Johann Zarco will be a MotoGP rider for Monster Yamaha Tech 3 next season, with an official announcement expected this (Thursday) afternoon at the Sachsenring, Crash.net
UPDATE: Official announcement has been made .
The reigning Moto2 champion will join Jonas Folger in an all-rookie Tech 3 line-up next season, with current riders Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro having signed for the new factory KTM squad.
Zarco has agreed a one-year Tech 3 contract, with an option for 2018.
The 25-year old will slot into Smith's side of the garage, and forge a working relationship with crew chief Guy Coulon.
The move does not come as a great surprise after Poncharal spoke openly about his options to partner Folger in early June. Zarco was in the running for the seat at that stage, he said, with Alex Rins also a target.
The latter's move to Suzuki was announced at Assen, leaving Zarco the only realistic Tech 3 candidate, yet a level of uncertainty existed due to an option with Suzuki.
From the first round Zarco's move to the premier-class next season rarely looked in doubt, as news emerged in Qatar that some form of agreement was in place with the Japanese factory.
“We are thinking maybe to give him the opportunity to test our MotoGP and then see what happens,” Suzuki team boss Davide Brivio said in Qatar.
Months later in France, Zarco revealed plans to not only test Suzuki's GSX-RR in Japan, but to represent the same brand in the Suzuka 8-Hour race in July.
“With Zarco, we say he have an option which we can use him next year,” explained Brivio at Mugello. “We can have him as a rider next year. We're going to test next month in Japan. We will test the MotoGP with him so…nothing is decided...”
Was the test to verify Zarco's worthiness for a factory Suzuki seat or was he being considered for a slot on a new third bike that didn't materialise?
It looks to have been the latter since the younger Rins (20) - whom Zarco is currently tied on points with at the head of the Moto2 standings - was chosen for the Suzuki factory seat alongside Andrea Iannone, who replaces the outgoing and extremely nonplussed Aleix Espargaro.
Upon hearing of Maverick Viñales' intentions to leave for Movistar Yamaha, it is believed Brivio pushed to maintain the dynamic that exists in the current team: one rider with proven top-six ability and experience to lead development (Iannone) plus a rawer talent with considerable potential (Rins) on a long-term deal.
What's more, Suzuki is unable to provide machines for more than two riders in 2017. But by all accounts, the factory is serious about increasing the scale of its MotoGP operation the following year.
“We are not ready,” was Brivio's frank admittance when speaking in Mugello. “To have more bikes on the grid is something that Suzuki wants to do. We would like to have more bikes. We've been discussing in Japan about this, but it looks like [it'll be] difficult to start this project in 2017.”
With the door closing for Zarco at Suzuki, the chance to ride a satellite Yamaha in a French squad was far from a poor alternative. Pol Espargaro's performances in 2016 and Smith's the year before show this package to have regular top-six potential – if not, on occasion, more.
The deal meant cancelling Zarco's further commitments with Suzuki. “The plan was to do the 8-Hour but we found an agreement to not do it,” he told Crash.net
at the Dutch TT. “Finally it looks like there is no Suzuki place in MotoGP so it's better to maybe not race in the Suzuki in the 8-Hours.”
Speaking to Thomas Baujard of Moto Journal/GP+
in the Netherlands, Brivio said, “Johann was an option for 2017, but [there was], in no case, a contract. It was clear to him from the start.
“This option could not be completed because there was no place in the team. However, as a testing agreement exists, Suzuki was keen to invite Johann to Japan, for two hours on the Suzuki Ryuyo test track then two days at Motegi. Johann made good lap times, improving every exit, giving accurate feedback to the team.
“We also got to know him for a few days, and I can say that he's a good person,” added the Italian, indicating a door remains open seasons down the line. “Perhaps in the future if the opportunity arises, he will ride for Suzuki.”
On one side the recruitment of that same person represents somewhat of a risk to Poncharal and Tech 3, as neither of his new line-up has premier class experience.
The Frenchman spoke of his disappointment at the younger Espargaro's departure earlier in the year, and how riders now feel a factory ride is the only route to glory. "I am not a very happy man," he said. "Although we have machinery very close to the factory teams, it looks like if you're a young, fast rider there is nothing but a factory ride."
Admittedly Zarco is slightly older that his Moto2 contemporaries, and his progression through the smaller classes has not been as rapid as any of the current premier class elite.
But his somewhat unconventional path to a world championship (he didn't race in 2008 for instance, having just won the Red Bull Rookies Cup) has enabled the development of a fearsome skill set. Unassumingly steely, Zarco has repeatedly proven himself adept in working his way into and maintaining a ferocious consistency when grip is diminishing, and fuel loads lightening.
His recent wins at Mugello and Montmeló serve as timely reminders that he is, at the very least, worthy of his chance at the highest level. Quizzed by Crash.net
at Assen on the deal with Tech 3 that will take him out of Moto2 after five years in the class, Zarco was coy, giving little away. “My manager [Laurent Fellon] is working on it. I trust him and I keep a free mind."
That deal has now been completed and Zarco will step up to the premier class to emulate – and exceed – the achievements of countrymen and former Tech 3 men Olivier Jacque and Sylvain Guintoli. With current Moto2 scratchers Rins, Folger, and Sam Lowes also making the same jump, Zarco's current championship bid will be a small indicator of the challenges that lie ahead.
By Neil Morrison