Johann Zarco must be the most unassuming member of the MotoGP grid. The 27 year old was the outstanding rookie – the authentic ‘dark horse’ with his black and green Monster Yamaha Tech3 guise this year – in the premier class with three podium appearances and a fast-starting and uncompromising style that ruffled feathers from the very dawn of the season at Qatar.
The Frenchman frequently wears an expression of simplicity and sometimes awe of his surroundings. He is unshowy, humble and as far removed from the glamour, fame and potential riches of his job as you can imagine. A soft grin and manner of talking further supports this veneer of gentility.
Of course it is a mistake to misjudge potential and zeal. Zarco, a double Moto2 World Champion, is already the most successful Grand Prix racer ever from his country and the question of his impact in MotoGP was not a case of ‘if’ but most certainly ‘when’. The timid, almost ‘teacherly’ demeanour found around the paddock and Tech3 hospitality is at odds with the often ruthless and calculating athlete that has been cutting up the leading group around the track. He has attracted criticism for his fearlessness but also universal praise for his open attitude and steely approach; a focus that a few of his peers would do well to ape.
2017 ended with Rookie of the Year and top satellite rider gongs. A contract extension with Tech3 was hastily offered and signed earlier in the year. Yamaha are watching his progress keenly. At Valencia and the final round of the campaign he again humbled factory duo Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales by pushing Marc Marquez into ‘that save’ and was just three tenths of a second from adding a maiden MotoGP victory to his fifteen in Moto2 and one in Moto3.
“Yes, I realize really well what I did, and I enjoy it,” he reflected quietly on Thursday at the Ricardo Tormo circuit. “The target is to win in every category, so if it takes a long time to do it, then OK, but if I'm almost ready to do now. It means that I gained some time [advanced] and I need to enjoy that.”
Zarco has learned MotoGP, but also been part of one of the most riveting championship stories in recent times. At one stage four riders were split by just 28 points in the series. A podium trophy at his home GP at Le Mans was a milestone moment. “When I tested for the first time it was almost a little bit scary because there was no limit to the MotoGP bike and so much power. Now I can control it well,” he says. “The biggest thing I felt between MotoGP and Moto2 was the potential of the tyres. It is a big step compared to Moto2; you can push a lot and do things with the bike into the corners that if you did with Moto2 you’d crash. The bikes have such potential but the riders are able to use it. You feel that you can do many things with the bike but when the tyres are used you have to do them in a different way.”
“So many riders are very fast and you need to adapt yourself – not every lap – but to many situations from the first to the last,” he adds. “When I was fighting with the top guys this year they have like a computer in their mind; they feel everything and they know what to do in the exact moment.”
“[MotoGP] Is very, very difficult. If you look every day, every weekend the gap from the first and the rider fifteenth position is very small. So it’s very difficult. You have to be focused in every practice.”in
Zarco is here to stay. The final rumours of a long season circulated in Valencia and concerned #5’s plans for 2019, with factory teams already hunting his services. For 2018 at least Johann will again be Yamaha-mounted and testing was hot on the fall of the chequered flag in Spain.
Zarco has reached his objectives and another year brings another challenge. He could well run the 2017 Yamaha M1 that proved problematic for Rossi and Vinales.
“I am confident on what Yamaha can give to me for the test and for next year,” he bullishly decreed. “I will start like I start my weekend: with a natural mind and mood and see what I can feel and what information I can give. It will be the best way to work. I’m finishing the season well. Trust me: the Japanese are doing all they can and analysing many things on the bike.”
“I think the best way is to request something to stay in front of the factory guys. So I'm pushing for that,” he adds. “It's working, and I still feel that I'm learning, still always trying to improve myself, and give good information. I have Japanese people around me, and if I deserve it, I will be happy. I think we will decide it when we test together after Valencia.”
Regardless of his tools, Zarco has been another rich addition to MotoGP. He has buoyed French interest in the sport and has enough individuality to be a highly placed on the ‘cast list’. His possibilities come Qatar next March will be a question on the lips of more than just his loyal fans.