Guest Blog: Mat Oxley - How does Zarco do it?

MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.


How does Zarco do it?

No doubt about it, Johann Zarco was MotoGP’s new kid on the block last season. Except he wasn't much of a kid at all, says Mat Oxley

The Frenchman was 26-years-old when he made his premier-class debut in Qatar. Compare that to MotoGP’s previous red-hot rookies Marc Márquez and Maverick Viñales, who were both 20 when they graduated to the premier class.

France isn’t mad about toddler racing like Spain, so Zarco started relatively late and didn’t get fully serious until he was in his teens. When he was 16 he loaded up his 50cc scooter and rode 150 miles to live with the family of Laurent Fellon, who has been his mentor and manager ever since. Zarco was almost 19 when he made his GP debut, by which age Márquez had already won two world championships.

Last season Zarco brought amazing speed and aggression to MotoGP, pushing several older riders into pot-calls-kettle-black mode. This is something I always find hilarious, like Keith Richards decking fellow Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood for “threatening the band’s existence” when Wood got into crack cocaine shortly after Richards had weaned himself off.

But Zarco’s ability to rough up the status quo isn’t the only thing that makes him so impressive. He won two Moto2 world titles largely thanks to his glass-smooth riding technique, which he used to save the tyres to give him a killer advantage in the final laps. He brought the same technique to MotoGP, which makes more of a difference now than it would’ve done before the class switched to Dorna electronics and Michelins, because now riders need to pay more attention to traction, wheelspin and tyre life.

MotoGP’s current traction control is much less sophisticated than the money-no-object factory kit, so the rider must control wheelspin with his right wrist, which is no doubt a bigger ask for those accustomed to grabbing a big handful and letting the factory-spec little black box do the hard work. On top of that, Michelin’s rear tyre offers less drive grip than the Bridgestone’s, so the rider must think and work twice as hard: not only must he search for the best drive, he must also take care to save the rear tyre, because too much spin doesn’t only hurt lap times, it also overuses the tyre.

Even in Argentina, where Zarco was smoking the tyre out of corners, he was able to maintain momentum. His secret, beyond his throttle technique, is his feel for the tyres, so he can adapt his riding technique, corner by corner and lap by lap, according to tyre performance and tyre wear.

Thus, rookie Zarco and his second-hand, year-old Tech 3 Yamaha often embarrassed factory riders Viñales and Valentino Rossi. The factory team raced four different chassis last season, complaining to the end, but when Zarco tried a 2017 chassis at the Valencia post-season tests he loved it.

Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.

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Total votes: 4
Total votes: 10

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Comments

Great read. thks :) 

For sure, as a french MotoGP fan, I'm quite glad and proud Johann Zarco is so well regarded nowadays. To be honest, very few of us thought his first year in MotoGP would be so good. We expected a more classic Rookie Year with Many Q1 and a few top tens. But it seems 5 years in Moto2 gave enough experience to JZ5 :) 

As all journos and fans, I have been impressed by his 6 first laps in his first race. Watching a french rider riding so well in front of all top riders was a shock. He was so good looking on the bike, it was kinda unreal.  After that, the event that impressed me the most was his qualifying sessions in Le Mans. One single run of 10 laps in Q2 when he beated Pedrosa to clinch his place in Q2 was already impressive but the fact Zarco waited during half the Q2 while all other big names was already making laps and all french fans and Journos were waiting the frenchman to appear and then use another single run to get his first front row was a second shock! This example tells us a lot about how JZ5's mental strenght and special ability to follow his own route, his own choice s in any circumstances. He's definitely a "warrior monk" (courtesy from various Journalists ), able to build patiently and methodically his performance and to fight when things ask for.  We have to remember that Zarco had to fight during his entire life to become what he is now. He's not a golden boy born in a family of racers, began lately and had no money. He is more like a blue collar who had to work twice as hard as others to climb the hierarchy. One of Zarco/Fellon's mantra is precisely that we shouldn't forget people who work into factories all day long and that riders are fortunate people who have an amazing job and should enjoy each day of their lives. Zarco often talks about how finding enjoyment on the bike will lead him to results. There's a kind of simple and normal philosophy behind his behavior.

