He has no tattoos, doesn’t sport designer sunglasses or a personalized cap; he doesn’t use Twitter, doesn’t smile to look nice for the cameras—and up until recently, he didn’t even use a smartphone. People say he is shy, but that isn’t correct: Johann Zarco is different...he is discreet.
Ironically, on the track, the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 rookie’s performance at the first four races up of this season has been anything but discreet. At the first race in Qatar, he led the MotoGP field for six laps, until he crashed; in Argentina, he finished fifth. At Austin, Zarco managed to irritate Valentino Rossi by passing him in a spot that forced the Italian off the track (“This is not Moto2, you can’t overtake like this,” was the scolding Zarco received from Rossi) before eventually finishing fifth. In Jerez, Zarco dared to pass Marc Marquez on the brakes, and proved to be a tough adversary for Jorge Lorenzo. Yes, Johann Zarco has definitely entered the premier class with the intention of not being just one more rider in the field.
“That’s MotoGP,” replied Zarco matter-of-factly to Rossi’s bit of attention in Texas. “I overtook Valentino because I was feeling very good at that moment in 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 to just go.”
But don’t think that Zarco—a two-time Moto2 World Champion—is one of these arrogant rookies who arrive thinking they will immediately be on the pace of the leaders. Zarco is far from the typical rookie; he processes things in a different way. He is sincere and says what he thinks, whether 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 top 6. It's important to learn, not to rush," he says, always asserting his thoughts on time.
When Zarco’s current colleagues were winning races—Rossi had 7 world titles, Lorenzo was dominating in the 250cc class, Marquez was on his way to do the same in 125cc—he was still searching for a way 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 that today you are considered "old" for Moto3. "So I got on a scooter and rode from my parent’s house in Cannes to Avignon. I took me 6 hours to go 250 kilometers. It was night and twice I went the wrong way."
Once in Avignon, he knocked on the door of former paratrooper and racer Laurent Fellon. Fellon is a generous and authoritarian man with a monastic work method, and the two had met in 2003 when Zarco was racing pocketbikes in Italy. "He turned into my coach, my manager and my mentor; all three,” explains Zarco. To show his family that he could be a professional racer, Zarco had to win the Red Bull Rookies Cup…“And Laurent was the only one who could teach me the way to do it.” And the method was intense: Fellon moved him in into his house and from that moment there was nothing other than motorcycles in Zarco’s life. “I slept for 5 or 6 years on the sofa bed in his living room."
Under the rigorous guardianship of Fellon, Zarco managed to win the Rookies Cup. The goal was achieved but…“After the Rookies, I thought I would win a big prize right away...instead I had to wait.” Zarco went to compete in Hungary—because Fellon's wife is Hungarian—where he learned to race from former 2007 125cc Grand Prix World Champion Gábor Talmácsi.
“I’m not like the other riders, like the Spaniards, who grow up in schools for riders and race since they are very young, just boys. I went through the phases much more slowly, with passion, with sacrifice, strictly and step by step. I had to wait, a long time, but the hard method has worked for me. I turned into a warrior, with prudence and intelligence.”
In 2009, Zarco debuted in the 125cc GP World Championship thanks to Fellon mortgaging his house; all to give this 'boy' the chance to race in the GPs. It took two seasons for Johann to find out how the world looks from the very top of the podium, which finally happened in Motegi. Then came the move to Moto2, and in 2015 the pinnacle: a world title! He repeated the success the following year and celebrated once again with his characteristic backflip from the top of the circuit side barriers.
"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 the 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 rather than to burn through the stages and get hurt…and I’m still at the beginning of this road."
Zarco is certainly a different kind of champion. In this two-wheeled circus where there are those who obsessively cultivate their image and spend more time on the social media than on the track, he is an antidivo (an Italian expression for a person who rebels against the celebrity system). "The 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 sincerely,” relates Zarco.
“Reading the comments about me—whether they are positive or negative—ends up disturbing me, and confuses my spirit. I need to protect myself. Better to do simple things. Even though I understand that certain things are part of my job, I have to have a reason for doing something: now there are people who deal with my Facebook profile and all those things—how do you call them?—social.” Zarco explains the anecdote with his mobile phone. “I had a very simple one, very simple, and one day it got stolen at the beach. I was forced to get a Smartphone. Now I'll have to get used to it, but I do it slowly, the way I like to do things.”
Ironically, with the help of the "friendliest" bike in the category, the Yamaha M1, Zarco appears to be learning the art of MotoGP very quickly. His first MotoGP race at Qatar was surprising; his attack-mode performance in Austin impressive, and the maturity he showed in Jerez was remarkable. In fact, he finished the race in fourth after battling hard with Marquez and Lorenzo; not too bad for a rookie.
“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 of the race where he had started from the sixth on the grid. “I gained positions and when I reached second [on the 4th lap] I had a great pace. I even thought about following Dani. But he was so fast that I almost crashed twice. Marc overtook me just after these two scary moments.”
“From that moment it was difficult to follow the Honda. I stayed a long time in third position trying to manage tires and lap times as well as possible. When Jorge overtook me I was feeling quite good and expected to stay and fight on the last lap, but no. In the last eight laps he was a little bit better on acceleration, so with four laps to go I decided to settle for the fourth position.”
These quotes after Jerez demonstrate how mature Zarco’s MotoGP learning approach is. It’s likely derived from the peace of mind that two world titles give a rider, as well as Zarco’s unique personality. “In Jerez, during the race I was playing with the electronics, and it was 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.”
If this first MotoGP podium happens at the next race it would make a perfect story, as the next GP will be held in Le Mans. A place where Zarco will arrive as the local hero—and also under a lot of a pressure. But as always, he takes it calmly: "Time does not frighten me, it's not an obsession...I can be fast, the fastest: but calmly, gently."