Vermeulen Q and A
The new generation 800cc machines have already changed MotoGP racing beyond recognition, with faster corners speeds and later braking seeing lap times already faster than the more powerful 990cc four-strokes.
After a long and exhaustive winter testing schedule, the first ever 800cc MotoGP world championship race takes place in Qatar, with Valentino Rossi and Dani Pedrosa red-hot favourites to relieve Nicky Hayden of his premier class crown after just one season.
On the eve of the first GP, factory Suzuki rider Chris Vermeulen spoke to motorcyclenews.com to give an insight into new 800cc machines.
Corner speeds seem to have caught everybody by surprise, what about you?
"That's been the big area of surprise for me and the way the bike goes around the corner. My first test on track was in Valencia last year with the 250s and they weren't slow guys. I was running with Andrea Dovizioso and Alex de Angelis. I caught up Dovizioso on the infield and he didn't out turn me at all. I was right up behind him through the real close stuff and we've got the horsepower close to what we've used to and much more usable power in the first four gears than we used to have. That's where we make our time in the corners."
Lap times are already incredibly fast so did you expect them to be slower?
"I expected them to be slower than what they are. It's a 20 per cent reduction in capacity but it's definitely not a 20 per cent reduction in horsepower. It's more like less than 10 per cent. They've still got more power than any superbike I rode and they felt fast when I was on them. These bikes are not slow, they still want to wheelie in fourth gear coming onto the straight at Phillip Island and we are still doing 300ks at every track. People thought four-strokes were just dirty old farm bikes but its pretty obvious they aren't."
Top speeds are slightly down, so can you notice that or is it irrelevant when you are doing over 300ks?
"My first comment was I could feel there was less power yet within five laps in Valencia I was within 0.5s of what I'd done on the 990. I was just losing out on acceleration and top speed and it didn't take long to work out that you go through the corners a lot different and we?ve got a lot more rpm, so changing the gearbox to use that rpm and we ended up going quicker. Top speed you don't really feel that much different. What really surprised me was at Qatar in testing. Under similar conditions looking at the data we were doing the same top speed as we were on 990. I guess that's because we are coming off the last corner better and we've better aerodynamics, but mainly that the engine is not that much down on power. My first feeling when I first came to GPs was that compared to a Superbike they are not that much different in first and second gear. But in fifth and sixth gears down the straight they just keep going. The 800s doesn't keep going as much so that's where you really notice the power difference in the higher gears."
Looking from trackside, one big difference is how much later you can brake on the 800s, so do you think this is big a factor in the impressive lap times?
"There's a few reasons for it, but in terms of braking the biggest thing is we are down on top speed by a few kilometres an hour, so that gives you more time and more leeway to maybe not be so precise on the brakes. When you are doing 320ks you don't have much time to make a mistake like you were on the 990s. Actual moving mass inside the engine is less so there is less spinning forces. The bike is not lighter but it feels like it and we can carry more corner speed so you don't need to wash off as much speed. Myself and John (Hopkins) were braking 60 metres later on the 800 for turn one in Sepang and if you ran that you'd know it. That's quite incredible but it doesn't feel like it when you are on the bike."
So is the braking less severe physically or harder because there is less time now corner entry is so crucial?
"On the 990 you grabbed a lot of brake to try and get it stopped, try and turn, get it into the corner on its side and get it out. It's a little bit smoother and more finesse on the 800 and maybe not braking so hard to carry speed through the corner. The style is a bit like Pedrosa used to ride the 990 so I'm not surprised he's doing so well on the 800."
It also seems now with less power that you are wide open on the throttle out of corners, is the acceleration that much more docile than the 990?
"It was brutal on the 990. There is more rpm so there is a better range of power on the 800. On the 800 we are still taking out power in the lower gears. We probably had to take out more on the 990 but what we are learning now is that we probably could have afforded to have taken more out of the 990s because we take it out of the 800s and we are still going faster. The 800s just don't hit as hard as the 990, especially in the top gears. The way we ride them is a little bit different. There's more corner speed and you open the throttle in a different way. These bikes having less power does allow you to open the throttle more at maximum lean angle and having more rpm range allows you to have the bike geared better for the corners so you can find more power and acceleration. With the 990 in third and fourth gear you'd be off the throttle trying to keep the front wheel down or stop it spinning but the 800s you are at full throttle much more."
Are the bikes less physical to ride without the horsepower?
"The biggest thing that I get a sore back from being tucked in all of the time. It's more like riding a 250. The superbike and a 990 was more of animal and you were on top of the bike but these things you just pick them up and tuck in.
You've had a busy winter but now the first race is here, so where do you still feel you can improve?
"From a personal point of view trail-braking is an area I needed to improve a lot, and being on the 800 helped that but its also faster in that area of corner entry. You are trail-braking maybe even more because the corner speed is higher and you are on the side of the tyre a lot longer and a lot earlier."
And what about the bike?
"We are always looking to make the engine more and more usable. That's the biggest area. Some bikes are much faster than others and Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards have more consistent lap times than anybody else but they have one of the slowest bikes, so that proves that out and out speed is not important and we are working to make the bike better in the corners. Throttle connection in the corner is the key. But I'm also looking for better rear entry grip and making the bike turn better with stability."