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Interview of the Month: The Zarco Effect – What will KTM gain for MotoGP™ in 2019 …?

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Interview of the Month: The Zarco Effect – What will KTM gain for MotoGP™ in 2019 …?

Posted in People, Racing

Red Bull KTM’s confirmation of a two-year contract with French ace Johann Zarco is one of the headline-grabbers of the MotoGPTM season so far. What can the works team expect once the #5 becomes orange? To gain some insight into the 28-year-old athlete we asked one of the people that knows him best; Aki Ajo.

The quiet Finn sits in his bare and immaculate race truck office in the Jerez MotoGPTM paddock. The subject of Johann Zarco is an easy one for the former racer to talk about. Ajo has strong and well-nurtured links with KTM and is responsible for the company’s first Moto3 crown in 2012 and continues to marshal the KTM RC 250 GP as well as the official Moto2 squad to this day. Ajo also has intimate knowledge of Zarco, his character and also his development in Grand Prix. He signed a young Johann (the first Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup champ in 2007) for his 125cc squad in 2011 and helped him classify second in the world championship in just his third term. Three years later and they collaborated again in Moto2 and claimed two titles; Zarco becoming the most successful French rider in history in the process.

“I’m not exactly sure when I met him for the first time – maybe when he was in the Rookies – but I started to get to know him in 2009 which was his first year in the world championship,” Ajo says, furrowing his brow and trying to recollect. “In 2010 we had a few more conversations and he joined our team for 2011 and that was his best season until that point. I think that Johann has changed a lot from these times. He was young, shy, a small boy that didn’t know his capabilities and what he could really do.”

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Aki Ajo (FIN) Barcelona (ESP) 2018 © Sebas Romero

Already at this time Zarco was adhering and depending on the counsel and advice of another former rider: Laurent Fellon. His countryman remains his manager and aide until this day. “Laurent was his coach but also like part of the family,” explains Aki. “He was very important for him and at the start of his career was very strict and strong and very ordered … but I think that was good for Johann. 2011 had its ups-and-downs but still good performances and it wasn’t always an easy year. We started to respect each other and both he and Laurent were making comments like ‘we’ll be back with you soon … ’.”

Zarco, eager to expand his experience and knowledge left the confines of the Ajo team for Moto2 and gained six podium results in two years and through a slightly unstable period. His old team manager meanwhile had allied with KTM for 2012 and didn’t look back. In fact, Ajo’s success in Moto3 only fueled his ambition … and made a pathway back to Zarco.

“My decision to go to Moto2 was made very quickly,” he recounts. “I did it on the spur of the moment before the Grand Prix in Silverstone in 2014. I asked IRTA and Dorna if a slot was possible and then my next call was to Johann and I half-joked that he’d be our first Moto2 rider the following year but he and Laurent were immediately ready and just after Silverstone – so only a few days – we had already shaken hands. I have to respect and be thankful to them because they were flexible and appreciated the situation that I was building the team quickly and with minimal parts. They were fully behind it and tried to help find some support and money for the team. He was almost riding without salary but he really wanted to win. His reaction convinced me that I really needed to push ahead in Moto2 and it was much better working together the second time.”

“2015 and 2016 were excellent years and I will never forget them,” Ajo admits. “Johann didn’t have a KTM contract at that time but it was like he was already in the KTM family because we had the Red Bull KTM team in Moto3 and the Moto2 was supported by KTM. Mr Pierer and Pit Beirer said to me ‘Aki, you are a little bit crazy to do this so quickly but we’d like to support you’ and I think they trusted that Moto2 could be something good. 2019 is definitely not the first time that Johann has been in co-operation with KTM.”

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Johann Zarco (FRA) Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup 2007 © KTM

Those two years (before Zarco hungered for a MotoGPTM debut in 2017) produced a windfall. The WP Suspension-shod Kalex gave the Cannes born athlete an invaluable education in tire preservation (Moto2 use Dunlop control rubber compared to Michelin in MotoGPTM) and race management. He totaled 24 podiums, 15 of those on the top step of the box. The potential – that Ajo claims was evident from his first appearances in leathers – had been realized in the intermediate category and those lessons would serve well for a studious, smooth and rapier-effective launch into the premier class. “From the Rookies Cup you could see he had talent but later he had some difficult times,” Ajo says. “He and Laurent were very clear about how they should do things and nobody really stopped them. They are so strong … but maybe their style did not fit with all the teams and people they encountered. Especially in the beginning … but now they have much more experience. They had difficulties but they kept pushing all the time and now you can see where they are.”

