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EXCLUSIVE Chris Vermeulen - Q&A

20 January 2014

An exclusive interview with Chris Vermeulen, winner of the 2003 World Supersport title, ten World Superbike races and the 2007 French MotoGP.

After two replacement rides for Camel Honda in 2005 Vermeulen spent four seasons in MotoGP with Suzuki, claiming seven podiums - including the factory's only victory of the four-stroke era (pictured).

The popular Australian left grand prix at the end of 2009 and signed for Kawasaki in WSBK, but was sidelined for much of the two-year contract due to serious knee injuries.

Vermeulen returned to Australia to continue his recovery before a one-off return at the 2012 French MotoGP, in place of Colin Edwards at Forward Racing.

However, the 31-year-old has now officially retired from racing…

Crash.net:
Where does the name 'Vermeulen' come from?

Chris Vermeulen:
It's Dutch, it's really common in Holland and also South Africa as I've found out in my travels. My grandparents emigrated to Australia after the Second World War and my dad was born here, some of his elder siblings were born in Holland though.

I actually seem to have a lot of Dutch fans. When I was in GPs there wasn't a Dutch rider so I think they went for me instead, I always have a good crowd there and I've also got quite a few cousins I can catch up with. That didn't have anything to do with me joining the Ten Kate team [in WSS and WSBK] but it did mean that I felt at home there and got on really well with them.

Crash.net:
Have you now made the decision to fully retire from racing?

Chris Vermeulen:
Yes I have. At a personal level I sort of decided about two years ago that I wouldn't continue racing professionally when I moved back to Australia. I had a lot of time off with my knee injury, I couldn't put any weight on it for six months and couldn't bend it enough to get on a bike for nine and it was during that period that I came back to Australia.

It's somewhere I hadn't been for ten odd years and I really enjoyed being here. It was at that time that I decided to retire and stay in Australia. I'm enjoying it so far but I do miss riding the best bikes in the world.

I did it quietly, I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. I didn't feel it was necessary to make a big announcement. For the first twelve months after I stopped I still got the odd offer of a ride but now I always say 'Thank you very much, but no thanks'.

Crash.net:
Did you feel the decision was forced on you?

Chris Vermeulen:
In a way because of the knee injury, yes. I was very fortunate because in a career spanning over ten years I never missed a race and before the injury I never felt I'd retire at this age. With the time off though it made me see things differently and there were also the doctors who were telling me to take it easy with the knee just a bit longer.

Crash.net:
So you can be a full-time father to your new daughter?

Chris Vermeulen:
Yes I am a full-time father and that's quite a hard job I can tell you! We've got a nine week old daughter called Georgia. She's great and Toni and myself are really enjoying being with her and there's a real feeling that this is the next chapter of my life. It was hard seeing what Toni had to go through but the result is lovely, in some ways it was even harder than riding a race.

Crash.net:
So we might be seeing a top woman rider in the future?

Chris Vermeulen:
I just did the Troy Bayliss Classic dirt track race yesterday and there was a full grid in the woman's class and some of those girls were going hard, it was good to see.

To be honest I don't know why there aren't more female riders, maybe it's a strength thing. Generally women tend to be smaller than men and you'd have thought that at a physical level that should be good. Maybe it's just that they're not encouraged to get on a bike early on.

I'm certainly not going to push Georgia towards racing but I am going to encourage her to ride a bike. If she really did want to go into racing though, I'd support her.

Crash.net:
As a person who has dedicated so much of his life to racing, did you find the idea of retiring scary?

Chris Vermeulen:
I wouldn't say scary. Once I got the news that I'd done so much damage to my knee, I've got so many screws and fixings in there and there's so much soft tissue damage, the thought naturally came up that that could be the end of my career. It was when the doctors were telling me that I might never be able to bend it past 90 degrees that the real shock came. You never think that it'll all end so quickly, I think that was the main scary aspect.

After I'd had the operations and was going through rehabilitation to get walking again there was a long period when I could get over that shock and get used to the situation. It certainly wasn't an easy decision though.

My knee's pretty OK now, I've had three operations from a top knee surgeon in Barcelona and did physio for four months with a guy who works with the Barcelona football club and now I'm able to do a fair bit. I do a triathlon now and again for fun and it seems to hold up to that. I can also run but I have to be careful to limit that. It's good within reason but I'm still working on it with Yoga and training because there's so much stuff in the joint and if I don't do that the muscles waste away very quickly. Luckily I don't limp and it's fine for everyday use without too much pain.

