Chris Vermeulen’s switch from MotoGP to World Superbike for 2010 represents one of the more intriguing moves in the annual rider shuffle.
The former World Supersport champ returns to a series where he last campaigned for the Ten Kate Honda squad, the lead rival with Troy Corser, then with Alstare Suzuki, for the 2005 title. A four-year stint in MotoGP followed with the Rizla Suzuki squad, where Vermeulen garnered one GP victory and seven podiums – his best campaign in 2007 where he took his GP win and finished sixth overall. After two more seasons in MotoGP, the 27-year-old is back in SBK, taking on the challenge of turning the Kawasaki ZX-10R into a title contender.
We wanted to get Chris V’s take on the new career path with SBK and Kawasaki. The Australian likes to spend his offseason indulging in his passion for sailing, but luckily the affable Aussie (and former monthly contributing editor to Motorcycle USA with Inside Line) returned to shore long enough to answer our land-lubbing questions.
You’re returning to World Superbike after a four-year stint in MotoGP. How would you sum up your Grand Prix experience? What were the highs and lows?
I have learnt a lot in MotoGP and as a rider I am much more experienced now because of my time there. It was great being part of a factory team for that period and to be involved as the bikes evolved and big steps each year. I had seven podiums there and one win and all of them were my highlights. There were also low points when we were not competitive as a team in 2009.
Vermeulen’s success the first two years of MotoGP culminated in 2007, when he scored his Grand Prix victory at Le Mans, along with three more podiums and sixth overall in the championship.
Did you find your time at Suzuki frustrating during the final two seasons?
Yes, it was hard at times in the last 18 months at Suzuki. The frustrating part was that the bike was not improving as fast as our competition.
Did you ever feel the dynamics changed when Hopkins left and Capirossi came aboard? Ever feel like parts went to him first or anything like?
I expected that when Loris joined the team that his experience would help us a lot but it was not that way at all, I think the way John and I worked together is was much more effective to improve the bike. And you are right, we were more equal as well at that time.
How does it feel to be back in World Superbike?
I am really excited to be racing WSB again. It’s a championship that I enjoy and have had a lot of success in. Technology on these bikes has moved on heaps since 2005 as well and, so far I have been enjoying the development side with Kawasaki too.
What are the differences, from a rider’s perspective, of MotoGP and WSB? Is one more relaxed, more pressure, less intense rivalries?
For me there is not a big difference between the two championships from a riding point of view but the paddock is a bit more relaxed in WSB, more my style I guess.
Vermeulen’s task for 2010 is getting the Kawasaki competitive, something no one has done aboard the ZX-10R in the World Superbike paddock.
You wrapped up some testing in Spain. What are your first impressions of the Kawasaki?
I am very impressed with the Kawasaki after the first couple of tests. Don’t get me wrong we have a lot of work to do to make it the best bike on the track, but is a bike that I feel I have a lot of control on and is fast.
Kawasaki has not fared well in World Superbike. Do you feel you are taking on a challenge turning its fortunes around in SBK?
For sure it’s a challenge moving to Kawasaki with the results they have had the last few years, but it was the company’s motivation and goals for the near future that convinced me to join and to be a part of.
How is the new team, and teammate Sykes?
The team seems great from a first impression. We have members from KHI, Hayate MotoGP team and from the Paul Bird team from last year and they seem to be gelling together well. I don’t know Tom my teammate that well yet but he is going well on the bike too.
Vermeulen is in accord with most of the paddock, it would seem, that the 800cc move in MotoGP was a mistake.
Vermeulen performs well in the rain, scoring his Grand Prix victory in the wet at Le Mans in 2007.
What are your expectations for the 2010 season? Do you think you and that bike have a chance of winning the first year?
Our goal is to go out and try to win every race. Whether we can challenge to do this I’m not sure, but we will be focusing on this as well as developing the new 2011 ZX10R to come out as a force in 2011.
How long is your contract with Kawasaki? Do you anticipate a long stay in SBK, or a future return to MotoGP?
I have signed for two years with Kawasaki. As for the future, past that I am not sure yet, my focus is to be world superbike champion.
Any thoughts on the return of MotoGP to 1000cc machines?
I think it was the biggest mistake that MotoGP did going to 800cc, with 1000cc bikes you could ride the bikes in more than one way, making the racing closer and more passing and they were more fun to ride, like a superbike really.
You have enjoyed success in wet conditions, including a Grand Prix victory at Le Mans. What’s the secret to riding in the rain?
I don’t know why I am fast in the rain. I guess I have good feel of the bike underneath me from my dirt track background and I think that’s why most Aussies and Americans do well in the wet. The wet is also a leveler of equipment. When you are down on power or electronic controls in the wet there is much less grip, so more of the result is dependent on the riders skill than the dry.
When he’s not flogging about the track upwards of 200 mph, Vermeulen can be found out on the water with a more leisurely pace guiding him.
How’s the off-season treating you? We hear you’re somewhere out in the Pacific sailing…?
The off season is going well. It is quite short, though, with the testing we are allowed to do in WSB, which I am enjoying a lot. I landed in Aus on Christmas Day after our last test in Jerez, and the climate is great for training hard and building a physical level that I can maintain throughout the year. Yes, I love my sailing and have been spending a lot of time on the boat off shore of the east coast of Queensland, so enjoying myself.