From KTM to Avintia - Johann Zarco's MotoGP redemption
Johann Zarco's MotoGP season has been a turbulent affair after his KTM dream shattered before a shock return with Avintia for 2020 was secured
Zarco came into MotoGP in 2017 as reigning double Moto2 world champion and impressed on his debut on the Tech3 Yamaha in Qatar when he led for the first six laps before crashing.
Three podiums and sixth in the championship in his rookie season put Zarco on the radar of the likes of Honda and Suzuki before he agreed to join the fledgeling KTM project for 2019. But that dream turned into a nightmare.
Struggles in adapting to the RC16 led him to quit a year early before KTM dropped him outright after Misano.
A three-race stint with LCR looked to have placed him in prime position to take the vacant works Honda ride, before a shock link to Avintia Ducati emerged in November and a deal signed the following month.
This is the timeline of Zarco's fall from grace and his Ducati redemption across a dramatic 2019.
May 3 2018 - KTM announces Zarco's two-year deal
"If you put Marc on the KTM, where would the KTM be?"
Zarco is billed as the rider who can accelerate development of KTM's RC16 to make it a genuine frontrunner as he is revealed as its star 2019 signing.
"I'm convinced we can reach the next level with a rider like Johann with us," KTM boss Pit Beirer says.
"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."
Zarco suggests KTM would already be a frontrunner if it had Marc Marquez, so he just has to match Marquez's level of riding...
"If you are next to Marc and if you want to win races, you have to be strong like him, maybe stronger," explains Zarco.
"So, this means I must improve a lot my riding style, and then we were thinking if you have this level of riding it means you can be fast with the KTM.
"We believe in that, and that's why we take this challenge because we were thinking if you put Marc on the KTM, where could the KTM be?"
November 20 2018 - Zarco's KTM test debut
"I've been a bit slow"
Zarco is 2.5 seconds off the pace as he tries the KTM for the first time in the Valencia post-season test.
"It's a small track where you must feel comfortable to go fast into the corner, that was maybe the weak point today of the bike," he says.
"It was not possible to play with the speed in the entry of the corner, so then you lose the time - if you come in too slow, you cannot be fast. I think it was good to understand it already now.
"We don't have any problem about tyres, rear grip, rear spinning, I cannot complain about those things because we are still not fast enough.
"We need to make things clear and then, when we will be quite fast, we will have the potential to work well.
"I would say the entry of the corner has been the most difficult part for me today, that's why I've been a bit slow."
November 20 2018 - Zarco tipped to replicate Dovizioso's Ducati success
"I believe Johann can do inside KTM what Andrea did with Ducati"
Herve Poncharal, whose Tech3 team had run Zarco for his ultra-promising first two MotoGP seasons, marks his former rider's departure by predicting he will thrive at KTM just as championship runner-up Andrea Dovizioso has at Ducati.
"There are a lot of common points between Zarco and Dovizioso," says Poncharal.
"They don't behave like superstars, prima donnas, they are very close to their guys.
"They are good to make a group behind you, supporting you, to motivate them and I believe Johann can do that inside KTM, a bit like what Andrea did with Ducati."
Zarco remained over two seconds off the pace at the following Jerez test.
March 9 2019 - First signs of KTM frustration
"I don't want to lie, we expected an easier swap"
As Zarco's struggles roll on into pre-season testing, Beirer offers an unfavourable comparison to incumbent rider Pol Espargaro's progress.
"We are a little bit surprised because you can see how Pol is getting better and better and adapting to the bike," says Beirer.
"I don't want to lie, we expected an easier swap for Johann to come over on our bike and do good, but he struggles more.
"[It] looks like that's proven that you need to ride a KTM differently than some of the other bikes and Johann still needs to adapt to our bike.
"At the moment he is riding at a decent speed but we are not there yet."
March/April 2019 - Season begins badly
"I hate starting from 19th position"
After struggling to 15th-place finishes in Qatar and Argentina, Zarco admits in America that KTM is not able yet to give him what he needs to adapt to the bike.
"I hate starting from 19th position, I hate [having] to fight on the bike and go slow," he says after Austin qualifying.
"It's pretty complicated to understand how to make this thing better.
"Today was another step back, because every time we feel almost good it means we are at the limit. I need to accept this.
"My team knows [what I need], but they told me to wait, because they cannot give me the solution right now.
"I tried to adapt, but I cannot change everything. [It's a] difficult time to go through."
May 2 2019 - Private test raises hope
"That gives me good motivation and better confidence"
Ahead of the Spanish GP, a private test at Le Mans puts Zarco in a calmer state as he is able to work on the bike without the pressure of a race weekend.