Zarco immediately turned heads by leading his very first MotoGPTM race in Qatar 2017. He went on to become a protagonist in the division, a front-row regular, usurper of factory-equipped rivals and Rookie of the Year with three podiums; a tally he has almost bested already ahead of his home Grand Prix at Le Mans. Was Ajo caught off-guard by the speed of his acclimatization to a world of horsepower, electronics and setup work? “I was, I have to say,” he smiles. “I was surprised by how he learned everything so quickly. He also surprised others who said ‘he’s a bit too old’ or ‘he’s been in Moto2 too long’. I was thinking ‘just wait … ’. I have to be honest I didn’t think it would be so quick.”

Johann is an unassuming, low-key and relatively humble ‘star’. He almost doesn’t seem like a MotoGPTM hero. “Yes, that’s true, but in a positive way,” Ajo observes. “He doesn’t seem like a superstar. He is not going crazy and doesn’t focus on things that he thinks are unimportant … like sometimes people do! In terms of his personality he is still the same Johann and he was sitting where you are now for a long time yesterday just talking. I don’t see any change. He is very analytical and focused on racing.”

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Johann Zarco (FRA) Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup 2007 © KTM

Perhaps there are parallels between the two. Asked if he feels like he has played a pivotal role in establishing and helping KTM grow in the Grand Prix paddock Ajo waves his hands. “Nooooo! I cannot say that. I feel lucky. In 2010 and I heard some rumors that KTM were coming to Moto3; I contacted Heinz Kinigadner and Pit Beirer and said I’d like to have a meeting. They were really open and interested to make a collaboration with us. I was really happy about this and thankful it has been so many years already. At the time we already had a partnership with Red Bull – from 2010 – and that helped and it became KTM in 2012. It was a great start and very important for myself, my company and all of us. I’m thankful for that.”

Ajo and Zarco might share humility … but also a thirst for detail that lead to success. Zarco’s signature was sought-after by many but secured and stamped in Munderfing. It is something of a coup for a team that have been on the MotoGPTM grid for just eighteen months but have already tasted GP points, the top ten and have moved through three engine concepts. Aside from publicity will Zarco’s working method and philosophy be a distinct gain for KTM’s objectives? Ajo is resolute. “Absolutely,” he says. “It is also a useful move for the whole KTM family because when a rider like Johann sees potential is there then it opens a lot of eyes as to what KTM are doing. He has placed his trust and his experience in the company, and his systematic working style is important for that type of project to both develop and also ‘prove’ things are going in the right direction.”

For all the talk of development and refinement of the KTM RC16, Motorsport Director Pit Beirer enforced the point that it is “the rider that has to open the throttle” in discussions with the press in Jerez. There is a feeling that KTM have exactly the personnel needed to make the next chop into the lap-times to reach the front.

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Aki Ajo (FIN) & Pit Beirer (GER) Sachsenring (GER) 2017 © Philip Platzer

