The Zarco Saga: Johann Zarco To Part Ways With KTM For 2020, But Who Will Take His Place?

The Austrian round of MotoGP has been a weekend of bombshells. After the news that Ducati and Jorge Lorenzo had been in talks to replace Jack Miller in the Pramac squad before the weekend, on Sunday night it emerged that Johann Zarco has asked to be released from his contract with KTM for 2020.

The Frenchman has long been unhappy with the Austrian factory, sometimes very publicly so. Since the moment he jumped on the KTM RC16, he has struggled to adapt to the bike. Zarco's style is to be very smooth and precise, while the KTM only really responds to a very physical riding style, to being bullied around the track. The harder you push the bike, the faster you go, and that has always run completely counter to Zarco's natural riding style.

The relationship was star-crossed from the very beginning. Johann Zarco's former manager Laurent Fellon signed Zarco to a deal with KTM at the end of 2017, the Frenchman's first season in MotoGP. In the year that followed, Fellon continued to negotiate with both Repsol Honda and Yamaha, despite Zarco already having a deal signed with KTM. It was just one unusual aspect of the Frenchman's relationship with his manager.

From bad to worse

That relationship started falling apart as Zarco struggled to ride the KTM. When he found out about the offer from Repsol Honda, which he had been unable to take up because Fellon had already signed a contract with KTM, that was the trigger that made him decide to split from his manager, and continue on his own.

Things have not gotten any better, with the nadir coming at Jerez, when Zarco was caught live on air entering the pits after a crash cursing every aspect of the bike. That led to a public warning from KTM CEO Stefan Pierer, and an apology from Johann Zarco.

Pondering the future

Zarco must have been contemplating leaving KTM for some time. The Frenchman returned in a contemplative and philosophical mood after the summer break, telling reporters how long hikes in the mountains had taught him valuable lessons about perseverance and fortitude in the face of adversity, how merely hanging on through the dark periods would eventually lead you to brighter times.

At the time, we took that to mean that Zarco intended to push through the tough times at KTM and help develop the bike, with the hope of improvement in his second season. But perhaps he was thinking ahead to 2020, and looking for greener pastures after the dark days aboard the RC16.

Zarco's behavior at the test would appear to support that theory. While most riders completed something between 50 and 80 laps, Zarco called it a day around 1pm, having completed just 31 laps. For comparison, of the other KTM riders, Pol Espargaro completed 49 laps, Miguel Oliveira 54 laps, Hafizh Syahrin 43 laps.

At the Red Bull Ring – KTM's home Grand Prix, held at the circuit owned by their main sponsor and financial backer Red Bull – Zarco finally came to an agreement with KTM. The Frenchman will leave the Austrian factory at the end of the 2019 season.

Whither Zarco?

Zarco's departure opens a whole can of worms for both himself and for KTM. First for Zarco: the Frenchman does not appear to have an obvious plan for 2020. There are no seats open in MotoGP, leaving him just three options: move back to Moto2; move across to WorldSBK; or take a year off from racing, possibly offering his services as a test rider to a MotoGP factory.

All three of those choices throw up huge obstacles to a return to racing full time in MotoGP, with taking a year off and working as a test rider perhaps the best chance of regaining a MotoGP ride. But his decision to withdraw from MotoGP will raise red flags for any new team wishing to hire him, as Jonas Folger is finding out to his detriment. How can a team offering Zarco a contract be certain he will see it out if it doesn't work out?

Australian detour

Zarco's departure also creates a huge headache for KTM. The Austrian factory had originally offered a contract to Jack Miller to take Zarco's place, while Miller was caught in limbo due to Ducati's reluctance to sign off on the contract with Pramac and Miller. That in turn was due to Jorge Lorenzo having spoken with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna about a possible return to the Italian factory, and contemplating the move for 2020, taking the seat currently occupied by Miller.

The Jorge Lorenzo situation was finally settled on Saturday night, when the Spaniard spoke with team manager Alberto Puig by phone, and pledged to honor his contract with HRC for next year. That, in turn, opened the door for Ducati to finally complete the deal with Jack Miller.

Miller implied the deal was done to the press after the race at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday afternoon. "I think everything should be cleared up in the next hours or days," the Australian said.

