Johann Zarco Left KTM MotoGP With No Plan B

Frenchman will race an LCR Honda beginning this weekend at Phillip Island.

Johann Zarco and Lucio Ceccinello
New team, new bike, new opportunity: “It’s difficult to fix a target,” Johann Zarco admitted at Phillip Island ahead of this weekend’s Australian GP, “but I want to clear up all the feelings I got this year. I had a great first two years in MotoGP, but this year has been really complicated."LCR Honda

MotoGP riders will race 200-plus mph on two small patches of rubber and hobble to their bikes with broken bones, but who dares to leap into the unknown, renouncing a factory contract and a good paycheck without a back-up plan? Valentino Rossi didn't and neither did Jorge Lorenzo, two champions with a collective 14 world titles, both of whom struggled to be competitive on works Ducatis.

In two seasons riding for his fellow Italians, Rossi scored three podium finishes. Lorenzo was winless in 23 starts before taking back-to-back victories at Mugello and Catalunya, and now faces an even greater challenge with Honda. But Johann Zarco, following five pole positions and six podiums in two seasons on a satellite Yamaha, left KTM 13 races into what was supposed to be a two-year agreement.

Some say Zarco is crazy, but, after speaking with the 29-year-old Frenchman, I prefer to think of him as an incredible human being for whom integrity comes first. Zarco has a dream of becoming a MotoGP world champion and is willing to pay for it, even if this meant turning his back on the Austrian manufacturer and walking away from a factory motorcycle, not to mention surely leaving a lot of money on the table.

Zarco met with KTM boss Stefan Pierer at the Austrian GP in August. They agreed to terminate the second year of the contract, and, two races later, in Italy, the rest of the 2019 season. In an unexpected twist, beginning this weekend at Phillip Island in Australia and continuing through the end of the year—three races in all—Zarco will fill in for LCR Honda’s Takaaki Nakagami, who underwent shoulder surgery after the Japanese GP.

“It looked like the MotoGP story was finished, but then Lucio Cecchinello called me to ride these three races,” Zarco said. “I took a big risk quitting my contract for 2020, but I realized that racing is what I want to do. So now I have a short future, but I can live it with a lot of intensity.”LCR Honda

Where did you find the courage to terminate a two-year contract without a plan B?

For me, it was not a safe situation. Yes, I had a seat for one more year, but what would have happened if I lost my skill to ride and my hunger to push every single cell of my body to my dream to become world champion one day? This was my greatest fear. So I decided to open a new space to create the opportunity to ride a bike I have the feeling with to fight for the world title.

What happened with the factory KTM?

There is not a good or a right bike but a winning bike. I couldn’t be fast with the KTM; I simply had no confidence. No matter how hard I tried, the machine simply said no, and I was scared to lose confidence in myself if I kept on finishing in P15.

Why did you choose KTM when you had the chance to join Honda before Jorge Lorenzo?

I followed Laurent Fellon, my manager at the time, as I had always done with success; in fact, I won two Moto2 world titles. Now it has no meaning to look back. It produces only a load, a pressure that doesn’t bring you anywhere. It poisons you, and you cannot afford it when you push your body beyond the limit every 15 days; you have to be pure. My manager believed I could do well on a KTM—as I am much faster than Pol Espargaró—but races don’t work like this. It’s not pure math; it is made of many small sensations.

Zarco with rider coach Jean-Michel Bayle
Zarco waits on the front row of the starting grid at Brno for August’s Czech Grand Prix with rider coach, racing legend, and fellow Frenchman Jean-Michel Bayle. Zarco qualified third and finished 14th. His KTM experience came to an end three races later at Misano in Italy.Gold & Goose

When did you understand there was no feeling?

Before the summer break, I realized that, despite all we did, I couldn’t find the feeling. I arrived after the summer break super motivated but no results. I was getting sick. I couldn't sleep at night. And this was unacceptable for me. Riding is a beautiful thing; I couldn’t be sick.

What in particular did you ask of KTM to help you adapt to the bike?

I’m not a technician. I could only express my sensations to my crew. This bike will be winning one day, but I only have three to four more years to try and become a world champion, and I couldn’t wait. I have a maximum of four years to meet my target.

Riders have a special relationship with their machines.

Exactly. Even if it’s a piece of iron, the bike has a soul. But the KTM didn’t resonate with me. We couldn’t connect. Pol has done the development according to his needs. The more I was riding, the more I could understand why he goes fast. Now Dani [Pedrosa] joined in the development. He has great experience and I’m sure they will listen to him, but it takes time.

Did you feel alone in making such an important decision?

I was the only one who could take this decision. If you think logically, you would never take this decision. I left without a plan B, to open a new space for something new, to make the energy flow. It was more logical to prepare first a plan B. Now I’m happy; I feel more free.

Zarco at Qatar
Zarco made his KTM MotoGP debut at Qatar in March. He qualified 21st and finished the 22-lap race in 15th position. One year earlier, in his second season on a Tech 3 Yamaha, Zarco won pole position and was eighth in the race.Gold & Goose

What about the future? Could you replace Lorenzo at Honda?

Lorenzo’s future in Honda depends on him. I can only take this chance to ride an LCR Honda and show what I can do.

You walked away from a large salary. What is the price of your dream?

It’s the joy while I’m riding. It’s the confidence that $1 million will return if I am fast. The money I earned made my life easier, but I was not happy. I’m not afraid to wait for a new opportunity considered that I’m still in the right year range. My father is also happy with my decision. He couldn’t take this decision for me; this money was his life. But he was also feeling bad. Now he is happy; he has a better energy.

Neither Valentino Rossi nor Lorenzo took the chance that you did.

We can all be easily replaced, except for Valentino. If I am not fast, someone will take my place. I still have time to meet my target. If I cannot make it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not a good rider. I can continue to ride but with another target.

You are unique in the MotoGP paddock. Where does this approach to life and racing come from?

From my parents, I learned to listen and to be calm and gentle. From my coach, I learned to fight. I’m a mix of these educations, and I know myself riding at 300 kmh makes me feel alive. I’m in MotoGP to make my dream come true, and I’m not afraid to pay a price for it. This is the secret of the success.