At the beginning of the season every MotoGP fan probably found themselves asking the age old question, “Who will win the MotoGP championship this year?” No-one would have found themselves considering a rookie, but had certain races already this season gone a certain rookie’s way, they would have been wishing that they had put their money on Frenchman, Johann Zarco.
Factory rides highly sought after
Every one sought after a factory ride for the 2017 season last year whether they were in the MotoGP class or not. Making the step up and having championship potential winning machinery would have been the ultimate. However, two Moto2 riders were happy to sign up with a certain independent team with a great reputation.
French MotoGP team, Monster Yamaha Tech 3, said 'goodbye' to Bradley Smith and Pol Espargaro and welcomed double Moto2 champion, Zarco (who won back to back Moto2 championships in 2015 and 2016) along with German rider, Jonas Folger.
When the season got underway however, no-one knew the potential they oozed and no-one predicted how much of an impact they would have on the 2017 Championship.
Rookies’ MotoGP debuts in Valencia
The two rookies made their debut in Valencia in 2017; the first of the off-season testing. A day after finishing the 2016 season they got their first taste of a MotoGP bike. The carbon discs, the ECU, the Michelin tyres, and the bigger, more powerful engine were just some of the challenges they had to quickly adapt and get used to, and it did not take them long especially under the guidance of Herve Poncheral and the Monster Yamaha Tech 3 Team.
Throughout the off-season winter testing at Valencia, Sepang, Phillip Island and Qatar, it was Folger who appeared to have settled quicker, and to be the more competitive of the two as he would finish the tests generally above his new teammate.
The season opener came in Qatar a few days after the test and no-one was expecting what happened to happen. Now being fellow Yamaha riders, they were under the guidance of the Movistar Yamaha team which meant they were technically working alongside nine times world champion and racing veteran, Valentino Rossi, and his new teammate, Maverick Vinales who had topped the timesheets throughout the tests.
Fantastic start to the season for the rookies
The championship winning team again looked to dominate at the start of the season with Vinales continuing his testing success into the season opener when he was awarded pole position on his debut after Qualifying was cancelled in Qatar due to rain that brought up other safety issues at the flood lit track situated in the dessert.
Now even more surprising, for his debut, Zarco was too awarded a front row start as he was third quickest at the end of FP3 and so in turn started from third on the grid. Folger was not far behind making his debut from the front of the third row of the grid in seventh.
It wasn’t just luck that earned them the position either, they had the pace and this was proved prior to the race during the warm-up when Zarco was again third and Folger was seventh quickest.
Zarco leads on his MotoGP debut before crashing out
To add to the stress of getting the best start to the championship for all of the riders, rain again fell just as they made their way to the grid after completing their sighting lap. Several riders almost lost it and immediately a big discussion opened up on the start line with riders, team managers and race directors about what should happen with the first round of the highly anticipated season.
Eventually the rain held off, the track dried and the riders prepared to get the 2017 underway. But again, no-one was to predict what was about to happen. It was Andrea Iannone initially led the race on his debut with Team Suzuki Ecstar. But in a shock twist, within corners, Zarco had made his way to the front and on his MotoGP debut, led the season opener in Qatar.
It was extraordinary to see the rookie lead on independent machinery. It wasn’t too short-lived either as he remained there for six whole laps and extended a gap between him and second place man Marc Marquez (Repsol Honda). But he pushed too hard and at turn two of the track he crashed out meaning his reign over the MotoGP class was short-lived.
Folger brings home team’s first points of 2017
It was down to Folger to bring home the team’s first points of the season and after a difficult race that saw him drop to 18th on the first lap, he too showcased his potential when he recovered from this but working incredibly hard and progressed through the ranks to finish his MotoGP debut in 10th and collecting his first six MotoGP championship points.
Folger gets the better start in Argentina
From Qatar, the MotoGP paddock travelled to Argentina where during the build-up to the race, Folger again proved quicker than his teammate. The German rider’s FP3 time meant that he automatically progressed through to Qualifying 2.He went on to qualify in 11th on the grid as Zarco qualified in 14th.
After initially making a great start, Folger who had made his way up to sixth then began to get swallowed up to by the likes of Andrea Dovizioso (Ducati Team) and Karel Abraham (Pull & Bear Aspar Team). Zarco was ninth by the end of the second lap after passing Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team Gresini) and Alvaro Bautista (Pull & Bear Aspar Team).
Both riders finish in the points
Then things began to change for the duo, as Zarco pushed forwards, Folger dropped backwards. Zarco ended up in a battle for sixth before he turned his attention to Danilo Petrucci (Octo Pramac Racing) and Dani Pedrosa (Repsol Honda) were battling for fifth. Pedrosa fell once he was passed and then after Bautista bypassed Zarco for fifth, Marquez fell ahead of them and Zarco crossed the line in fifth collecting his first 11 MotoGP championship points as the top rookie.