Photos: Sebas Romero | Philip Platzer | KTM


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      Glenn Coldenhoff (NED) KTM 450 SX-F Assen (NED) 2018 © Shot Up Productions
      Home crowd success
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      Jeffrey Herlings (NED) KTM 450 SX-F Assen (NED) 2018 © Shot Up Productions
      Positive effect
      Strangely enough, the advantage gained from a home race can also affect an adversary. Coldenhoff – in this case being the aforementioned adversary – knows exactly how that works. “Say, you’re racing in France, chasing down a French rider. He’ll be cheered on by his home crowd, which in turn spurs me on to show I’m not affected by him racing at home; I’ll be more driven to pass him.” It’s just one example of psychological warfare coming from the stands. Obviously, riders are constantly trying to get into their opponents’ heads, too, but on occasion that can seriously backfire. Van de Wouw: “Olympic swimming champion Inge de Bruijn once told about an opponent who tried to break her mentally by spitting in De Bruijn’s lane just before they were about to be sent off. Having something like that happen to you, can rattle an athlete. In Inge’s case it gave her an edge, converting the negative energy to teach her opponent who’s boss.”
      The positive outcomes of a home race will also come into play at the oncoming MX of Nations. Though you hardly get the chance to race in front of your home crowd at the yearly MX of Nations, it does have a same sort of vibe around it this time; for Coldenhoff and Herlings it might as well be a home Grand Prix. “I really feel that strongly, because I really feel Dutch. So, it’s an enormous honor to represent my country. That gives me something extra, like a home race would,” Herlings underlines. Coldenhoff shares the same special feeling, going into the annual MX of Nations races. “Those races are something else, something I really enjoy being a part of, being allowed to represent the colors of my home country. Especially since our team has been very strong over the past years, we’ve seen a rise in excitement among Dutch MX fans.”
      The Dutch team is yet to get their name on the victor’s trophy at the MX of Nations, but 2019 might be the year the Dutch team can put their home advantage to good use. Next year will see the MX of Nations run at the artificial track at the Assen TT circuit. Coldenhoff: “It’s a wonderful chance for us, having the MX of Nations at home. Winning is in the cards anyway, but at Assen we’ll have an edge over the other countries. But still, even when you get to race an event as big as that in front of your home crowd, you’re still going to have to make it work. You get no guarantees in this sport; you don’t ‘just’ win the MX of Nations. One small error and you’re on the back foot. From there it gets neigh on impossible to secure a place on the top step of the rostrum. In any case, we have all the right parts in our team to secure the first Dutch MX of Nations victory, on home soil.”
      Assen (NED) 2018 © Shot Up Productions
      Photos: Jarno van Osch/Shot Up Productions | Dre Schouwenberg
    • De Dementor
      New champ on the block
      Posted in People, Racing He just had to score four more points this weekend at the last Grand Prix of the year, but Jorge Prado can already call himself the new MX2 World Champion. An injury forced title-contender Pauls Jonass to undergo an operation and prevented his chances of defending the MX2 crown in Imola, Italy. Just before this unexpected turn, we sat down with the Spanish Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider to fire a few questions in his direction.
      Jorge Prado (ESP) Teutschenthal (GER) 2018 © Ray Archer
      Jorge Prado experienced a perfect weekend in Assen and the battle in MX2 seemed to have been decided. In the far north of the Netherlands, reigning world champion Pauls Jonass had the opportunity to reduce his 24-point deficit, but an injury sustained at the Grand Prix of Turkey, a crash in the first moto in Assen and finally the surgery made it impossible for the 21 year-old Latvian to defend his MX2 world championship title. The crown is passed to a talented young man from Lugo, Spain.
      Jorge Prado has been recognized for many years as a major motocross talent, and that’s no surprise. At just 17 years of age, the Spaniard’s well stocked trophy cabinet already contains several important prizes. So it doesn’t feel strange for him to be world champion; after all, at the tender age of 10, he won the world championship title in the 65cc class. And he didn’t stop there: in 2015 he also claimed victory in the EMX125. The route to major success doesn’t seem far away for the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing rider. After making his Grand Prix début in 2016, it was only a year later, during the fifth race weekend of the season, that he managed to secure his first victory. A MX2 world championship title fits perfectly in the success story of Prado. To get to know the new world champion a little better, we sat together with him while he talked openly about the MX2 title, his native country Spain, and his dreams for the future.
      Jorge Prado (ESP) KTM 250 SX-F Assen (NED) 2018 © Ray Archer
      Had you expected Pauls Jonass to perform less strongly in Assen?
      “To be honest, no. Jonass is always a strong opponent and he’s also an extremely good sand rider. Plus, he knows what it’s like to win in Assen, so I definitely had to take him into account. In any case, it could still have gone any way in the championship, but in the end it turned out perfect for me with a double moto win. Before I went to Assen, I was feeling the pressure. Before the start of the first moto, I was really nervous. It also felt different to usual, because you know this is about the world championship. Fortunately, I got everything under control and I won the first moto. Once I was on the bike, I didn’t feel any stress. With Jonass’ lesser result, some of the pressure was taken off me, which meant I felt a bit more relaxed riding the second moto.”
      You’ve already been world champion, in the juniors. Do you feel the same kind of pressure now?
      “It’s definitely comparable, but this title is a bit more significant of course.”
      Last year you were seventh in the final ranking, and now you are world champion. A huge step forwards. Is that purely down to the experience, that you’re now getting better results?
      “The problem was that I wasn’t consistent enough. I won three GPs and was really often in the top five, but scored zero points in the eight motos. Last year I was still at school, while participating in the Motocross World Championship at the same time. There were a lot of competitions and training sessions on the program, but I also wanted to do as well as possible at school. That didn’t really work. Sometimes I was really, really exhausted, which made it difficult to train well and maintain focus. I was sleeping less, so I also wasn’t getting enough rest. It was really difficult, both mentally and physically.”
