One of the biggest dominoes of the 2018 MotoGP Silly Season has just fallen into place. Today, KTM announced that they have signed Johann Zarco to a two-year contract for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
That Zarco would leave the Tech3 Yamaha squad had been widely anticipated, the only question being which factory team he would end up in. The Frenchman was an extremely hot property, after displaying blistering speed on the satellite Yamaha M1 in 2017. Zarco had offers from Suzuki, Repsol Honda, and KTM, though only Honda and KTM were in the frame for the Frenchman. Zarco and his management were still unhappy with the way Suzuki had treated the Frenchman after the Japanese factory failed to honor a pre-contract Zarco had signed ahead of the 2017 season, choosing Alex Rins instead.
That left Repsol Honda or KTM, and the choice between trying to beat Marc Marquez on a bike designed for Marc Marquez, or an opportunity to help develop the KTM into a weapon capable of beating the reigning champion. Zarco came down on the side of the challenge. This choice is a risk, of course. After making astonishing progress in its first year, the KTM RC16 has gotten stuck just outside the top ten. For Zarco to challenge, the bike will have to make a further step before the end of the year.
Zarco will line up alongside Pol Espargaro, whose contract extension was announced on Wednesday. This leaves Bradley Smith out of a ride for the moment, and could have a negative effect on development. The incentive for Smith is now to go for results above everything, in an all out attempt to beat his teammate, as that is the way he will secure a ride for 2019. Previously, Smith has focused very keenly - too much, as far as management is concerned sometimes - on development, and improving the bike. Development will now switch to Mika Kallio and Pol Espargaro, while Smith will want to get on with racing.
The official press release appears below:
Johann Zarco joins Red Bull KTM Factory Racing 2019 with two year MotoGP agreement
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing will welcome the very first Red Bull Rookies Cup winner and current MotoGP star, Johann Zarco, onto the works KTM RC16 for the 2019 and 2020 FIM World Championship seasons.
KTM’s READY TO RACE philosophy often means the creation of some special stories from the field of competition. The signature of 27 year old MotoGP sensation and double Moto2 World Champion (the most successful French rider in the history of Grand Prix racing) Johann Zarco for the next two years fills a standout narrative.
The Cannes-born athlete will return to KTM and the brand with which he made his first impression in the world of motorcycle racing when he claimed the 2007 Red Bull Rookies Cup; the KTM-supported series designed to filter the best young talent through to the world stage.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing is thrilled to be able to bring Johann back to Orange. He will partner Pol Espargaro on the KTM RC16 for the next two years.
Pit Beirer (KTM Motorsports Director): “There has always been a good contact with Johann and since the Red Bull Rookies Cup. We supported the Moto2 project through WP and our Moto3 Team Manager Aki Ajo is a good friend of him. We also have a nice connection with his manager Laurent Fellon. It was a group effort to get this done. We had to trust in our capability to build a winning bike and Johann would not come over if he did not see and feel that trust. We feel very responsible now to get that package strong enough so that he can continue on the level where he is. It is our big target."
“It is clear that we want to take another step in MotoGP. The first two years were about building up the project and to get everything running. You always want to get the best possible riders on board and it’s obvious with Johann beating the factory guys on satellite machinery and consistently qualifying on the front row means he is a strong fighter with a strong sprit. I’m convinced we can reach the next level with a rider like Johann with us.”
Zarco went on to win and grasp podium success in 125cc (now Moto3) Grands Prix and 15 victories in the Moto2 class where he enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Red Bull KTM Ajo Team Manager Aki Ajo and WP Suspension technology on the way to his two world championships. Since coming into the MotoGP category in 2017 – where he gained the accolade of Best Rookie – Zarco has thrilled audiences with his speed, racecraft and attacking prowess. With 4 trophies and 3 Pole Positions his he has regularly upstaged rivals on factory machinery. His ability and potential marked his name as one of the most sought after for the coming seasons in MotoGP.