The Johann Zarco Saga appears to be drawing to a close. The long journey, which started when he announced he would be leaving KTM at the end of 2019, looks to have taken him to Ducati. In an interview for the French magazine Moto Revue, the Frenchman told journalist Michel Turco that he will be racing a Ducati Desmosedici GP19 with the Avintia Racing team in 2020.
Zarco's statements bring to a close a long and confusing chapter in MotoGP. Zarco was summarily dismissed from the Red Bull KTM team on full pay after the race in Misano, the Austrian manufacturer wanting rid of a disruptive factor in the factory team. After Thailand, it emerged that Zarco would be temporarily replacing Takaaki Nakagami in the LCR Honda team after Motegi, to allow the Japanese rider to recover from shoulder surgery in time for the 2020 MotoGP season.
That move led to speculation that Zarco could replace Jorge Lorenzo in the Repsol Honda team. But by the time Lorenzo announced his retirement ahead of the final round at Valencia, Emilio Alzamora, who manages the Marquez brothers, had persuaded HRC to sign Alex Marquez to ride alongside his brother Marc in the factory Repsol Honda squad.
With the door at Honda shut, the focus moved to Ducati. Over the Valencia weekend, rumors surfaced that Dorna was trying to get Zarco onto a Ducati for 2020. Reports initially linked Zarco to Avintia, where he would replace Karel Abraham, but Zarco showed no interest in riding for Avintia, preferring to look at Moto2 rather than staying in MotoGP. "I want a good team and a good bike and for me Avintia is not a top team," the Frenchman said at Valencia. Rumors then had Zarco moving to the Pramac Ducati team, to take the place of Jack Miller, who would be moving up to the factory squad to replace Danilo Petrucci.
At the Jerez test, it became clear that if Zarco was going to land anywhere, it would be at Avintia. Karel Abraham told top Israeli broadcaster and journalist Tammy Gorali that he had been fired by Avintia, freeing up a place in the Andorran team.
Yet there was still no obvious way to reconcile the statements Zarco had made with him being offered a seat at Avintia. The interview with Moto Revue cleared some of that up.
In the interview, Zarco tells Michel Turco that he has a contract directly with Ducati, rather than with Avintia. Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna had told Zarco that he could be confident of getting good support from Ducati, and that had given him the confidence to sign to ride for Avintia, Zarco said. The Frenchman had also spoken to his former crew chief Massimo Branchini, and Branchini had told him to have faith in Dall'Igna, and that Ducati would find him a competent crew chief.
Though Zarco's statements leave nothing open to interpretation, a few question marks remain. There is as yet still no official confirmation, neither from Ducati nor from Avintia, that Zarco will be riding for them for 2020. As 2019 has made abundantly clear, even signed contracts can be broken if circumstances demand it.
There is also the question of how Zarco will fit in with the Avintia squad once he arrives. The team will not have forgotten his words, and he is unlikely to receive a particularly warm welcome. Trust is the rock on which the relationship between rider and team is built, and without trust, things can quickly sink into the mire.
Zarco's personality does not help in that respect: the Frenchman speaks his mind, whether that is a good idea or not, as he found to his cost in KTM. Even if Zarco goes well on the Ducati, any public criticism of the team is unlikely to be well received. A close and happy team is the difference between success and failure - see the change in Maverick Viñales' fortunes since switching crew chiefs this year - and that is hard to build where both sides are suspicious of one another.
Why would Ducati and Avintia want to sign Zarco? There has been a great deal of pressure from Claude Michy, the promoter of the French MotoGP round at Le Mans. Michy is a longtime supporter of Zarco, and wants Zarco on the grid to help sell tickets to French fans, as Zarco is seen as more authentically French than Fabio Quartararo, who left France to go and live in Spain at a very young age.
Zarco also had the support of Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta, who had also been acting as his confidant in the latter part of the season. With the weight of Michy and Ezpeleta behind him, Ducati were inclined to take a chance on Zarco.
It is in the interests of all parties that the gamble pays off. Zarco's stated objective is to finish consistently in the top ten, then inside the top seven as the season goes on. The aim is to earn a seat in the factory Ducati squad in 2021, when all of the contracts in MotoGP are up for grabs.
That will not be easy. Firstly, finishing inside the top ten will be difficult: Marc Marquez will be set on defending his 2019 MotoGP title, there will be four competitive Yamahas and four Ducati GP20s on the grid, as well as two fast Suzukis in the hands of Alex Rins and the rapidly improving Joan Mir. The GP20 looks to be a big step forward for Ducati, the bike turning much better than its predecessor. Even the KTM RC16 has shown real signs of progress with its new frame. Then there are riders like Cal Crutchlow and Taka Nakagami, who are both capable of top tens on any given day. If Zarco wants to finish in the top ten, he has a lot of bikes he will have to try to beat.
Even if he can score regular top sevens, he also faces stiff competition for a seat in 2021. There is strong interest in the current crop of Moto2 riders for 2021, and there could be as many as five or six youngsters vying for seats in MotoGP. Zarco will be 30 by the time the second half of the 2020 season starts, and youth-obsessed managers may prefer to sign a youngster from Moto2 over an older Frenchman.
Zarco has damaged his prospects of a 2021 seat with his behavior this year. The way he handled the KTM situation - especially his constant and public criticism of the team - did not sit well with factory bosses. That may even have cost him for 2020, as KTM team boss Mike Leitner will have made his feelings about Zarco's behavior clear to Repsol Honda boss Alberto Puig, the two men being good friends with a long history together. Yamaha had already cut ties with Zarco, after the Frenchman turned down a role as a test rider, and bad blood remains between Zarco and Suzuki after Suzuki took Rins over the Frenchman for the 2017 season.
So while it appears that one chapter of the Zarco Saga appears to be drawing to a close, it is not hard to believe that a new chapter is about to open. And if 2019 is anything to go by, it could well prove to be rather dramatic.