Pol Espargaro ‘warrior’ efforts softened impact of Zarco’s KTM failure

KTM lavishes praise on Pol Espargaro for his work ethic during the distraction Johann Zarco's struggles and eventual exit during the 2019 MotoGP season

Johann Zarco, Pol Espargaro - KTM Factory Racing

Pol Espargaro’s work ethic behind-the-scenes at KTM during the 2019 MotoGP World Championship went a long way to making up for the failure and eventual exit of team-mate Johann Zarco, according to the firm’s motorsports director Pit Beirer.

The Spaniard entered into his third season with the KTM Factory Racing team in 2019 having been involved from its inaugural season in 2017 but was joined for the first time by Zarco.

With a highly-rated rider line-up on paper, much was expected of KTM coming into the 2019 season but while Espargaro spurred on a step forward in terms of results and consistency, Zarco struggled to find his groove on the RC16 and made his feelings known on numerous occasions.

With relations between Zarco and KTM becoming strained and results failing to improve, the Frenchman announced he’d conclude his deal prematurely at the end of the 2019 season. However, KTM eventually axed him after Round 12.

Frustratingly for KTM, the ‘Zarco saga’ overshadowed much of the positive work being done behind the scenes with Espargaro earning praise for getting his head down and softening the impact of his team-mate’s public berating of the bike.

"We have to thank Pol, because he is that strong warrior who kept the project alive in all the difficult up-and-down moments [in 2019]. Even fighting back and coming back in Thailand with his hand injury, I really have to thank him a lot for pushing so hard for us in all these days."

"Going into the year everything was somehow okay but there was one, I want to call it a project, with Johann which we could just not get to work," Beirer said.

"So there was also like half of the team just not performing when we were expecting that Johann and Pol could push each other to a different level. So that was something difficult.

"On the other side, Pol was performing great and in the middle of the season there were some new parts for the bike that we could also test in the background with Dani Pedrosa.”

KTM turns to youth in Zarco’s absence

Though Zarco’s exit prompted an overhaul of its strategy, Beirer says he is proud to be heading into the 2020 MotoGP season with three young riders on its books, each of which has been promoted from KTM’s Moto2 project.

Brad Binder effectively takes the place of Zarco having been upgraded from his original status as Tech 3 Racing rider to fully-fledged factory man. Miguel Oliveira – who by the middle of his rookie season was matching Zarco – and Iker Lecuona fill the satellite seats.

For Beirer, the opportunity to invest in the future alongside Espargaro and experienced test rider Dani Pedrosa is a positive outcome overall.

"It's really exciting to be able to build up our own riders through the different disciplines and now we have Brad and Miguel, both strong boys, with us for the future.”

“For us the most important thing at the moment is to get all the riders back healthy, but of course there is not one segment of the bike package we can leave. We still need to improve everywhere and there is still a long road in front of us.

"Now we need to push a little reset button for the coming season and get four same bikes for the four riders, because it was quite a mission to build up the satellite team [with Tech3].

"To get it started was one thing and now to get it on the same technical level for all four riders is important so we can benefit from the results you can get from each garage."

KTM needs to turn promise into results for MotoGP 2020

Hitting the ‘reset’ button hits the nail on the head for KTM, which showed flashes of something very exciting in 2019 but was ultimately held back by being embroiled in a number of frustrating storms – some of its own making, some not.

The Zarco distraction proved to be exactly that, diverting headlines away from the results in Espargaro’s hands, which included seven top ten results and a maiden front row start at Misano. However, KTM’s inexperience in key set-up areas saw it slip away from form in the latter half of the year, struggling for grip in cool or humid temperatures.

For 2020, KTM will no doubt need to pile much of the responsibility on Espargaro’s shoulders as the only rider with significant experience in MotoGP, but there are certainly high hopes for Binder after his strong turn in Moto2. Moreover, Oliveira will have something to prove on the satellite bike – which is supposed to be equal to that of the factory – having been overlooked for a promotion.

Together with Dani Pedrosa’s much vaunted technical input behind the scenes, KTM is slowly moving all the positions into the right places, but it now needs to show it can play the game at a higher level than previous seasons.