Hitting a glass ceiling?

What's up with Johann?

When discussing that titanic brawl at the front of the Dutch Grand Prix for the past two weeks, the first reaction was to state: “It had a bit of everything.” OK, the final lap sort-out at the chicane for the lead was lacking. But what more can you ask of a race that boasted of 175 overtakes – 99 coming between the lead group – eleven passes on one lap alone and the closest top 15 of all time?

But upon further viewing, there was something that still wasn’t clear. It wasn’t how Jorge Lorenzo managed to steer clear of sure-fire disaster by saving a front-end slide at well over 100mph. Nor was it Alex Rins’ transformation for a little over 41 minutes from softly spoken nice guy that greets you with a nod and smile to a madcap tearaway that wouldn’t look out of place in a bar room brawl.

It was the last of those eight bikes coming home in, well, eighth that stood out. After a handful of promising exchanges, Johann Zarco slipped behind Cal Crutchlow on lap 15. Soon he was trailing the group entirely, and by the end he was seven seconds back, struggling to fend off Alvaro Bautista. Then came his post race comments: “I was struggling but I could finish and collect the points … it’s so great for me.”

So great? Eh? For a rider who had qualified on pole position at the same track a year ago (and gave Valentino Rossi mild heart tremors with a hair-raising move while doing so), this was an oddity. Was this really the same Zarco that relished contact throughout last year’s run out at Phillip Island, and did nothing but shrug indifferently when the ire of the class’ serial champions was directed his way through flashes in 2017?

There can be no mistaking the double Moto2 world champion has looked off-colour in recent weeks. At Assen he was subdued, and after a frustrating German Grand Prix, it’s now five races that Zarco has come nowhere close to a podium challenge. A run of results that reads tenth, seventh, eighth and ninth hardly represents a crisis. Yet for a rider that was headed by only Marc Marquez in the title race after Jerez, and consistently outperformed both factory Yamahas from October last year to the May of this, the recent developments have been somewhat puzzling.

There was more evidence at the Sachsenring last weekend to suggest this is more than a temporary slump. Zarco was almost holding back tears when fielding questions on Saturday. “I don’t understand why I can’t improve,” he told us in English, legs crossed, face riddled with anguish. “It’s difficult to accept.” The fact he later tore into Tech 3’s Ohlins suspension technician when switching to French – he lacked the necessary desire, according to Zarco, something later denied by team boss Hervé Poncharal – didn’t exactly paint a picture of internal harmony.

From premier class maverick to lost at sea in just over a month, the 28-year old who was apparently courted by four manufacturers in the spring of this year is going through his first real dip as a premier class rider. And all since his admirable, but ultimately doomed win-it-or-bin-it approach to his home grand prix in May.

So what’s happened? A simple reading of the situation is Zarco has encountered his difficult second season. There were several unspectacular results that littered a largely positive rookie campaign (ninth at the Sachsenring and Aragon, twelfth at Brno) but he had the excuse of being new to the class. One reason for his stellar opening to 2017 was the lessening of pressure compared to the year before, when, for the first time, he faced the grinding expectations that accompany a title defence. “The fact that I’m not under pressure, like I was in Moto2 last year, can help me to just go,” he told me soon after that sensational debut in Qatar last March. That situation has long passed, and expectations from him, the team and back home are to, at the very least, be fighting for regular podiums. See that needless crash in warm-up for his home grand prix before falling from third that afternoon? The actions of a man who knew second place would not suffice.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves of his current status within Yamaha. Zarco’s M1 has received no updates through the season’s past five months. On paper at least, a two-year old chassis, and an engine boasting just 500 extra revs are hardly ingredients to carry you to the title. There was a sense of resignation in some of his words at Assen, when saying, “it brings frustration … I don’t know if it’s me who is going in the wrong direction or just maybe we touched the best we can.”

We often heard Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro, Tech 3’s previous incumbents, voicing similar concerns. Yet Zarco never spoke in such a way last year. One of 2017’s joys was observing his approach, leftfield in the sense he was disinterested in specs and models (remember him scolding onlookers at the Valencia test for asking which chassis/engine combination he preferred – “Really, I don’t try to know which bike it is, which bike they were using, because it’s going to be too much information”), instead focusing solely on riding.

The fact manager Laurent Fellon was absent in Germany, preferring to stay in Paris, working for Eurosport France, did little to assuage the suspicions the pair is in the midst of a contretemps. Aside from negotiating contracts, Fellon has acted as a father figure during his nine years in the paddock, advising him on riding technique and acting as the yin to Zarco’s yang, calming him down when his rider hits overdrive, and telling a few home truths when he feels his man is getting overly comfortable. Not only has he been absent; there are rumours Fellon’s negotiation technique that secured his rider a place in KTM’s factory squad for 2019 were something of a bone of contention.

It’s believed Zarco’s ’19 deal with the Austrian factory was agreed as early as the autumn of last year. So why was Fellon talking to other factories in the early races of this campaign, stoking suggestions Zarco could team up with Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda? It also appears Fellon’s outspoken comments, which bluntly stated on the Saturday of the Spanish Grand Prix that Rossi had blocked the chance of Zarco staying with Yamaha, were not well received. And perhaps the former Red Bull Rookie champion is asking himself how 19-year Fabio Quartararo has landed a more competitive satellite Yamaha for next year when the same factory appeared disinterested in retaining his own services just several months ago. For a rider who demands his mind remains free of worry and stress, the distancing from such an integral figure in his career must be having an effect.

Still, it’s too early to be speaking of a crisis. Zarco sits fifth overall, level on points with Andrea Dovizioso. He didn’t exactly excel during this part of 2017 (he scored just 29 points at Mugello, Montmeló, Assen and the Sachsenring, just one less than the current campaign), and his pre-MotoGP career was always beset by a series of peaks and troughs. A period of reflection over the short summer break beckons, and during this time, the Frenchman must rediscover that inner calm that caused him to be a force of nature in 2017. If he succeeds, the feathers of MotoGP’s top brass won’t remain unruffled for too long.

By Neil Morrison @NeilMorrison87

Photos by CormacGP @CormacGP