Johann Zarco To Replace Takaaki Nakagami At LCR Honda For 3 Races - Prelude To 2020 Contract?

Johann Zarco is set to replace Takaaki Nakagami for the final three races of 2019, and race the 2018-spec Honda RC213V for the Idemitsu LCR Honda team. The news was first broken by Oriol Puigdemont of Motorsport.com, and though nobody contacted by MotoMatters.com would comment on the news, it was later confirmed by Zarco to Thomas Baujard of the French publication Moto Journal.

The reason for the switch, according to Motorsport.com, is that Nakagami has been struggling with shoulder problems similar to those suffered by Marc Márquez, whose shoulder kept dislocating. Nakagami is considering the same surgery as Márquez to rectify the problem, and based on the length of time Márquez took to recover from surgery, is looking at having surgery in October, rather than December, in the hope of getting a head start on rehabilitating the shoulder. As a result, Nakagami would ride only his home Grand Prix at Motegi in Japan, before having surgery done.

This would leave Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda team in need of a replacement rider. With Johann Zarco currently out of a job, after being released by KTM after Misano, Zarco would be the ideal replacement for the Japanese rider.

Hurdles to be taken

There are a couple of complications still to be cleared: first, KTM would have to formally grant permission for Zarco to ride the LCR Honda. That should not be an issue. At Aragon, KTM Sporting Director Pit Beirer told reporters, "He's under contract with us, we're going to pay him until the end of the season, but if he comes tomorrow and he wants to test any motorcycle or race any motorcycle, he can even race against us this Sunday, because I want the best for him. And if there is the smallest chance, he has to jump on it with my full support, and we will fix all the paperwork needed to get the release."

The bigger problem for Zarco is that he faces a choice. He currently has an offer on the table from Yamaha to work as a test rider for the MotoGP team in 2020. However, if he signs to race for LCR Honda, Yamaha may choose to seek elsewhere for a test rider. That would mean Zarco going all in on finding a race ride for 2020, rather than a testing role.

Unhappy marriage

There may yet be a seat for Zarco in MotoGP in 2020. The marriage between Repsol Honda and Jorge Lorenzo has been deeply unhappy, Lorenzo struggling with injury from the start of the season, then fracturing two vertebrae in a crash at Assen and missing three races as a result.

Since returning from that injury, he has been struggling even to score points, finishing 56 seconds behind the winner at Silverstone, 47 seconds behind at Misano, 46 seconds behind at Aragon, and 54 seconds back in Buriram. In those four races, he has amassed a total of 4 points, compared to the 95 points scored by his teammate Marc Márquez in the same races.

There have been other incidents as well. There was an ill-disguised flirtation with Ducati over the summer break, and a strong belief that Lorenzo has lost any motivation to try to get on with the 2019 Honda. The relationship between Lorenzo and HRC, especially team boss Alberto Puig, has been frosty.

Johann Zarco could be the key that breaks that deadlock. Honda get an unheard of opportunity to give a rider with MotoGP podiums a test ride on their bike before choosing to sign them for the factory squad. Zarco will be working with HRC engineers in the LCR Honda squad, and they will be able to give their feedback on how he works, while Honda will also get a look at his ability to ride the bike.

Frying pan to fire?

There are two question marks over that, of course. Firstly, the Honda is a very physical bike to ride, which needs to be pushed to get the best out of it. The character of the RC213V is very similar to the KTM RC16, which Zarco struggled to master, and developed a deep and abiding dislike of. Team bosses and engineers have compared Zarco's style with Jorge Lorenzo's, which suggests that Zarco might struggle with the bike much as Lorenzo has.

The saving grace for Zarco is that he would be riding the 2018 Honda RC213V. That bike is a more rider-friendly machine, giving the rider the feedback, feel, and confidence from the front end which the 2019 Honda lacks. Zarco relies on the front to carry corner speed and turn the bike, so the 2018 machine could suit his style. The fact that Jorge Lorenzo was competitive when he first tried the 2018 machine – finishing within a few tenths of his teammate in the tests at Valencia and Jerez in November last year – suggests that Zarco should find it easier to ride.

