Sometimes events overshadow events. The MotoGP race at the Red Bull Ring turned into an instant classic, pretty much as the last three editions have done, with the race decided at the last corner, but despite the adrenaline-filled, heart-pumping, edge-of-the-seat final few laps, it is the drama which happened off track for which this race will be remembered. The insanity of a rider stepping away from a MotoGP contract with no guarantees of a ride for 2020, and the insanity of a rider flirting with another factory with a few to swapping teams and manufacturers in the middle of a contract rather took attention away what turned out to be a fantastic race.
So let's get the off-track stuff out of the way first. Though I have covered both the Jorge Lorenzo situation and the Johann Zarco situation in some detail elsewhere, here is a quick recap of where we stand.
Jorge Lorenzo first, as that situation is now resolved. Over the summer break, it appears that Lorenzo had been in touch with Ducati about a possible return to the Italian factory, after having severely hurt himself on the Repsol Honda, and found it a far more difficult beast to tame than he had expected. That all came to a head in Austria, as the seat Lorenzo and Ducati were discussing was currently held by Jack Miller at Pramac Ducati.
Not worth the paper they are written on?
The problem was that Miller had a contract signed and sealed with Pramac Ducati, with only the signature of Ducati missing. Naturally enough, that upset Miller, the Australian not hiding his frustration and openly discussing the issue with the media. For a while, it looked like Miller could miss out entirely, though he kept hinting at another option should Lorenzo take the Pramac ride from him. Little could we imagine what he might mean.
That situation was resolved on Saturday night, when Lorenzo and Alberto Puig spoke by phone, and Lorenzo promised to complete his second year with the Repsol Honda team. It cannot have been a very friendly conversation. Neither Puig nor HRC have been particularly impressed by the fact that Lorenzo chose to fly to the Maldives over the summer break while he was recovering from two fractured vertebrae. Nor were they impressed by the fact that he posted about it on his social media channels, or that he did not look to be watching his diet particularly carefully.
Lorenzo is currently set to return at Silverstone, and is now back in Switzerland and training again. But the tension this episode will have created in the team will make for an uncomfortable return, especially once the press get a chance to question Lorenzo about his side of the story. Lorenzo has at least 28 races and 4 tests left to complete with the Repsol Honda team. The perceived breach of faith between him and Honda will be hard to heal.
Ordinarily, Lorenzo's flirtation with Ducati would be the biggest news out of any event. But on Sunday night, Johann Zarco managed to put Lorenzo into the shade with the announcement that the Frenchman had asked to be released from his contract with the factory Red Bull KTM MotoGP team for the 2020 season, halfway through his planned tenure there. An unprecedented move, without a plan for the future.
The background to Zarco's split with KTM is self-evident. The Frenchman has not been happy with the KTM RC16 since he first swung his leg over it at Valencia. He has struggled to try to get to grips with a bike which requires a riding style diametrically opposed to his. Zarco is all smoothness and subtle inputs, while the KTM needs to be bullied and beaten into going faster. Zarco wants a loving, respectful, consensual relationship with his motorcycle, the RC16 is looking for some extreme BDSM.
There have been many moments through his short nine months with KTM which have appeared to have been a nadir, before getting worse. The episode at Jerez when he raged publicly at the bike after being spat off. Pulling in at Assen complaining of arm pump, then stating plainly he had no intention of seeking a medical solution to the problem. Turning up to the Brno test, where he had a pile of new parts to try developed with input from KTM's new test rider Dani Pedrosa, and then leaving shortly after lunchtime. But by then, he had already made up his mind.
What next for Zarco?
MotoJournal's Thomas Baujard, one of the very best journalists in the paddock, spoke to Zarco on Monday, and Zarco explained his decision. The front row at Brno, secured in wet conditions, had been a decisive moment, Zarco told Baujard. He realized then that he still had the speed to be competitive, and what he wanted was to be fighting for podiums and wins. He did not feel he was cut out to be riding around at the back, hoping for the bike to improve enough for him to be competitive. "I want to do things in a more pure way," he told Baujard.
Zarco had terminated his contract with KTM first, before turning his attention to alternatives for next year. He was confident of finding a ride, the Frenchman told MotoJournal's Baujard, and was aiming for a competitive bike in MotoGP. He was sure he would have more news at Silverstone, he said.
This seems hopelessly naïve. The seats in MotoGP are taken for 2020, with the only contracts not officially announced Jack Miller's seat at Pramac Ducati (and that is a matter of hours away from being confirmed) and LCR Honda Idemitsu's seat currently held by Takaaki Nakagami. That seat was created specifically for Nakagami as a Japanese rider, and the only question open there is whether he will have a 2019-spec Honda RC213V, or be able to convince HRC to give him a 2020-spec bike.
There are no other seats open. And with Fabio Quartararo riding as well as he is – much more about Quartararo later – there is no pressure on Dorna to help a French rider to promote the sport in the French market. Quartararo is on French broadcaster Canal+ as often as they can get him, and so Zarco only has himself to rely on.
That leaves Zarco with three options: wait for 2021, head back to Moto2, or head across to WorldSBK. None of those options are attractive, and none of them have much chance of securing him a good ride back in MotoGP in 2021. Like Jonas Folger, Zarco has scared off team managers, who are not sure they can trust him to fulfill a contract. Whatever the merits of Zarco's decision – and there is much to be said for walking away from a situation which looks pretty hopeless, especially when you are putting your life and health on the line every time you get on the bike – he has not made his chances of success in MotoGP any greater.
Johann Zarco is 29 years old. There are a host of youngsters in their early twenties sitting in Moto2 and chomping at the bit to get into MotoGP when everyone is out of contract at the end of 2020. MotoGP is due a clear out of older riders, and Zarco may find he has cleared himself out earlier than intended.
And what next for KTM?
Who will take Zarco's place? The obvious answer would be to move KTM test rider Dani Pedrosa into the KTM factory team. But that is unlikely to happen: Pedrosa is much happier as a test rider than as a racer, as he can operate entirely out of the public view, with only a handful of media commitments. I once made the mistake of asking Pedrosa during an interview what the worst thing was about MotoGP. "This," he replied.
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