Zarco on top of the world, still 'growing' on the Ducati

Pramac Ducati's Johann Zarco leads the 2021 MotoGP world championship after a pair of runner-up finishes in the opening Qatar rounds.
Johann Zarco , MotoGP race, Doha MotoGP, 4 April 2021
Johann Zarco , MotoGP race, Doha MotoGP, 4 April 2021
© Gold and Goose Photography

Johann Zarco returns to Europe with a pair of close second places in the Qatar MotoGP season openers, putting him on top of the world championship standings.

The new Pramac rider finished 1.092s behind Maverick Vinales in the first Losail race, then 1.457s from the other factory Yamaha of Fabio Quartararo on Sunday.

Zarco was thus the top Ducati rider in both grand prix, but only just.

The Frenchman edged out Francesco Bagnaia as they both blasted past Joan Mir's Suzuki in round one, then overtook rookie team-mate Jorge Martin at the penultimate corner of round two.

"I did not expect to be leading the championship when I came here 35 days ago to start testing and learn the Ducati," Zarco said.

"I still have things to control better, to feel more comfortable and have more options during the race. So if I can still grow up in that way and use the full potential of the Ducati, then I can enjoy myself also at other tracks."

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The world championship lead marks a stunning turnaround for a rider whose presence in MotoGP was left in serious doubt when he split from the factory KTM team in mid-2019.

"What happened two years ago is part of life," Zarco said. "I took some decisions and I’m pretty happy now that I’m back with the top guys.

"The first two races were a lot of fun and it was such a nice feeling. So it’s not the time to think of redemption or something like that. Just live your time and right now is this moment with Pramac and Ducati.

"What I decided two years ago, it’s done. So, happy. I cannot say I took the right decision or not. I took a decision then I did my way and thanks to Ducati I’m here."

Jorge Martin , MotoGP race, Doha MotoGP, 4 April 2021
Jorge Martin , MotoGP race, Doha MotoGP, 4 April 2021
© Gold and Goose Photography

Zarco began Sunday's race from the middle of the front row, alongside surprise pole sitter Martin.

Ducati's enhanced holeshot system and straight-line prowess had combined to create an all-Desmosedici top four at the start of the opening round, while Sunday's race began with a Pramac one-two as Martin and Zarco comfortably held their positions.

But the big surprise was that Martin, who had dropped to 15th after a miraculous start one week earlier, then remained at the head of the field for lap after lap.

"We know the Ducati will start pretty strong, but I was wondering who will lead the race?" Zarco said. "With Jorge leading, I expected maybe a slower pace than last week because he’s a rookie and maybe he will get some stress or something. But finally he went even faster because after half-race, compared to Pecco [in round one], he was keeping the pace in '55.

"I was happy because I was feeling good behind him and every time someone was overtaking me and maybe tried to attack Jorge, thanks to the engine I was able to get second place back again.

"For me this was perfect, to have this control, keep the energy and maybe have the chance to fight at the end of the race for victory."

With Martin holding firm up front, Zarco began to feel pressure from countryman Fabio Quartararo, who had worked his way up from ninth, then passed Zarco and Martin in quick succession to lead with four laps to go.

"When Fabio came by I was feeling pretty good and I think the tyres were not so bad to have the chance for victory," Zarco said. "But when he overtook Jorge and he had this gap immediately, I wanted to overtake also, but Jorge was going a bit too fast. It was difficult to overtake him.

Martin remained immovable until the #5 – aware that Maverick Vinales and Alex Rins were in his wheeltracks – finally squeezed past at the penultimate turn on the final lap.

"On the last lap I knew there were a lot of people behind me and I didn't want to lose the podium, but at the same time I had to make a move on Jorge," Zarco said. "In turn 15 it went perfectly and I kept the second place to the end."

Having spent last season on a 2019-spec bike at Avintia, Zarco jumped forward two years when he stepped onto the GP21 at the start of the Qatar tests. He also feels the combination of the latest specification bike run by a close-knit satellite team suits him well.

"It's about the balance to be happy as a human being. The team is helping because you can have a coffee break and some fun with them, but they work well, you are riding well plus Ducati are giving the right bike.

"When everything is coming together, the target is to be on top. We are right now, so keep living this moment."

Having beaten Factory Ducati riders Jack Miller and Bagnaia in both races, Zarco acknowledged that there is perhaps less pressure on the shoulders of the Pramac riders.

"In Pramac we have the chance to have the same bike as the factory team. We maybe have less pressure than the factory riders. This helps us to also sometimes to have this extra power in mind, like the pole position Jorge did yesterday and the nice race we did together today.

"So I think it is for this reason because we cannot say they did a bad race when you see the first 15 guys in eight seconds. The first 15 guys didn’t do a bad race. It’s so close. Just a good time for us right now. That’s all."

Fabio Quartararo, Johann Zarco, MotoGP, Doha MotoGP race, 4 April 2021
Fabio Quartararo, Johann Zarco, MotoGP, Doha MotoGP race, 4 April 2021
© Gold and Goose

Sunday's race also marked the first time two French riders have been on the premier-class podium since 1954!

"I like the history of motorbikes and it’s true that the ‘50s is really far away," said Zarco, who seemed as happy for Quartararo as himself as he sang the national anthem on the podium.

"First and second is just perfect for the history. Fabio winning the race and me second, I’m happy the same. That’s why I really pushed to sing because you have to realize that it’s just phenomenal what we can do for France right now for the motorbikes. So, we have to enjoy.

"Really we enjoy it a lot. Like he said, it’s maybe one of the best moments in the career. Maybe some world title a few years ago but this one is a unique moment."

Given his form in the opening rounds it seems a matter of when, not if, Zarco joins Quartararo as a premier-class race winner this year.

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