Something suprises me a lot. There's still people who think he's not talented and only work makes him what he is now. Honestly I get the point but I can't understand how his results didn"t convince yet everybody about his talents. Nobody can be so fast without talent. 

Guy Coulon also told in Interviews that Zarco has special abilities to stay calm and focused during practices and was able to give the 2 or 3 information the crew needs to do his job. it's another part of Zarco's talent in my opinion. Zeelenberg told during the year how he looked at Zarco last year and this year and how Zarco riding style reminded him Jorge Lorenzo. Proofs of talent are there :) 

Despite his superb rookie year, there's still some doubts about his future. In my opinion, he still has to convincingly win a race to be considered as a true top rider . Something like what MV25 did last year in Silverstone. A reference race that would achieve to convince everybody about his speed and talent. I think Zarco had been a bit unlucky at Sepang a few weeks ago. He got a podium in the wet but I think he was much stronger in dry conditions. He could have win this one but ifs and buts and regrets don't help. I Hope next year will bring us this reference race (hopefully not only one) . Considering this year, he had to discover almost all tracks with a GP bike except Qatar, Phillip Island and Sepang he could learn during tests, we can expect some progress in 2018. See how are his race results on the listed track he knew before to began the race WE :) 

But next year could be tough as well. To do better than 2017 means more podiums, maybe a win or two and to be consistently in the top five against Marquez, Pedrosa, VInales, Rossi, Dovi, Lorenzo... and likely stronger suzukis , KTMs and a few more. It won't be an easy task. It could be easy to fail or to be injured and to lose all the esteem he gained in 2017. 

French fans are a bit overenthusiastic nowadays but it's understandable. Endurance, SBK/SS and a lot of other disciplines have been quite good for french riders. But GP less so. We are still referring to Christian Sarron and Olivier Jacques to be honest. We need another hero we can be proud of :) 

Total votes: 11

"The factory team raced four different chassis last season, complaining to the end, but when Zarco tried a 2017 chassis at the Valencia post-season tests he loved it."

Big difference between a test and racing a chassis.  Just ask the factory guys about that.

Total votes: 2

MV sure seemed pretty happy with chassis #1 during preseason testing and the first handful of races this year.  Wonder where it went wrong?  What and who's development direction was taken or listened to by Yamaha?

Total votes: 5

"Who they listened to" re riders and a Rossi vs Vinales muck rake is a fools errand in my view. Leave it to others (that also minimize Zarco's strength).

Yamaha bike engineering to a pivot with 1) Lorenzo leaving, 2) electronics losing some functionality necessitating more mechanical grip, 3) Michelin tires shifting the balance more neutrally.

Engineers made an error. Rear tires are being consumed too fast. The bike is not getting traction in the rear consistently in different conditions and on varying track surfaces. I believe this is likely the character of the engine combined with struggles developing the championship electronics to it - w their own electronics and with Bstones this would not have been the case. A big step was taken using old shoes.

There was not sufficient testing at 10 tenths and under varied conditions. Before Qatar. The 2017 bike was easier to get up to 9 tenths in initial testing conditions/track surface/short distance. The Japanese test riders only get the thing to 9.5 tenths, and in a limited range of conditions. This suckered them into going w it, initial review was positive. Then they were stuck w this engine all year. Zarco liked his 1st go on it just as Vinales did. When conditions are right the bike is great!

Btw Zarco's bike this year has been a hybrid blend of mostly 2016 and some 2017. Not like buying an old Ducati. Harder to make comparisons of his to the 2016 or 2017 Yamaha.

Zarco is amazing not just in level but in KIND. Right hand sensitive, adaptive. A bit loose but precise. Bold. Aggressive. Patient. Strategic. Still growing. And we have a rapid Frenchman again. Viva!

