Johann Zarco may have stolen the limelight with his Qatar heroics, but his Tech 3 teammate Jonas Folger also looks set to make a big impact on MotoGP in his debut campaign. He spoke to Jamie Klein.
Of the bumper haul of 2017 MotoGP rookies, Folger is perhaps the one who steps up to the premier class with the least hype surrounding his graduation.
After all, Alex Rins and Sam Lowes were snapped up by factory teams – Suzuki and Aprilia respectively – while Zarco arrives as a two-time Moto2 champion and with all the expectation that status entails. By contrast, Tech 3's other rider was a fairly subdued seventh in last year's Moto2 standings – scoring a win at Brno and several podiums elsewhere, but never really stringing together a cohesive title challenge despite his clear raw speed aboard the Dynavolt Intact Kalex.
In fact, that's a theme that runs throughout his entire junior career, stretching back to his days in the 125cc/Moto3 class - where he won twice but never came higher than fifth in the points. Naturally, the mild-mannered and unflappable German ride hopes 2017 is the year he is finally able to prove to the world what he's made of.
"Yes, I hope so," he tells Motorsport.com when asked if he feels 2017 could be his breakthrough campaign in Grand Prix racing. "I hope to improve, especially my consistency over the season. "[In the lower classes] I was always in a difficult situation. Maybe I would have been able to fight for titles in the past on a different bike or if I changed many things.
"Last year, I was fast at the beginning and somehow we lost confidence last year. It was hard to work out what I had to change and what the team had to change on the bike. "We struggled a lot during the season, but I'm happy that this time is over and I'm very thankful to be here. "Always you can see over the years that Yamaha has had the most complete bike over the whole season, so I'm very proud and it's a big pleasure for me to ride the Yamaha. I'm very lucky."
"I thought it was a joke"
One person who didn't need convincing of Folger's potential was his new team boss, Herve Poncharal, who has long been an admirer of the 23-year-old. "Already a few years ago, I always had chats with Herve, and he always joked – or at least I thought it was a joke – that he wanted me in his team one day," recalls Folger. "Finally things came together and we start to talk really early in 2016. I never took it so serious, because it was never a serious talk. But in the end he took it seriously and I was surprised."
During winter testing, Folger was one of the big surprises, beating his more highly-regarded teammate Zarco more often than not and finally ending up seventh in the final pre-season session in Qatar. But it was long before that the man from Muhldorf realised the 2016-spec Yamaha M1 that Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi took to half a dozen wins last year would be one he could make a real impact with.
"The last day at Valencia [last November] I already did a good laptime," he explains. "I was surprised. And then when we went to Sepang, and I was able to adapt quite quick. "That was the moment when I realised – even on a different track, on the first day I could do quite good laptimes, I could feel the bike really quick. That was the moment I realised the Yamaha really suits me."
Too "careful" in Qatar
Testing is one thing, and racing is quite another, however – a lesson Folger learned the hard way during last month's Qatar season opener. Starting from eighth on the grid on virtue on his best time from practice, the German went backwards on the first lap – as he admitted to being overly cautious in the tricky late evening conditions thrown up by the Losail weather.
He eventually recovered to finish 10th, just behind fellow rookie Rins, but it so easily could have been ninth if not for a last-lap error that cost him the honour of being best newcomer. "Especially in the first laps I lost many positions, which was a shame because we had such a good pace," he says of his MotoGP debut. "At the end of the race I think we had the pace like the top five guys. "I think I was too careful [on the opening lap] because it was raining a little bit and the start was delayed. So I wasn't sure how many risks to take. "I took maybe not enough, I was too careful and everybody was passing me, especially in the first laps."
Impressing the big names
Still, Folger's showings during his brief premier class career up to now have been quietly impressive, with his testing form in particular catching the eye of more experienced rivals. "Folger was a surprise [in testing]," said Valentino Rossi. "We knew from Moto2 that he was good, but not a world champion like Zarco.
"The bike they have is maybe a bit more easy to ride and it's at a very high level. The Yamaha is a great MotoGP bike that is a friend of the rider. "In the race, with the pressure, they need time and they need experience – but they did a great job." Asked how he felt about receiving such plaudits, Folger replies: "That's nice! Vale and all these guys are my idols, when I was young I was looking up to them. "Now they give me a compliment, it makes me proud. It's nice and I feel pleased to be in MotoGP."
A promising start then – but what of the future? With Rossi now 38 and far from certain to continue beyond the end of his current contract in 2018, a prize Yamaha berth could be up for grabs for one of Tech 3's rookies. And as the most recent rider market cycle showed, with negotiations kicking off for 2017 seats even before the 2016 campaign had begun, what happens this year could play a part in who goes where in 2019.
"It's my dream," Folger retorts when the subject of a factory Yamaha ride is brought up. "But first I have to show results, show I'm consistent and able to fight in the races. There's a long way still to go."