In The Paddock Column

Michael Scott | August 28, 2019

Zarco And The Primrose Precipice


The margins in MotoGP have never been smaller, the difference between glory and humiliation remains clear. The distinction has been painfully defined for Johann Zarco, and the Frenchman’s plight is a warning to all.

The news broke at the last round in Austria that the erstwhile nascent superstar’s primrose path had in place of prosperity and pleasure led to a precipice. Now he has fallen over it.

Fortunately, this is just figurative. But it surely hurts just as much as if it were literal, and as if his successor as favored French flier Fabio Quartararo was leaning over the edge and poking fun at him.

in the paddock column
What road will Johann Zarco travel now?

To sneer at Zarco would not only be unpleasantly cruel, but it would also be unwise. At the same time, viewing this as a temporary setback cannot be done with complete confidence. He is 29, among the older riders on the grid, although still a stripling compared with 40-year-old Rossi.

There is nothing wrong with his riding talent. This has been plain back since he was 11 times on the podium on a 125 Derbi in 2011, let alone his dominant Moto2 titles in 2015 and 2016, with 15 GP wins in two years.

Then followed his blazing switch to Yamaha. Riding for the Tech 3 satellite team, he was brilliant from the very start, taking a firm lead in his very first MotoGP race at Qatar. Though he crashed out of that one, too.

Nor is there that much wrong with the improving KTM RC16, as regular top-10 finisher Pol Espargaro continues to prove, and maybe even more so class rookie Miguel Oliveira, who has steadily improved, and was an excellent eighth in Austria.

It’s just that razor edge and being on the wrong side of it.

It’s the consequence of one wrong decision—to leave Yamaha and join KTM. But who made the error? Zarco himself? Had he already been wrong-footed by former manager Laurent Fellon, who missed a Repsol Honda deal by committing Zarco to KTM way back in the middle of his two years with Yamaha? Or should Yamaha boss Lin Jarvis have acted even earlier to keep Zarco on strength, even if it would have to be at the expense of Valentino?

It’s all speculative. And there’s more, signifying earlier erratic decision-making. If you recall, Johann was initially earmarked for a full factory MotoGP debut with Suzuki and even tested their MotoGP bike before joining Yamaha’s second-string satellite team instead.

Zarco’s problem now is that there are no good rides available in MotoGP in 2020. Will he have to go to Superbikes? Drop back to Moto2? Unthinkable. But if he has to wait until 2021, the chances remain slim. There’s too much young talent coming from Moto2.

About the best he could expect would be a test-rider role, with possible openings at Yamaha, with the expected departure back to Moto2 of current incumbent Jonas Folger, or possibly even with Suzuki.

His is not the only brilliant career that suddenly stalled. In recent history, we have the example of Rossi and his doomed switch to Ducati in 2011. He was already three years older than Zarco, but he managed to rescue his career with a Yamaha return. But then he is Rossi and was already nine times a World Champion and was prepared to take a significant drop in salary and a big slice of humble pie.

Not long before, we saw Kenny Roberts Jr. go from title winner in 2000 to also-ran the next year, never to win another race. Even more spectacular, back in the mid-1980s, Freddie Spencer went overnight from god-like status to has-been.

Then there was the case of Cal Crutchlow who joined Ducati in 2014 on a two-year deal but baled out at the end of that year to join the satellite Honda team. It was a bit different for him, as he pointed out. “I had another ride on the table. For Zarco to leave without another ride lined up is desperate.”

At present, it is not sure whether Zarco will even finish the season and equally who will take his place at KTM next year. Miguel Oliveira’s name has been mentioned; Mika Kallio could step across from his test-rider role. And how about Alex Marquez?

More clear is the warning to his successor as an instant superstar on a satellite Yamaha.

In his two first Yamaha season, 2017, Zarco was sixth overall and claimed six front-row starts including two poles, plus three podium finishes. The next year he was again sixth, with two poles and three podiums, and eight front-row starts.

Quartararo, 10 races into his first year, already has six front rows and three poles, and three podiums.

The parallels might be thought a little uncomfortable. CN


Click here to read this in the Cycle News Digital Edition Magazine.


Click here for all the latest motorcycle Industry News on Cycle News.


Michael Scott | MotoGP Editor Scott has been covering MotoGP since long before it was MotoGP. Remember two-strokes? Scott does. He’s also a best-selling author of biographies on the lives of legendary racers such as Wayne Rainey and Barry Sheene.