It was supposed to be a quiet year for rider rumors. Most riders have a contract for 2020, and much of the speculation had been about when negotiations for 2021 would start. The biggest controversy looked like being whether Takaaki Nakagami would get a 2020 Honda RC213V or a 2019 bike.
Then we came back from summer break, and it's all been insane since then. First there were the reports of Jorge Lorenzo talking to Ducati about a possible return for 2020, taking Jack Miller's seat at Pramac Ducati. Then on Sunday night at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, KTM's home race, we learned that Johann Zarco had told KTM that he wanted to leave at the end of 2019, after just one year of his two-year contract.
So far, so shocking. On Tuesday, KTM announced they were replacing Zarco with immediate effect, and giving his bike to Mika Kallio to ride. Zarco was left without a ride for the rest of the season, and facing an uncertain future. More about that in a moment.
Pulling the rug
Predictably, Johann Zarco was the center of attention at Aragon, despite barely speaking to the media. All of the talk was about Johann Zarco, little of the talk came from him. The Frenchman, clad in an Alpinestars t-shirt and a Red Bull KTM Factory team cap, told Italian broadcaster Sky that the news felt as if "the earth had disappeared from beneath my feet".
Zarco told Sky that he had told KTM that he was talking to managers about 2020, and not for the remainder of 2019. He believed he had behaved correctly, waiting for the right time to tell the Austrian factory to give them a chance to respond correctly. That, he implied, was not the way that KTM had handled things.
In the paddock in Aragon, the media finally got a chance to ask KTM staff about what had happened. On Thursday, it was the turn of team manager Mike Leitner to explain KTM's decision to drop Zarco for the rest of the season – tomorrow it is the turn of sporting director Pit Beirer. Leitner held a long press conference in which he managed to use an awful lot of words to not provide very much information. It was a masterful performance.
Distilling 15 minutes down to its essence, what Leitner said was this. From the first time Zarco got on the KTM, he had failed to get a good feeling with the RC16, and no matter what KTM did, the Frenchman never managed to find a way to ride the bike. KTM produced new parts and improved the bike – see Pol Espargaro's results, or the progress made by Miguel Oliveira – yet for Zarco, little changed.
After the summer break, and despite the brief revival of fortunes with the front row start at Brno, Zarco decided he could not continue. "In Spielberg on Saturday evening Johann came to us, Pit and me, and asked if he can have a meeting," Leitner said. "Here he told us clearly, 'I will not do two seasons with you guys because I don’t have the feeling, I can't ride my style'."
Removing Zarco from the bike had been an issue of safety, Leitner insisted. "When a rider comes to you as a manufacturer and tells you I don’t want to ride with the bike, it goes to the point where you also have to think of rider safety and danger because the riders are risking a lot. For sure KTM is not a company that will force a rider to do things on a bike that maybe he doesn't like."
After Misano, Leitner, Pit Beirer, and KTM CEO Stefan Pierer sat down to discuss the situation, and decided that it was better to put an early end to it. "We had the race in Silverstone, Misano and after Misano we had been thinking about the future for the project in general. You have a rider who is not 100 percent happy and you also know he will stop at the end of the year."
"He had another big crash during warm-up at Misano, he was very lucky not to hurt himself. So you start thinking 'is this is the correct way' when he had already decided to stop this project, to push him for another six races to go to the limit," Leitner said. "We decided for the project and for the future it's better to bring Mika [Kallio], who is anyway our replacement rider, into the project and let him finish the season."
Leitner carefully rejected any suggestion that this decision had been motivated by Zarco's attitude – the Frenchman's exasperation and despair had been plain to see both in the garage and in his media appearances. "Johann for sure is not a bad person. He is not a bad rider," Leitner said. "But somehow he did not get connected to the feeling on the bike. This is the most important because at the end to do lap times you have to have a very good feeling on the bike. We tried many different ways to help him from the technical approach but it didn’t work out."
Part of the game
Was this the risk of taking a rider who is fast on a very different style of motorcycle? The only way to find out was once you put them on your machine, Leitner believed. "I think you know when the riders are on the bike. I mean we are not the only manufacturer to have a similar problem. There are always in history people cannot connect to a certain brand. It's an experience we’ve made now with Johann but other manufacturers had similar problems already."
