Pramac MotoGP rider Johann Zarco has once again been linked to a potential switch to the World Superbike paddock, a move that he has yet again vehemently resisted the prospect of.
Yet while he might not yet be fully prepared to take the step out of the premier class and down to the production racing series, there’s a very strong argument to be made for Superbikes being Zarco’s eventual career destination with current employer Ducati – even if that means a brief hiatus elsewhere first.
Zarco has become something of a stalwart for Ducati since it first offered him a lifeline after his mid-season split from KTM in late 2019.
Ducati made room for him at Avintia Racing by deposing the already-contracted Xavier Simeon, and strong performances at what was then Ducati’s lowest-priority team earned Zarco moves up its ranks to become essentially its racing test rider at second-tier team Pramac.
That’s a path that may be coming to an end in 2024, though – ironically in part because of the work that Zarco has contributed to in developing the Desmosedici into a title-winning bike again.
With dominant Ducati now no longer in such need of someone to fulfil this role of experienced R&D racer, he looks set to be replaced instead by a hotshot young talent in the form of current VR46 Ducati rider Marco Bezzecchi, who Ducati intends to promote to Pramac so he can have the latest spec factory equipment next season.
That means Zarco instead looks set to bring his knowledge to another factory that’s in desperate need of it, with a move to satellite Honda squad LCR on the cards. Zarco replacing Yamaha-bound Alex Rins with the aim of helping Honda dig itself out of the hole that it’s currently in would be a smart move for both parties, even if right now a satellite Honda is not as competitive as a top-spec satellite Ducati.
According to The Race’s paddock conversations, exiting for Honda now wouldn’t necessarily mean a permanent end of Zarco’s time with Ducati.
Senior sources there have instead insisted Ducati would be ready to keep Zarco on the back burner for a rather special role it believes he’s uniquely suited to: replacing current World Superbike champion Alvaro Bautista when his expected retirement comes at the end of next season.
Zarco has been adamant in the past that a WSB switch isn’t on the cards – feeling so strongly about it, in fact, that it resulted in a rather major disagreement between Zarco and me when it was erroneously mistranslated that I had reported he was considering a Honda offer to make the WSB move back in 2019, shortly after his KTM split.
It’s not an opinion that has changed significantly in the interim, either, even if we are back on speaking terms now. Asked about the possibility at last weekend’s British Grand Prix, he was adamant about where his immediate future lay while talking openly about a potential Honda MotoGP switch.
“We must keep the MotoGP options going because I am not going to Superbikes!” he said, addressing me rather than the journalist who had asked the question.
But while that might still be the case for now, the reality is that it won’t always be like that – and, with MotoGP obsessed with the next young talent rather than experience, it’s hard to imagine that the 33-year-old will see out more than a season or two more, even if he is interested in continuing to race.
And that’s where Ducati’s longer-term plans come into effect, with team boss Paolo Ciabatti speaking openly to The Race at Silverstone about the possibility of reacquiring his services when the time is right.
“It’s not a secret that we think he could be a perfect World Superbike rider for a factory Ducati team in the future,” said the veteran team boss, “once Alvaro will decide to stop, which probably will be the end of next year when he will be turning 40.”
Arguably now is not the right time to move Zarco into Superbikes anyway, when Bautista (who has won 18 out of the 24 races of the season so far) is clearly on the crest of a wave and is heading for a second title there.
Instead Bautista is likely going to be joined next year by Ducati’s World Supersport points leader Nicolo Bulega in a clearly defined master and apprentice team. So that means that any potential Zarco move would be for 2025 anyway at the earliest.
But with Ciabatti adamant that everything Ducati has seen from Zarco suggests he’d be the perfect replacement for Bautista, it seems the interest is there – once the Frenchman decides the time is right for the switch, and even if he has a spell with another manufacturer in MotoGP first.
“We think for his riding style, his size, his talent, he would be perfect. It doesn’t look like Johann is interested, to be again totally transparent and honest,” he said. “Which I understand, I mean if you think you have something more to give in this championship… you want to try.
“Obviously it’s a risky situation because on one side you might know that you have two-three-four-five years as a factory rider for one of the best teams, one of the best bikes, with the chance of becoming world champion… but sometimes you think you want to prove yourself here.
“So this is a very personal decision. As I said, it’s not a secret that we would like to see him on a Panigale V4 in World Superbike in the future but from what I hear this is not something he would contemplate at the moment.”
The crucial element there, Ducati hopes, being at the moment. But if it lets Zarco go to Honda for now, it might just have to hope their timescales and desires align in the future if it wants Zarco back to fulfil what Ducati feels is his long-term Superbike destiny.