Long read: Johann Zarco, what went wrong?

When he joined the premier MotoGP class in 2017, no one expected Johann Zarco to be as fast as what he was.

In 2016, it was announced that 27-year-old Johann Zarco would finally step up to the MotoGP class for 2017 with French Tech3 team aboard a Yamaha M1.

At the time, Zarco was the 2015 Moto2 world champion and was on his way to doubling up, becoming the first double Moto2 champion since the class moved from 250cc in 2010.

Zarco had a slow rise to the top, the 2007 Red Bull Rookies Champion rode for Motobi, Caterham Suter and Suter in Moto2 before being taken under the wing of Aki Ajo, riding a Kalex.

It was clear that this team was a dream come true for Zarco who had taken just six podiums in the previous three Moto2 seasons. Zarco rode the Kalex with style taking 8 wins and 14 podiums on his way to the 2015 Moto2 title, doing a backflip after every win, something which would become synonymous with Zarco.

Zarco doing a backflip after winning the Moto2 title

2016 was no different, Zarco didn’t dominate as much but still took 7 wins and 10 podiums, doubling up with the Moto2 title, defending it with back-flippin’ style.

Suzuki offered the Frenchman a test ride of their GSX-RR, a bike which suited his riding style very well, however, he was not destined to ride in blue, opting for the black and green of the Tech3 machine.

The first taste of the MotoGP machine on the Suzuki GSX-RR

In 2017 when Zarco moved to MotoGP, it was met with some criticism given that Zarco was ‘older’ than most rookies, as we have seen many rookies in their early twenties and even late teens in the last decade such as 20-year-old Marc Marquez who was 19 at the Valencia 2012 test when he first rode the RC213V.

Zarco very quickly shut this criticism down, starting his debut race at Qatar in P4 and even lead the race, putting a 2 second lead behind him before crashing out on lap 6. Johann had given us a glimpse of what was to come.

His rookie season was, unfortunately, his highest point-scoring season to date taking 174 points, finishing the season 6th overall winning rookie of the season and was the highest placed independent rider.

It was a dream for Zarco at Le Mans as he scored his first MotoGP podium at his home race in Le Mans with a P2 finish, just 3 rounds later the French rider would start Assen from pole position.

2018 was a similar year, the double Moto2 champion took three podiums and another 2 pole positions. In May 2018 it was confirmed that Zarco would move to the factory Red Bull KTM Team along with Zarco’s team Tech3 Racing, however, this was to continue as a satellite set-up meaning Zarco and Herve Poncharal would split ways. Before signing for KTM, Zarco declined a seat next to Marc Marquez on the Repsol Honda, replacing Dani Pedrosa, he turned this down, not wanting to be in the shadow of Marquez.

The Frenchman on the Tech3 Yamaha M1

KTM in short, was a nightmare for the Frenchman, firstly a change of sponsors leaving Monster Energy for Red Bull and leaving 10+ year sponsor Furygan and TCX for Alpinestars meant Zarco was a new, re-invented man when he arrived at Qatar.

Secondly, the KTM was not like the Yamaha, the Japanese machine was smooth, gentle on the brakes and cornered like a dream, whereas the KTM was the opposite, you had to bully the bike into submitting to your demands, braking hard and pushing it around corners, it was a bucking ‘bull’ testament to their title sponsor, Red Bull.

The major problem for Zarco was that he tried to ride the KTM like the Yamaha, using his smooth style, however, this did not work as the KTM did not respond as he expected it to. The season was a complete and utter mess, the worst in the Frenchman’s career as he tumbled down the standings managing just one singular top 10 finish in 13 races. Zarco was incredibly used to riding at the front, it was a major shock to the system to suddenly be fighting for the back end of the points, this was something Zarco struggled with mentally on a huge level, ruining the confidence of the Frenchman.

Zarco aboard the KTM RC16

Eventually, this became too much for Zarco, he called KTM bosses Pit Beirer and Mike Leitner into an office and broke down. Speaking with Servus TV, Beirer said “It wasn’t exactly our own decision. Johann came to me and Mike Leitner on Saturday evening, he wanted an appointment with us. We were a bit surprised because the time was a bit unusual for a short briefing. There he sat in front of us, really tense and with tears in his eyes, saying that at the moment he can’t handle it anymore and he wants to get out of the contract.

“There wasn’t much room to discuss anything. His decision was so firm and so clear and actually sad. For us, the moment was actually super-sad, but it was also our wish to help him to get out of this situation and not to burden him even more.

“As a person and as a guy, how he sat there, it was really cruel to watch. On the other hand, it is understandable from a sporting point of view. He sees himself with us in a valley where he can’t get out any more, and now he just wants to realign himself.” Finished Beirer.

It became too much for Zarco, his pride was ruined and he wanted to race at the front saying “To continue for the good salary that KTM gives me, riding only for the money, it would be not ‘respecting myself’. I want to fight for podiums.” After all, he is a two-time world champion, he has a hunger to win, not even being able to score consistent top 10 finishes was enough to destroy Zarco. He felt KTM without a plan B, he had no MotoGP ride for 2020 and no Moto2 plan. Gracefully, KTM agreed to pay Zarco’s salary for the rest of the year and said he was allowed to test/ride for other manufacturers, even in MotoGP against KTM.

Luck struck Zarco when he was called by LCR Honda Manager Lucio Cecchinello, their rider Takaaki Nakagami was injured and they needed a replacement rider for the final three rounds. Zarco couldn’t believe his luck.

Replacing Nakagami on the LCR Honda RC213V

Zarco was instantly fast on the Honda, however, he had run out of luck, Zarco took P13 at Phillip Island before 2 DNF’s in the last two rounds, including being knocked off by debutant Iker Lecuona in a spectacular crash. The performances were enough to get Zarco a 2020 ride, but not with Honda, with Ducati.

In a fairly controversial move, long-time MotoGP rider Karel Abraham, who had a seat for 2020, had tested the bike in the pre-season tests and was ready for the 2020 season was suddenly released from his contract, he was told at the Valencia test that he was riding at the Jerez test and had even held talks for 2021. The team emailed Abraham, sacking him in Spanish, a language Abraham did not speak, he was confused and texted Ruben Xaus, team manager and someone he considered a friend, even lending him a car, the response was clear ”Correct, it’s the termination of the contract, don’t come to Jerez, and stop communication with me.’ – FULL interview over on MotoMatters.com

This could only mean one thing, Zarco had a ride at Avintia, a team Zarco had previously said he would ‘rather go to Moto2 than ride for.’ Things changed, and fast they did. Zarco was signed for the team on a Ducati contract receiving additional factory support, something ex-Moto2 rival and teammate Tito Rabat is not receiving.

Zarco has started his season in style, achieving his best result since Valencia 2018 with a P9 at the Andalusian GP, things are on their way back up for Zarco. He was hinted at a Pramac Ducati ride for 2021 before the season had started if Bagnaia could not perform, since this, Bagnaia has nearly scored his maiden MotoGP podium. But, with Dovizioso and Ducati at a stalemate, there is always a chance for Zarco to move to Pramac Ducati if Bagnaia takes the step up to the factory team.

Our answers to this question and many more will be answered in due time, Zarco looks to be en route for a solid season at Ducati and only time will tell what he can do.

Zarco took his first pole position on the Ducati at the third round of the season at Brno, a sign of things to come?

Featured images – www.motogp.com

LCR Honda

KTM Press Centre

Suzuki image ©DR

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