KTM tells all about the Zarco saga: Aragon MotoGP round-up

by Mat Oxley on 25th September 2019

Pit Beirer’s frank and fascinating revelations about Zarco, why Aleix Espargaró was the other hero of Aragon and how will Michelin’s 2020 rear slick change MotoGP?

KTM's Pit Beirer stands in the KTM garage

Red Bull KTM's Pit Beirer Photo: Red Bull

KTM’S Beirer tells all about the Zarco saga

KTM motor sport director Pit Beirer talked extensively about the Johann Zarco saga at Aragon, possibly more openly than any other factory boss in the history of motorcycle Grand Prix racing.

The former motocrosser’s frankness was impressive and his revelations about Zarco fascinating.

“It’s a sad moment for us to give up on a project, which was to have Johann and Pol [Espargaró] lift our MotoGP project onto another level,” said the German, addressing a small media audience inside the Red Bull hospitality unit. “We struggled from the first day, when Zarco threw a leg over our bike at Valencia [in November 2018]. It was a surprise that it was immediately difficult for him to reach the level of Pol [Espargaró]. From that first moment Johann started crashing when he started pushing, so finally it [the Zarco/KTM split] was a release for everyone.

“Johann as a person is a nice boy and a strong boy – he’s a special character. I’m not happy that we couldn’t supply the bike he wanted, but also that he couldn’t make a step to help the bike at a moment when it’s not at the very top. I really hope he will find a place to come back in MotoGP. At the end, it’s a sad story for us.

“Now we count 100 per cent on Pol, Miguel [Oliveira] and Brad [Binder] as our really strong riders for the future. Mika [Kallio] has been a rock for us since the beginning. We will now see what level he’s at and if he’s the guy who can do it next year [race full-time with the factory team].

“Johann couldn’t control his emotions. He puts so much stress on himself when things aren’t going easy and that’s what he was always looking for – that easy riding feeling, and when it wasn’t there he went aggressive on the bike.

He had lost hope that we can turn things around. Sunday was enough of a positive signal, a platform to build from, but on Monday he was giving up.

“I think to succeed in MotoGP you need to be emotional and powerful in one moment, then you also need to calm down and analyse the situation in the box, but he was super-hot in that situation. When you were outside the garage he was calm, but then he went riding… Even at Misano when he went good he could not see the positives. Emotionally he was getting too hot to give a clear direction.”

Beirer said he only lost patience with Zarco once during the Frenchman’s ten months with KTM, when Zarco withdrew from June’s Dutch TT race, because “I had the feeling I wasn’t holding the bike anymore”.

“I was very angry there – so long as the wheels are turning and the rider is healthy you cannot quit,” added Beirer. “This is the most terrible thing you can do to a team. By that time Johann was training harder and I think things got worse because he was training too hard, so he wasn’t even recovered when he came to the races.”

Beirer revealed that he only made the decision to dismiss Zarco with immediate effect after the recent San Marino GP, four weeks after Zarco had told KTM he wanted to leave the team at the end of this season.

“We were really proud and happy about the steps we had made in recent weeks and we could see that it helped at Misano [where Espargaró qualified second and Zarco 11th, their best dry-weather grid positions]. Johann had an outstanding Q2 session – he was on used tyres and you saw the amazing things he can do on a motorcycle. On Sunday he had an okay race, then on Monday we were back to the starting point. He had lost hope that we can turn things around. Sunday was enough of a positive signal, a platform to build from, but on Monday he was giving up.

“This was the moment when we had to decide. If you see that 50 per cent of the people in the project are sad because they are trying so hard without getting results then you need to do something, because it’s necessary for the crew to stay positive and continue to work. Bringing in Mika wasn’t so much about getting much better results as working again in a more positive way and getting better for tomorrow.

“We have 100 people at the factory and 34 at the racetrack. When you are getting nowhere [with one rider] it’s very difficult to keep everybody motivated to keep working. We need to prepare the future – I cannot leave 50 per cent of the project unused and not going forward with the bike.

“We have learned that there are two different characters of bikes in MotoGP. There are the bikes that are easier to ride and then there are the bikes that need to be ridden with a different riding style, which are the bikes you need to win races.

“To me it wasn’t clear when we signed Johann that there would be such a difference between two bikes, just from riding style. Before he joined us, we saw what Johann could do on a year-old satellite bike, beating the factory bikes. What I saw in Johann was this: what a fighter! He didn’t care what material he had, he just took his bike and went faster. We saw that and said, wow, that’s the guy we need! Today I wouldn’t sign a Yamaha rider.

“Finally we couldn’t give Johann the bike he wanted, but there was never a request he made to which we said, no. We tried everything we could. For some years at KTM we’ve never told a rider that if a bike is working for other riders then it must work for you, because that’s terrible for a rider. We always see riders as individuals, but we couldn’t change the basic concept of the bike for Johann.