Total votes: 8

Again, i read Mat's article and im frustrated: what was promised in the title is not delivered in the content....
I find the post by Pom very interesting with some good insights.
It's no secret that I'm not totally convinced by Zarco performance. And i totally disagree on Mat's assumption that he shamed the two yamaha boys. C'mon! The day that Zarco beats the 2 yam officials by 20 seconds on the Jerez circuit by skill only i will eat my hat!
I think that various circumstances and factors have created a slightly false perception of his real value and ranking: Imo he is slightly overrated.
First we underestimated the greatness of the M1 2016 version. Second, we overlooked the "lack of competitiveness" of Lorenzo, Iannone and more often than not of the Yam officials.
Third, the unfortunate second half of season of Folger, who though much younger and less experienced, was really improving.
With these factors in mind i rank zarco in the top 10, but certainly not top 5.
The fact that he "loved" the 2017 bike does not mean much. Given the conditions of the track Vinales too was doing good lap times but he went back to the old 2016!
I get it, we all enjoy big track battles and he did some. Still as i said in the past, he lacks the strategic thinking that makes the difference. Im not saying he won't learn and surprise us next year. So far he has not. He says himself he does not care he just pushes... i don't mind aggressive, but it's important to know when to push and when to be smart.
I don't know the type of arrangements in Tech 3 if they get the 2017 then it will be complicated to share data with the official team in a productive way, bearing in mind that Michelin might -again!- come up with entirely different tyres....
all eyes on him in 2018: he needs to confirm his status. And I'll be happy to eat my hat.

Total votes: 7

I definitely agree with the fact competitors wasn't at 100% in 2017 and that allowed Zarco to shine more than he should. But as I said earlier, check his results on tracks he didn't have to discover on friday morning and I think you can see his true potential for next year. So yes, competitors will be stronger and honestly I hope so but Zarco will make progress as well. At least if the bikes allows it.. Poncharal confirmed to MotoGP.com Tech3 will have a 2017 bike for next year (Zarco is working with two different chassis but Poncharal explained there was not much difference between them) and the same engine as they used in 2017. not less not more. they'll have to deal with that.  Folger is an unknown. Surely he can be really fast. Sachsenring and even more so Brno showed us how good he can be. But I'm not sure Gilbert syndrome explain all ups and downs he showed in his career... I've a few doubt about his mental ability to deal with the pressure to be honest but I would be glad to see him shine at his best :) . His performance in Germany was truly astonishing. 

Where I disagree with you is Zarco's lack of strategic thinking. I mean..  i watched most of his Moto2 races and he clearly exhibited a lot of thinking and strategy? For sure , he also showed how aggressive he can ride and sometimes it's over the limit but it does not make him a brainless rider in my humble opinion.  

But if you have to eat your hat, I promise to offer you enough mayonnaise to make it easier to swallow ;-)))

Total votes: 4

... when I regret not having a beanie! My thick felt hat will be hard to chew.... I'll be needing tons of mayonnaise :)
Seriously though, I see all your points and you're right maybe I'm too harsh.
But honestly I followed moto2 races and I did not see all this strategic thinking.
And looking at this past season there are moments - namely the PI race- where some strategic thinking might have got him a podium.
We'll see next year.
As for Folger i agree there is something else other than this debilitating syndrome. I think it's in part the horrible accident he had that must have shaken him to the core. Plus the lesser experience he has.
All in all if a miracle doesn't happen (completely new tyres, never changing weather conditions, some genius solution in the electrpnics dept....) i don't see how tech3 can turn that bike into a winning machine.
Off to buy lots of mayonnaise! :)

Total votes: 1

Thanks Pom & MGM and Matt Oxley. I agree J.Z. has the right stuff, even if his results in MotoGp don't prove it yet.

"How does Zarco do it ?" Johann is a very good rider, plenty of experience on the racetrack. He is in an extremely good team. the best of the non-factory teams in my opinion. Herve & the team have so much knowledge & experience, I am sure that helps both Zarco and Jonas Folger. That guy with the blonde curly hair,(in the Tech 3 team) he knows a bunch of stuff to. Has been around for a while. What is his name David ???

Jonas Folger also a very good rider. I would like to see J.F. have a good season in 2018. If Folger could get through next year without injuy. Big IF I know, but if Jonas could ride every race then we would have a better idea of how good he is. I don't think that Folger will ever be one of the "Aliens" for want of a better word. J.Z. I think may turn into a race winner in MotoGp.

I consider Johann Zarco to be a much better rider & racer than Jonas Folger. My cotton giggle hat will be easier to swallow.

Total votes: 1