I have waited six years and 209 days to write this blog about ‘The Professor’. At last, a MotoGP™ winner after 120 Grands Prix for a rider who certainly does not fit the stereotypical picture of a world class racer. Johann Zarco’s (Prima Pramac Racing) incredible last lap win was not only totally deserved but universally celebrated. The long wait after 19 previous MotoGP™ podiums was worth it for the double Moto2™ World Champion who is a unique figure in the crazy world of MotoGP™.
It was 1.30 am on a Monday morning at a deserted Melbourne airport seven years ago, when we made our way around the empty corridors to find our flight to Kuala Lumpur, en route to the 2016 Malaysian Grand Prix. I heard a piano playing in the background but took little notice. It had been a long hard and exhilarating day at Phillip Island and piped airport music was not going to stir the soul. Rounding the corner I saw, sat all alone at a keyboard, Johann Zarco happily playing away without another person in sight. The Moto2™ World Champion totally absorbed in his music. The World Champion overcoming his disappointment not to retain his world title that afternoon in the Australian Grand Prix after finishing 12th. He made amends six days later at Sepang.
Three weeks later, the celebrations in our hotel after the final Grand Prix of the season in Valencia were in full cry. Zarco was celebrating with his team the second Moto2™ World Championship before moving onto MotoGP™
As we saw, after that historic win on Saturday, every win for the Frenchman is celebrated with the legendary back flip off a safety barrier. This time no barrier and so the bar was cleared of glasses for the Champion to back flip amidst the cheers.
We nicknamed Zarco ‘The Professor’ for the way he would explain and analyse in detail every question. The quietly spoken Frenchman was like a college professor explaining to his students what had happened in qualifying but of course there is another side. You don’t win 17 Grands Prix and two world titles without a ruthless streak. He had already upset some of his Moto2™ rivals before taking on the big boys. Nothing changed and Valentino Rossi, in particular, was not happy as his rattled a few of the MotoGP™ legends, especially in that first season.
Only once did I witness Johann switch personalities from track to press conference. In Barcelona, an Italian journalist was asking some probing questions about the fatal accident of Luis Salom in 2016. The Frenchman took exception to the tone and threatened to jump over the media conference desk to sort things out. Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda Team) stepped in, to calm things down
Others have had to wait longer for that first premier class win. Jack Findlay made his 500cc debut at Nürburgring in 1958. His first win came at the Ulster Grand Prix in 1971, which was his 92nd 500cc start, a wait of 13 years and 25 days.
Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing) rode in even more Grands Prix before that first win. The Spaniard made his debut at Indianapolis in 2009. That first win in Argentina 2022, was his 200th MotoGP start, a wait of 12 years 216 days.
We waited quite a time for Zarco’s first and only 125cc victory. He arrived as the Red Bull Rookies Champion and that first Grand Prix win came in 2011 at Motegi after six second places that same season. Zarco then switched to Moto2™ the next season and once again he had to be patient before the Grands Prix wins flowed. He started in the 2015 Argentine Grand Prix and 14 more Grands Prix and two world titles followed. The Frenchman switched to MotoGP™ in 2017, starting at the Qatar Grand with that first win coming six years 290 days later in Australia.
I hope Johann found that same piano in Melbourne airport on Monday morning to celebrate in true Zarco style. He deserved it.