After four seasons of modest success in MotoGP with Suzuki, Chris Vermeulen returns to the World Superbike Championship in 2010 determined to secure the title he just missed out on back in 2005.
The latest in a long line of successful Australian motorcycle racers, Vermeulen may not have been able to turn his pace at MotoGP level into anything more than a single rain-assisted victory, his return to World Superbikes with Kawasaki still represents an exciting addition heading into the new decade.
Having forged a successful career in dirt track racing Chris Vermeulen switched to road racing in 1998, winning races in his first season, before confirming his potential when he made the leap up to the Australian Superbike and Superstock championship the following year.
On the advice of Barry Sheene, Vermeulen moved to Europe, racing for the Sanyo Honda team, in 2000. He was immediately competitive on Supersport and Superstock machines, winning the Donington round of the European Superstock Championship.
A promising performance in the British Supersport Championship would see Vermeulen sign to race a Castrol-backed Honda in the 2001 World Supersport championship, but it was a tough year in which he finished just 17th, prompting a move to the Van Zon Honda Team for 2002, a satellite concern for the Ten Kate outfit.
Two podium finishes and constant top ten places delivered a seventh place championship finish and earned him a contract with the crack Ten Kate Honda Team, reigning World Supersport Champions for 2003. Vermeulen made the most of his opportunity, wining four out of the 11 rounds (and four other runner-up places) on his way to a first world title – the youngest rider to do so at the time.
As a result of those achievements, the young Aussie was rewarded with a ride on Honda's new Fireblade in the 2004 World Superbike championship, again with Ten Kate. After a slow start to the season as the team developed the Fireblade, three consecutive wins would elevate Vermeulen into a four-rider battle for the title, eventually settling for fourth in the championship.
Vermeulen remained with Ten Kate for 2005, running alongside Karl Muggeridge and with title sponsorship from Winston, but a slow start to the season would give Alstare Suzuki's Troy Corser vital championship ground that would never be made up.
Vermeulen finally broke the Suzuki stranglehold with victory in race two at Monza (round four) but is was a false dawn and it would take until round nine, at Assen, for the Australian to win again. But he did so with a clean sweep of both races and would then finish 1-2 (behind debut winner Lanzi) next time out in Germany before clinching race one at Imola.
But it was all too late and when heavy rain descended on Imola before race two, Vermeulen surrendered his title chance by agreeing with his fellow riders that it was too dangerous to race. Vermeulen then proved what might have been by winning race one at the Magny Cours season finale – and had an excellent chance of winning race two had it not been for a broken chain while battling Lanzi for the lead.
Vermeulen finished the season runner-up, but his efforts had been noticed in MotoGP - by both Camel Honda and (not known at the time) Team Suzuki. With Troy Bayliss facing a long injury layoff, the Pons team called up Vermeulen as a substitute for his home GP at Phillip Island. Chris qualified 14th on his way to 11th in the race, then impressed further next time out in Turkey with 11th on the grid and 11th in the race - in front of factory Honda Max Biaggi.
There was speculation that Vermeulen would be given a further outing at the Valencia season finale, but ever increasing rumours that he had signed for Suzuki put an end to that. It would later be revealed that Suzuki had approached Vermeulen about the GP ride long before his Camel debut, and with Honda unable to guarantee a MotoGP seat his decision to join John Hopkins on the GSV-R in 2006 was soon taken.
The Suzuki was rarely a match for the factory Hondas, Yamahas and Ducatis in race specification, but Vermeulen signalled his ability by taking a wet pole position in round three at Istanbul and claimed his first dry pole position in the US GP at Laguna Seca. Vermeulen led a substantial part of the race, but was denied a debut podium by fuel problems. Nevertheless, three rounds later, Vermeulen did stand on a MotoGP rostrum for the first time after finishing second, in front of his home fans, in the rain interrupted Australian Grand Prix and finished his first MotoGP season 11th in the standings.
Vermeulen entered his second MotoGP season eager to prove he could beat the best in the world - encouraged by the Suzuki's new 800cc machine, which was by far the factory's most competitive four-stroke machine to date. Chris was overshadowed by team-mate John Hopkins for the first round rounds, but his slow start to the season ended in style at the wet French Grand Prix - when he exploited his wet weather skills to win his first ever MotoGP race, and the first race win for Suzuki since Sete Gibernau in 2001 (on a 500cc two-stroke).