But it was not something KTM would change, by allowing a rider without a signed contract to test the bike, Leitner said. "It's a part of racing I think, you have to chose your rider and sometimes [it doesn't work]."
Leitner wasn't the only person to speak about Zarco's experience. We polled a number of riders for their opinion of what happened. Teammate (or rather, now ex-teammate) Pol Espargaro toed the company line. "It's very tricky for Johann to ride a bike that he's not able to fit and then suffering a lot and not being happy," the Spaniard said. "And also for the team to make a bike for a rider that looks like he's not adapting. It’s difficult and complicated for both sides. Now we need to look at the future and start to work with Mika. I think he'll be a good replacement because he's looking forward again to being a factory rider and he deserved it."
When asked in the press conference, Andrea Dovizioso gave a typically thoughtful reply. Did he feel sympathy for Johann Zarco, knowing from experience how hard it can be to switch manufacturers? "Every time the story is different," the factory Ducati rider said. "If you speak about my career I changed three manufacturers and every manufacturer has a completely different characteristic, but every rider’s approach is in a different way."
"I think you need a completely open mind and when I switched from Honda to Yamaha I did a lot of good races which was really important and when you switch it is important to know the level of the bike," Dovizioso continued. "At that moment the bike was really stable, not the fastest and not the best bike but really consistent so I adapted really fast and I was able to be the fastest or one of the fastest with the same manufacturer. That was always my goal when I was at Yamaha. When I changed again to Ducati too."
Zarco's move from Yamaha to KTM had been a much bigger switch, Dovizioso believed. "Every time the story is different, so I can’t know exactly the details between KTM, and especially I believe the switch from Yamaha to KTM is huge, so it is normal, this can happen, but it is quite unusual and strange to see that struggle. Struggling too much. He wasn’t able to improve the situation that is the negative thing but there is a reason and they know the reason. From outside it is very difficult to analyze and say something about that."
That didn't take anything away from Zarco's talent, Dovizioso said. "I think Zarco is a big talent and he showed last year with Yamaha. He was so fast and he rode in a completely different way to the factory riders and sometimes he was a bit faster so for sure he has talent. But when the feeling goes down it is difficult to come back. The reason why they stopped I don’t know, or about the details, I can’t say anything about that."
Next man up
Zarco's place is now to be taken by Mika Kallio, who has not raced a bike since last year. But he has been raring to go for some time. "I've been saying in the last years when I've been with KTM that I'm ready always to race, in case something happened to our riders," Kallio said. "Now we are here and tomorrow we will see how we can manage everything. It's a really special moment for me. It's been more than a year since I was last on the bike in a race. There have been some hard moments because of the bad injury on my right knee, which was close to stopping my career. But now I'm back here again. So it's just something to enjoy for the moment."
There is no pressure on Kallio to get results, KTM giving the Finn time to get back up to speed. "Basically, there's no pressure from the team side for results," Kallio said. "Everyone knows it's not an easy situation to come back like this. So I would say at least now this first race is like some type of warm up for us to build up again the confidence and race feeling and try to see a little bit what we can do with the bike. Try to find some base settings for me and also I need to get the feeling about Johann's crew, how they work and how we can manage everything. So many new things and many question marks. Day by day we'll see where we are. It'll definitely take some time to adapt my feeling to race mode again."
Rumor mill at ramming speed
Where will Zarco go from here? The paddock in Aragon is ablaze with rumors, especially as the Frenchman is here, and sleeping in his motorhome. Zarco has made no secret of meeting with managers to speak about 2020, and that is merely throwing fuel onto the fire.
The main assumption is that Zarco will become a test rider for Yamaha, taking the place of Jonas Folger, who will most likely be off to the World Superbike paddock to race for the Kiefer team, who have been kicked out of Moto2. But Davide Brivio was spotted coming out of Zarco's motorhome this morning, fueling suggestions he could be in touch with Suzuki. And then Zarco was spotted in the Repsol Honda hospitality, generating more rumors that he could replace Jorge Lorenzo, should the Spaniard choose to retire.