“When you are a factory rider you need to make your own bike. There’s a basic bike but then you have a hundred pieces to choose from and if you choose the wrong parts then that bike will be completely different from what you need.

“Johann had to test many things and he wasn’t used to that. Before he had a bike that was ready to go, so he didn’t need to think about the bike and that made him strong. But you will only get to a certain level that way. If you want to win the MotoGP championship you need to set up your own bike with a factory team.”

Zarco has yet to announce his plans for the future. He wants to stay in MotoGP, but he needs a seat to become vacant, otherwise his best hope will be doing test riding.

“Johann will go home now and think what happened – where did it go totally wrong? For me, something huge had already happened when he split up with Laurent Fellon [Zarco’s manager/mentor since he was a kid] because Laurent was a guy who could steer him mentally. So we were unlucky to get Johann at the wrong moment, when he wanted to become an adult and organise his life by himself and split from his old connections. I think some of those connections were really important in keeping him on a straight line.  This whole story will make him stronger.”

KTM has already given Zarco permission to ride whatever he wants, even though his current deal with the factory doesn’t expire until 31st December 2020.

“He’s under contract and we are paying him, but if he wants to race or test any motorcycle, even against us, he can do so with my full support.”

The three riders most likely to take Zarco’s factory ride in 2020 are Kallio, Tech3 rider Miguel Oliveira or current Moto2 rider Brad Binder, who recently signed to join Oliveira at Tech 3 next year. Former HRC star and current KTM test rider Dani Pedrosa has already turned down requests to return to the grid

“We asked Dani and he said, no. We are happy with that. We need him in the test role, which he is doing so much better than I was hoping.”

 

Espargaró: the other hero of Aragon

Aleix Esparagro at Aragon

Photo: MotoGP

Marc Márquez may have been the hero of Aragon but his heroics only just eclipsed those of Aleix Espargaró, who rode his Aprilia RS-GP to seventh place, by far his best result of 2019, just five seconds off the podium.

This was no great surprise because last year Espargaró finished sixth at Aragon, eight seconds off the podium, and in 2017 he was just four seconds outside the top three.

So how come the Spaniard and the Aprilia go so well at the spectacular hillside track, which includes one of MotoGP’s longest straights, where the RS-GP was a massive 5.2mph (8.3km/h) slower than the fastest bikes?

It’s all about the long, long corners that dominate the layout.

“Where we always really suffer is stopping the bike in a straight line,” explained the 30-year-old who is struggling through his third season with the Piaggio-owned brand. “The problem is that we don’t have enough load on the rear during hard braking, so the engine-braking doesn’t work well enough, so we cannot reduce speed fast enough.

“But Aragon is one of the few tracks in the world where you are already leaning the bike in every braking area, apart from Turn One. We are always braking with 23 or 30 degrees of lean, so then the rear tyre is pushing into the asphalt, so we can stop the bike better. This is the biggest difference from other tracks; it’s not because I’m fast at Aragon.

“The biggest thing for me about racing with the guys closer to the front is the enjoyment. But I expected a little more from the race – to be able to fight with the Yamaha guys until the end, but I suffered a bit with a full tank and with the front tyre, so I couldn’t attack the corners like I’d done in qualifying.

“Here it’s been important to make the team happy and take some positive energy into the next races because everyone in Aprilia is suffering because this isn’t a good year for us. I’m confident we can have a similar feeling at Phillip Island and Sepang.”

Aprilia is already working on a total machine redesign for 2020, with former Ferrari manager Massimo Rivola making major changes in the team, recently promoting former crew chief Fabrizio Cecchini to run the Aprilia garage.


Related content


 

Michelin's 2020 rear slick: half a second a lap faster?

Next season Michelin will change the construction of its rear slick for the first time since the start of 2017, so this is big news because rear-tyre performance can have a major effect on the racing. Which bike will it suit the best: the Ducati, the Honda, the Yamaha, or something else?

Michelin took over from Bridgestone as MotoGP’s sole tyre supplier after the 2015 season. During its first season its engineers tried various different rear constructions, finally settling on a single option for 2017, largely because changing constructions from race to race causes teams endless set-up issues. (In fact there are two constructions, because an extra-stiff rear was introduced for Buriram last year, which is now also used at Red Bull Ring, hence Yamaha’s improved results at MotoGP’s fastest track last month.)

Last season Michelin went softer with its rear compounds to give riders more grip. This led to closer racing, because more riders could get the best out of the tyres and because the fastest riders had to be more conservative with the throttle and ride in rubber-saving mode. Thus the average top-ten gap shrank from 24.5 seconds to 20 seconds.

This year the top-ten gap has opened again, to 22.3 seconds, because the 2019 slick is a stronger tyre, thanks to a different compound-mixing process.

So what will be the effect of the new construction rear on the 2020 MotoGP championship?