      And that’s no longer the situation this year?
      “Correct. That’s why, at the start of the season, I also had the idea that I could go for the world championship. I trained really hard in the winter, but two months before the first GP, I got injured. I was back on the bike just two weeks before the competition in Argentina. But I still knew I had a chance of winning the title.”
      Jorge Prado (ESP) KTM 250 SX-F Lommel (BEL) 2018 © Ray Archer
      And now the time has come, your first MX2 title!
      “It’s the reason why my whole family moved to Belgium, to realize my dream. We wanted to end up exactly here, so that I had the opportunity to win a world title. It’s great that my dream came true.”
      It’s been a considerable sacrifice for you and your family, leaving your home for your dream.
      “It definitely hasn’t been easy, because the rest of the family still lives in Spain. My mum and dad also had to put aside their work to come to Belgium. So they made a lot of sacrifices to embark on this adventure. We’ve lived in Lommel for six years now, that’s also where I went to school. I also speak Dutch now, as well as Spanish and English. I think we’ve adjusted reasonably well to this new situation. In the beginning it was difficult of course, but now we seem to be doing well.”
      What things were the most difficult to adjust to?
      “Almost everything is different, so it takes a while before you start to feel a little bit at home. But now, we’ve even taken on Belgian habits. Such as the time that we eat. Nowadays we have lunch at twelve o’clock, while in Spain that’s much later. The same applies to the evening meal. We used to eat at around nine o’clock, but now it’s more like seven o’clock. But sometimes also half past seven or eight o’clock. Still more like Spanish times [laughs]. We still eat a very Mediterranean diet, only it’s difficult to eat fish in Belgium. And I do really love fish.”
      Do you sometimes miss Spain?
      “Of course, I still feel 100% Spanish. But I’m really happy in Belgium, I feel at home here. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but I think the same applies to my parents.”
      Jorge Prado (ESP) KTM 250 SX-F Semarang (INA) 2018 © Ray Archer
      Now we’re talking about your native country, that’s where your love of motocross began of course. How exactly did you discover the sport?
      “I was born and raised in Lugo, a city in Galicia with a population of around 100,000. Fifteen minutes away from our house was a motocross circuit, but that was the only one for miles around. Motocross isn’t that popular there. My first experience of the sport was with trials riding, from the age of three. My father used to ride and I always loved watching. So eventually, I got a trials bike and started riding myself. When I was six I switched to a motocross bike. I enjoyed that even more.”
      You were successful in motocross pretty quickly. Who was your trainer in Spain?
      “My father, nobody else. He’s only ever ridden at an amateur level himself, but I think he was still able to give me useful tips. If you see where I am now, that must have been the case, right? We’re always together, my father is there at all the training sessions and races. Recently I’ve been training a lot with Tony Cairoli. That’s really important for me, because I receive a lot of tips from him. It’s difficult to say exactly what those are, but he has a huge amount of experience of course. So, he helps me both on and off the track. For example, how to handle fans and the media.”
      Is it true that you also once tried your hand at road racing?
      “Yes, in 2011 I went to see Sete Gibernau [former MotoGP rider]. He has his own circuit and he invited me to come and ride there. It was fun to try and I even had the opportunity to ride Moto3. But I enjoyed motocross a lot more, so I kept on doing that.”
      Marc Marquez also started out in motocross, but eventually switched to road racing. That branch of motorsport gets a lot of attention in Spain. Is there still room left for you in the newspapers and magazines?
      “A little, but not a great deal. Perhaps this will change a bit with the world title. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to increase the popularity of motocross in Spain. Of course, it has also to do with the fact that there are hardly any Spanish riders competing at the top level. If that changes, motocross will get more media coverage. I hope I can help the sport to grow in my country. That children will be inspired and also want to try motocross. That would really make me proud.”
      Jesus Prado (ESP) & Jorge Prado (ESP) Afyon (TUR) 2018 © Ray Archer
      Would you like to actively work on that, on raising the sport in Spain to a higher level?
      “Yes, that definitely appeals to me, but first I have to accomplish my true goal. And that is the MXGP title. Perhaps after that I can think more about my role in raising the level of motocross in Spain. So at this moment in time, I’m not yet focused on that. And I’m still young, so all kinds of things could still happen.”
      Who were your idols when you were a young kid?
      “In the beginning, I had three. First and foremost it was Valentino Rossi, while Adam Raga was my hero in trials. I also had a favorite in motocross: Ricky Carmichael. Later, that changed again. I became more a fan of Marc Marquez, Tony Cairoli, Jeffrey Herlings and Ken Roczen.”
      Back to the present. In an earlier interview you mentioned that, after winning the MX2 title, you’d like to go to the U.S. to race there. Is that still the case?
      “For the next five years I’m staying here, because whatever happens I want to make the switch to the MXGP. And I’m going to try to win the world championship, as I want to be the world´s best motocross rider. Keep going until that goal has been accomplished, that’s my plan right now. And to achieve that, I have to find a way to beat Jeffrey and Tony, in my opinion the best riders at the moment. That’s also the reason I want to stay in the Motocross World Championship. So, going to the U.S. has been put on the back burner for the time being.”
      But still not completely out of your mind?
      “I feel really good in the De Carli setup, and so I don’t feel the need to go to the US. If you’d asked me the same question last year, I would have answered differently. My aspiration for the AMA Supercross was a lot stronger at that time. But not anymore, because the switch to Italy has really been great for me. I have everything I need, so I’m definitely not planning to embark on a complete change at this point. What the future holds, I cannot know of course. I could still decide to make the move. I’m still young, so I can still turn my focus to the US in a few years’ time. In that respect, anything is possible.”
      Jorge Prado (ESP) Sevlievo (BUL) 2018 © Ray Archer
      Photos: Ray Archer
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