In a year that was full of surprises, perhaps the biggest was the performance of Johann Zarco in the Monster Tech 3 Yamaha team. After previous Moto2 champions had come into MotoGP and taken their time to find their feet – or in the case of Tito Rabat, struggled badly – the 27-year-old Frenchman had taken to the premier class like a duck to water, leading the first six laps of his first race in MotoGP before crashing out.
That race would not be a one off. He finished on the podium at his home Grand Prix at Le Mans, started from pole at Assen, and ended the season with three podiums in total, as Rookie of the Year, as best independent rider of the year, and sixth in the championship. Zarco was a factor to be accounted for at almost every race in his debut season.
Earlier this year, at Barcelona, we spoke to his crew chief Guy Coulon, a veteran of the series and one of the most thoughtful and wisest of the chief mechanics in the paddock. Coulon gave us a fascinating insight into how he works with Johann Zarco, and why he believes the Frenchman has been so quick this year. He talks about what makes him unique, the difference in his approach compared to other riders Coulon has worked with in the past, and what makes him such a competitive rider.
Q: Johann Zarco is doing something extraordinary in his rookie season. Where does that come from, do you think?
GC: Now we know better, of course, so we can analyze it. But in the beginning, when we started to test together during the winter, we could feel he had some good possibilities, some strong points, no weak points. So I mean – and this is true also for Jonas [Folger] – from the first test, he had no problems with the MotoGP about braking style, how to use the throttle. It was already very good for MotoGP, so this is a good point.
Then, when did we feel we can quickly have a good result? The first time, it was the last day on the test before race week in Qatar. The IRTA test the week before. Because the first day, he improved at Turn 2, or Turn 4, and in some points, and in some others. And also he was practicing starts and he had some good starts. Then the last day of the test, it seems for us he put everything together. And from this time, we thought, OK, if he is able to do this again in race week, he can be very competitive. And he was.
Q: You said he didn't have any weak points. Is there normally a weak point which Moto2 riders have when they come to MotoGP?
GC: Or Superbike riders! Because, you know, with MotoGP, you need to be able to brake strongly without upsetting the bike. So in the data, you can understand quite quickly if the rider is able to do this or not. And it's very difficult to change.
Q: That's the difference between the carbon and the steel brakes?
GC: Maybe, that's possible. But I'm not sure, because Johann and Jonas can do something well from the beginning with carbon discs.
Q: Secret is to be smooth be strong?
GC: It is a secret! As you say, it is a secret! You need to be able to brake strongly, without upsetting the bike. This is the way. Then after that, you need also to be very smooth with the throttle, to close it or to open it. This is with the Yamaha bike, I mean. When the rider is doing well, when you check on TV or on track, the rider looks like he feels he is on his out lap or his in lap, because it seems there is no big attack. He's very fluid.
Q: Because Jorge Lorenzo never looked like he was trying...
GC: Yes, this is the style for Yamaha. But I think it's really difficult to do one complete lap like this, and then after that, one complete session, and then after that, one complete race. It's difficult, but it is the way to do it. And Johann can do that, so that's good.
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