Neil Hodgson believes that Johan Zarco will win a maiden MotoGP race this season, and deliver a first Grand Prix victory for Herve Poncharal and the Tech3 Yamaha team.
The former British and World Superbike champion made his prediction during an interview with The Checkered Flag, held moments after it was announced that BT Sport would be providing exclusively live coverage of the championship for the next three years.
During our conversation, the BT Sport pundit also hit back at the criticism thrown Dani Pedrosa’s way and claimed that Andrea Dovizioso could be the man to beat Marc Marquez in 2018. You can read the full interview below.
I would like to start off by looking at the pre-season tests that we have had so far (Malaysia and Thailand). What has stood out for you and what have you seen that has impressed you?
Worryingly, it looks like Honda have found something, which is a little bit of a concern. Marc Marquez is an incredible rider and he is having, from what I am seeing, his best pre-season yet. So we are looking at the man who has won four out of the last five titles – the last thing we need to see is him having a good pre-season.
It looks like he has matured. He is only 25. He is a ridiculous talent but his only weakness is the fact that he crashes and maybe his maturity in testing – but it looks like he has got that sorted out, so that is a standout for me.
Yamaha look inconsistent. Viñales looks like he has got a bit lost. That being said, pre-season testing is pre-season testing. They go to some strange tracks. Malaysia is a bizarre one, it’s always really hot and it’s a slippy track. They’ve also been to Buriram. It’s red hot there so you need to come to a cold Le Mans in France when it’s 3° – it can be a different story during the season, so you can’t pin too much on it.
If I can move on to Dani Pedrosa, this is his 13th season with Honda! He has had plenty of success, albeit having not won the title, and yet he gets plenty of criticism online. What is your reaction to the criticism? Is it justified or a little harsh?
It’s really harsh. I bang the drum for Dani, he should pay me!! Bizarrely, he does get criticised. He’s won a Grand Prix race every year for the last 12 years. That’s a record. No one else has done that before. He is guaranteed to finish top four in the world… If he doesn’t get injured.
He will win a race this year, in fact he will probably win a few this year, and he is the perfect team-mate! Honda know they have got Marc Marquez, they’ve got God on their team, and they have got someone who will work with him and won’t let them down. He is a strong number two.
People say; “it’s ridiculous, he should not have that ride!” To which I always say, alright then who are you going to replace him with? And the list of names is bizarre. A lot of people say Cal Crutchlow, to which I always laugh and go “yeah essentially, Cal Crutchlow is on the same bike as him anyway.” He never beats Pedrosa in the championship and Dani will beat Cal seven times out of 10 so give me another name. Then they go, well…… And will say something stupid!
If Dani was to ever switch teams, which bike do you think would suit his style the most?
Do you know what, I think straight away you would naturally say Yamaha wouldn’t you, but I believe in his talent so much and if Marc moved anywhere, Honda would then design a bike for Dani so he would do the first test and would go ‘right I need this feeling’.
When you’re that sort of talent, you know, you could see him jump on the KTM as it is and he would find over half-a-second a lap, which at some tracks, where they are 0.6/0.7s off, would then be 0.2s off. It is the Marquez factor right now.
You mentioned KTM, there have been rumours about Marc possibly going there in the future. Do you think Marc needs to move teams and win the title elsewhere to cement his legacy?
Yes. But not now. If I was his manager, and I manage riders, I would be doing everything I could to keep him where he is – especially if Honda have made a step forward this year. I would be thinking, let’s just do another two year extension on the contract. He will get paid very handsomely, and rightly so, and we will cross that bridge then.
He’s only 25-years-old so no, not yet. If he does want to be known as the greatest of all time, if he continues at Honda and wins all the way through, winning about 12 world titles, he is still going to be considered as amazing. It is certainly going to be something he is going to have to look at.
Would KTM be the right way to go? Are they going to get to that level in the next few years?
KTM will get to that level, I think. They are an out and out racing factory. The bosses there are passionate and every other championship they have ever entered, they have won – they’re the pinnacle of two wheeled motorsport. I would say yes, they have the capability. If they have got Marc Marquez on board, just imagine. Imagine having him as your rider!
Moving onto Yamaha, the factory team struggled last year but Zarco was amazing on the Tech3. Why has Zarco connected with that bike so well, so quickly?
There are a couple of things that have happened there. He is a rookie, he has not had to test anything. He got on a really proven bike and then he has got a really nice combination has Zarco, because he is really aggressive at all the right times, when you need to be in a fighting situation.
He also rides a bike in a weird way, a little bit like Lorenzo. He is smooth. He can use softer tyres better than all the other riders so he has got that combination. I think the way he rides the Yamaha, suits Yamaha. He has also got that aggressive side of him which is the perfect combo so he is a great rider.
He has impressed a lot of people and I think he had a strong year. He could embarrass the factory Yamaha riders again this year.
Is a race win on the cards?
He’s going to win a race, definitely. I’m excited because Herve Poncharal, the team manager, has never won a MotoGP race or a 500cc race as a team owner and he has been a team owner for over 20 years.
He has had some incredible riders and he has had a few second places. I will be in pit lane with the microphone talking to a crying Frenchman when it finally happens, which will be a pleasure. I will have a tear in my eye!
Let’s end with a prediction. If anybody can beat Marquez for the title this year, who will it be?
The beauty about our sport is that there is always the unknown. You just don’t know. Marquez crashes a lot. He can’t crash 27 times again and not pull a shoulder out, break an arm or miss a round – so Marquez could beat himself first.
If he doesn’t beat himself, I am going to go for Dovi. I know it sounds obvious because he finished second last year but the new and improved Dovi, that improved throughout the year, will start the season with his shoulders back wanting to prove he is number one again in that team. Ducati look like they have improved their motorcycle a little bit, so if they have and if it turns a little bit better, then he has a chance of winning more races.
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