The wildest rumor is that Zarco could be back in action later this year, taking the place of Lorenzo. The suggestion is that Lorenzo is set to retire before the end of the year, and Dorna would like to keep the Frenchman in the MotoGP paddock, and put him on the Repsol Honda.
Whether that is a good idea is a different matter altogether. The Honda is as physical to ride as the KTM was, and is unlikely to reward a smooth rider who does not like the bike to move about too much.
Cal Crutchlow certainly thought that Zarco would struggle just as badly on the Honda RC213V as he had on the KTM RC16. "The same, if not worse. If he thinks the Honda is any easier than the KTM then he needs to think again, if that was his other option at the time," Crutchlow said.
Of course, for Zarco to take the place of Lorenzo, first Jorge Lorenzo would have to retire. The Spaniard is coming off the back of a long spate of injuries, bad enough to get even the mentally strongest rider down. " A year ago it started here," Lorenzo said, referencing his first-lap crash at Aragon in 2018. "Then in Thailand, and in the preseason with the scaphoid, and in Assen. There have been four very important injuries and although the last one is the worst, the others have also been hard and have impacted the results."
But he still had another year on his contract, Lorenzo insisted. "As I said in Misano, in my head I have a two-year contract and I’ll fulfill it." Yet the Spaniard also kept a note of ambiguity in his results. "But in life anything can happen," he said. "In these moments the word resign or abandon are not in my head."
Will Lorenzo retire? Who knows. The Spaniard is 32 years old, has made a lot of money, and is not regarded as the type of rider who would take a major pay cut just to ride a different bike. The back injury, in particular, took its toll, and Lorenzo is still a long way to being back at full fitness. But he is also not known to be a training animal, having shown in the past that he is capable of turning up at the start of the season out of shape.
Paddock consensus among knowledgeable members of the paddock is that Lorenzo still has the talent to challenge Márquez, if he were on the right bike. The question is whether he has the desire and ambition to put in the work necessary to get into shape to do that. And whether Ducati can find a way to put him back on their bike. But few believe that Lorenzo can succeed on a Honda the way he has succeeded on a Ducati or a Yamaha.
The question is also whether teams will have the patience to wait for Lorenzo, especially with the wave of young talent coming into the class. They could gamble on Lorenzo, and hope to get a good year or two from the Spaniard, or they could look towards the youngsters, and bet on having five or more competitive seasons from them.
Fabio Quartararo has shown that he can challenge Marc Márquez, as he took the reigning champion all the way to the last lap before losing out. There has been surprise at how the Petronas Yamaha rider can take the fight to Márquez, given that he is on the oldest Yamaha M1, and hamstrung with 500RPM less than the factory bikes.
Petronas teammate Franco Morbidelli explained what he saw from the Frenchman. At Misano, Quartararo and factory rider Maverick Viñales were faster, especially in the fast corners. "I think it’s because they were riding better in some areas," Morbidelli said. "We need to just try to improve our riding."
Could he replicate what Quartararo was doing? He had no choice. "We’ve got to find a way to do it," Morbidelli said. "We’ve got to find the same nice feeling he has following our own path but trying to reach his level of confidence that he has with the bike and reach the level of nice feeling that he has riding the bike."
The difference was the amount of control Quartararo had over the bike, Morbidelli explained. "What he can understand is that he is just more in control of the bike. He has more control, more power. He’s riding the bike properly. He’s riding the MotoGP Yamaha, which is a big bike, like a Moto2. He’s seated on the bike very well and has a lot of control. He can make the right chance, he can move a lot on the bike, he can do pretty much whatever he wants on the bike because he’s in control. We need to find a way to have that control on this Yamaha because he’s showing that it’s possible."
Was the difference down to a difference in body size? Morbidelli did not believe it was. "The truth is he is not bigger than me because he’s 177cm like me," the Italian said. "But his dimensions are completely different to me because he has a long body and shorter legs whereas I have long legs, long arms and a short body. Like a spider. So we need to find our own way to get on the front of the bike. We need to find things, try things."
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