by Michael Gougis
In 41 Moto2 starts, American Joe Roberts hadn’t gotten within 20 seconds of a win. His best result was 10th, his best dry result was 13th, and the leaders typically were long gone within a lap or two.
It’s not that the talent wasn’t there. A veteran of the Red Bull MotoGP Rookies Cup series, he showed his speed in the U.S., winning five of the five AMA Pro 600 Supersport (Supersport at the time being the equivalent of 600 Superstock) races he entered in 2014 on a California Superbike School/Roadracingworld.com Racing Honda CBR600RR. Two years later, he dominated in the MotoAmerica Superstock 600 class.
When he went to Europe to race Moto2, Roberts ran into many of the obstacles that typically face new and upcoming riders. His first full season was on a chassis built by NTS, a newcomer to motorcycle chassis design and the Moto2 series and not up to the standards of the class-leading machines designed and built by companies with deep racing histories like Suter and Kalex.
And it took KTM most of 2019 to sort out its Moto2 chassis for its factory teams, let alone for a satellite operation like American Racing Team, the team that Roberts rides for.
What changed for 2020?
First, the machinery base got better. In any series as tightly regulated as the spec-engine Moto2 series, one design tends to emerge as the front-runner, and in Moto2 the chassis of choice has been Kalex. For 2020, team principal Eitan Butbul did a deal to put his riders on Kalex chassis.
Second, the team infrastructure got better. I had a conversation in the paddock with Roberts’ father, Matt, in Valencia at the end of 2019. There were a lot of changes planned for 2020, he told me, and one of the ones he was most excited about was a plan for a new crew chief. Lucio Nicastro has worked with Moto2 World Champion Sandro Cortese, Chaz Davies, Sam Lowes and has deep experience in Moto2 racing. When the machines are identical, the mechanical advantage comes from knowing how to adjust them to the rider, the track and the conditions, and Nicastro excels at this.
Last, American Racing hooked Roberts up with former MotoGP, World Superbike, British Superbike, and AMA Superbike racer John Hopkins. They’ve trained together, and Roberts says Hopkins has been a major help in identifying the areas where he needed to improve.
It all came together at Qatar, where he smashed the outright lap record, took pole and just missed out on his first podium, Roberts told Roadracing World.
“I was feeling pretty nervous in the morning, the pressure I put on myself, the support from the whole country, I really wanted to deliver, you know?” Roberts said. “But then as soon as I started doing my warm-up laps, I got on the track and I thought, I was really confident and strong with the bike.
“There was a question whether the soft tire would make it the whole way. We went with the harder front tire. All the rest of the guys at the front chose the softer one. I felt comfortable at that pace, and I was battling on a tire that I really hadn’t used all weekend. In the end, it was a pretty good call.
“Honestly, man, it was a fantastic race. To cross the finish line first (Roberts led a lap), to be battling for first, I haven’t had that my whole Grand Prix career. Of course I wanted to win, and I felt I had the pace to win, but I can’t complain. A really great race.
“The left side of the tire was getting quite cold. At one point in the race, I was catching (Luca) Marini and I caught him but then I dropped back a second when I had a huge moment in Turn Two where I saved the whole front on my elbow. I was about to crash, I lost a bunch of time. And it happened again in Turn 15. With this tire, when it gets cold, it’s hard to get it warmed up again.
“For the rest of the race, I was trying to figure out how hard I could push, because I didn’t want to throw away a great result. At that point, I was in the battle for the podium. But then those guys stepped it up in the last few laps.
“At the end, on the last lap, I figured out basically that I’d have to baby it in the left-hand corners and then I could push as hard as I wanted in the right-hand corners. I wound up setting pretty much my personal best time, which was actually the fastest lap of anybody on that last lap. Honestly, I didn’t want to throw away the result! I pushed like hell to catch back up to the podium. But it was a great race, a great race for sure.”