He also acknowledged the interest from outside of Ducati, but reaffirmed his commitment to wanting to succeed on a Desmosedici. "I had other options, other places, but my main goal was to stay here," Miller told us. "We have just started arriving on the podium, and I think we are going to get there more and more in the not so distant future, and I want to keep that going. I've been working my a*** off to get to this point, and I don't want to take a step back now."

Young gun or old hand?

With Jack Miller out of the picture, who does KTM turn to? The Austrian factory have very few options at the moment. Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder are signed to race with the Tech3 KTM team for 2020, and though promoting Oliveira to the factory team would appear to be the obvious option, it would merely shift the problem to a different place, rather than fixing it.

It is clear that Oliveira is destined for the factory KTM squad in the long term, the Portuguese rider continuing to improve and impress. On Sunday, Oliveira was the first KTM home, finishing in an impressive eight place, battling with Pramac Ducati's Pecco Bagnaia and ahead of the factory Ducati of Danilo Petrucci. Oliveira finished ahead of Zarco at Brno, and just 4 seconds behind Pol Espargaro.

If Oliveira were to be elevated to the factory team, that would leave the Tech3 KTM team looking for a replacement. In theory, they could keep current rider Hafizh Syahrin, but Syahrin has struggled with the KTM much as Johann Zarco has. There are few top Moto2 riders available, most of them already having been signed for 2020, with a view to the MotoGP contracts which will open up in 2021.

Finishing the job

Perhaps the quickest fix to the problem would be to bring back Bradley Smith to the factory KTM team, alongside Pol Espargaro. The British rider was originally signed at the start of KTM's MotoGP project, along with then Tech3 teammate Espargaro. Smith and Espargaro rode for the factory team in 2017 and 2018, before Smith lost his seat to Johann Zarco for the 2019 season.

With Zarco gone, Smith could slot back into the Red Bull KTM team. He knows the team, he knows the people involved in the project, and he already knows the bike. He also showed he was capable of riding the bike, showing similar pace to Pol Espargaro, though losing out in terms of results.

When I contacted Smith, he indicated he would welcome the opportunity. "It would be nice to finish what we started," he told me. His greatest frustration at losing the KTM ride was having developed the RC16 up to the point that it was showing signs of being a competitive bike, and not being able to see the process through to being able to compete with the Hondas, Yamahas, Ducatis, and Suzukis on equal footing.

All that will play out in the coming weeks. Right now, all we know is that Johann Zarco is to leave KTM, and KTM is yet to find a replacement. We had not expected to see much excitement in terms of contracts for the 2020 season. The reality has turned out to be very different indeed.


Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page. You can find out more about subscribing to MotoMatters.com here.

year: 
2019
round_number: 
11
Total votes: 106
Total votes: 23

Back to top

Comments

Zarco as an equally smooth test rider for the wheels in line, rider friendly Lorenzo version of the Honda?

Was he able to give KTM any useful development feedback or were they too wedded to their Pol style bike to accept what he had to say?

Total votes: 12

Racing at this level can be a cruel game. Some riders repeatedly bounce off the pavement without so much as a colorful bruise, some have their bodies broken and heal, still others never really heal, and the saddest of all are those who never get up again. And minds, as well as bodies, can be broken.

Given all that, I was especially appreciative of the raw honesty coming from KTM. They are truly concerned for Johann's mental state, and have done everything within their power to allow him the opportunity to heal himself by departing the situation that was tearing him apart. If he wants to finish the year they are fine with that. If he doesn't want to ride another race this year they are fine with that as well. And they have offered assurances to Zarco that they will seek no legal or financial penance from him either way (with 2020, of course, being completely nullified). The generosity and concern of KTM for their broken rider is both humbling and a lesson for all of us about what really matters in this life.

I agree the Test Rider route offers the best chance of redemption for Zarco. The only other options, as David made clear, are a MotoGP Ducati (well past its use by date) on a third tier team, or WSBK. The Third Tier Team will offer no real financial compensation, and may actually require Zarco to kick-in for the privilege. There will be a very limited technical staff, and no upgrades. Of course, this is not a complete deal-killer for Johann, as his history at Tech Trois Yamaha demonstrated, he seems to do best with no new parts and just a baseline set-up to work with. WSBK offers no guarantees of redemption, as those bikes can be every bit as recalcitrant and un-friendly as anything painted orange in MotoGP. And, fairytales aside (i.e., Troy Bayliss on one beautiful Sunday a very long time ago), there is no way back to MotoGP from WSBK. So that leaves MotoGP testing for Yamaha, Suzuki...or maybe Aprilia (if they really are rolling out something nice next year). He will have to all but volunteer his time to even be given a chance at any of those options. Bon Chance, Johann.

