Zarco axed for ‘constant bad words in press, rider safety’, says KTM

Red Bull KTM explains the reasons behind its decision to axe Johann Zarco from its MotoGP team with immediate effect ahead of the Aragon MotoGP

Zarco KTM

Red Bull KTM team manager Mike Leitner has revealed he felt it necessary to put rider safety first when deciding to axe Johann Zarco from its MotoGP rider line-up, but maintains the team did everything to try and build a future with the Frenchman.

The six-time podium winner saw his disgruntled relationship with the Austrian team come to an abrupt end in the week between the San Marino and Aragon MotoGPs after it was decided at board level it was not feasible to continue with a deal that was due to end prematurely at the end of the season anyway.

Zarco has endured a miserable few months at KTM, following a switch from Tech 3 – which also moved from a Yamaha satellite effort to a KTM one over the winter – struggling to develop a feeling on a KTM RC16 that has shown strong form in the hands of team-mate Pol Espargaro.

Originally a two-year deal, Zarco asked to be released from his contract a year early after the Austrian MotoGP in Spielberg – KTM’s home event – but managed only two more races before the team took the initiative and removed him with immediate effect.

In a wide-ranging interview with our sister publication, Leitner insists KTM did everything it could to make Zarco comfortable and were surprised when he called a meeting in Austria to negotiate his exit.

KTM feared Zarco ‘risks’ put himself and others in danger

“We started working with Johann after Valencia last year and from the first moment he couldn’t really build-up a good feeling on our bike,” Leitner said. “From the technical side we tried many things to give him a better feeling. We pushed hard and had some highlights, then again it was not so good, while on the other hand Pol performed better, better, better.

"Also when Dani Pedrosa came in we tried to understand what feeling is really missing for Johann to perform better on our bike. And to be fair, Johann tried to get better and we tried to help him.

"Then in Spielberg on Saturday evening Johann came to us, Pit [Beirer] and me, and told us clearly, 'I will not do two seasons with you guys because I don’t have the feeling, I can't ride my style'.

Though ironically Zarco enjoyed an upturn in form at Silverstone and Misano – managing his first dry Q2 appearance of the season in the latter – it was a big crash during warm-up in Italy that prompted the team to put rider safety (both his and others) first.

“When a rider tells you 'I don’t want to ride with the bike', it goes to the point where you also have to think of rider safety and danger because the riders are risking a lot. For sure KTM is not a company that will force a rider to do things on a bike that maybe he doesn't like.

"He had another big crash during warm-up at Misano, he was very lucky not to hurt himself. So you start thinking 'is this is the correct way?' When he had already decided to stop this project, to push him for another six races to go to the limit.”

Johann Zarco, KTM – A relationship soured

Though Zarco had hoped to see out the year, mostly to stay match fit ahead of a planned 2020 MotoGP move rather than through an apparent desire to move the project forward, it’s no surprise KTM recognised this would be counter-productive to its own aims.

Indeed, KTM has enjoyed a genuinely strong season – only its third in MotoGP – but its headlines have been largely dominated by Zarco and his honest, albeit abrasive comments about the KTM RC16 which is at odds with the results it’s otherwise been getting on track.

Zarco has used the media as a mouthpiece for his displeasure, indicating KTM should have accommodated his smooth riding style – which worked so well on the Yamaha – but was instead told that a rider of his quality should have been able to adapt. 

However, even if Zarco had genuinely tried this, even in positive moments – such as his run to 11th at Misano – KTM was with words about how this was only his maximum on a bike like this.

With no future beyond this year and a rider whose heart clearly isn’t in a project that is working well otherwise, Zarco was the anomaly holding KTM back, especially as it turns attentions to its 2020 machine.

“We know he's a great rider, that's why we contracted him,” Leitner continued. “He's a talent and a passionate MotoGP rider. But when you see that really the rider is not connecting 100% to the project, it is also a relief.

"To see a rider on your bike who is not completely motivated or happy is not so nice to watch. I think at the end this is the result of that.

"Everybody knows that when a rider is not happy with the bike it's a hard job for them. It's not funny when you want in your mind to race for a top-five position and you cannot achieve it.

"On the other hand, our project is so young and what we've achieved in two and half seasons is not so bad. So this was maybe a point where Johann was struggling, because his expectation was maybe much higher.

"And of course to hear [him say] constantly in the press that the bike is bad, and then stopping the contract in Speilberg and we can see he's not happy. So, what future?

"There are many people involved in this project and it's a big investment, so the decision was to stop it now."