And Zarco might be able to avoid the foibles of the 2019 Honda RC213V altogether, if Repsol Honda decide to replace Jorge Lorenzo with the Frenchman. He will be riding the 2018 bike at Phillip Island, Sepang, and Valencia, and then jump on a 2020 prototype at the Valencia and Jerez tests. HRC Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama told Crash.net's Peter McLaren and Neil Morrison that Honda's main priority was making the 2020 bike easier to ride. Whether Repsol Honda stick with Jorge Lorenzo or replace him with Johann Zarco, it will be imperative they succeed in that endeavor.

Taka safe

Zarco taking Takaaki Nakagami's place for the remainder of 2019 would not affect the 2020 season. Though Nakagami is yet to sign a contract for next season, he has repeatedly told reporters that he is very close to a deal, with just a few details to iron out.

The second seat in LCR Honda will be held for Nakagami, as it is funded by Japanese oil brand Idemitsu, and subsidized by Honda. Both of those companies want a Japanese rider in the premier class, and while there is some real talent on its way through from Moto3 and the Asia Talent Cup, it will be a few years before they are ready to tackle MotoGP.


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Comments

"...but if he comes tomorrow and he wants to test any motorcycle or race any motorcycle, he can even race against us this Sunday, because I want the best for him. And if there is the smallest chance, he has to jump on it with my full support, and we will fix all the paperwork needed to get the release." - Employers in all areas of business could learn something from KTM Sporting Director Stefan Pierer.

Total votes: 47

but then again I'm a born skeptic. As I do not know Stefan or his history very well and that this is not yet a widely reported story, I'll take his words as just that... until this promise is actually fulfilled that is. ;)

Total votes: 20

I agree with isoia.  And I can also remember HRC at the end of 2003, and how they treated Valentino.  Far cry from Stefan and his organization.  

Tough call for Zarco there.  But I bet his manager screwing him out of the HRC contract prior to even going to KTM is playing a factor here, a big factor.  Honda knows it, and Zarco knows it.  

Total votes: 22

Championship is done, so let's stir a bit the grid to get this 2020 market not totally closed (from gossips).

Can't wait to hear what Cal will say about that... and his results.

Enjoy the show!

Total votes: 29

Didn't see this one coming, in spite of the constant drumbeat of rumors.

The Good News:

  • JZ will love the engine, the gearbox, and the electronics, all of which I imagine are still on a much higher shelf than KTM.
  • He "may" get along OK with the 2018 chassis, but I don't recall anyone setting the world on fire with that bike except MM. And Pol has out-ridden Nakagami this year (though the previously un-noted injuries to Takaaki may have been a factor).
  • If Zarco catches lightning in a bottle, he gets a top ride for 2020. Which yesterday I thought was impossible.

The Bad News:

  • Zarco has made no bones about copying Lorenzo's style on the M1. Perhaps JZ has not been keeping up on current events.
  • The RC213V (in previous iterations) has been a near career killer for Morbidelli and Jack Miller. Yet look at both now.

The Possible Winners:

  • Honda: I can't imagine they are paying much more than airfare for JZ, and "please help yourself to some nutritious white rice in the hospitality tent. Don't spill any on the floor, that's where you will be sleeping".
  • KTM: They get a real comparison to where they are now regarding the RC213V, and where they need to be.
  • Yamaha: If HRC is dumb enough to let JZ have three rides on an RC213V, even an older version, and then throw a leg over an M1 immediately after Valencia.
  • Johann: If he can get the results.
  • Lorenzo: If he leaves Zarco in his dust. "I told you it was an unrideable pig"
  • Nakagami: If JZ whiffs on the same bike.
  • Alberto Puig: After three weeks around JZ, the Honda staff might begin to call Alberto "Smiley".