Actually I've had quite a number of injuries and when I travel to cold or damp places I can feel the different screws and breaks aching and I can always feel when the weather changes. Even going to Melbourne can bring it on a bit.

Crash.net:
Has your training and diet lifestyle totally changed, are you enjoying that freedom?

Chris Vermeulen:
In a way yes but I still get up at 5.30 and go running or swimming or training in the ocean - we live right on the beach. I actually still do a couple of hours physical exercise per day and really enjoy it. I still challenge myself to go faster or longer though, that aspect never changes.

The thing I am enjoying is the chance to be more relaxed. When you're racing, everything you did was to be faster on a motorbike and that keep you permanently focused. You have to be on a strict diet but now if I want fish and chips, that's what I have. Life has become more enjoyable but I don't get to ride those wonderful motorbikes.

Crash.net:
Did you consider yourself a biker or an athlete?

Chris Vermeulen:
When I was asked, I always said that I was a motorcycle racer so I guess a biker, but now I'd say I'm neither!

Crash.net:
Are you doing any dangerous activities such as mountaineering to replace the thrill of racing?

Chris Vermeulen:
No, not really. I was never a thrill seeker and didn't need the speed to keep me excited. I just enjoyed being able to do something really well and the challenge of doing better. One of the things I enjoyed so much about the GP bike was the development side and that fitted in to that ethos.

That was one of the reasons I stuck with Suzuki for so long because as a factory team you have a lot of involvement in that side of things. I found the work of making the bike go faster was really exciting at an academic level. That's what I got out of it. I'm not some kind of adrenaline junky who has to jump off buildings and stuff like that. I wouldn't do it anyway because I'm scared of heights! The truth is that I like riding bikes fast because I'm good at it, not for the speed.

In the triathlons, I'm not necessarily good at it but I still get that same thrill of trying to improve and to achieve targets.

Crash.net:
So honestly, if Ronald ten Kate phoned up tomorrow and asked you to ride the WSBK Honda, what would you say?

Chris Vermeulen:
I'd have to say no. It's the travel and leaving home that I wouldn't want to do, I'm happy at home. I've often said that if I could do the world championship and stay in Australia then I'd do it, but putting my life on hold because of the travel isn't an option now. It's not just about me anymore, I have to consider the family.

I don't even think I'll get involved in racing at an international level such as running a team. I wouldn't necessarily say never but I don't think so. I'm a silent partner in a couple of motorcycle dealerships here selling BMWs, Ducatis, MV Augustas, Bimotas and Benellis and that keeps me busy and connected to the industry. I also do a bit of work for BMW in Australia at ride days they do and I enjoy that. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to ride a factory GP bike but that isn't available any more.

At a fun level, I'm also doing some dirt bike riding such as the Troy Bayliss Classic and that keeps my hand in as regards racing. I actually did three or four last year and I'm gradually getting better at it.

Crash.net:
Were you able to do the TB Classic 'just for fun' or did the competitive spirit kick in?

Chris Vermeulen:
No, I did do it for fun. I tried my best and rode my hardest but definitely not the same as when I was racing. There were some guys there who were ultra-competitive, who'd trained and done a huge amount of preparation.

I still ride reasonably well though, I qualified for the main race and in a field that includes six world champions from all different fields of the sport I came seventh or eighth overall which isn't too bad. I don't take it too seriously though. Riders there included Troy, Jason Crump and Karl Muggeridge.

Crash.net:
Isn't Karl Muggeridge a watchmaker?

Chris Vermeulen:
Yes, that's his profession and that's what he's qualified at. He used to do that before he became a professional rider. Karl actually owns a large bike dealership with his brother now.

Crash.net:
When you look back at your long career, do you have any 'what ifs' or frustrations?

Chris Vermeulen:
When I look back I actually feel quite satisfied with what I've done. I won a WSS championship which no one can take away from me and also came close to winning a WSBK one. I think I was riding well at that time and won a lot of races and it was just circumstances which stopped me getting the main prize.

When I got on the GP bike I was Suzuki's only race winner in the four stroke era and also got seven podiums for them and that gives me a great sense of satisfaction. More than that, I have very happy memories of that time and really enjoyed developing that bike and moving it in a good direction.

Maybe there are some decisions that I made where if I'd made a different one things could have moved in a better direction, but ultimately you just don't know. Ifs, buts and maybes aren't what I do and I really don't have any regrets. My memories of my racing career feel pretty warm.

