What are you to do if you find yourself stuck on a bike you know you can’t ride? On a bike that you are convinced is trying to hurt you, and that you keep falling off of every time you try to push?
The obvious answer is you try to leave as soon as possible. But that simple answer hides a host of factors that make leaving not as easy as it looks. The cases of Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco illustrate that very well.
First of all, why would a rider want to leave a factory ride? The pay is good, rarely less than seven figures. Riders have a chance to shape the bike and point development in a direction that suits them.
They are treated, if not like royalty, then at least like nobility: transport is arranged and rearranged pretty much at their whim, picked up at their front doors before a race and deposited there again afterward. The pressure is high, but in a factory team, they do everything they can to take the strain and let their riders concentrate on riding.
That is little consolation when the going gets really tough. When you are struggling to get inside the top ten, despite giving your all to try to make the bike go faster.
When you are crashing at twice, three times your normal rate. When factories are slow to bring updates to the bike. Or even worse, when they bring boxes and boxes of new parts, and none of those parts make much of a difference to your results.
Gravel Rash on Repeat
How tough can it get? In 2009, while Valentino Rossi was riding a Yamaha, he crashed 4 times during the season, the same number of times he had fallen the year before. In 2010, he crashed 5 times, though one of those crashes was enough to break his leg and take him out of competing for four races.
In 2011, the year he switched to Ducati, he crashed 12 times. When you are not used to falling, that can put a real dent in your confidence. What’s more, he scored just a single podium that year, compared to ten, including two wins, the year before.
Jorge Lorenzo and Johann Zarco find themselves in similar situations. Zarco has fallen off the KTM 11 times this year in 11 rounds, compared to 9 times in 19 rounds last year, and 12 times in his entire rookie season.
Lorenzo has crashed on the Honda 6 times in 7 races, having missed the rounds since Assen. That’s the same number of crashes he had during all of 2018 in the 14 races he competed in.
Johann Zarco had three podiums in 2018, and three the year before that. So far, his best result has been a tenth place at Barcelona, though he started from the front row of the grid after a damp qualifying at Brno.
Jorge Lorenzo is yet to even get into the top ten, coming off a season of three wins and a podium with Ducati in 2018, and three podiums in his maiden season with the Italian factory in 2017. For both Zarco and Lorenzo, their situations are dire.
So their best course of action is to try to leave. Both men tried to do just that during the Brno-Red Bull Ring double header over the past two weekends, and their choices set them on two very different career courses. Jorge Lorenzo chose to stay at Repsol Honda once it became clear that Ducati couldn’t clear the way for him to take Jack Miller’s ride at Pramac Ducati.
Johann Zarco decided he couldn’t face another year of failure on the KTM, his front-row start at Brno convincing him he could still be fast when conditions were right. Zarco asked KTM to rescind the second year of his contract, releasing him at the end of 2019.
Which is the smart choice? The simple answer is neither. Team relationships are all about trust.
Trust in your crew chief, that they are working to find you the best setup. Trust in your mechanics, that they will double check everything and not make a mistake for which you could pay a painful and physical price. Trust in the factory engineers, that they will listen to your feedback and build a bike you can ride, and trust in team management that they will push the factory engineers to work to find the solutions to your problems.
Any attempt to leave ruptures that trust, and, as a Dutch saying has it, trust arrives by foot and leaves on horseback. Rebuilding trust is a difficult thing to do.
Singing It Out
That is especially the case for Jorge Lorenzo. It was Lorenzo who approached team manager Albert Puig about riding for the Repsol Honda team. HRC flew Lorenzo to Japan to help speed up his adaptation to the RC213V, and the production of parts to get him more comfortable on the bike.
He rewarded that attention by flirting with Ducati, contacting Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall’Igna to see if there was a possibility of returning, allowing that attempt to become public knowledge, and only commit to Honda again after a phone call from Alberto Puig.
With all that trust gone, Lorenzo will return to the fold at Honda in Silverstone. He will then have to ride through his contract for 8 more races this year, and a further 20 races next season. Both sides know that Lorenzo is set to leave Honda at the end of that period, barring a sudden transformation in the way the Honda RC213V behaves.
So HRC cannot tell Lorenzo too much, for fear of what he might pass on to his next team (most likely Ducati, maybe Yamaha). Honda bosses and team staff will be wary of building a relationship with Lorenzo, aware that he will be gone soon enough.
Contrast this with Johann Zarco. The Frenchman made his decision to leave KTM some time in the week between Brno and Austria, and once his mind was made up, he told KTM bosses Pit Beirer and Stefan Pierer. He will be leaving at the end of the season, so to an extent he has the same problem as Jorge Lorenzo.
With Zarco on his way out, team management and his crew know their time together is limited, and will make less of an effort to build a relationship that everyone knows is coming to an end.
Tactically Stupid, Strategically Smart
And yet there is a difference. In the case of Lorenzo, he has another full year to go, and his marriage to Honda has more than a whiff of ‘sticking together until the kids have grown up’ for it to be healthy.
If he was leaving at the end of the year, the relationship would be clear. As it is, Lorenzo and Repsol Honda have a very long time still to spend together, while all around them, speculation is rife over who Lorenzo will go ride for, and who Honda will get in to replace him with.
Things are easier for Zarco. Once the team accepts his decision, they know he will be gone. The decision is not much different to any rider who chooses to leave at the end of a contract. There is an erosion of trust, sure, but there is usually some mutual respect. Especially for a decision that is as risky and difficult as Zarco’s.
