Having qualified on the second row in the dry, Zarco initially struggled in the soaking wet early laps of the rain-delayed race.
But as conditions improved, the Pramac rider revived the kind of speed that had put him on the wet Mandalika podium earlier this year.
The Frenchman climbed from tenth to sixth shortly after the middle stages and was consistently the fastest rider on track thereafter.
Sometimes gaining over one-second a lap on the leaders, Zarco swiftly caught and passed Alex Marquez and then older brother Marc to move into fourth.
Race leader Miguel Oliveira and a debut MotoGP victory were within Zarco’s reach over the remaining 5 laps. But the next rider to pass was Ducati’s title contender Francesco Bagnaia and that’s where things got complicated.
Before Misano, Zarco spoke of the guidance Ducati Corse general manager Gigi Dall’Igna has given the Ducati riders in terms of battling with Bagnaia:
“Dall’Igna said ‘if you have the opportunity to get the victory, we do not take [from] the rider this opportunity. So go for it, but be clever. [But] if you are racing with Pecco for 4th-5th position, out of the podium, it can be clever to give him the [position] to get a few more points.”
Zarco clearly had a chance of victory on Sunday but was also – at the time he caught Bagnaia – outside of a podium position.
Throw in the narrow drying line, increasing the risk of contact or a mistake if Zarco tried to pass Bagnaia, and it seems the Frenchman effectively decided to sacrifice his victory chances by settling for fourth, 2.4s behind Oliveira.
“Always these conditions are tricky,” Zarco said. “It’s hard for the concentration and to finish the race is already a first satisfaction. I was expecting to win the race, I wanted to win the race, but the beginning of the race has been quite difficult. A bit too much water.
“I saw the others had a better pace at the beginning but [I knew] as soon as there was less water on track, I can feel better and they can feel worse. But this happened a bit too late. Really, we got this dry line appearing 5 or 6 laps to the end, and it was too late to recover all the positions until Oliveira.
“And at the end, behind Pecco, maybe if I caught Pecco 2 laps before I can overtake him and try to catch Jack and Miguel. But it was 3 laps to the end and I was seeing the risk to overtake him, because as soon as you go out of the dry line, the bike was moving or sliding.
“I could take the risk with Marc, but I didn’t want to do it with Pecco.
“It would have been a pity to make a mistake. Anyway, these conditions were the target for victory, I’ve lost the victory.”
Asked specifically if he would have attacked for third place if it had been any rider other than Bagnaia in front, Zarco confirmed:
“Yes. surah Because it’s part of the race. But since many races now, we [Ducati] say, ‘if you have to fight for victory, Ducati doesn’t want to take a victory away from a rider, but for other positions, if we can calculate a little bit, they will be thankful’.
“As I say, in these conditions, I had to go for the victory, so victory lost, [and] don’t go on the podium. If I still make a podium I’m happy, but I stay fourth.”
Bagnaia: ‘I said thanks to Johann’
Bagnaia, locked in last-lap battles with Gresini’s Enea Bastianini at Misano and Aragon, appreciated Zarco’s caution: “I said thanks to Johann to don’t take any risk in the last part. He said to me that I was fast, strong in the braking and to overtake me was too risky. So, thanks to him.”
Zarco: 3 laps earlier, there would have been playing ‘La Marseillaise’…
Zarco explained that it was riding style rather than bike set-up which meant he was faster as the track dried, while others started strongly but then lost performance.
“We had to adapt quickly,” Zarco said, referring to the lack of any previous wet running during the Thai weekend. “Riders like Jack have an immediate adaptation that is incredible, they did the same in Indonesia.
“Alex Marquez was pretty comfortable also, but then later with the track getting dry, he had some problems. Same with Martin. So it depends on the style and the way to approach the conditions.
“The worst conditions with the water were when the pit lane opened for 10 minutes. I did 3 [sighting] laps, and already on the third lap there was less water and it was possible to ride. So the amount of water really went down quite quickly.
“At the beginning of the race, as usual, there are these two big straights where you can’t see. But you know more or less where you have to brake. But most of the riders closing the gas 100 meters before the normal point, because we can’t see.
“Sometimes we can try to take a risk [under braking] to recover some time, but do it every lap… Because when you do that, you also have the front locking, so it’s really hard for the focus. And as I say, the conditions were really special, because it was warm.”
But had the track dried a little more quickly, the growing performance difference between Bagnaia and Zarco would have allowed for a safe pass, clearing the way for Zarco to then take on Miller and Oliveira just ahead.
“For Pecco, these last laps were difficult for the front [tyre]. For me the front was locking, but I have a different style that I could really use the dry line and get even faster. So that’s why I’ve been limited [behind him] in the last 2 or 3 laps,” Zarco said.
“So it’s a different style. But having an advantage when it gets dry, it’s logical that when there’s a lot of water with not so much grip, then I am in trouble. So I was in trouble for maybe two-thirds of the race, and it was too much to think about the victory. [Then] fortunately, it got less water. If not, then I cannot recover the time I have lost.
“But if it had been drying 3 laps [earlier]there would have been ‘La Marseillaise’ [French national anthem playing on the podium for a MotoGP victory].”
With Fabio Quartararo failing to score in 17th on Sunday, Bagnaia is now just two points from Yamaha’s title leader. Had Zarco overtaken Bagnaia for third, the difference would be five points.