Some people say to me that I might have done better on a Honda in the GPs but that's just speculation because I might have actually done worse. You just can't tell, but the results I got stand for themselves.

I had a really great team in Suzuki MotoGP and they gave me the best opportunities which I could sometimes repay with a podium.

Crash.net:
Which things do you miss in racing and which don't you?

Chris Vermeulen:
I just miss riding the best bikes in the world and developing them, I miss working with the various engineers to do bike development. It was such a privilege to ride those incredible bikes that not many other people have ridden. It's the bikes I miss.

I certainly don't miss the politics of the sport and like all Australian riders I don't miss the traveling and living out of a suitcase. Being away from home is hard where you don't have your family and friends. It's basically all the stuff around riding the bike that I didn't like.

Crash.net:
When you say 'politics', what do you mean?

Chris Vermeulen:
I think it's actually getting worse now with a lot of riders having to bring money into the sport to get a job. Sometimes it's not the best rider who gets the job and that's a shame, it's often someone who provides the biggest commercial gain for a company. There's a lot of that going on.

Also it's all about selling TV time for Dorna and they need riders from the countries that watch the sport. It's working pretty well for the UK at the moment but probably not so well for Australia. It's just a shame that it's often not the best or most deserving rider that gets the bike. Don't get me wrong, there are loads of good riders in GP at the moment but maybe there are some who shouldn't be there. I don't want to put my foot in it by saying which ones I think those are though.

Crash.net:
Which of the teams did you most enjoy being with?

Chris Vermeulen:
I was lucky because things improved throughout my career. When I first came to England and raced for Honda, that was a good team. I then got an improvement to Castrol Honda and then again to Ten Kate.

But the team I definitely felt most comfortable with was Suzuki MotoGP and one of the main reasons for that was that the language in the team was English and that the people in the team were English or Irish. That year I also had a great and close relationship with my crew and that helped too. I still stay in touch with a lot of the people from there.

Even on the Japanese side I really felt part of the family and you felt that they appreciated you being there as much as you appreciated them. It was a great feeling and when I won the race at Le Mans I actually felt more happy for the team than I did for myself because of the effort they had put in and the support they'd given me.

No one had had any wet track time at that race and the bike wasn't working the best but luckily it was working better than the others. Bringing the bike home to the team certainly felt great and that result is in the record books even now so that's a real achievement. That along with winning the WSS title have to be the standouts of my career.

Crash.net:
Which riders did you respect and enjoy racing against?

Chris Vermeulen:
At world level the riders are all good and I guess I had respect for them all. It wasn't as if you could say 'so and so's not quick this weekend', they were all quick always.

The first guy that I rode with and thought, 'Wow, look what that guy can do on a bike!' though has to be Nori Haga. I was competing against him in WSBK and a lot of people when you see them ride you can understand what they're doing, but sometimes what Nori did was pretty special and I'd sometimes wonder how he did it. I definitely had great respect for him.

I experienced Nori's classic trick of following right on the back wheel many times and I could hear his bike louder than mine. I felt as if I was closer to his engine than mine! You often thought he might clip someone but he never did.

Going into MotoGP and from a pure talent point of view I've never seen anyone ride a bike like Casey Stoner. What he could do on a bike was perhaps one step up again from Nori. It didn't matter if the bike was good, bad or indifferent, he just got on and did it. It was special just to see how he rode.

Crash.net:
How about riders you had difficulties with?

Chris Vermeulen:
I didn't really have difficulties with anyone but when I first came into WSS at the back of the field there were too many guys trying to make a name for themselves and they could ride a bit too hard. Once you get at the pointy end though that was left behind. Most guys know that if they're hard on you then you're going to be hard straight back so it's not usually a problem.

I think the rider who rode the hardest against me and stayed fair most of the time was James Toseland. When he went past he didn't leave you an inch. Other riders might have left a bit more room but James rode that way and you could be exactly the same back to him because he expected it. He could give it and take it and I really enjoyed our battles, I think you could say he was hard but fair.

All riders have their different styles and to beat the rider you always had to take their style into account.

Crash.net:
Coming back to your injury problems, do you think there's pressure to come back to racing too early?

