MotoGP: Can Roberts live up to the Qatar hype?
The 2020 Moto2 season certainly started with a bang for American Joe Roberts in Qatar. Roberts set the all-time lap record at the Losail International Circuit in FP2 and started from pole position, becoming the first American to claim a pole position in Moto2 since Kenny Noyes in 2010. Is this a sign of things to come for the young American?
“Before the season started, I just wanted to do better than last year,” stated Roberts. “I had spoken to John [Hopkins] about making realistic goals that I could achieve. We felt being top 15, top 10 was realistic. I guess I blew those goals right out of the water in Qatar.”
For Roberts, the talent has always been there and on display at times. However, he’s never been able to put everything together on a consistent basis. There was always something that held him back and stopped him from truly competing in 2018 and 2019. At the end of the 2019 season, and coming into 2020, the team knew they had to make some changes and go in a different direction. One of those changes was with the bike itself. American Racing partnered with German chassis manufacturer Kalex for 2020, leaving the KTM chassis behind.
“The Kalex has been a big difference,” said Roberts. “Just having the new bike helps. You need the equipment to let you do what you’re trying to do. Team owner Eitan [Butbul] has also done a great job of putting people around me.”
Those new faces include former MotoGP rider, and fellow American, John Hopkins. A veteran of MotoGP, WorldSBK and British Superbike racing, Hopkins certainly brings a wealth of valuable experience and insight to the American Racing team, and a calming influence on Roberts.
“I really wanted a rider coach that I could work with and have some support,” Roberts commented. “Having an ex-MotoGP rider and fellow American has been great. He’s raced some of the same championships as me growing up and I always liked his riding style. I always felt he was super-fast, and I feel we are similar in many ways. Having conversations with him I realised that we both struggled with the same bad habits with our riding.”
What do you think of Joe Roberts?
Triple 500GP World Champion Wayne Rainey
It was really good to see Joe on pole in Qatar. He’s made a huge step and it hasn’t been easy for him. Having an American in the battle at the front of a Grand Prix was great to see again. It’s been a long time and I’m really happy for Joe, his family and team. I think if he keeps chipping away at it, things will start to fall into place and he will get that first win and more. I know everyone in America is pulling for him and it’s going to be fun to watch.
Former MotoGP podium finisher John Hopkins
Confidence is everything in racing and Joe lacked self-belief. Over the winter as we worked together I could see that he has as much talent, if not more, than any of the guys out there but he lacked self-belief and confidence. On the bike his strengths and weaknesses are the same I had throughout my career. A lot of the things that helped me have been instant improvements to him. I know he has it in him, it’s just good to see him making it happen.
Having that experience and steady presence in the team has made a big difference and produced positive early results.
“Everything with John just flows really easy,” observed Roberts. “Being able to talk about riding and those types of things. Having someone to hang out with and talk with has been great. Especially someone I respect a lot. I feel like I can just chill and focus on my riding now. A lot of pressure has been lifted from me and I credit that to John and the others on my team.
Another new face in the team is crew chief Lucio Nicastro. Nicastro is a veteran of world championship motorcycle racing having worked with the likes of former World Champion Sandro Cortese, Sam Lowes and Chaz Davies. His extensive Moto2 experience has paid early dividends in 2020.
“My new crew chief, Lucio Nicastro, is the best crew chief I’ve ever had,” Roberts enthused. “I have a comfort with him and don’t ever worry about the decisions he’s going to make. I feel like he’s making all the right decisions and I just have to focus on riding. It’s nice to have a crew chief that I can absolutely trust, we have a lot of fun together in the box.”
So far, those decisions have been right and have allowed Roberts to compete at the front of the race. That hadn’t been the case for the American in previous years.
“After two seasons in Moto2 I was looking to take a big step in my riding. It had felt more like I was taking a step back though. My confidence was down and even though I still believed in myself coming into this year, you always have those little doubts; would it be another year like last year?”
After the Qatar race, Roberts is confident things will be different. But maybe there are still whispers about ability and consistency surrounding his new-found success.
“I’ve heard all the comments about expectations and learning at the front. I’ve probably watched the race 15 times now. It’s funny, as a spectator you sort of look at a rider in the back of the pack and think ‘if they ever get to the front, it might be completely foreign to them. They probably won’t know what to do.’ But I’ve run up front plenty of times racing in the US.
“As a rider you know how to be at the front and how to battle. In the past we didn’t have the equipment to run up front. It’s just being patient and letting the race come to you. It’s funny how normal being at the front becomes. I’ve visualized being up front, leading laps, crossing the finish line. It’s definitely weird when it all comes to reality but it has become the new normal in my head. There are certainly some things I can learn from that race; we obviously didn’t win. I want to focus more on the last laps, taking more advantage of the tyres.”
While things have changed within the American Racing Team, things have changed within the Moto2 grid as well for 2020. Gone are the likes of 2019 champion Alex Marquez and runner-up Brad Binder. Where does Roberts hope to see himself as the season unfolds?
“It wasn’t a fluke that we were setting a lap record in Qatar. It wasn’t a one-off thing. I’d like to be battling for the championship and that’s been my goal since I came here; to win a world championship.”
Decades ago, Americans dominated the sport. Riders like Kenny Roberts (no relation), Freddie Spencer, Randy Mamola, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, John Kocinski and Wayne Rainey dominated the grids of the 1980s and early 1990s. The turn of the century saw the rise of Kenny Roberts Jr and Nicky Hayden. However, the list of American riders competing in Moto2 or MotoGP has dwindled over the last fifteen years. Carrying the flag as the only American on the grid brought its own set of pressures for Roberts.
“I definitely think in years past it was a lot of pressure. I had a lot of heroes that I looked up to and I wanted to do them proud, I wanted to do great for America and prove I wasn’t just another rider coming over here. I wanted to show I was something different. The pressure was hard but I realized that at the end of the day, I’m just racing a bunch of riders regardless of nationality. I really started to believe in myself again after Qatar. I’m ready to get back racing as soon as we can.”