Of Johann Zarco’s 900 points in his MotoGP career so far, only three have come on a Honda RC213V.
Considering he’s had three starts on the bike and has scored points across the top 15 on Sundays during his top-flight career, this stint is a mere footnote on MotoGP’s CV – relegated to near-one status night when Honda realized that the benefits of testing it in three races at the end of 2019 did not offset the positive effect of bringing in Moto2 champion (and, notably, Marc’s talisman brother) Alex Marquez for next year.
Four years later, though, the Zarco is back on the market and Honda has a vacancy (or several vacancies) to fill again. It’s possible – but seemingly far more distant than it seemed – that they’ll meet for more than a handful of games this time around.
Zarco’s availability stems from the fact that Ducati is limited to factory bikes only in the works team and Pramac, and holds a place in the latter for Marco Bezzecchi. However, Bezzecchi could reject the newer spec to stick with the VR46, which would open the door for Zarco to stick with what he and everyone else describes as the “best bike” on the grid and the most useful for his pursuit. a long-awaited first first-class win.
It all adds up to a situation where, unlike in 2019, Zarco is so obviously the most valuable asset in the equation and not the Honda RC213V.
Although LCR team boss Lucio Cecchinello says it was Zarco’s representatives who initiated the 2024 talks, The Race has heard that Zarco-to-Honda would involve a significant financial commitment from Honda, at least in relation to what Zarco is currently doing at Pramac Ducati.
Intuitively, the situation is clear. Zarco stock was at an all-time low in 2019 – Honda stock is now. They were “damaged goods” back then after being broken up at KTM – the RC213V, literally most of the time, is now.
However, while why Honda would want Zarco now is completely beside the point, revisiting the 2019 situation raises an interesting question: was letting Zarco slip through the cracks one of those many mistakes that added up to let the Honda in the hole it finds itself now?
Given his successes as a Yamaha satellite rider, Zarco was already an interesting option for the Honda camp in the later stages of 2019 – and that’s before you factor in Jorge Lorenzo’s situation at the time, the three-time MotoGP champion struck and he lacks confidence and represents no real series security for Honda in 2020 despite his existing contract.
Indeed, Lorenzo would end up leaving, a development that left Zarco as one of three logical choices to replace him at the Repsol Honda team, along with then-LCR rider Cal Crutchlow and the younger Marquez.
In this line-up, a post-Yamaha Zarco would be the “path of least resistance”, the safest option.
Crutchlow was good at a satellite Honda, but had a long-standing relationship with Monster Energy (conflicting with Red Bull’s backing of Honda’s works team) and was perhaps too colorful a personality to expect to slot in seamlessly as the docile no. two to Marc Marquez. And Alex Marquez risked being burned by an immediate placement in arguably MotoGP’s most visible team.
Except, then, it wasn’t the post-Yamaha Zarco as an alternative, it was the post-KTM Zarco, emerging from a humiliating, potentially career-defining failure in which he fell out with the KTM RC16 bike (one at that point so often likened to a crude RC213V) so much so that he asked for an early release from his contract – and then pulled out even earlier than that essentially because KTM felt they were brash enough that keeping him would negatively affect the team.
In this context, Zarco returning to such a coveted position was seen by many as a questionable fit and/or clearly deserved – see Aleix Espargaro, who criticized KTM’s approach as “unprofessional”.
Whether that element was more or less about Honda than the simple fact that Zarco was terribly slow on the KTM, the fact was that it didn’t take long for him to pull the trigger to commit to an all-Marquez series – and, with LCR locked, let Zarco explore other opportunities.
The three game test
Zarco’s three grands prix wins in the colors of Japanese sponsor Idemitsu in place of Takaaki Nakagami, sidelined by scheduled season-ending shoulder surgery, apparently did not affect Honda.
They yielded the aforementioned three points, a Q2 appearance, a relative drop in pace compared to Nakagami but essentially the same position in the Honda pecking order – third fastest, behind Marc Marquez and Crutchlow, but ahead of Lorenzo who finished .
In 2023, a Q2 appearance in three races would be good enough for a Honda rider! In 2019, with Ducati still not in their flashy form and KTM and Aprilia only intermittent, it wasn’t as impressive.
But it was no shame either – and the passage of time has only cast a better light on Zarco’s efforts at the end of 2019.