Despite losing positions, Folger again began his recovery as he did in Qatar, and then ahead of him Aleix Espargaro took out Dovizioso allowing him to gain two positions. He then recovered the gap between him and Petrucci and passed him and finished his second MotoGP race in the points in sixth picking up another 10 points.
Both go through to Qualifying 2 at COTA
The Red Bull Grand Prix of the Americas at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas was the next round of the season before the MotoGP returned to Europe. This time, their preparation saw them both automatically progress through to Qualifying 2. Zarco started the race from fifth on the grid and Folger was eighth; during the warm-up they were sixth and seventh.
Fastest lap for Zarco who led again at COTA
Starting well from their positions, Zarco set the fastest lap on lap five of the race. He was chasing round fellow Yamaha rider, Rossi on the factory M1 after making his way up to fourth. But then, with 15 laps remaining, Zarco made an attempt on the Italian up the inside of a left hand turn and forced the Italian wide. Rossi picked his bike up and ran over the painted tarmac run-off area and stayed in front of the rookie. Rossi was given a 0.3 second policy but was able to push on and pass Pedrosa in second banishing the penalty when it comes to results.
British rider, Cal Crutchlow (LCR Honda) was on the move despite running wide earlier on and with six laps remaining was hunting down Zarco for fourth. A short-lived battle took place but Crutchlow stole the position leaving Zarco to finish the third round in fifth collecting 11 points.
Strong results at COTA
Folger on the other hand had lost positions again; although he was strong when working on his pace, it appeared he still had stuff to learn when it came to racing in the top class. Still, he put in another strong performance again finishing the points in 11th.
Zarco was on fire! Not only had he already just three rounds in secured a front row start, he had dared to lead the race and take on the ‘G.O.A.T’; it seemed nothing was going to deter the rookie. But there was much more to come from both he and Zarco as they made their MotoGP debut in Europe starting with Jerez.
European debut for rookies in Jerez
Again strong performances during the build-up saw them once again end up straight in Qualifying 2. Zarco secured a second row finish in sixth and starting directly behind him, on the third row in ninth.
On the opening lap, Zarco found himself battling with Rossi once again behind Iannone for sixth in the race. With neither of them willing to give up easily, they lost time and a gap formed between them and the leaders. Zarco got passed and soon took on the other Yamaha rider, Vinales and soon claimed fifth before catching and passing Crutchlow to take fourth. H continued on and at turn three of the second lap, he was third in the race.
Folger was also on the move right behind Bautista and they were able to pass Pol Espargaro (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing) to place them in the top 12. Eventually Folger went on to pass Bautista and the pressure was soon off as he fell and took Jack Miller (Estrella Galicia 0,0 Marc VDS) in the process; Folger again finished in the points in 11th.
Home round for rookie Zarco
Five rounds in it was time for Zarco to make his debut on home turf as a MotoGP rider. Heading to Le Mans for the HJC Helmets Grand Prix de France, the determination that he wanted to do well at home came through immediately. Free Practice 3 saw him finish 15th, but then during Q2 he was in the top two and then joined the top 10 with Dovizioso and went on to claim his second front row start In third.
Folger was finding things more difficult in France as he was 17th on the grid. But then during the warm-up, he was second quickest as his time was just 0.021 off quickest man, Marquez.
Zarco thrived in Le mans
Zarco grasped the opportunity of his extraordinary front row start at home with both hands; he stood and absorbed every moment of the national anthem feeling and looking proud as punch on the grid. When the lights went out, he got a fantastic start and after chasing race leader, Vinales managed to pass and take the lead of his home round after 10 corners of the race; he then did what he could to overcome the flashbacks from his crash in Qatar.
Zarco has a tendency of choosing the softer compounds of Michelin Power Slicks and it seemed that the soft compound in France was helping him. The matter with the tyres though means that he has to manage them well, as does every rider, so that the tyres last. This became the issue in France as midway through the race he first fell victim to Vinales, and then Rossi.
Zarco collects first MotoGP podium on home turf
The Movistar Yamaha dup were battling for the win and a mistake from Rossi saw him crash out with three corners to go. Vinales went on to win, Marquez had crashed behind him leaving Pedrosa with a clear track to push and claimed second, but Zarco also inherited from the Italian’s disappointment and managed to salvage third.
Just five rounds into his MotoGP career, rookie Zarco collected his first ever podium, and he did it in front of all his home fans. It has been important to the French man that he raised the profile of motorcycle racing in his home country and after winning back to back championships and now his home MotoGP, he is surely well on his way to fulfilling his dreams.