As for a replacement, the one rider who would make sense to me is one that probably makes no sense to anyone else; Fenati. He is blindingly fast, good to great in wet and mixed conditions, and has apparently bottomed off his own demonic seabed and appears to be shooting back upwards (like Fabio was when Yamaha grabbed him). All the usual suspects currently in Moto2 simply fall off too much (to even contemplate the big KTM), and there are no other Moto3 talents that seem ready to take a two-step to the big stage (step-and-a-half for Romano). I mention Fenati's talents in slick conditions only to make one point: he has the reflexes of a mongoose after a good night's sleep and it's third cup of morning coffee. And reflexes, more than graceful lines and wicked fast corner speeds, will keep you around long enough for KTM to get over the next hump sometime in 2020 and field a podium challenging bike.

Say what you want about Romano, if he has his own demons on a short leash, his speed and reflexes will be all that are needed at KTM. And being in a structured but caring KTM environmennt may be just the right tonic for Romano as well. Just my own two-cents...oh, and pretty damned unlikely. Cheers.

Total votes: 52

But probably too much of a gamble for KTM at this stage. Nevertheless, I find myself hoping they don't rehire Bradley Smith or a similar 'safe pair of hands'. What's the point? Keep things ticking over for a year until 2021 seatmageddon unfolds? Boo. Boring.

Total votes: 9

Zarco's story is an example of why it's important to ride a bike that suits one's natural style. I'm not sure what Fenati's style is but I'm intrigued by Jinx's suggestion. It would be interesting to see Romano graduate to the top class. Oliveira to the factory KTM seat and Fenati to Tech 3.

Total votes: 16

This isn't the last we'll see of Zarco in MotoGP. I could understand how demoralizing it must be for him to go from running near the front to running near the back and not getting on with the KTM at all. But I figured he'd at least sample the '20 bike that'll be based on some of Pedrosa's input before making a decision - I guess he just doesn't see the bike changing much if he's made this decision.

I think he'd be a great test rider for Yamaha since they know he's fast on that bike and his times would be pretty close to their current riders - and there could be a spot at Petronas in '21 where he could slot in if Rossi ends up retiring and they move Quartararo over. I guess there is a small possibility at Aprilla if they're not happy with Iannone. 

I'm sure there are a bunch of WSBK teams that would love to have him if he has no options in the MotoGP paddock - maybe Ducati with the news that Bautista is supposedly headed to Honda. 

You voted 1. Total votes: 14

Zarco is to good a proven MotoGP rider on tbe Yamaha to overlook. If 2021 has a 2nd Suzuki team, it may be a fit for him to test/wildcard/replacement there next year. Lots of humbling water under the bridge since the Rins thing. Test with Yamaha looks good too, Folger is off to Moto2 and their test team in Italy has a lot of energy in it now. Do a few replacement rides. Hop on the next open seat. Stay the heck away from Aprilia. Anything out of MotoGP is likely goodbye. If a top WSBK seat opens up, he could enjoy that and us too. It is a more relaxed and friendly paddock with plenty going on.

Good to hear of some divorces. This is one. His Tech3 performance speaks louder than his KTM one to Yamaha and Suzuki, and he was a "good employee" there. One brief slump with a critical comment or two, a mild reprima nd from Herve, then back to kicking arse.

1st race at Qatar led lots of laps. Then quickly grabbed a 2nd place. On hand-me-down customer kit a thousand revs down. Here's 3 mins of 2017 Zarco highlights...
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=DaNKJVHVL_I

Total votes: 24

On the Yamaha I would think the Yamaha guys would like to grab him up as a development rider. They don't have any big name test riders do they?

Total votes: 13

^ Zip next year, and needing/valuing one badly. Would write wildcards and replacements in his contract. Bet they are already on the phone.

Total votes: 11

Liked the Zarco of the past. Would love it if he could find it again. Very aware riding at these nosebleed levels is troublesome. Even a 2x WC is struggling. Fingers crossed for em all. Ever so easy on sat yer arse. 

