Since Johann Zarco's decision to leave KTM at the end of this season, one of the big questions has been who will replace the Frenchman at the factory team in 2020.

With most top riders already signed to rival manufacturers until the end of next year, the rumour mill quickly turned to the possibility of promoting impressive Tech3 rookie Miguel Oliveira.

The Portuguese looks the best competitive option on paper and already has a contract directly with KTM. But his departure would leave Tech3 worse off, with the French team set for an 'incredible' 2020 line-up of Oliveira and rookie Brad Binder.

"I am very excited and very proud because I think we have an incredible line-up for next year with Miguel Olivera and Brad Binder," Tech3 boss Herve Poncharal told Crash.net at Silverstone.

"Of course, I know Miguel quite well now, I've never worked with Brad Binder but I have huge respect for him. He's such a nice guy and, more importantly, an incredible rider.

"The race he did in Austria was a work of art. Because clearly his package was not the best and he managed to lead from turn one to the flag. He was constant for lap-after-lap and didn’t crack despite having probably the most pressure of anyone on the grid. He's a hero for me.

"Miguel and Brad were already team-mates in the past, they like and respect each other, but I think there will also be a strong competition because nobody wants to be behind his team-mate.

"I'm so happy about our 2020 line-up, but as soon as it was done… Bam! The Zarco announcement!"

Poncharal has been asked about Oliveira's future "1,000 times" since and it was naturally one of the first questions he had for KTM management.

"Miguel is improving, already the second-best KTM. But the mission is two years; year one to understand and learn, and year two to deliver," he said. "So you can imagine it was the first question I asked in Austria, where Miguel did a great race to finish eighth.

"Mr Pierer, Mr Trunkenpolz and Mr Beirer were all in my garage to cheer, celebrate and congratulate Miguel and the team.

"I told them, 'I need Miguel to stay here!' And they told me they had no plan to move him. Because everyone keeps asking, I've asked again in writing and got the same reply in writing, 'we have no plan to move Miguel out of your team'.

"That's all I can tell you. But… we are in August! Still many things can change!

"So, while I would love to keep my two riders, I am a KTM guy so if ever… We have to see and discuss. But I will try to keep my two guys."

Zarco joined KTM on the back of two brilliant seasons at Tech3 on their former satellite Yamaha machinery, where he took six podiums, four poles and (twice) came within a fraction of the first victory by a satellite M1 rider.

"Johann is an incredibly good and fast rider. He has made so many sacrifices in his life to reach MotoGP. And to finally get the status of a full factory MotoGP rider and then give it away. Why? I don’t know," Poncharal said.

"But Johann is somebody different to most of the guys here. He doesn't think 'career', he just wants to feel good and recently he didn't feel good. He's not thinking about losing money or if he can find another job.

"It's very risky, something you don’t see often, but you can only say 'chapeau' because you have some guys on the grid that are not having fun, not getting the results their employer was expecting but they stay because of the money."

Nonetheless, Poncharal admitted he was as surprised as anyone that the Zarco-KTM move hadn't worked.

"From the outside, it's a shame and now you have some people criticising [KTM], saying 'they shouldn't have taken Zarco'. But I personally supported that decision. Johann was riding well, strong mentally and physically. I thought he was the guy they needed.

"It's alchemy, you're never sure if it will happen until you mix everything together. It's like a couple, it works or it doesn't. And it didn’t work. It didn't click between him and the machine."

But what if, with the mental pressure now released following the decision to leave, Zarco suddenly bonds with the RC16 by the end of the season?

With KTM appearing in no rush to decide on a replacement and Zarco likewise having few obvious alternatives, some paddock rumours suggest the door might be kept open in case of a shock U-turn by the #5.

Speaking before Zarco collided with Oliveira in the Silverstone race, Poncharal replied:

"Maybe the fact that he is 'free' and doesn’t feel that a two-year deal is too heavy for him, means he will ride with less weight on his shoulders. Enjoy more. The bike will be improving, maybe giving him a better feeling.

"Maybe he could revise his judgement… I'm not so sure he's going to do that, or if KTM would be willing to do it.

"But we've seen some people get married, divorced, then married again! Nothing is impossible and I've seen some very strange things happen in my life. I would never say never!"

Poncharal also gave KTM credit for the way they had handled such an unusual situation.

"Mr Pierer was very smart, and what I like inside KTM is that these guys are very human. So when they saw Johann coming, almost crying, and asking 'let me go'. They said 'of course we will let you go, we are never going to ask you to ride if you don’t want to'.

"They also told him 'you will be fully paid until the end of 2019 whatever happens. You can stop whenever you want and we can put Mika Kallio on the bike. It's completely up to you if you want to finish the season, stop after another three races or whatever'.

"From what I understand Johann decided to continue until the end of the year. So you never know what can happen during that time."

While KTM still has three months until the start of 2020 testing at Valencia, Poncharal once found himself needing a new rider at much shorter notice.

Jonas Folger withdrew from the 2018 season just two months before the opening race, citing fatigue issues. Like Zarco, who has no plans to retire, Folger now also wants to make a comeback in 2020, following some test riding and Moto2 replacement rides.

Does Poncharal see any similarities between the Zarco and Folger situations?

"I would say it's different to Folger, because with Folger, even now nobody can explain exactly what was happening," Poncharal said.

"I would say Johann's position is closer to what Valentino experienced when he moved from Yamaha to Ducati, or maybe to what Lorenzo experienced going from Yamaha to Ducati and now Honda.

"I just think Johann is missing the feeling he was having on the M1 and he wants that back. Is it going to happen? I don’t know…"

 

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