"It was great to be back on the bike but without the stress of the FP1, FP2, it helped me to make good work," Zarco says.
"Even if we started far [away] we finished in the correct base, and that gives me good motivation and better confidence.
"[I'm] happy for that, because I understood that that stress that we put on ourselves, it's the situation of just two sessions during Friday, when we are not ready, it's difficult to be ready, and [when] we don't start on a high level, it's so complicated to reach this level."
May 8 2019 - KTM hits out
"Johann's performance is simply unacceptable"
That calmness is shortlived. After a difficult practice at Jerez, an outburst over the bike by Zarco is caught on camera. KTM CEO Stefan Pierer strikes back.
"Johann's performance is simply unacceptable," Pierer tells Autosport.
"He's having issues, but it's a psychological thing of his own. Recently he split with his lifelong agent [Laurent Fellon], the man who placed him where he currently is.
"The people surrounding him now are creating more complications than anything else. At this level of competition, the last step is always psychological.
"Besides, he has to accept that our bike isn't a Yamaha, with its inline four cylinders [as opposed to KTM's V4 engine configuration].
"I myself will push him until he delivers at the level appropriate to our goals, that is for sure."
May 16 2019 - Chastened at home
"I kind of lost some control in that moment"
Ahead of his home race at Le Mans, where he starts 14th and finishes 13th a year after taking a famous pole, Zarco says he "accepts" Pierer's criticism.
"I understood why he said all of that," Zarco concedes. "I was a bit on fire on Friday after the crash [in Jerez practice] and I did not say nice things about the bike that I must develop and I must accept the performance [of] at the moment.
"I kind of lost some control in that moment. When the media came to him and tried to ask him about that because this is his money that we put in the project, he could only answer in that way.
"You also know how Stefan is, he has a strong character. You ask him, he answers you. It is maybe, I cannot say a good game, but it is part of the challenge."
June 2019 - Can Pedrosa help?
"When Dani was saying the same it was great"
KTM has signed newly-retired, 31-time MotoGP race winner Dani Pedrosa as its test rider, and following a three-month injury layoff he begins his duties with the team.
Zarco makes clear how eager he is to hear Pedrosa's full feedback on the RC16, having got an early impression that they might be on the same page.
He later suggests that's the case and that KTM is paying attention.
"It helps me that these comments now are taken in consideration much more than before," Zarco says in the lead-up to the Dutch TT.
"Because the doubt before was if I say something, then we are thinking that I want to make a Yamaha bike.
"But I just want to make a good bike. And when Dani was saying the same [as me], it was great because he never rode the Yamaha, so it means that my comments were on the target to make a better bike but not make a Yamaha bike."
Despite Pedrosa's positive impact on Zarco's outlook, on-track performance remains poor.
August 1 2019 - Trying to accept his situation
"The focus is to better control all the emotions"
As MotoGP resumes at Brno after its summer break, Zarco says he needs to take a different mental approach to his situation.
"The focus for the second half of the year is to better control all the emotions that I would go through in the first part of the season," he says.
"[I've] been sad too many times because I was not getting what I wanted [from the bike].
"And the summer break allowed me to better accept my situation, and then just accepting that can help me to work better and accept changes [to the bike] may not immediately bring me progress.
"But at the moment if I do not change anything I will not make progress."
August 3 2019 - A moment of hope
"It just makes the man feel like he still has the ability"
Zarco profits from wet conditions in Brno qualifying to come through Q1 and secure a surprise third on the grid.
"It's an extremely difficult time and that's the kind of result that makes your heart feel better," he enthuses.
"I don't know if that means we can do it [consistently], but at least it just makes the man feel like he still has the ability."
Zarco can only muster 14th in a dry Brno race, and is 11th at the team's home race in Austria a week later while Tech3's rookie Miguel Oliveira manages eighth.
That weekend, Zarco requests a meeting with KTM bosses.
August 12 2019 - End of year exit announced
"There he sat in front of us, really tense and with tears in his eyes"
In a shock announcement just after the Austrian GP, KTM reveals Zarco will leave the team at the end of the season with a year still to run on his contract.
"It was a hard decision to take, I have the chance to do the best work in the world and I want to do it with a smile, racing for podiums," Zarco says in a team statement.
"As a professional, I'll keep focused for the rest of the 2019 season, giving my best and trying to improve my skills."
Speaking to Austrian TV in the immediate aftermath of the announcement, Beirer says: "Johann came to me and [team manager] Mike Leitner on Saturday evening, he wanted an appointment with us.
"We were a bit surprised, because the time was a bit unusual for a short briefing.
