Joe Roberts was going to win the first Moto2 race of his career, which was the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. He knew it. And, after practice and qualifying, most in the paddock certainly were open to the prospect of it happening.
“It was weird,” Roberts explained. “I kind of got to this super, almost-meditation, super-focused mentality before Le Mans. I was staying up at my friend’s place, just completely alone in the mountains at his house. Every day I was doing the same thing, working the same way, saying every day, ‘I’m going to pole position and win. Le Mans pole position and win’ every single day. Anybody who asked me, what are you going to do at Le Mans? Or what do you think of Le Mans? I said, ‘I’m going to win, no matter what.’ It was kind of weird. I got into this crazy, super-focused mindset.”
Roberts was in the zone and he didn’t want to be distracted from that. So, he opted to drive from Barcelona to France. Alone.
“I just wanted to be in this kind of Zen mode,” he said. “I got to Le Mans and the first time I got on the track I was like, ‘Yes. I love this place.’ I can’t remember if it was the first day I ended on top, or if it was free practice three. I think it was free practice three. I ended practice and I was combined the fastest out of everyone, I think. So, I was like, ‘I’m on track for the pole position.’ I came into that qualifying and I was thinking to myself, ‘Just get out front,’ because I’d done that a lot of times this year. Just go first and be the first one out and just set your times and go. Everyone else thought the same thing. Maybe they thought that I was going to do that, so they wanted to follow me, or everyone else just wanted to get out first as well. So, I just suddenly was surrounded by all these people. It kind of just disturbed me a bit, with everyone trying to follow me. I don’t like that. I like being alone. So, I ended up coming in and changing my rear tire and just going. I didn’t even know if I could get the pole position, but it was like the will of the universe for me to get that pole position because the lap time I did was so not exactly how I wanted it to be. And I came away with pole.”
So, with the scene was set and most of the work done, it was race day. The day Roberts would get that first win after three years of trying. But then the universe took one of its spins and it all unraveled quickly.
“I was really motivated for the next day to finish the job I set out to do,” Roberts explained. “Then it was all kind of crushed after the kind of thing that happened on the grid, just the mishap with changing the bike from wet to dry, just not getting it done fast enough. It kind of really sucked for sure, but it happens in racing. That can happen… mistakes happen. I’ve certainly thrown away a lot of races on my own just by crashing out, so it can happen.”
Zen turned to panic for Roberts as he was forced to start from pitlane, but he regained his composure, put his head down and tore through the field to finish sixth.
“It was still really an awesome race to just come through and pass all those guys,” he said. “It built a lot of confidence for me. It was a type of race that I think is important to have in your career to be able to just overcome a tough situation and try to take the best out of it. I was stoked on that weekend, but definitely was bummed I didn’t get to win.”
That was then and this is now. Roberts just returned to his California home for the first time in five months, fresh off a test at the Jerez Circuit in Spain with his new team – ItalTrans Racing. He was fast at the test, faster than he’d ever been around Jerez.
“It went really well,” Roberts said of his debut with the team. “Honestly, I was pretty surprised how well it went. Not really surprised because I knew it was a great team, but sometimes it’s a little risky going into a whole new situation, but I was confident for it. Honestly, it’s like a family vibe there. Everyone is so welcoming. Normally an Italian team… they never have non-Italian riders, really. So, I think it’s new for them to have an English-speaking person there. They’re just so welcoming and so stoked to work with me. The crew chief, Giovanni Sandi, is such a funny dude but then when we’re working together, he’s so professional. It pushed me to such an intense focus. Not like pressure, but just in a positive way I was just really focused when I got on the track and to give them everything, because I could see them giving me everything. So, it was really cool. We had a really good test. Immediately when I got on the bike I was like, ‘Whoa, this feels different.’ The way the thing handles coming out of the corner is a lot different, something I was looking for. So, obviously, there’s still a lot to work on. We only had one day together but considering that, I had such a positive feeling with everyone. The whole team was after the test like, ‘Man, I wish Qatar was next week.’ So, it was cool. That’s always so nice to go into a situation and everyone is so motivated. That first meeting is so crucial. Honestly, I don’t think it could have gone better.”
Roberts just completed his third season in the Moto2 World Championship. Prior to heading to Europe for a crack at the European Moto2 Championship in 2017, Roberts won the MotoAmerica Superstock 600 title in 2015 and finished sixth in the MotoAmerica Supersport class in 2016. Since then, he’s been the only American in the series. That will change in 2021 when five-time MotoAmerica Superbike Champion Cameron Beaubier joins the series – in the spot left vacant by Roberts on the Tennor American Racing Team.
