Sunday’s race may have been a heart-pumping 220mph dogfight but my highlight of the night was watching winner Fabio Quartararo giggling atop the podium, while runner-up Johann Zarco sang along to La Marseillaise.
Modern motor sport podiums can be humdrum affairs, as riders and drivers crunch the numbers through their brains, preparing for lengthy debriefs with armies of technical staff. They’ve had their fun, now the real work begins.
Sunday was different. Quartararo and Zarco made history – the first French one-two in MotoGP and the first time two Frenchmen had stood on a premier-class podium since 1954, when Pierre Monneret and Jacques Collot finished first and third in the French GP around the Reims street circuit.
That was so long ago – in 1954 Winston Churchill was British prime minister and Elvis Presley released his first record – that 21-year-old Quartararo couldn’t quite get his head around it.
“It was 1954, even your daddy wasn’t born!”
“Honestly, in 1994 I wasn’t even planning to be here – I was born five years later,” he said, answering a question about the Monneret/Collot feat during the post-race media conference.
“No!” laughed 30-year-old Zarco. “It was 1954, even your daddy wasn’t born!”
“Ah, so, err, we’ve made some history,” grinned the race winner. “I feel proud for France and I think Johann does too.”
This race was more significant for Zarco than for Quartararo, because it completed his resurrection as a racer, from a potentially career-ending decision in August 2019 to MotoGP world championship leader in April 2021. And on Easter Sunday too.
Zarco has changed hugely in the past couple of years. When he was on the way up he was always terribly serious. Perhaps this is what happens when you leave home as a teenager to live with your mentor and manager who is so determined to mould you into a world champion that he doesn’t want you to have a girlfriend.
No wonder someone nicknamed him ‘the warrior monk’.
Back then Zarco was an interesting interviewee but he wasn’t easy to chat with. He was one of those riders that gets suspicious if you keep asking questions about his riding technique, like he’s worried you’re trying to steal something from him.
Zarco was Moto2 world champion in 2015 and 2016 and a heroic MotoGP rookie in 2017, riding for Tech 3 Yamaha. He led his very first race, at Losail, charging away from the pack and then crashing out, chucking away a comfy 1.6-second lead.
Zarco looked shellshocked during much of his time with KTM
Two races later at COTA he enraged Valentino Rossi by running him off the track.
“It’s not right,” said Rossi. “Either I did what I did or we would’ve touched and crashed.”
Zarco wasn’t bothered. “This is racing,” he said.
Soon he had Honda, KTM and Suzuki chasing him for a factory ride. He ended up signing with KTM, because his manager Laurent Fellon (father of Moto3 rookie Lorenzo Fellon) believed the RC16 was the right bike for him.
“I’m near the Holy Grail and if I make the wrong decision I’ve done everything for nothing.”
It wasn’t. During 2019 Zarco found it impossible to transplant his skills from Yamaha’s YZR-M1 inline-four to KTM’s RC16 V4, just as Jorge Lorenzo found it impossible to transfer his talent from the M1 to Honda’s RC213V V4 that same summer.
His fall from MotoGP hero to zero was precipitous. At Assen he did what very few riders ever do – he pulled into the pits halfway through the race because he didn’t feel in control of the bike and was worried he would crash if he kept going. By August 2019 he had had enough, so he told KTM he was quitting, right there, right then.
“The fact that Johann turned off the bike in Assen was a sign of burnout syndrome,” said KTM race boss Pit Beirer. “We made a test with him at the Red Bull Training Centre in Thalgau, which showed that his body is completely ‘acidified’.”
Whatever that means.
All this time Zarco was in the process of making a documentary – Johann Zarco, a daring champion – with former French grand prix rider Bernard Fau. I watched the doc last week and it’s excellent.