Once again, although further down the ranks, Folger once again put in another solid performance. He recovered 10 places in the race and once again finished in the points in seventh. The grand prix in Le Mans claimed many victims, as eight failed to finish the race, but Folger again remained consistent.
On to Mugello hoping for repeat success
Mugello followed and once again Zarco finished quickest during Free Practice 1 which allowed him to again continue on to Qualifying 2. He started the race from 11th on the grid as again Folger started from 17th.
Although the Italian round meant that they weren’t a hot topic following the other rounds, the two riders again picked up solid results. Zarco finished seventh in Mugello collecting another nine points and Folger was 13th collecting another two.
Sombre weekend In Catalunya followed
At the following round in Catalunya, where they had to adapt to track changes following the death of their former competitor, Luis Salom who lost his life the year before during Free Practice, they improved in their positions. Originally after the incident where the Spaniard lost his life, the riders and officials who attended a Safety Commission meeting decided it was best to resort to the Formula 1 layout.
When they returned in 2017, there were track changes that meant that the Free Practice was used to familiarise with the new layout that included a new chicane with a patch of tarmac that differed to that around it. But after the first day of meeting they resorted back to the F1 layout once again. This time it was Folger who topped Qualifying 1 which saw all the Yamaha riders competing for the top spots, and went on to secure eight on the grid; Zarco was to start from 16th.
Tech 3 riders the top Yamahas in Catalunya
Come race day things were looking incredibly positive as Folger was quickest during the morning warm-up session before the race. Seeing Folger return to his competitive form continued on in the race and he immediately recovered a position when he passed Bautista to place sixth at the start of the race. It was not long until he had also passed local rider Aleix Espargaro; his engine then went on to blow before he began to feel the wrath of Zarco.
Both Folger and Zarco progressed passing Jorge Lorenzo (Ducati Team) who was wanting to do well in Barcelona at his second home round of the season. Towards the end of the race, Zarco ended up having to fight off Bautista for sixth and eventually the French man was able to break away from him and continue in his pursuit of his teammate. Folger got his best result of the MotoGP season so far finishing fourth in Catalunya, and behind him his teammate finished fifth. The duo both finished ahead of the factory Yamaha riders who struggled in Barcelona.
Wet weekend in Assen brings disappointment
Assen followed and was wet which meant it proved to be the most disappointing weekend so far for the Tech 3 boys since joining the elite class. During the build-up they were placing well, again. So well in fact that Zarco collected his first ever MotoGP pole position when he knocked Petrucci down to third and Marquez down to second with a last minute lap during Qualifying 2. Folger also qualified in sixth… it looked like come race day they could have been in for a great result.
However, it was not to be. Zarco again got a great start and once again the rookie led the MotoGP race; after a wet warm-up session that saw many riders refrain from participating. The weather had brightened up allowing the track to dry out, but as they lined up on the grid after the sighting lap the clouds rolled in causing riders to panic regarding tyre choices.
Zarco led again at Assen before things started to go wrong
Zarco kept a cool head and led the race after he went round the outside of Marquez at the start of the 26 lap race. Folger had settled in ninth, but then he ran wide and lost several positions that saw him lose several positions; he was at the back of the pack while Zarco was at the other end leading the way.
Zarco created a slight gap between him and second place man, Marquez as a group of four broke away. By the 11th lap, Rossi had found his rhythm and was able to pass Marquez to take second. His focus changed to Zarco soon after and on the following lap the battle for the lead began.
At one point when Rossi was in front, Zarco and he came rather close; so close in fact that they collided on track and scuffed the letters off the rear of Rossi’s leathers. This forced Zarco wide which meant he lost second to Marquez too, and in an attempt to salvage third he tried to force himself up the inside of Petrucci.
A rain shower then hit during the race, and the white flag was waved to let riders know that they were permitted to return to the pits to change to their bikes that waited with a wet set-up. This is then things started to get from bad to worse for Zarco as h made the decision to pit, but then was penalised for speeding in the pit lane which meant he had to complete a ride through penalty, and then he had to start again from the back. Disappointingly, he finished the race from which he started in his first MotoGP pole, in 17th.
Folger collects a DNF in Assen so it was on to his home round
Making it double disappointment for the French team in Assen, Folger collected a DNF. The German rookie crashed out with 17 laps of the race remaining collecting his first DNF of the season, finishing outside the points for the first time and also losing his reign as the only rider to get this far into the season without doing so.
So they switched their energy to Germany instead, heading to Sachsenring for the GoPro Motorrad Grand Prix Deutschland; Folger’s home round.
