Johann Zarco has been confirmed as KTM’s second factory MotoGP rider for the 2019 season.
Tech3 Yamaha rider Zarco has long been a target of KTM, and is understood to have agreed a two-year deal to join the team during last month’s Austin race.
“It is clear that we want to take another step in MotoGP,” KTM motorsport boss Pit Beirer said. “The first two years were about building up the project and to get everything running.
“You always want to get the best possible riders on board and it’s obvious with Johann beating the factory guys on satellite machinery and consistently qualifying on the front row means he is a strong fighter with a strong spirit.
“I’m convinced we can reach the next level with a rider like Johann with us.” The Frenchman will line up alongside Pol Espargaro, whose contract extension with KTM was announced on Wednesday.
“It was a group effort to get this [the Zarco deal] done,” Beirer said. “We had to trust in our capability to build a winning bike and Johann would not come over if he did not see and feel that trust.
“We feel very responsible now to get that package strong enough so that he can continue on the level where he is. It is our big target.”
Zarco’s strong form aboard the 2016-spec Yamaha since the start of his rookie season last year made him a target of Honda, which has yet to decide whether it will retain Dani Pedrosa.
Suzuki was also known to be interested in Zarco, but its decision to break off a pre-agreement it had with him in 2016 – and sign Alex Rins instead – counted against it.
KTM’s announcement leaves Smith, who has been Espargaro’s teammate since the start of 2017, with an uncertain future in MotoGP.
He finished 21st in the standings last year with a best finish of 10th, with his poor performances prompting a mid-season change of crew chief and then igniting speculation he could be replaced by test rider Mika Kallio.
Smith’s chances of remaining in MotoGP would appear to hinge on a return to Tech3, where he raced in 2013-16 and finished sixth overall in 2015, or a switch to another independent team.