Is Johann Zarco MotoGP’s Next Superstar?

Former 500cc Grand Prix winner Randy Mamola explains why the French Moto2 world champ is one to watch.

Randy Mamola talks about Johann Zarco
Johann Zarco is on the move. “We all know the Yamaha is more forgiving than the Honda or the Ducati,” said Randy Mamola. “But Zarco still has to pick up the ball and run with it.”Photo: Yamaha Tech 3

Johann Zarco made his MotoGP race debut this past March at the Losail International Circuit in Doha, Qatar. The 26-year-old Frenchman and two-time Moto2 world champion led six laps, opening a nearly two-second cushion on one of the most successful fields in the history of the sport and leaving most watching slack-jawed with disbelief.

Then, he crashed, slipping off his Monster Yamaha Tech 3 M1 and handing the race lead to Andrea Dovizioso and eventual winner Maverick Vinales. Four rounds later, Zarco has fifth-place finishes in Argentina and Texas, as well as a fourth—his best finish to date—two weeks ago in Spain. He is currently sixth overall in premier-class points. Not bad for a rookie.

RELATED

"I'm not overly surprised," said four-time 500cc championship runner-up Randy Mamola on Friday at Le Mans. "When you look at his history in Moto2, where he turned that around to become dominant, and then we got used to his celebratory backflips. Coming into MotoGP, he hasn't been on the podium yet, but this kid is focused and exciting to watch."

Mamola recalled standing along pit wall with Yamaha Tech 3 Team Manager Herve Poncharal when Zarco was leading at Qatar. “Poncharal was saying, ‘Slow down, slow down, slow down.’ I said, ‘Dude, this guy has it.’ When Zarco was running away with the race, he wasn’t riding out of his skin. He wasn’t making mistakes.

“Obviously, Zarco is still on a massive learning curve. For example, he is getting tired in the races, death-gripping everything. He has to learn how to relax and save that energy.” As for Zarco’s crash in Qatar, Mamola noted, “Two Repsol Honda riders fell off in Turn 2 in Argentina, and they have years of experience.”

Zarco has the benefit of proven machinery. "When the Honda is right, it works very well—kind of like the Ducati," Mamola said. "But the Yamaha is very neutral and fits a broader range of riding styles. That's another exciting element: There are people who have been out there for years and haven't been able to do what he is doing on a satellite bike."

Zarco's aggression (at Jerez, he sliced his way from sixth to second in four laps, passing everyone on the first two rows of the grid except race winner Dani Pedrosa) has angered Valentino Rossi ("This isn't Moto2.") and earned the support of Marquez, who recalled his own often-challenged transition from Moto2 to MotoGP.

"At Jerez, Zarco went through the others like a hot knife through butter," Mamola said. "They were all on the same or better bikes. I could understand if someone is upset with him if he bashed their fairings, but you never see him running off the racetrack. We're not seeing him crashing everywhere.

Zarco at Le Mans
“Zarco is frickin’ bitchin’ to watch,” said Mamola. “He’s got a great character. He’s a bit shy, but when you get to know him, he’s funny. Those are the things that Dorna needs to try to exploit.”Photo: Yamaha Tech 3

“Rookies ride what they feel. If they feel good, they are going to go for it. When there are racers who have been around for years, some more than a decade or two, there are boundaries. One is looking for the championship and the other is just looking for day-to-day business. At the moment, Zarco is day-to-day business.”

Zarco is under the microscope this weekend at Le Mans, his home GP. “It’s a special weekend after a great season debut,” Zarco said on Thursday at the pre-event press conference. “All the fans are pushing to say, ‘Zarco podium, Zarco podium.’ I want that, too, but I need time to control everything.”

In Friday’s wet-but-drying opening practice, Zarco made the risky decision to switch early from rain tires to soft-compound slicks and posted what turned out to be the third-quickest time of the day, a 1:39.248. Only Australian Jack Miller and defending series champion Marquez, both aboard factory Hondas, were quicker.

“When you get to this level, you race for yourself,” Mamola said. “Racers are selfish people. No matter how much you or your family or somebody else around you really wants something to happen, it is just another race. You’ve got to like the track and the other elements that come with it.

“I was on the podium my first time at Le Mans in 1979 with Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts. Barry was first, I was second, and Kenny was third. At this famous racetrack, the crowd is very much involved. You can feel the atmosphere. When it happens for Zarco, it’s going to come easily, and he’s going to say, ‘Why did it take so long to get here?’”