17 August 2006
Vermeulen: Leading a MotoGP no different.
When Paul Denning announced that Rizla Suzuki had secured the services of Honda World Superbike star Chris Vermeulen for the 2006 and 2007 MotoGP seasons, it was widely considered a brilliant coup.
After his first eleven races on the Bridgestone shod GSV-R - a more potent package compared with previous seasons but still, on average, behind the ten Michelin backed Honda and Yamaha machines - the young Australian has underlined the faith shown in him with two pole positions, the most recent of which came last time out at Laguna Seca.
Race day in the USA saw Vermeulen take the lead by the end of the opening lap, a position he held confidently until the halfway mark of the 32 lap contest, when he was passed by eventual winner Nicky Hayden. Grip and then fuel supply problems eventually caused the 2005 WSBK runner-up to surrender a podium position and fade to fifth at the flag.
The late race heartbreak left Denning's team bitterly disappointed, yet Chris wasn't too downcast - appearing confident that his next chance to fight for a debut podium will come soon enough - and he certainly wasn't overawed by leading a MotoGP race for the first time.
"At Laguna there was no difference in my head about the prospect of winning or setting pole position, even now that I am in MotoGP," said Vermeulen, speaking during the summer break that ends this weekend at Brno. "It's obviously harder to win races in MotoGP, of course. Ever since I had my first experience of leading and then winning other world championship races, I realised that when you're on the track - while you are racing - it's no different.
“I knew it was going to be a long old race and it's quite a difficult track to pass on, so I knew how important the pole position slot and a good launch would be. I got off quite well and thought I was leading it up the hill because I didn't see anyone else - until Kenny Roberts Junior came past on the inside… pretty fast," he smiled. "Towards the end of the lap, as we went round the last right-hander I got good drive out just as Kenny spun a little, and I thought, 'Why not? I've started pole so I might as well lead it over the first lap…' I was fast into the last hairpin, outbraked him - and then just got my head down. From there on I realised I would have to try hard, but not ride at 110% - not be loose everywhere, looking after my tyres.
"The first full lap in the lead my board read +0.5, then out to +0.8, then I thought to myself, 'Jeez, either they're all making mistakes, or we're going too fast for them!' It kind of felt like a couple of years ago when I was racing in the lead on a Superbike at Laguna. It was smooth, my lead just kept going up and up and eventually it was two seconds.
"My lap times started to slow a few tenths as the tyre just got very hot, because the track temperature was so high. Even when I had +2 on the board I never knew that I was guaranteed to have a podium, I just wasn't thinking about it, I was just concentrating on going as fast as I could.
"Nicky was pulling me back a few tenths of a second a lap. I wasn't too worried. I knew that even if he - or they - did catch me then they would still have to pass. With my board at +0 at half distance, coming into turn three I braked slightly later and I lost the front - while the bike was straight-up-and down!
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