By Peter McLaren

Impatient to repeat the results that made him to a World Supersport champion and World Superbike title runner-up by the age of 23, Chris Vermeulen is already focussed on making a fast start to his third MotoGP season, at Qatar on March 9.

"It's very much about Qatar. That's the main objective at the moment," the Australian told "Of course we want to be world champion - as everyone else does - but our goal right now is focussing on Qatar. We want to be competitive in that race and battle for the podium. It's so important to start the year well."

Fortunately, the Suzuki factory shares that philosophy, with a prototype version of the 2008 GSV-R given its race debut back in last October's Malaysian Grand Prix, in the hands of test rider Nobuatsu Aoki.

The '08 was then handed to the race team straight after the Valencian season finale and all its main components now look to be place with the arrival of the latest specification engine - which Vermeulen expects to start the season with - at Sepang last week.

"The new engine has been working well. Both myself and Loris [Capirossi] have commented on the power we can feel and for a rider to feel a power change means that they've made a good step," said Vermeulen, before confirming: "I would imagine that this will be the engine we start the first race with."

A more visible development at Sepang was the use of experimental new bodywork (in black, see lower pics), which both Rizla riders tested heavily over the three days.

"We've had some issues with how the fairing puts weight through the bike at high speed - how the aerodynamics effect weight distribution. Especially at Phillip Island, when we tested there in November," Vermeulen explained. "Suzuki have worked hard and come back with some different fairings. They seem to be an improvement here, so we'll test them again at Phillip Island [from January 30]."

Suzuki might have left Malaysia a little deflated had their ninth (Vermeulen) and tenth (Capirossi) positions been representative of the team's form - but it wasn't; both Vermeulen and Capirossi set their best lap times on race tyres, unlike seven of the eight riders ahead of them, and would have been ranked fourth and fifth if qualifying tyres hadn't appeared. Vermeulen's 2mins 1.748secs also marked his best ever Sepang lap time and was set during the hottest part of the day.

The enthusiastic Australian took his first win in the wet at Le Mans last year - plus three other podiums - but was often forced to mount costly 'comeback' rides after struggling in qualifying, hurting his overall championship position.

Nevertheless, Vermeulen still only lost out on fourth and fifth in the championship to team-mate John Hopkins and Gresini's Marco Melandri at the very final round. Back on track at the Sepang test and Chris was seen circulating with - amongst others - Hopkins, now at Kawasaki, as each sized the other up.

"Everybody wants to know how their bike compares with the other bikes out there - especially with John because he was on our bike last year, so we want to beat him for sure!" admitted Chris, who was riding with his new Barry Sheene-inspired #7 for the first time in public. "I can say that Suzuki has done a good job."

Vermeulen's next test will be at his home circuit of Phillip Island, from January 30 to February 1.


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