Total votes: 14

From what I can tell, KTM have created a bike that works (and even looks) very much like the Honda, a bike that in the last few years precisely one person has been able to consistently make work. And that rider just happens to be a freak of nature; possibly the most talented motorcycle racer that's ever walked this earth. What did KTM expect was going to happen?

In my opinion, they now have two choices - a complete re-design, or sign Marc Marquez.

Total votes: 25

You've got to wonder what was in it for Fellon to sign Zarco up to KTM so early. It's hard to believe that with a year to run at Tech 3 and Zarco running for podiums and top 5s he seriously thought KTM would be the best next step in 2019. Whatever problems Zarco's inability to adapt has cause KTM's 'throw parts at it every weekend' approach can't have helped either, hard to adapt something that is constantly changing.

With any luck that Suzuki B Team is looking for a rider, or Honda will do something truly unexpected.

Total votes: 8

I just don't see how a potential employer will look past his 1)walking away from a contract and 2) openly bad mouthing their work product. It is unprofessional. they invest millions of dollars into these programs and the rider is the "face" of the product. When that "face" says the product is "sh*t" it can and should get ugly. If my memory serves Alex Hofmann bad-mouthed his employer (Kawasaki) and he never returned.

there are other examples too, but the " bigger" names are given more rope than the others.

 

Total votes: 27

As far as Motogp bikes go, Zarco is an inline 4 Yamaha/Suzuki styled rider. He would be in the same position as Lorenzo had his ex-manager not screwed up the Repsol offer - looking for a way out. Pasini has shown how a sabbatical from racing can be very short. Racing motorcycles can offer up tortuous lessons that pummel the human body requiring periods of rest and recuperation away from the circus. KTM says Zarco is burned out, but I think he wastes too much energy away from racing worrying about his situation. He spoke in the past about Crutchlow "always complaining" and yet look where he is now. The lesson is that complaining about one's situation just sets one up for future challenging events. Have to find a positive perspective to create a positive consequence.

Total votes: 22

Wouldn't a chastened Zarco look good on a junior Suzuki team? Perhaps teamed with a likely unchastened JL99?

Total votes: 17

Sorry mate its not marketing or something. His airbags should have parachutes too. Seriously it's top level self abuse, filmed and used as amusement. Bad mouthouthing..rilly? Him and the machine are obvs oil and water. It happens, see Vinales every fortnight. He's got out, limbs intact, we shoudn't laugh but we will 'cos it's only circus performers in hte modern age.

Total votes: 12

Beyond the technical challenges that a prototype series brings to engineering led enterprises, motogp is almost exclusively about marketing and entertainment and return on investment via product sales. 

 I agree that his ego has died a thousand slow deaths in front of fhe camera, but that is what he and the others sign up for. It is a brutal sport in that results are mutually  demanded from rider and team. But i assume that if KTM decided to end their agreement prematurely Zarco and Co. would hold them to account in the media and arbitration. The expectation would be to finish what you start. But you wouldn't expect KTM to take shots at Zarco that he is sh*t. Just like Zarco should have kept his emotions in check. 

This whole scenario is the exact 180 to what happened to poor Marco Melandri. Everything that Ducati did to Marco,

Zarco did to KTM. 

Total votes: 12

Zarco is an example of what happens when one sides with the negative thoughts of the mind and gives up. Dovi showed the opposite through his actions in the race yesterday - not giving up even when negative, pessimistic thoughts of the mind arise in one's consciousness. Dovi set the neg head mind aside and chose the black horse - the racers instinct to try a seemingly impossible move on a daunting foe despite the odds. Dovi chose the "never-give-up" perspective. These actions inspire everyone. Even Gigi and Marc's dad were grinning and hugging in parc ferme.

Total votes: 14

Is this Zarco giving up or everyone coming to their senses. What were KTM thinking recruiting the smoothest rider on the grid unless they could - or thought they could - provide a bike that required those skills? Zarco isn’t a flexible, upcoming, young rider, he doesn’t have a track record of flexibility or adaptability - which may help explain his relatively late arrival in MotoGP. He’s not an Espargaro, never has been, he’s Mr Smooth and putting him on a bike that wants a wrestling match at every turn was doomed to failure and I’m glad people have realised this before something serious happens. As for Dovi, I’m glad he won at the weekend. Some might say it’s about time, since he’s been on a championship winning bike for some years and struggled to deliver. But here’s a thought - Dovi adopted a different mental approach when Lorenzo was being brought into the team. Lorenzo’s name appears again and Dovi rises to the occasion. Could it be that he delivers best when he knows someone faster could be on a Ducati? 

