Johann Zarco strengthened his case for a future MotoGP return with an impressive second weekend at LCR Honda.

14th on the grid and 13th at the flag on his debut for the team in place of the injured Takaaki Nakagami at Phillip Island, the Frenchman took further strides forward at Sepang.

Tenth after Free Practice 3 put the former factory KTM rider straight through to Qualifying 2, where he snared ninth on the grid.

Zarco seemed to be setting a lofty goal when he spoke of a top seven target on the eve of the Malaysian weekend, explaining it's the kind of result needed to show "I can be with the top guys".

But it would prove realistic and on Sunday evening he declared: "A huge step done. I'm back on the reality of top riding, and I like this."

While Zarco spent much of the race in ninth, he was directly behind countryman and pole starter Fabio Quartararo and felt he might have had "the capacity" to join the Petronas Yamaha rider in hunting down Franco Morbidelli for sixth.

But while Quartararo was able to pass Jack Miller and then close in on his team-mate, Zarco struggled to clear the Pramac Ducati and a subsequent tangle with Joan Mir ended his race four laps early.

"The race was good, and I was also - not controlling the pace, because we are all at the limit, also with the heat we feel physically that it's not easy - but I was with the good pace and I was happy about this," said Zarco, who was the second-best Honda after Marc Marquez until his late exit.

Zarco admitted that the prospect of being able to fight with rookie star and six-time podium finisher Quartararo was a tempting prize.

"I saw Fabio ahead, and this was a good motivation between French riders, to be close to him. And I wanted to fight with him, why not?" smiled Zarco, who took podiums and poles during his own debut season on a satellite Yamaha, at Tech3 in 2017.

"But I lost a little bit of time behind Jack, while when Fabio overtook him, he went away immediately and almost caught Morbidelli.

"Maybe I had this capacity, but again, I had to overtake Jack. I did it a few times but then he would go inside again, he was strong on braking. We were losing time and three laps to the end, the guys behind had closed in on us.

"I tried to overtake Jack again, to pass him and go away, so  I can save this eighth position, that would be very correct. But Joan came even more inside and a bit too fast and he totally came across in front of the handlebar. He touched me quite strongly, and I could not do anything."

The Suzuki rookie received a Long Lap penalty for the clash.

Zarco shrugged off the Mir incident and was more interested in having halved the gap to the top, around a much longer circuit than Phillip Island.

"Not a big drama, I'm not playing for anything in the championship, and for me the most important thing is that with a good work, I am catching back the real pace from the top guys, and this is the main thing for me.

"In Australia, I finished 26 seconds away from the top, which means 1 second a lap on a small track. For me this was a lot, but I had to learn things.

"Here if I could finish the race I was around 15 seconds from the top, so it means almost half the gap and on a bigger track.

"So a huge step done. I'm back on the reality of top riding, and I like this."

Zarco, who still has no confirmed plans for 2020, now has one more LCR appearance to make in the Valencia season finale.

"Now I just need everything to become more automatic on the bike. I'm still riding thinking about what I have to do, and when all these things come naturally in the body - boom! - I will have another step done, because it means I will be able to focus on other things.

"I could be even more precise, because it takes a lot of energy to 'split' everything while you are riding. It's still been going well, but I must do this automatically, like Marc is doing, and then I will make another step.

"We will work to go straight into Q2 again at Valencia and if I can repeat this race, with a top seven, I think that will be good."

Nakagami has taken a best finish of fifth on the 2018-spec Honda this season. 

Cal Crutchlow, riding LCR's 2019 machine, fell from eleventh place.

"Cal was very fast in qualifying. I did not have the target to be in front of him, but all the riders that I can be in front of, it's better for me," Zarco said.

Marquez's struggling team-mate Jorge Lorenzo finished 22s behind Zarco, in 14th place. Honda and Lorenzo insist they have no plans to seek an early end to their agreement, but Zarco's form is sure to have been noted.

HRC team manager Alberto Puig was seen in the LCR garage keeping a close eye on Zarco during the Sepang weekend, while Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta was among those to congratulate the #5 on his performance after the Sepang race.