He has no tattoos, he doesn’t walk around with sunglasses or a personalized cap; he doesn’t tweet, he does not smile to look nice, he doesn’t even use mobile phone… People say he is shy, it is not true: Johann Zarco is discreet, different.
When the ones who are his colleagues now were already winning in GPs – Valentino had 7 world titles, Lorenzo was dominating 250 cc, Marquez was on his way to do the same in 125 cc- he was still looking for the right words to explain to his parents that he wanted to give up his studies to become a motorcycle racer. It was 2007 and he was 17, an age when today you are considered almost “old” for Moto3. “So I got up on a scooter and rode from my parents house in Cannes to Avignon. I took me 6 hours to make 250 kilometers. It was night and twice I was wrong”.
“I’m not like the other riders, like the Spaniards, who grow up in schools for riders and race since they are very young.
In Avignon he knocked on Laurent Felon’s door, a former paratrooper. A generous and authoritarian guy with a maniacal and monastic work method. “He turned into my coach, my manager and my mentor; all”, explains Zarco. To show his family that I could become a professional racer he had to win the Red Bull Rookies Cup… “And Laurent was the only one who could teach me the way to make it”. And the method was radical: Laurent took him in in his house and from that very moment there was nothing else than motorcycles in Johann’s life. “I slept for 5 or 6 years on the sofa bed in his living room”.
“I’m not like the other riders, like the Spaniards, who grow up in schools for riders and race since they are very young, boys. I went through the phases much more slowly, with passion, with sacrifice, strictly and step by step. I had to wait, a lot, but the hard method has worked with me. I turned into a warrior, with prudence and intelligence”.Under the rigorous guardianship of Felon, Zarco managed to win the Roopkies Cup. The target was reached but… “After the Rookies I thought I could run a big prize right away, instead I had to wait”. Johann went to compete in Hungary!!! – because Felon’s wife is Hungarian- where he learned to race from former world champion, Gabor Talmacsi.
In 2009 Zarco debuts in 125 cc thanks to Felon mortgaging his house; all to give his ‘boy’ the chance to race in GPs. It took two seasons for Johann to find out how the world looks like from the very top of the podium; it happened in Motegi. Then came the move to Moto2 and in 2015 the explosion: the world title! He repeated the success the following year and celebrated once again with his characteristic backflip from the top of the circuit side protections.
“Internet makes me waste time. Read the comments about me – whether we are positive or not – ends up disturbing me, confuses my spirit”.
“Two years ago I finished eighth at the first race of the season but I immediately realized that something had changed: I had turned into he fastest rider in the field. It took me some time to understand how to become a racer and a man: to be strong, to be fast, it’s better to take your time, to learn slowly than to burn the stages and get hurt… and the road is still at the beginning”.
Zarco is certainly a strange champion. In this two-wheeled circus where there are those who obsessively observe their own image and spend more time on the social than on the track, he is an “anti-divo”. “Internet makes me waste time, I need to stay focused on myself. Being popular and meeting the fans is nice, but I prefer to do it in person: talk, but really”.
“Read the comments about me – whether we are positive or not – ends up disturbing me, confuse my spirit. I need to protect myself. Better simple things. Even though I understand that certain things are part of my job, I have to make a reason for it: now there are those who deal with my Facebook profile and all things… how do you call it?… social”. Johann explains the anecdote with his mobile phone. “I had a very simple one, very simple, and one day I got it stolen at the beach; I was forced to take an I-Phone. Now I’ll have to get used to it, but I do it calmly, the way I like to do things”.
“I can be fast, the fastest: but calmly, gently”,
Johann Zarco’s performance in the races held till now has been all but discreet. In the very first race in Qatar he lead the MotoGP filed for six laps, until he crashed; in Argentina, he finished fifth; in Austin he manage to irritated Valentino Rossi by passing him in a “determinate” way – “this is not Moto2, you can’t overtake like this”-; in Jerez he dared to pass on the brakes Marc Marquez and in France, in his home race, he finished on the podium… Yes, definetly Johann Zarco has disembarked in the major class with the intention of not being just one more rider in the field.
“I can be fast, the fastest: but calmly, gently”, Zarco declared recently to an Italian colleague with the naturalness that characterizes him. The same naturalness he answered to Rossi’s touch of attention in Texas. “That’s MotoGP. I overtook Valentino because I was feeling very good in this moment of the race. It was necessary to do it like this, because it was an opportunity to pass him. If I wondered to myself, can I or not, I might have crashed. So it was necessary just to go”.
With the help of the most friendly bike in the category Johann is learning very quickly, but he points: “It’s important to learn, not to rush”.
But don’t think Zarco -remember, twice Moto2 World Champion- these one of these arrogant rookies who arrive thinking they will discover the powder, no. Johann is far from that profile; he simply processes in a different way. He basically is sincere and says what he says, whether it sounds politically correct or not. “At first I was trying to finish in the top 10, but seeing how things are going, my coach says I could always be among the best 6… It’s important to learn, not to rush”, he finished insisting always in the timing.
With the help of the most friendly bike in the category, Yamaha’s M1, Johann is learning very quickly. His first MotoGP race in Qatar was surprising, his on attack mode performance in Austin impressive and the maturity he showed in Jerez amazing. In fact, he ended the race in fourth after battling hard with Marquez and Lorenzo; then came the amazing second place in Le Mans. Not bad for a rookie, isn’t it?
“It was a great race, fourth position was a fantastic result. From the start the feeling was good and I didn’t want to lose time”, Zarco explained after the race in Spain, which he had started from the sixth position of the grid. “I caught up positions and when I reached second [in the 4th lap] I was feeling a great pace. I even taught in following Dani. But he was so fast that I almost crashed twice. Marc overtook me just after these two scary moments”
“At first I was trying to finish in the top 10, but seeing how things are going, my coach says I could always be among the best 6″… After seven GPs Zarco is 6th in the championship standing.
“From that moment it was difficult to follow the Honda. I stayed long time in third position trying to manage as well as possible tires and lap times. When Jorge overtook me I was feeling quiet good and expect to stay and fight on the last lap, but not. In the last eight laps he was little bit better in acceleration so with four laps to go I decided to save the fourth position”.
These quotes after Jerez show how mature Zarco’s MotoGP learning approach is. Probably it is a consequence of the mixture between the tranquility that two world titles give to a rider and Johann’s special personality. “In Jerez, during the race I was playing with the electronics and has been interesting to see some differences with the Ducati. Every time I get more experience; the target is to be as close as possible to the podium and then starting to get on it”.
His first MotoGP podium happening in his home GP was the perfect story. A scenario Zarco will left as the big local heroe and as the big hope of the French racing fans. But as always, Johann takes it easy: “Time does not frighten me, it’s not an obsession… I can be fast, the fastest: but calmly, gently”.