on the podium and at Phillip Island, it was great. The team was overjoyed, they’ve worked hard for a lot of years and they deserve it as well.”
How was the Phillip Island experience, finishing ahead of Valentino Rossi, claiming a first premier class podium in front of your home town fans, can you put it into words?
“Not really, that’s the hardest thing. It was incredible, but I’ve been working so hard for that for such a long time and I couldn’t believe it. Even the last lap going around I kept thinking something has got to go wrong this can’t be real. We were still second and there is that place one higher and we’re working for that now and hopefully will come back in 2007 and push for that lead. But the best thing was finishing in front of Valentino Rossi. He’s the biggest name in our sport, the crowd were amazing, they were singing "Vermeulen kicked Rossi’s ass, do dah, do dah” for hours and hours. It was quiet cool actually. I only beat him by less then a second, but I’ll take it don’t worry about that, it was good to hear. Thanks if you were singing along.”
Next year the maximum capacity is 800cc, and Suzuki look to have a quick machine right from the outset so what are your thoughts on the bike?
“They’ve been on the ball, they’ve had the bike going for a while and we’ve been to three tests and at all three tests we’ve been faster on the 800cc then we were on the 990cc machine, which is incredible you know. Our speed is down on the straights by an average of 10 to 15 kilometres, so before, where we were doing 320km per hour, we’re doing just over the 300 mark, but our lap times, in most places, are over a second faster. It’s exciting you know.”
How are your times stacking up against the other teams?
"I was the quickest at the three day test in Jerez, ahead of Valentino Rossi and John Hopkins, my team mate, who was third for most of the test. I ended up fourth because a lot of the guys put a soft qualifying tyre on, but still when they used them we were less then a second behind them. So it wasn’t too bad and bode well for us at the moment. In racing everything is uncertain and there’s a long way to go yet before the start of the season and when you are competing against people like Yamaha and Honda, you know they’re going to catch up for sure. It’s great to be in the position we’re in now.”
Can you make big steps next year?
“You know I think we can be competitive, but it’s hard to say, it’s a long season. 18 Grand Prix's around the world, so much can happen. My personal goal is to be inside the top 4 or 5 in the championship and our team - we’ve spoken and our goal is to win the first race. It is hard work riding one of these bikes, but I feel fit and strong and ready to get the job done.”