Folger looking comfortable on home turf
You could tell that Folger was home as after a slow start during FP1 where he finished 11th (his worst result of the weekend) he did nothing but improve. Finishing third during FP3 meant that he was automatically through to Qualifying 2 where he managed to secure another second row start from fifth on the grid. It wasn’t as easy for Zarco however who found himself down in 21st on the grid.
Again prior to the race, Folger topped the timesheets during the morning warm-up. He was ready to race on home turf and much to the local crowds delight; they witnessed a fantastic performance from their local rookie.
Marquez the man to beat after dominating in Sachsenring
Now the only problem for Folger was that the Sachsenring had been dominated by 2016 MotoGP champion, Marquez as he had won from pole there for the last seven years, four of them being in the MotoGP class. When the race began, Folger immediately gained a position but then he ran wide at turn three but fortunately stayed in fourth.
He had a fantastic pace and was soon able to pass Lorenzo to take third and was preparing to make his move on Pedrosa for second. On lap five he passed him and was finally to focus on ruining Marquez’s reign. It was a smooth, expert move that allowed him to pass at turn 12 that began at turn 11 and the crowds roared with delight at seeing their local man take the lead.
Folger leads at his home MotoGP, finishes on podium
Despite coming under intense pressure, Folger was able to keep his cool and remained the race leader for five laps before he ran wide at turn one and allowed the Spaniard to pass. Folger did everything in his gasp to stay with Marquez and continuously applied pressure making the Spaniard work extra hard to maintain his lead.
But, he kept getting caught out at that first turn and eventually made a mature decision to finish the race in his current position rather than risk it all for the win.
Still, just nine rounds in, the rookie had secured his first ever podium which he earned on home turf. He finished second, picked up 20 points and to him it must have felt like a win; it certainly did to the fans that witnessed it in the surrounding stands.
Great performance from Zarco who recovered well
Zarco also put in another incredibly strong performance. Starting from the back of the seventh row he immediately settled into a quick pace and plucked of those ahead of him one by one. His extraordinary efforts saw him finish in ninth in Germany after gaining 12 places overall.
Both riders get to summer break on a high
It meant that both riders finished the first half of their debut MotoGP season on a high and could head into the summer break knowing they had done good. The world championship, nine rounds in sees Zarco as not only the lead rookie, but the top independent rider in sixth. Folger is just one position behind him in seventh; a great result for the two. Zarco’s success has earned him 84 points so far, and Folger’s consistency and latest podium means that he is on 71 points.
Zarco and Folger - the wonder rookies
The two have sort of taken the MotoGP paddock by storm. Not only is Poncheral looking incredibly smug (and so he should) as he has made two incredible signings, they are proving that overall that the Yamaha team is such a professional and expert set-up. This is following on from a difficult season that saw Pol Espargaro and Smith struggle.
The two rookies are like a well needed breath of fresh air in the Tech 3 camp. And, although they weren’t essentially needed in the MotoGP class, they have brought a whole new spark of excitement that have helped with the entertainment factor even more at the start of the season.
Great, solid results from both rookies
Their results, which have included them both getting to the podium is partly the reason why the championship standings is so close at the minute as the top four are covered by 10 points with Marquez just picking up the lead after his win in Germany. They are literally the spanner in the works that have helped to spice things up in so many ways.
Both rookies have great qualities as individuals
Zarco is such a humble man. The way he speaks and conducts himself throughout a race weekend, shows that he has individual targets set by himself, for himself, and that racing is his passion. He loves being there, doing what he loves for himself, his family and friends and his country. He doesn’t have a massive entourage, I believe he doesn’t even have a phone, instead he is one focused and goal orientated talent that has settled incredibly well in his new career.
Folger is a few years younger than Zarco and is loving the entertainment, lifestyle and hospitality that being a top class rider brings but still he remains focused come race weekend. He has made vast improvements even since last year as his crashes came more often than wanted, but this year he has appeared so settled with his new machinery.
What will the future bring?
Will we see the win from either rookie? I for one hope so as it is well deserved. Out of all the rookies it seems that Zarco has the most potential to get their name on the list of winners that has saw five different winners so far.
Both are practicing well and placing well after qualifying. Both are looking strong through the race. Zarco has led on several occasions. The only thing that doesn’t necessarily benefit them is the fact that they are experiencing everything including the electronics, the machinery and especially the Michelin tyres. The victory may not come this year, but surely one is on the horizon.
Either way the two have proved that Poncheral was right to take them on and that they belong In the MotoGP class. Zarco was on his way to proving that anyway with his back-to-back championships (the first rider to ever do that since the Moto2 class was formed), but both have confirmed their potential.
The two are well on their way to helping to secure the manufacturers championship, and appear to have the independent team championships fairly secure at the half way point. Seeing what else they have to offer is incredibly exciting and fascinating to watch… and we can’t bloody wait!