Chris Vermeulen:
From my point of view I didn't have any pressure from my team and Kawasaki were very good and certainly weren't forcing me back. The motivation for coming back was all mine. I wanted to come back straight after the injury because I didn't really have enough knowledge about it. I knew I had a lot of pain but didn't really understand the extent of the injury.

The problem was that I was so keen not to miss any races. That was so important so as to develop that bike as well. With hindsight if I'd come back a bit later I could have come back stronger, sooner.

After my major surgery the team were saying that I didn't have to come back to test in Malaysia but I flew over anyway to try. After eight laps on the bike my knee swelled up and I was in quite some pain and maybe I shouldn't have done that. When you're racing at that level though you can't give an inch to anyone and sometimes have to make decisions that in retrospect seem a bit too extreme.

It was my fault for coming back too early and if I hadn't there might have been a different outcome, I don't regret that decision but I have learnt from it for my life in general.

Crash.net:
Have you made enough in your racing career to be financially secure now?

Chris Vermeulen:
I guess you could say yes though it depends on your lifestyle. Toni and I like to live pretty simply if you don't count the elaborate toys I've got in the garage so we should be able to manage.

I've also got some business interest such as the dealerships and some commercial properties which not only keep me busy but also generate a reasonable income. From that point of view racing certainly set me up and when I was winning I was paid quite handsomely for doing so that's for sure.

Crash.net:
Which bike class do you think provides the best racing and entertainment?

Chris Vermeulen:
From a pure racing point of view WSBK is in a different class to MotoGP though when you look at the smaller classes like Moto2 and Moto3 they give some great racing too.

MotoGP isn't so exciting because it's like Formula 1 where it's all about the technology and development. I still prefer to watch it though because I find that aspect interesting, also I still have some friends in that paddock and that gives me a little bit of an inside picture with regards to what's happening on track.

Crash.net:
Do you think MotoGP is in a good state?

Chris Vermeulen:
I don't know, and why I say that is because it isn't in a worse state than when I was racing and it wasn't too bad then. It's still quite popular and people still find it interesting.

Crash.net:
How would you make the competition closer?

Chris Vermeulen:
That's difficult. I think that Dorna would like to make it more of a controlled sport and what they've done to the tyres is the first step of that. I believe they would also like to reduce the ultimate grip of the tyre which would allow everybody to get to the grip limit of the tyre easier. At the moment the bike is pretty much being developed for the tyre. I remember at Suzuki, when the control tyre came out our bike couldn't use it and we had to go back and redesign the chassis so that we could even use the front tyre.

The control ECU is another aspect of that control philosophy. Electronics in MotoGP are a massive thing and they can absolutely transform a bike. I think that Honda's advantage over Yamaha is purely due to electronics. Honda and Yamaha spend more money than the others and therefore have access to better electronic management and therefore have a gap to the others.

As I rider I like going out on the bike and switching all the electronics off because there's no greater feeling than having all that horsepower in your hand. I think that old school riders might appreciate a lack of electronics, but you've got to remember that those bikes might actually be unrideable without them and they're also needed for safety

So for me it's all about having a less grippy tyre and looking at the electronic level but the difficulty is how to implement a change given that you've got to get it past the factories. It's easy to say that Dorna should do this or that but the manufacturers are involved in the decision and they've got their own ideas as to where development should go depending whether it a possible road bike development or just the marketing exercise of winning races. It's a balancing act.

Crash.net:
Given your liking of racing bikes, why is your garage full of off road bikes?

Chris Vermeulen:
I don't ride a sports bike on the road for the very simple reason that I want to keep my life. I don't think that a sports bike is right for me on the roads because I might not be able to resist giving it some gas. I've got a BMW GS which I go about on and then a number of dirt and trials bikes that I like to pretend I know what I'm doing on.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to keep any of the race bikes I used. I was told by Honda Europe that I would be able to keep the bike I won the WSS title on but I still haven't managed to get it. I always had it in my contract that if I won the championship then I should be allowed to keep the bike.

Crash.net:
What car do you use to get around town?

Chris Vermeulen:
My every day car's a big red1954 Ford F100 hot rod. Me and my dad restored it and it's got a fuel injected five litre motor in it and it goes along quite nicely.

Crash.net:
So that should be good for embarrassing Georgia with in front of her friends when you pick her up from a night out when she's a teenager?

Chris Vermeulen:
(Laughs) yeah it'll be her old man trying to be cool again!

Crash.net:
Thanks a lot Chris, it's been a pleasure.

Chris Vermeulen:
No worries, you're welcome.


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