The Possible Losers:

  • Yamaha: If HRC slips into JZ's Day Laborer contract that he cannot ride any other brands for the rest of 2019 (I would) then this may otherwise stuff their European Test Program for 2020.
  • Johann: If he fails he may lose both the HRC and Yamaha rides, leaving him only the option of sporting a yellow vest and lighting tire fires in the paddock next year. I think the risk/reward on this is monumentally against Zarco's interests. But he is a big boy, and I sincerely hope he is right and I am wrong.
  • Lorenzo: If Zarco disappears in front of him. "Pretty fast pig, ain't it Jorge?"
  • Nakagami: If JZ stuns us all. Again.
  • Alberto Puig: Oh, let's face it, nobody was ever going to call him Smiley anyway.

It will certainly be 3X can't miss viewing. Great reporting, David! Cheers.

Total votes: 65

Alberto comments made me spit out my coffee!!

Total votes: 25

a bid to stop him being Yamaha's test pilot. A finish in front of Jorge will get him a deal. As Jinx notes, there ae many scenarios, but if Zarco can grit his teeeth and put in some real effort it might save his career. HRC could be the main loser long term if it fails as all the class riders they have had have failed on the bike. A serious injury to MM will leave them with nowhere to go for a very long time. Fascinating stuff.

Total votes: 22

I love it. V smart all around. Yes, Lorenzo was fast on the ‘18 bike, which I suspect handled more like the Duc, only better. The ‘19 bike? Probably like a shopping cart with a bad wheel.

You voted 4. Total votes: 13

Well now we have an extra story line to watch for the remainder of the 2019 season after MM93 wrapped up the title.  I see much upside for all parties (save Lorenzo) if Nakagami does indeed have a safe seat for 2020.  Honda is taking little risk by giving Zarco three races on the 2018 bike as any information he can take to Yamaha as 2020 test rider will be on a dated machine and Honda can dangle the possibility of a factory ride out there to entice his full commitment to the 2019 race weekends so we can really see what might be.  Good to hear that Nakagami has the extra time to heal from a serious surgery and come back at his full potential.

Finally, kudos to KTM if they allow Zarco to make the most of his precarious position after what could have been an acramonious split.  Very classy from Pit and his organization.

Total votes: 16

Every

Single

Rider

who swung a leg over the Honda in the Marquez era has sustained some serious acute or chronic injury. Honda has been promising to make the RC213V "easier to ride" for its whole existence. You Google "RC213V hard to ride", you get search results going back as far as 2015:

https://motomatters.com/analysis/2015/06/09/the_slow_decline_of_the_honda_rc213v_the.html

https://www.bikesportnews.com/features/features-detail/taming-the-rc213v-beast

with Honda's same empty promises. I remember when Jack Miller switch from Honda to Ducati... he was shocked and elated with how much easier the Ducati was to ride. And the Ducati is far from an easy bike to ride. I recall him saying keeping the Honda at speed was like riding a razor's edge.

You look at the year to year changes of the RC213V, they almost always center around the engine. In 2019, they even made engine upgrades at the expense of the chassis. Honda is one of the winningest factories in MotoGP history for sure, but it almost seems to be in spite of itself rather than as a result of its efforts. Between its management decisions (who in the hell thought Puig would make for a good team boss? Remember the RC1000V fiasco?) and engineering decisions (are they ever going to fix the chassis?), it seems like they have just been relying on deep pockets to corral the kind of talent that can win on anything. Don't believe me? Where would Honda be without Marquez, Stoner, Rossi etc.? It's infuriating to watch. I really hope Zarco is able to land somewhere else next year because right now Honda is a career graveyard for anyone not named Marc Marquez.

You voted 4. Total votes: 38

Did he get it/aggravate it when Valentino took him down at Assen? That was quite a heavy fall and the articles from then do report he had ligament damage.

Obviously the racing press isn't inundated with articles about Taka in the same way that it is about some others, but it seems possible that was what did it.

Total votes: 8

No one saw this coming. Taka's shoulder surgery to prep for 2020 is our shuffler. We used to describe silly season like people playing musical chairs. Now, more like rats swapping burning ships?

This is good, and interesting. It doesn't happen much. David, I agree with everything you delineated. Very well said. Perhaps the risk of losing a Yamaha Test/Sub spot isn't so large though. He is an unusual opportunity for them there, and no other significant alternative is here. It looks more likely that he js opening up a 2nd similar option at Honda.