"And there he sat in front of us, really tense and with tears in his eyes, saying that at the moment he can't handle it anymore and he wants to get out of the contract.
"There wasn't much room to discuss anything. His decision was so firm and so clear and actually sad."
August 23 2019 - Zarco opens up
"If I continued and cannot have a better result, I failed in my career"
On his return to the paddock ahead of the British GP tells the media that leaving KTM - despite the lack of 2020 options now open to him - was essential for his career.
"The feeling was if I continued also for next year and I cannot have a better result, I not only failed in the project but failed also in my career," he says.
"That was my biggest scare, that is why I prefer to give myself the opportunity to do something else for next year than wait one more year.
"I say to KTM, being honest, if I accept to finish 15th [every race], just to do the job, it means I will ride only for your money. I don't want to do that. Maybe later, in 10 years, but not right now."
September 17 2019 - An accelerated exit
"We now have to think of the future and are making this step accordingly"
Despite Zarco sailing into Q2 with KTM for the first time in the dry and securing 11th at Misano amid what seemed to be a more positive outlook, it is announced two days after the race that he is being dropped with immediate effect in favour of test rider Mika Kallio.
Zarco remains under contract in what KTM describes as a mutual decision.
"We have to make decisions to ensure that we use our resources in the best possible way and we are currently in a positive direction with our MotoGP structure," says Beirer.
We want to express gratitude to Johann for his effort since he joined our ambitious project in November last year. We now have to think of the future and are making this step accordingly.
KTM will continue supporting him until the expiry of our contract at the end of the 2019 and we truly wish him all the best for his future."
October 16 - A lifeline is thrown
"I'm really thankful to have this chance, and I will do my best to pick up some good results and to enjoy the time, because these could be the last three races I can do for a while"
Just over a month had passed since Zarco's sudden dismissal from KTM following the Misano race - something he said "ripped out my heart" - when Autosport reported that he would make a shock return to the MotoGP grid for the final three rounds of 2019 with LCR Honda.
Takaaki Nakagami would sit out the Australian, Malaysian and Valencia Grands Prix in order to recover from surgery on a recurring shoulder issue, with Zarco taking over the year-old RC213V.
Though Honda, Zarco and LCR stated to the contrary, it was widely thought that this had come about as a way for HRC to evaluate Zarco, the man it had initially wanted for 2019 before opting for Jorge Lorenzo.
The uncertainty over Lorenzo's future - since retiring from MotoGP - had further boosted that theory.
October 27 - Zarco finishes first Honda race 13th
"I had to relearn all of that, [at] 300km/h (186.4mph), fighting with the guys and keeping the pace, doing 27 laps and having the confidence into the corners everywhere"
In a weekend hit by mixed weather, Zarco started the Phillip Island weekend "like a rookie" as he got to grips with the Honda and got back into the groove of riding.
Qualifying 14th and then trailing ex-KTM team-mate Pol Espargaro home in 11th, Zarco expressed disappointment but was able to enjoy the end result given where he had been during the rest of the 2019 season.
"My first race on the Honda and it's with Pol I'm fighting," Zarco said. "But we were smiling at the end of the race, because maybe he felt I had the possibility to go faster, but he said 'no, you stay behind for at least one race'.
"[It's a] huge track, so fast. Marc [Marquez] said on Thursday you need confidence [to go fast here]. If you don't have confidence, you're almost better off not trying.
"I had to relearn all of that, [at] 300km/h (186.4mph), fighting with the guys and keeping the pace, doing 27 laps and having the confidence into the corners everywhere.
"So, good work. It's normal to be unhappy [with a weekend], but thinking from where I came from, I can enjoy this result."
November 14 - Lorenzo announces retirement, Zarco's hopes
"I'm just thinking about this, it's giving me the smile, because since August I don't know what I can do for next year; I still don't know now, but now on paper there is a possibility [to join Honda]"
Jorge Lorenzo announces on the Thursday of the Valencia Grand Prix that he would be retiring at the conclusion of Sunday's race.
Zarco quickly became a point of focus in the paddock as it appeared his time at LCR had put him in the hot seat to take Lorenzo's place at the works Honda squad for the 2020 season.
"For sure the Repsol Honda team is the best one, it's the factory team, and just from that it would be like an exceptional dream to catch in this complicated season," Zarco said of the possibility to join Honda.
However, others in the paddock were not convinced, with Aprilia's Aleix Espargaro launching a stinging post-race attack on Zarco, claiming he "doesn't deserve" a factory Honda seat after the season he had at KTM.
