Johann Zarco is set to replace Takaaki Nakagami for the final three races of 2019, and race the 2018-spec Honda RC213V for the Idemitsu LCR Honda team. The news was first broken by Oriol Puigdemont of Motorsport.com, and though nobody contacted by MotoMatters.com would comment on the news, it was later confirmed by Zarco to Thomas Baujard of the French publication Moto Journal.
The reason for the switch, according to Motorsport.com, is that Nakagami has been struggling with shoulder problems similar to those suffered by Marc Márquez, whose shoulder kept dislocating. Nakagami is considering the same surgery as Márquez to rectify the problem, and based on the length of time Márquez took to recover from surgery, is looking at having surgery in October, rather than December, in the hope of getting a head start on rehabilitating the shoulder. As a result, Nakagami would ride only his home Grand Prix at Motegi in Japan, before having surgery done.
This would leave Lucio Cecchinello's LCR Honda team in need of a replacement rider. With Johann Zarco currently out of a job, after being released by KTM after Misano, Zarco would be the ideal replacement for the Japanese rider.
Hurdles to be taken
There are a couple of complications still to be cleared: first, KTM would have to formally grant permission for Zarco to ride the LCR Honda. That should not be an issue. At Aragon, KTM Sporting Director Pit Beirer told reporters, "He's under contract with us, we're going to pay him until the end of the season, but if he comes tomorrow and he wants to test any motorcycle or race any motorcycle, he can even race against us this Sunday, because I want the best for him. And if there is the smallest chance, he has to jump on it with my full support, and we will fix all the paperwork needed to get the release."
The bigger problem for Zarco is that he faces a choice. He currently has an offer on the table from Yamaha to work as a test rider for the MotoGP team in 2020. However, if he signs to race for LCR Honda, Yamaha may choose to seek elsewhere for a test rider. That would mean Zarco going all in on finding a race ride for 2020, rather than a testing role.
There may yet be a seat for Zarco in MotoGP in 2020. The marriage between Repsol Honda and Jorge Lorenzo has been deeply unhappy, Lorenzo struggling with injury from the start of the season, then fracturing two vertebrae in a crash at Assen and missing three races as a result.
Since returning from that injury, he has been struggling even to score points, finishing 56 seconds behind the winner at Silverstone, 47 seconds behind at Misano, 46 seconds behind at Aragon, and 54 seconds back in Buriram. In those four races, he has amassed a total of 4 points, compared to the 95 points scored by his teammate Marc Márquez in the same races.
There have been other incidents as well. There was an ill-disguised flirtation with Ducati over the summer break, and a strong belief that Lorenzo has lost any motivation to try to get on with the 2019 Honda. The relationship between Lorenzo and HRC, especially team boss Alberto Puig, has been frosty.
Johann Zarco could be the key that breaks that deadlock. Honda get an unheard of opportunity to give a rider with MotoGP podiums a test ride on their bike before choosing to sign them for the factory squad. Zarco will be working with HRC engineers in the LCR Honda squad, and they will be able to give their feedback on how he works, while Honda will also get a look at his ability to ride the bike.
Frying pan to fire?
There are two question marks over that, of course. Firstly, the Honda is a very physical bike to ride, which needs to be pushed to get the best out of it. The character of the RC213V is very similar to the KTM RC16, which Zarco struggled to master, and developed a deep and abiding dislike of. Team bosses and engineers have compared Zarco's style with Jorge Lorenzo's, which suggests that Zarco might struggle with the bike much as Lorenzo has.
The saving grace for Zarco is that he would be riding the 2018 Honda RC213V. That bike is a more rider-friendly machine, giving the rider the feedback, feel, and confidence from the front end which the 2019 Honda lacks. Zarco relies on the front to carry corner speed and turn the bike, so the 2018 machine could suit his style. The fact that Jorge Lorenzo was competitive when he first tried the 2018 machine – finishing within a few tenths of his teammate in the tests at Valencia and Jerez in November last year – suggests that Zarco should find it easier to ride.
And Zarco might be able to avoid the foibles of the 2019 Honda RC213V altogether, if Repsol Honda decide to replace Jorge Lorenzo with the Frenchman. He will be riding the 2018 bike at Phillip Island, Sepang, and Valencia, and then jump on a 2020 prototype at the Valencia and Jerez tests. HRC Technical Manager Takeo Yokoyama told Crash.net's Peter McLaren and Neil Morrison that Honda's main priority was making the 2020 bike easier to ride. Whether Repsol Honda stick with Jorge Lorenzo or replace him with Johann Zarco, it will be imperative they succeed in that endeavor.
Zarco taking Takaaki Nakagami's place for the remainder of 2019 would not affect the 2020 season. Though Nakagami is yet to sign a contract for next season, he has repeatedly told reporters that he is very close to a deal, with just a few details to iron out.
The second seat in LCR Honda will be held for Nakagami, as it is funded by Japanese oil brand Idemitsu, and subsidized by Honda. Both of those companies want a Japanese rider in the premier class, and while there is some real talent on its way through from Moto3 and the Asia Talent Cup, it will be a few years before they are ready to tackle MotoGP.
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