“Like you just said, those stats before, I was literally nowhere, and suddenly now I’ve kind of revamped the whole American interest, I feel like,” Roberts said. “Now we’ve got Cameron (Beaubier) here, which I don’t want to say is because of me at all, but I think now it’s like, ‘Okay, Joe has done something really well. Look, another American is coming.’ We’ve got Garrett (Gerloff) in World Superbike doing well. So, I think by me doing well it’s suddenly now boosted a huge interest in America again, and obviously with what you guys are doing in MotoAmerica and everything growing there. I feel some things turning and changing, which is something I wanted to have happen when I went to Moto2 because it just felt for American racing that it was kind of dead with everything over there. There were no prospects, nothing happening. So, I can be proud of what I’ve done this year, just as far as what my personal goals are. I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to. Before the season started, I didn’t even know if winning was a possibility this year, especially because my confidence was so down from last year, but the team did such a great job in boosting me up. Obviously, having John (Hopkins) around was great. My crew chief, Lucio, who is such a cool guy, such a different attitude than I’ve ever worked with, that just helped to take the best out of me. But, obviously, there was a couple of rounds that I really wish we would have won at.”
Roberts believes that Beaubier will benefit from arriving in Europe with a massive amount of racing experience.
“I would say so,” he said. “I’ve always rated Cameron as one of the best riders from America. I’ve always thought that. I always thought he should have gone to Europe much earlier than he is. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cameron is up there, let’s say. I’m curious to see how he’ll adapt to the Moto2 bike and I know he got on pretty well at the first test. I like Cameron. I think he’s a great guy, and I also think he’s a super-talented rider. He’s got a lot of experience now. He’s 28. So, there’s a lot that he’s learned about himself as a rider. I’m curious to see where that will take him and where he’ll stack up. I’m just focused on what I’m doing, but obviously now he’s a competitor. Which, honestly, I think is pretty cool. I like the fact that there’s another American there. It’s kind of nice. I see it as such a positive thing for people to see two Americans there and be able to root for us. I just have to be the top American, let’s say.”
So, does Beaubier arriving on the scene pile more pressure on Roberts’ shoulders?
“At the end of the day if it’s Cameron… the field is so stacked that if Cameron is there, he’s there,” Roberts said. “It’s not now that I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to see where Cameron is’ or something. It’s not about that for me. A win is a win in this class, and that’s the important thing for me. My goals, or what I have set out to do, have not changed now that Cameron is there, obviously. I would think it would be pretty sweet to battle with him. I’ve always wanted to race Cameron ever since I saw him race in the Supersport classes when he was dominating. I always wanted to race against him, just because I always respected him as a rider. I hope he’s super-fast and we can have some battles together. Of course, I want to come out on top.”
Roberts will go into the 2021 Moto2 World Championship as one of the favorites to win races, finish on the podium and contend for the title. And those are the things that he pondered when making a decision to turn down Aprilia and the MotoGP ride they offered him at the end of the season.
“I think it’s important to look at what is the dream I set out to do in my life,” Roberts said in response to why he turned down the Aprilia gig. “Motorcycle racing to me… it’s not like a business. It’s not about making money. That’s great. Obviously, I need to live and I need to make money, but it’s about the passion of what I dreamt of since I was a little kid. If I was to turn down a chance to be a title winner or champion, which there hasn’t been an American champion since Nicky (Hayden), and in the intermediate class since John Kocinski. If there’s one thing I think I maybe did too much this year was saying, ‘I’m going to win’ too much. I feel like sometimes it’s better just to keep things close. I definitely think that there’s a good chance that I can be in the title contention, but with the championship anything can happen. I would just love to win races. That’s my goal next year. Wherever that puts me in the championship… if that means I win it or if I’m in contention to the last race or whatever, I just want to put in a super-solid season, and be consistent at tracks maybe I fell short at this year. That’s really the motivation for me next year. Just to be an even better rider so I can go to MotoGP with the mindset of a winning rider. I haven’t won in a long time, since MotoAmerica actually, since the days in Supersport. So, it’s kind of a long time coming. I think it’s an important thing for me mentally that I need to take that next step.”
The next step is the 2021 World Championship in what is arguably the toughest class in motorcycle road racing with fractions of a second meaning the difference between first and 20th in a Moto2 Grand Prix.
“This championship is not so much like grit your teeth and just get it done,” Roberts said. “You really have to think about how to get it done. You’ve got to find the rhythm during the weekend with Moto2. You really have to find how to manage when to just go full out and when to understand the tires, understand the setting. How do I make this tire last for a whole race? How do I be consistent? How do I, at the end of the race, set personal best lap times of the race? Because there’s a lot of riders that you’ll see that they’re right there up at the front, but then in the race they kind of fall back. I’ve had really good results this year, and then the lap time in the race is not even the fastest one. It’s like not even sometimes in the top 10, but then I’ll be battling inside the top 10, let’s say. There are so many different things. It’s so easy to look in Moto2 and go, ‘Here’s the fastest guy right here. Look at the lap times.’ But it’s not always the case in the race. The race is the most important thing. It’s hard to explain, but sometimes you feel like in Moto2 you’re hitting a wall and you just constantly have to try to break through it.
“It’s totally fractions. The mental side of Moto2 is quite hard too. Like in Portimao, I was 18th on the grid, mainly because I was distracted from all the stuff that was going on that weekend, but still I was 18th on the grid and half a second off of pole position. Then in the race I came from 18th to seventh and set the third-fastest lap time of the race. Which I think was actually the third-fastest time of the whole weekend, which was funny. That was because I had already made a decision on what my future was going to be, and I wasn’t distracted anymore.”