The Austrian round of MotoGP has been a weekend of bombshells. After the news that Ducati and Jorge Lorenzo had been in talks to replace Jack Miller in the Pramac squad before the weekend, on Sunday night it emerged that Johann Zarco has asked to be released from his contract with KTM for 2020.
The Frenchman has long been unhappy with the Austrian factory, sometimes very publicly so. Since the moment he jumped on the KTM RC16, he has struggled to adapt to the bike. Zarco's style is to be very smooth and precise, while the KTM only really responds to a very physical riding style, to being bullied around the track. The harder you push the bike, the faster you go, and that has always run completely counter to Zarco's natural riding style.
The relationship was star-crossed from the very beginning. Johann Zarco's former manager Laurent Fellon signed Zarco to a deal with KTM at the end of 2017, the Frenchman's first season in MotoGP. In the year that followed, Fellon continued to negotiate with both Repsol Honda and Yamaha, despite Zarco already having a deal signed with KTM. It was just one unusual aspect of the Frenchman's relationship with his manager.
From bad to worse
That relationship started falling apart as Zarco struggled to ride the KTM. When he found out about the offer from Repsol Honda, which he had been unable to take up because Fellon had already signed a contract with KTM, that was the trigger that made him decide to split from his manager, and continue on his own.
Things have not gotten any better, with the nadir coming at Jerez, when Zarco was caught live on air entering the pits after a crash cursing every aspect of the bike. That led to a public warning from KTM CEO Stefan Pierer, and an apology from Johann Zarco.
Pondering the future
Zarco must have been contemplating leaving KTM for some time. The Frenchman returned in a contemplative and philosophical mood after the summer break, telling reporters how long hikes in the mountains had taught him valuable lessons about perseverance and fortitude in the face of adversity, how merely hanging on through the dark periods would eventually lead you to brighter times.
At the time, we took that to mean that Zarco intended to push through the tough times at KTM and help develop the bike, with the hope of improvement in his second season. But perhaps he was thinking ahead to 2020, and looking for greener pastures after the dark days aboard the RC16.
Zarco's behavior at the test would appear to support that theory. While most riders completed something between 50 and 80 laps, Zarco called it a day around 1pm, having completed just 31 laps. For comparison, of the other KTM riders, Pol Espargaro completed 49 laps, Miguel Oliveira 54 laps, Hafizh Syahrin 43 laps.
At the Red Bull Ring – KTM's home Grand Prix, held at the circuit owned by their main sponsor and financial backer Red Bull – Zarco finally came to an agreement with KTM. The Frenchman will leave the Austrian factory at the end of the 2019 season.
Zarco's departure opens a whole can of worms for both himself and for KTM. First for Zarco: the Frenchman does not appear to have an obvious plan for 2020. There are no seats open in MotoGP, leaving him just three options: move back to Moto2; move across to WorldSBK; or take a year off from racing, possibly offering his services as a test rider to a MotoGP factory.
All three of those choices throw up huge obstacles to a return to racing full time in MotoGP, with taking a year off and working as a test rider perhaps the best chance of regaining a MotoGP ride. But his decision to withdraw from MotoGP will raise red flags for any new team wishing to hire him, as Jonas Folger is finding out to his detriment. How can a team offering Zarco a contract be certain he will see it out if it doesn't work out?
Zarco's departure also creates a huge headache for KTM. The Austrian factory had originally offered a contract to Jack Miller to take Zarco's place, while Miller was caught in limbo due to Ducati's reluctance to sign off on the contract with Pramac and Miller. That in turn was due to Jorge Lorenzo having spoken with Ducati Corse boss Gigi Dall'Igna about a possible return to the Italian factory, and contemplating the move for 2020, taking the seat currently occupied by Miller.
The Jorge Lorenzo situation was finally settled on Saturday night, when the Spaniard spoke with team manager Alberto Puig by phone, and pledged to honor his contract with HRC for next year. That, in turn, opened the door for Ducati to finally complete the deal with Jack Miller.
Miller implied the deal was done to the press after the race at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday afternoon. "I think everything should be cleared up in the next hours or days," the Australian said.
He also acknowledged the interest from outside of Ducati, but reaffirmed his commitment to wanting to succeed on a Desmosedici. "I had other options, other places, but my main goal was to stay here," Miller told us. "We have just started arriving on the podium, and I think we are going to get there more and more in the not so distant future, and I want to keep that going. I've been working my a*** off to get to this point, and I don't want to take a step back now."
Young gun or old hand?
With Jack Miller out of the picture, who does KTM turn to? The Austrian factory have very few options at the moment. Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder are signed to race with the Tech3 KTM team for 2020, and though promoting Oliveira to the factory team would appear to be the obvious option, it would merely shift the problem to a different place, rather than fixing it.
It is clear that Oliveira is destined for the factory KTM squad in the long term, the Portuguese rider continuing to improve and impress. On Sunday, Oliveira was the first KTM home, finishing in an impressive eight place, battling with Pramac Ducati's Pecco Bagnaia and ahead of the factory Ducati of Danilo Petrucci. Oliveira finished ahead of Zarco at Brno, and just 4 seconds behind Pol Espargaro.
If Oliveira were to be elevated to the factory team, that would leave the Tech3 KTM team looking for a replacement. In theory, they could keep current rider Hafizh Syahrin, but Syahrin has struggled with the KTM much as Johann Zarco has. There are few top Moto2 riders available, most of them already having been signed for 2020, with a view to the MotoGP contracts which will open up in 2021.
Finishing the job
Perhaps the quickest fix to the problem would be to bring back Bradley Smith to the factory KTM team, alongside Pol Espargaro. The British rider was originally signed at the start of KTM's MotoGP project, along with then Tech3 teammate Espargaro. Smith and Espargaro rode for the factory team in 2017 and 2018, before Smith lost his seat to Johann Zarco for the 2019 season.
With Zarco gone, Smith could slot back into the Red Bull KTM team. He knows the team, he knows the people involved in the project, and he already knows the bike. He also showed he was capable of riding the bike, showing similar pace to Pol Espargaro, though losing out in terms of results.
When I contacted Smith, he indicated he would welcome the opportunity. "It would be nice to finish what we started," he told me. His greatest frustration at losing the KTM ride was having developed the RC16 up to the point that it was showing signs of being a competitive bike, and not being able to see the process through to being able to compete with the Hondas, Yamahas, Ducatis, and Suzukis on equal footing.
All that will play out in the coming weeks. Right now, all we know is that Johann Zarco is to leave KTM, and KTM is yet to find a replacement. We had not expected to see much excitement in terms of contracts for the 2020 season. The reality has turned out to be very different indeed.
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