Relative to the KTM of the 1st half of 2019, the 2018 Honda is a charmer. It is rideable. You can keep the wheels in line and be fast, Dani was an efficient and smooth rider. How much of an outlier is the early 2019 Orange bike, vs how Yamaha particular is Zarco's riding? We are about to see, and I am going to put my money on the Frenchman. Back on the Tech3 Yamaha, Zarco would be looser and more aggressive than other Blue riders at times, particularly during battles. His adaptation from Moto2 to MotoGP was rapid and impressive. He has only had two MotoGP bikes, and this will be a most interesting 3rd.

Again, NO WAY did this get seen coming! Holy crap. Zarco has to take this ride. By the short hairs, and throw everything and more into it. Taka's bike is good! Best Honda out there. This is one of the better Hondas of this era, if not the best. Well sorted, tons of data.

Zarco will show up. Unparalleled motivation. Expect his very best.

The bike is not a Yamaha or Suzuki. Zarco is not a Marquez or P.Espargaro. But if we aren't looking at optimal, what are we looking at?

Crutchlow is retiring, and on the 2019 blazing pig. Lorenzo is back marking on the same angry oinker. Taka has been doing pretty well, and it is his anticipated performance that we can measure Zarco against. I don't have a doubt that Zarco can put in a Nakagami-esque go at it.

What if he does rather well? And Jorge stays next season (there isn't another 2020 option for Lorenzo really, is there? Is there?). Cal is done after 2020. Taka is coming back...right? "Just a few details to iron out to finalize the contract" and a Japanese rider, indeed. Yet, this is still an open seat. What if Zarco really does the business? What if at Phillip Island he big balls it up into the front pack? Then what?

Cool turn of events! Good for us. Betting it goes inconsistently but rather well, and with a flash of brilliance. Then Zarco either goes to Yamaha Test, or Honda hangs onto him as a Test/Sub/planned Wildcards rider for 2020 w an option for him to stay on replacing CC35 or JL99. They could use him, and may as well keep him out of the Blue stable.

It will challenge his fitness, but Zarco can ride this bike.

Total votes: 30

....reading what Cal has been saying about his ankle, the metal plates still in his leg and his general body condition...his desire for a more 'normal life'. Take the plates out ? Leave them in ? He thinks the plates are causing him pain but to take them out it might hurt his pre-season badly or even further along the road. He loves his bike racing but maybe this is a chance for him to exit early...Zarco shows well, maybe Cal has the chance.

Hope not...love our Cal.

 

Total votes: 14

I would be surprised (pleasantly) if Zarco recorded top 10s in the last three races on a Honda. I wouldn't be surprised if he suffered, though. Three races for Mr. Smooth to wrap his head around the RC213V? Zarco is a confidence rider and when he crashed hard mid-season on the M1 his results also took a hit for many races. The Honda does not look like a bike that inspires confidence in those born on planet Earth.

You voted 2. Total votes: 20

David -

Is it a matter of pride and top speed preventing JL99 from going back to an 18' bike?

No one made a fuss when Vinales took back the 2016 Chassis' bikes FB20 started the season with

Total votes: 10

Lorenzo is stuck with the 2019 engine, because that is the engine Honda homologated for him at the start of the season. You can't swap engines. 

The 2019 engine won't fit in the 2018 chassis. The airbox and other components are all different. So you can't swap to the 2018 chassis either.

That's why Lorenzo is stuck with what he's got. 

Total votes: 18

 how many Yamaha riders in recent history have moved to another brand and gone any better than just Ok. Pol excepted, he didnt much like the way you had to ride Yamahas. JZ will literally need a change of underware first time he tries to go fast on RC213V. Hope to be proved wrong for JZ`s sake.

                                            Beamer12

Total votes: 22

As noted by many above Honda have been promising to make their MotoGP bike easier to ride since the class started.

People with an even longer memory will recall the battles Hailwood had with Agostini a mere 50+ years ago, with the same story playing out. The more things change etc.

Total votes: 17