Zarco’s fastest lap compared to the fastest Honda (all weekend)
Zarco 1m30.008s (+0.792s)
Zarco 1m59.139s (+0.188s)
Zarco 1m30.826s (+0.816s)
They were three fairly unique circuits to evaluate Zarco – Sepang was arguably the more conventional venue compared to the fast, windy Phillip Island and the compact and cold Circuit Ricardo Tormo, and it was also the race where Zarco was definitely at his best. its competitive position. .
At Phillip Island, with the wind so bad one of the practice sessions was cut short because of it, Zarco brought the bike home in a somewhat wear-aided 13th place. In Valencia, he was running 11th when he crashed in the same corner where moments before Danilo Petrucci crashed and moments after Iker Lecuona’s debut, his KTM caught Zarco off guard and caused a horrific flip but thankfully no serious injury.
Johann Zarco disappears from a bike that goes into the gravel!
Luckily she seems unharmed…
— MotoGP on TNT Sports (@motogpontnt) November 17, 2019
At Sepang, however, he was well on course for a top 10 finish when he retired from the bike in one of those Suzuki-agility-creates-collision-course accidents with next year’s champion Joan Mir.
An important asterisk is that, unlike all the other Hondas in the field that weekend, Zarco was riding an old Honda, the 2018 version that Marquez, Lorenzo and Crutchlow all seemed to consider more competitive at its peak, but less compatible.
This will have entered into Honda’s thinking, as while the specification gap may reflect better on Zarco in terms of laptime, it could also explain why he was able to be quite competitive mid-season, something Honda may have doubted was possible. would be the case with more modern machines.
Proof of concept
Except well, the recovered Nakagami will upgrade from a 2018 bike to a 2019 version for next year, and with it came the best season of his MotoGP career.
And it was also one in which Nakagami was Honda’s top rider as Marquez’s crash at Jerez dramatically changed his situation.
Honda couldn’t have known it was coming, but they certainly could have used Zarco in 2020. Alex Marquez’s learning curve was steep enough until Honda felt fully justified in signing a different rider for his position (for 2021 ) simply based on his pre-season testing credentials – and apart from a few standout races, it’s been a standout season for him, trialist Stefan Bradl and the injury-plagued Crutchlow.
More relevantly though, it properly kicked off the era of Honda’s rider line flow. It has never had a consistent cast of characters in recent years. Riders are injured, yes, but they have also been on fire, whether it was Pol Espargaro in the main team, Alex Marquez in LCR or now, until proven otherwise, Mir.
All of these riders committed to the Honda without significant prior experience with its bike, and all found it a difficult fit. And maybe Zarco would too. As Marc Marquez put it at Silverstone: “Zarco is a good rider, but a lot of good riders have passed through here.”
But Zarco’s tenure at LCR at least left the impression that he could make it work, that with the right preparation and development he could have stepped in as second choice behind Marquez and helped steer the ship while the six-time champion struggled with his injuries.
It could bolster Honda’s efforts to maintain continuity from before Marquez’s injury to after his return, given that continuity of development itself is something that Marquez seemed to have lost in his absence.
Unless you’re really into the butterfly effect, Zarco’s arrival alone won’t have changed Honda’s trajectory. But there was a reason Ducati got creative and opened the charm to get him into the camp via Avintia. Remember, it wasn’t as simple as plugging a hole – but instead, Avintia had to get out of an existing deal with Karel Abraham.
Ducati’s reward has been several seasons of good podium service, not to mention the welcome integration of Zarco into the testing and development process.
It’s an asset Honda could easily deny Ducati. But in her 2019 position, it’s clear why she didn’t feel it was necessary. Whatever the other three riders brought to the table alongside Marc Marquez then was a bonus and Honda being on top of the world meant there was no shortage of riders willing to give the RC213V a go.
There is certainly that shortage now, made as glaring as ever by Yamaha’s Alex Rins coup.
And Zarco’s potential availability, which stems from Ducati’s particular priorities about how to distribute its four bikes to riders in 2024 (and the desire for those riders to include Bezzecchi), is no longer the funky bonus it once was. in 2019.
Instead, it’s something close to a lifeline, something that could collapse if Bezzecchi chooses to stick with the VR46 bike, which would be another major humiliation for Honda.
It feels preposterous to suggest that Honda ditching Zarco for 2020 was a glaring mistake given what was known at the time. But it’s far less far-fetched to argue that, given a hindsight-soaked opportunity for a finish, he would have made keeping Zarco in an RC213V a higher priority then than going after him now.
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