Total votes: 15

I had the same thought about the Lorenzo to Pramac rumor motivating Dovi. I even wondered if Ducati managment created the rumor in order to light a fire under Dovi's butt. But, then I start to sound like a moto journalist creating conspiracy stories out of a bunch of thoughts in the head. Dovi attributes the winning pace to the work done at the Brno test and the work done during the practice sessions leading up to the race. All I know is his description of what was taking place with his thoughts and feelings as he chose to try a crazy last corner Marquez move in the heat of the battle as the last few turns were looming is exactly what takes place when one confronts fear (a lack of understanding) head on. And in the moment of the manouver he said he felt "so strong." I think he showed up to the race weekend with a very positive mindset. Maybe he stewed over the last lap, first corner incident at Mugello and decided deep inside that the next time he would go for it. Who knows?

Total votes: 14

The Iannone win in 2016.  The Lorenzo win in 2018.  The Marquez 2019.  Dovi had to win this one, the Ducati still has the slightest top speed advantage and this track is where it shines.

Oh wait this is a Zarco thread.  I'm doubling down on the mentioned idea of the Yamaha test team, now that Jonas is making a dedicated Moto2 return.  Even a suzuki test rider role would be a dream come true.

I think Zarco wants a shot at the Repsol seat again.  Just me.

Total votes: 10

Pol is making that KTM look better than it actually is, even though his performances on the Tech3 Yamaha were not that impressive compared to Zarco's. Pol just isn't smooth like Zarco, which is Pol's strenght on the KTM.

Also, Oliveira is a rookie who just never had a taste of a smooth handling bike. It sort of makes sense that Oliveira is riding what is being given and doing pretty good on it. I guess when Binder steps up, he'll do just fine on the KTM.

However, I'd reckon the pace in which KTM is developing it's bike is not fast enough. They might be able to learn a thing or two from Suzuki, or just sign Stoner to ride the thing.

Total votes: 8

I can see so many interesting perspectives in David's piece and in the reader comments. A shout out to Jinx fo his comments on the apparent humanity shown by KTM. Whenever we see that in the world these days we should acknowledge it.

As for JZ, it's unbelievably easy to to sit back and be critical but if he could just have kept his cool and worked the problem, till at least the end of the year, it surely would have helped him secure another ride.

The big question for me now, having seen the JL struggles, the FQ breakout and the initial JZ and Folger season is whether the Yamaha really is the Goldilocks ride now: good for easing you into a position between 3 and 6 now, even if better before 2017....but not good enough for top step (bar the occasional MV flourisH).

i am completely confused by Franco Morbidelli's standing atm; love to hear comments on that. I can only guess that some riders take to the larger and more powerful bikes better than the others.

And while I understand every team boss' potential concern, and am not endorsing him for a double promotion, Mr Fenati's performance at Motegi 2017 was up there with the best i have ever seen, and not too far behind was his performance this weekend. Still Jinx I think you might have to personally underwrite his elevation, given the year of difficult rider personalities we seem to be experiencing.

 

Total votes: 9

This is probably an over-simplification but I have to wonder if the VR46 Academy influence has worked against him here from a set up perspective. Perhaps he now rides like VR (a great thing) but his set-up requirements are counter-intuitive to bike’s engineering direction. Just my .02/100

Total votes: 7

This weekend has been exhausting, even as a spectator. To be fair to KTM, they have clearly tried and tried to help Zarco but it just hasn't worked because they hired the wrong dude for the gig in the first place. Zarco is a complicated personality who likes to work smoothly and simply on a motorcycle and is at his best when he can do just that - not ideal for developing an entirely different kind of bike. I hope he finds another, more suitable ride in MotoGP but realistically it's hard to imagine where that's going to be. I also hope KTM think long, hard and strategically when they pick a new rider for 2020.

The factory teams have done well over the last few years because of the solid 'team' personalities of many of their riders - it is noticeable that they are not good at managing anything else. Look at Vinales. Hideously mismanaged. And Lorenzo at Ducati - its upper management as entirely at sea when reading his temperament as many MotoGP fans are. Yet both, like Zarco, immensely talented and could have done so much better over the last couple of years if only.... If only.

Total votes: 12