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The lessons Vinales can take from Zarco’s redemption

by Simon Patterson
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

The news that Maverick Vinales will leave the factory Yamaha team at the end of this year, halfway through a two-year deal, and join Aprilia for the 2022 MotoGP season, marks one of the biggest contract upsets in the sport in years.

However, it’s not a unique circumstance – and there are similarities (and lessons to be learnt) from the last time it happened.

In fact, it could well be that the incredible story that Johann Zarco embarked on when he announced that he was walking away from the factory KTM team halfway through his deal in 2019 that has encouraged Vinales to make the jump from Yamaha, such are the similarities in their tales.

It’s no secret that Zarco wasn’t happy at KTM almost from day one. News had leaked out pretty early on into his time with the team that his manager Laurent Fellon had rejected a Repsol Honda ride on Zarco’s behalf and without his knowledge in favour of committing to KTM, and that seemed to taint his time with the team from the outset.

From then on, however, it only got worse and worse. The bike, far from being the much-upgraded race-winning weapon that KTM brought to the 2020 season, was still a difficult machine to ride, and Zarco’s struggle with it was all too apparent.


Having established himself as a frequent points-scorer in the two seasons prior when he was still with the Tech3 Yamaha team, the transition to the RC16 was not an easy move to make. Aggressive, unstable and twitchy mid-corner, it wasn’t a bike that you could be fast and smooth on, and that showed in his results.

Three times a podium finisher in 2018 and only coming home outside the top 10 once, it was the reverse in 2019, as 12 races returned a single top 10 finish.

The results were reflected in the garage too, where by all accounts the mood between rider, team and engineers became almost unbearable. With the personnel barely speaking to each other let alone developing the bike, and coupled with Zarco’s fiery personality, it soon became apparent that another year of the same wouldn’t achieve anything substantial.

In the end, it didn’t even take a year, with one outburst too many caught on cameras and a rather swift exit being engineered with immediate effect, as test rider Mika Kallio took over and Zarco went hunting for rides elsewhere.


And from what we understand, things at the Yamaha camp currently aren’t much better for Vinales. A frequent complainer about the Yamaha M1, it’s hard to take him too seriously when his team-mate Fabio Quartararo is leading the championship on the same bike.

But that’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong, and for whatever reason, it’s obvious that after five seasons, nothing is changing for Vinales.

Jun 29 : Why Vinales is ditching Yamaha for Aprilia

Yet with Aprilia, he’s got a chance to reinvent himself not necessarily by finding a better bike (something he is, let’s be honest, unlikely to do at a manufacturer that, while improving, traditionally finishes last in the championship), but by finding the correct space he needs to get his mojo back again.

That’s exactly what Zarco did when he left KTM for the Esponsorama Ducati team in 2020, after all.

Widely regarded as the worst team in MotoGP at the time, Esponsorama had a reputation for being somewhat disorganised and chaotic – so much so, in fact, that before the deal was finalised Zarco declared he’d rather sit at home than ride for it.

But, with a bit of extra support promised from Ducati headquarters in Bologna, he duly put pen to paper and turned up to race last season – and, to his surprise, discovered that his new surroundings actually rather suited him.

Taking pole position and a podium finish at the Czech Grand Prix, only three races into the season, Zarco went on to string out a perfectly acceptable year for the team with 13th in the championship and the vast majority of race finishes comfortably inside the top 10.


In fact, so strong was his reinvention that he was seriously considered for a factory seat for 2021, until Pecco Bagnaia eventually got the nod instead.

But, with Ducati still keen to reward him for his efforts, he landed on his feet on a fully factory-spec machine at the Pramac Racing squad.

And it’s been there that Zarco has really shown his true form when he’s in the right headspace. Far surpassing even his Tech3 performances, he has been on the podium four times in the opening nine races of the year and is second in the championship standings.

Walking away from a team mid-season, never mind mid-contract, looked like a MotoGP career suicide move for him, yet he’s turned it around by remembering one of the key adages of racing: a happy rider on a slow bike is better than an unhappy rider on a fast bike.

Vinales might be moving to a slower machine for 2022, but he’s doing it in the quest for happiness – and if he can replicate Zarco’s transformation then there’s no reason why it can’t be the first step in a new and more successful chapter of his story.

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