If anything, Zarco’s decision is more reminiscent of Cal Crutchlow’s decision to leave Ducati after just one year of his two-year deal to ride in the factory team. Though the decision was not popular with Ducati at the time, Crutchlow and Ducati are still on good terms.
Despite the problems Jorge Lorenzo’s actions have created for himself, in career terms, Lorenzo made the better choice. Both in terms of strategy and perception, Lorenzo did the right thing to hang on inside Honda for another year when it became clear there was no room for him at Ducati.
Firstly, he made the right choice because there were no other options for 2020 at the time, forcing him effectively into early retirement, instead of hanging on and looking for somewhere to land in 2021.
Secondly, because team managers tend to respect riders more when the grit their teeth and push through. It was clear early on that Valentino Rossi’s time at Ducati would be only temporary, but Rossi gained the respect of many for sitting out the full two years of his contract.
As long as Lorenzo knuckles down and tries to improve his results without obviously giving up, he will get another chance.
A Leap in the Dark
Johann Zarco, on the other hand, may well have ended his career. By quitting at the end of 2019, he leaves himself with nowhere to go. Everyone bar Takaaki Nakagami is under contract for 2020, and Nakagami will almost certainly agree terms with HRC in the next couple of weeks.
There are no seats in MotoGP available for 2020, which leaves Zarco with only the option of Moto2, WorldSBK, or spending a year as a test rider.
When he announced he was leaving, he said he hoped to have news of his future by Silverstone. This seems rather optimistic: there is no room in MotoGP, and unless he has already decided to move back to Moto2 (where there are plenty of teams willing to have him, it seems, including the Petronas squad, if rumor is to be believed). But wherever he ends up, he will not find it easy to get back into MotoGP.
Why not? Zarco has everything against him. The Frenchman made a huge impact when he entered MotoGP, leading his very first race, getting on the front row and finishing on the podium in just his fifth race. It seemed only a matter of time before he won a race on the Tech3 Yamaha.
But that never happened. And when he switched to KTM, he was signed to lead the project and try to get the RC16 on the podium. That hasn’t happened either, Pol Espargaro having comprehensively beaten Zarco in just about every way at KTM.
Try as he might, Zarco simply could not find a way to ride the RC16, and was beaten not just by his teammate, but also by MotoGP rookie Miguel Oliveira riding in the Tech3 satellite team.
So the memory team managers will have of Johann Zarco is of a rider who gave up when faced with a tough challenge, a rider who was nearly successful, but couldn’t quite pull off a win on the Yamaha, the easiest bike to ride on the grid. When they come to make their choices for 2021, he will have those strikes against him.
No Series for Old Men
Making things even worse for Zarco is his age. Right now, he is 29. By the time he is talking to MotoGP teams for 2021, he will be 30. When MotoGP team managers look for new riders, they look for one of two things: either an established champion with a record of winning, or an up-and-coming youngster they believe they can shape into a future champion, or at least a race-winner.
Johann Zarco is neither of those things. Jorge Lorenzo may be three years older than Zarco, but he has three MotoGP titles, 47 premier class wins, and a proven record on both the Yamaha and Ducati, where he might get another chance.
Zarco has six podiums on a Yamaha, and Fabio Quartararo has already matched Zarco’s rookie podium tally, and looks like being on his way to more.
Fabio Quartararo is a problem in another respect as well. Dorna wanted a successful French rider in MotoGP to help them market the sport in France. For the past two years, that rider was Johann Zarco.
But Quartararo is younger, arguably faster, livelier, more fun. He is a cheerful young lad, where Zarco can be a little too earnest. Where Zarco comes out with philosophical aphorisms, Quartararo is quick with a joke and a witty quip. The latter is much easier to sell to casual sports fans.
Looking to 2021, there is likely to be an influx of young riders from Moto2 to fill the grid in MotoGP, as older riders move on. Zarco will be competing with the likes of Lorenzo Baldassarri, Jorge Navarro, Alex Márquez, Luca Marini, Enea Bastianini, Fabio Di Giannantonio, Remy Gardener, Augusto Fernandez. MotoGP team managers will be more inclined to take a chance on a young rider and hope for a big upside, rather than risk taking Zarco, a rider with a known upside but serious flaws.
Is It the End?
Do I think Johann Zarco deserves another shot in MotoGP? Absolutely. On the right bike, he can compete for podiums and wins. But I fear that the Frenchman’s decision to leave KTM at the end of the year without an obvious destination will mean he won’t necessarily get one.
He is only a known quantity on the Yamaha, which leaves the Petronas squad as the only obvious destination (especially after Suzuki promised him a contract, then pulled out of the deal a few months later).
Do Petronas want to take their chance on Zarco, or give the ride to a younger rider? That is not an easy question to answer. They might feel that Zarco is their best chance of success, or they may want a younger rider. There are no guarantees for Zarco.
Teams of other manufacturers are likely to be even more wary of the Frenchman. He left KTM, so what guarantee do they have that he will see out his contract, or be able to ride a very different bike to the Yamaha? They may feel their chances are better with other, potentially more adaptable riders.
Seen from the perspective of the press room, Zarco appears to have few options. I fear that this year will be the last time we see the Frenchman in the MotoGP class. He may come to regret his decision to leave KTM.
Then again, Zarco being of a particularly philosophical bent, there is every chance he won’t, and he may be happy as the man to beat in Moto2. Only time will tell.
Photo: US Navy