Despite claims that he hates riding the rain, Vermeulen continued to work his magic in slippery conditions - taking third at Donington Park and then pole position next time out in Assen. Much to his frustration, Chris found it difficult to replicate those results in the dry - partly due to poor qualifying performances - but a breakthrough dry ride came at the US GP, when he finished second to Casey Stoner, a result he then repeated at two rounds later at Misano.
By now, Vermeulen was battling with team-mate Hopkins for top Suzuki honours, but the last five rounds weren't kind to Vermeulen, who took a best finish of sixth and slipped behind both Hopkins and Marco Melandri to finish a still creditable sixth in the final standings.
With Hopkins moving to Kawasaki, Vermeulen was joined former Ducati star Loris Capirossi for the 2008 season - when Chris hoped to build on his debut victory and establish himself as a regular frontrunner.
Unfortunately for Vermeulen and Suzuki, the 2008 GSV-R failed to build upon the progress made by the 2007 model, leaving Vermeulen and Capirossi struggling from the start. Fifth place at round five in Le Mans marked Vermeulen’s first solid points of the year but it took until round ten, at a wet German GP, for Vermeulen to take Suzuki’s first podium of the season.
A repeat of that result next time out in the dry at Laguna Seca provided hope of a recovery during the second half of the season, but it was to prove a false dawn. Vermeulen took a best finish of fifth during the final seven rounds to end the year eighth in the championship, two places ahead of team-mate Capirossi.
With his flurry of good mid-season results sparking Suzuki into offering a more favourable contract extension, Vermeulen remained with the team for a fourth season, but it wouldn’t live up to the expectations of his rapid turn during pre-season testing.
Vermeulen couldn’t be faulted for consistency, finishing every single race inside the points, but with a best result of just fifth at Assen, he failed to get onto the podium for the first time since making the full-time switch to MotoGP and would end the year a lacklustre 12th overall.
Even so, with Suzuki having already confirmed Alvaro Bautista alongside Loris Capirossi for 2010, Vermeulen knew long before the season had finished that he was heading for the exit door. Furthermore, with no apparent options in MotoGP, he turned his attentions to World Superbikes.
While a return to Ten Kate Honda was mooted, Vermeulen has instead accepted a deal to front Kawasaki’s 2010 challenge. Having finished bottom of the manufacturer pile for the last two seasons, it was hoped Vermeulen’s experience – as well as an increased investment from Kawasaki itself - would lead the team to renewed success this season.
However, Vermeulen’s season was over before it had even begun after a high-speed crash during the second race at Phillip Island left him with a serious knee injury.
Skipping the next two rounds, Vermeulen returned for Assen, but it became clear the extent of his injury had been underestimated. Though Vermeulen soldiered on towards the back of the field – scoring the odd point here and there - the decision was eventually taken for him undergo surgery in August, ultimately sidelining him for the rest of the year.
Nonetheless, Kawasaki are retaining faith in Vermeulen, honouring their two-year agreement in the hope that he will be back to his best in time for when it launches the new ZX-10R for the 2011 season. Though the bike will be missing Vermeulen’s testing experience – the main reason he was signed in the first place -, he will be relieved to be given another chance.Career Highlights:2011:
A fully fit Vermeulen will get a second attempt with Kawasaki in an expanded three-man team alongside Tom Sykes and Joan Lascorz. 2010:
World Superbike Championship (14 races), Kawasaki SRT, 20th 2009:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 12th2008:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 8th2007:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 6th (1 win) 2006:
MotoGP World Championship, Rizla Suzuki, 11th2005:
World Superbike Championship, Ten Kate Honda, 2nd (6 wins)
MotoGP World Championship (2 races), Camel Honda, 21st2004:
World Superbike Championship, Ten Kate Honda, 4th (3 wins) 2003:
World Supersport Championship, Ten Kate Honda, 1st (4 wins) 2002:
World Supersport Championship, Van Zon Honda, 7th2001:
World Supersport Championship, Castrol Honda, 17th2000:
British Supersport Championship, Sanyo Honda, 6th
World Supersport Championship, Castrol Honda, 21st
Superstock 100 Championship, Sanyo Honda, 18th1999:
Australian Superbike Championship, 8th