November 15 - Alex Marquez becomes Honda favourite
"Zarco and Alex [Marquez] are on the list, but there are others" - Honda boss, Alberto Puig
A day after Lorenzo's retirement announcement, Honda boss Puig confirms to the world's media assembled the Valencia paddock that Zarco is under consideration, but Moto2 champion Alex Marquez is also on the list.
It becomes clear quickly that the pendulum is swinging in favour of the younger Marquez brother, whose deal with Honda is announced on the Monday after the race.
Zarco's chances of racing in MotoGP in 2020 are not lost, however, as a surprising rumour linking to a Ducati customer squad Avintia in place of Karel Abraham emerges.
November 16 - Zarco shuns Avintia as "not a top team"
"I want a good bike, with a good team and to then work on myself because I believe in what I can do"
Zarco's options for 2020 appear to be Avintia in MotoGP or a return to Moto2 with Marc VDS, which will soon be vacated by Honda-bound Alex Marquez.
When asked by Autosport is Avintia was one of the options he was considering for next year, Zarco branded the squad as "not a top team" and said he would rather return to Moto2 than join Avintia.
He added Avintia would be a "mistake" as he would be repeating his move to KTM.
"I want a good team with a good bike, and for me Avintia is not a top team," Zarco said.
"It would be a mistake to go there, it would be better to go back to Moto2. If Marquez moves up, that means there is a spot with VDS.
"You need a balanced team that gives you the possibility to perform every weekend, and Avintia doesn't.
"I'm not criticising anyone, but I don't want to make the same mistake as when I signed with KTM."
November 18 - Ducati launches fresh bid to secure Zarco
Zarco's links to Ducati failed to die despite his scathing comments against Avintia during the Valencia weekend suggesting otherwise.
Rumours soon sprung up that, so keen were Ducati to secure Zarco's signature, that it could place him in the Pramac squad and promote Jack Miller to the works team - thus ousting Mugello race winner Danilo Petrucci.
Autosport understands this ultimately never came to pass as the money French GP promoter Claude Michy - fighting Zarco's corner - was willing to lay down proved not enough to soften the financial blow Ducati would take by cutting short Petrucci's existing contract.
However, Ducati renewed its efforts to persuade Zarco to join Avintia by promising him proper support from the Italian marque.
A meeting was held on Monday in Valencia between Zarco and Ducati and Avintia management, thought the outcome was unclear.
Later that day Ducati announces it has signed a new deal with Avintia which sees it become an official Ducati satellite team for 2020 through "significant improvements" in technical support.
This was a clear, public sign from Ducati to Zarco that Avintia would not be the team he perceived it to be.
November 24 - Abraham exit paves way for Zarco
"At the time I had no idea I was going to enjoy my last laps on the 'beast'"
Abraham tests for Avintia in Valencia and is set to do so at Jerez, with the Czech rider adamant he has a valid contract for 2020.
However, on the eve of the Jerez test, Abraham announced at a public event in the Czech Republic that he had lost his ride with Avintia and would be retiring from racing as a result.
The news was later confirmed on his social media platforms. Rumours after Valencia suggested Zarco could take over the Avintia Ducati of Abraham at Jerez, though the team's MotoE runner Eric Granado got an opportunity to ride the GP18 instead.
December 6 - Ducati's lips remains sealed, but Zarco says...
"It's a fact that [Ducati General Manager] Luigi Dall'Igna told me that I could trust him in deciding to sign for Avintia next year"
In an interview with French publication Moto Journal at the start of December, Zarco reveals he had signed a deal to join Avintia and Ducati for 2020 - though an official announcement was still to be made.
Zarco claims he was persuaded by a former mechanic of his, Massimo Branchini, to trust Ducati boss Dall'Igna that he would have the necessary support at Avintia.
Further rumours from French press suggest Zarco's deal is directly with Ducati, something a suggested when he told Moto Journal: "I do not consider that I've signed with Avintia, but with Ducati."
Zarco makes his goals for 2020 plain.
"My goal for 2020 is to not finish beyond 10th spot, see the top seven and integrate into the official [Ducati] team in 2021."
December 9 - Ducati officially confirms Zarco's Avintia ride
"I am very pleased to officially announce my signature with Ducati for the 2020 season in the MotoGP category with Reale Avintia Racing Team"
By now an open secret and all but confirmed, Ducati and Avintia finally made Zarco's signing for the 2020 season official.
As expected, he will ride a year-old GP19 - the bike Andrea Dovizioso and Danilo Petrucci took to three wins in 2019 - and will have support from Ducati, with Tito Rabat his team-mate.
Zarco could prove to be a useful asset for Ducati, as he carries with him knowledge of the Honda, Yamaha and KTM bikes.
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Johann Zarco's 2020 move to Avintia MotoGP finally announced
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