“The new tyre won’t change the character of the racing but will give more grip – between 0.4 and 0.5 seconds better lap-time performance – and more stability,” says Michelin MotoGP chief Piero Taramasso. “We think everyone will be able to push all through the race because durability isn’t a problem. In the long runs we’ve done in this year’s tests we didn’t see any real drop in performance.”

Which bike will the tyre suit best? It seems that most riders think it will work for all of them

“I tried the tyre in the tests at Barcelona, Brno and Misano, and I think it’ll be a lot better for us,” says Pramac Ducati’s Jack Miller. “In fact, Ducati has been pushing hard to get it for this year. It’s just a more consistent tyre with really good grip and better feel, so you can understand the spin better. The biggest thing for us is that it seems to have good transfer from the edge of the tyre to the drive area of the tyre, so it doesn’t upset the bike, it keeps it straight, so it tracks well.”

Marc Márquez agrees. “It looks like all the riders like it – the main difference is that the casing gives better grip, which helps everybody, but especially maybe Yamaha, because with more grip they can be faster, but then maybe Ducati and Honda can use more torque with the extra grip. I think it will help everybody.”

Valentino Rossi is just happy to see some ongoing tyre development.

“It looks like Michelin has made a very good job because the 2020 tyre is faster and when you ride the bike you have more grip on the edge,” he said. “I don’t think it will help one bike more than the others, but it will raise the level, so we can be faster. This is good because it’s a sign that Michelin don’t give up, because sometimes when you have a mono tyre rule, like in the past, the tyre manufacturer doesn’t spend any money to improve. Michelin continues to work, which is good, also for us, because it’s a lot more fun when you have to work more with the tyres and we can go faster.”

 

Why the MotoGP schedule needs a rewrite

MotoGP’s never-ending expansion – to 20 rounds next season and perhaps 21 or 22 in the following years – has got riders and teams demanding less testing. This makes sense because riders can’t be expected to do more miles than they already do.

This reduction in testing may have a knock-on effect on race weekends because factories and teams want Dorna to rewrite the schedule to allow them to spend more time evaluating machine changes than chasing lap times.

Currently the first three practice sessions – FP1, FP2 and FP3 – all count towards qualification for the Q1 and Q2 qualifying sessions. Because teams can’t definitely predict which session will deliver the fastest lap times, riders must lay on it on the line and make times attacks in every session

“If we have more races and less testing then it would be good if we could use Friday as an opportunity to test settings and parts, then go for lap times on Saturday,” said Suzuki technical manager Ken Kawauchi.

Other factory management agree, including KTM’s Pit Beirer.

“Riders also need to go testing, also for themselves to ride some laps without pressure,” said Beirer. “The way the format is now, every practice counts, so everyone has to push, in case conditions get worse for the next session. There’s no time for the riders to enjoy riding, so they can play with the bike and get ready for Sunday. Instead they are always chasing lap times, using soft tyres. If we have more races and less testing this definitely one of the many things we need to discuss with Dorna.”

Beirer also thinks that factories will need to expand their test teams to two riders if full-time MotoGP riders get less testing between races.

“The plan is that the championship will get longer, so we need to get organised for that,” added Beirer. “Test teams will become more important than ever. To get things done I think we will need two test riders.”

 

And now, fashion news...

Diesel's Renzo Rossi with Moto3 rider Ayumu Sasaki

Diesel's Renzo Rosso and Moto3 star Ayumu Sasaki Photo: Alpinestars

Not a usual subject in our MotoGP round-ups, but interesting if you are interested in bikes and biker culture.

There’s been a link between fashion and motorcycles ever since Marlon Brando and James Dean pouted their way through those 1950s Hollywood movies that helped change the world. The rebel biker jackets that Brando and Dean wore turned many dedicated followers of fashion into bikers and vice versa. It’s a virtuous circle.

It’s the same with the recent return of the biker jacket as a fashion essential for boys and girls about town, because there’s little doubt the return of the café-racer scene triggered the return of the biker jacket.

At the recent Misano GP, the world of motorcycle racing and streetwear clashed impressively, as Alpinestars and Diesel got together to launch a new range of racing-inspired fashion kit.

On hand were Gabriele Mazzarolo, son of Alpinestars founder Sante, and Renzo Rosso, boss of fashion-brand Diesel. It’s not often you get to meet someone in the MotoGP paddock richer than Valentino Rossi, but that man is Diesel founder Rosso, the fashion entrepreneur and so-called ‘jean genius’, who also owns football clubs, a hotel and a farm. He is Italy’s tenth-richest person, at £3.3 billion.

Perhaps the best thing about Rosso – from a bike racing point of view – is that he rides bikes and has sponsored bike racing. Diesel were once title sponsors of the World Superbike championship and later backed Aprilia’s GP team and Ducati’s WSB team.

Mazzarolo's aim is indeed to promote motorcycling by getting non-motorcyclists to wear fashionable motorcycle kit. “First, all these clothes include the latest Alpinestars technical protection features,” he said. “Second, we are working with Diesel to try to make motorcycling bigger.”

 

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