The results sheets may show that Joe Roberts has yet to ascend the heights hit in 2020, but the Moto2 competitor says he is a more mature, stable competitor after switching teams for 2021 and setting up a new European base in Portugal.
By Neil Morrison | Photography by Gold & Goose
It has definitely been a season of ups and downs so far for former MotoAmerica Stock 600 champ Joe Roberts. Non-scores in Germany and the Netherlands just before the summer break took a little shine off the early promise shown in the year—his fourth full season in the ultra-competitive Moto2 category—and saw him drop to 10th in the championship standings.
But in that time, he has adapted to the working method of the Italtrans Team, which he joined at the close of last year. And of the first six races of 2021, Roberts was showing podium potential in four of them (and was cruelly denied third at the Italian GP after being hit with a post-race penalty for exceeding track limits on the final lap). On the whole, there have been plenty of positives to take into the summer.
Joe Roberts’ 2021 season results
Rd 1 Qatar—6th
Rd 2 Doha (Qatar 2)—DNF
Rd 3 Portugal—4th
Rd 4 Spain—8th
Rd 5 France—DNF
Rd 6 Italy—4th
Rd 7 Catalunya—10th
Rd 8 Germany—DNF
Rd 9 Holland—DNF
“I’d say I’m happy with where I’m at,” Roberts told Cycle News on the eve of the German Grand Prix. “I’m probably in the best position I’ve been in my career. Like the happiest team I’ve been in, and the happiest I’ve been with the team. If I could look at the season, I’d like to have had more. It would’ve been nice to win. But I don’t think we’ve been too far away, man. We’ve been close in some races, made a couple of mistakes, like at Le Mans. I’m just trying to be more consistent. I’ve matured a lot this year, trying to not let the pressure build up.
“In the past if I had bad results, it would really affect me quite badly. Not that I’m perfect in that department. After Barcelona I wasn’t too happy with things. But you keep working and try to see the positives. Overall, we have a really strong package this year. There is still a lot of racing to do and still a lot of chances to show what I can do and what this team is capable of.”
Late into his breakthrough season in 2020, when the 24-year-old became a regular top-six threat in Moto2 and scorer of three pole positions and a debut podium, Roberts caused a stir by leaving the American Racing Team and signing for Italtrans, home of MotoGP-bound Enea Bastianini, who went on to win last year’s championship. The Italian setup welcomed him onboard, believing Roberts’ smooth riding style and upward trajectory would fit perfectly with their bike setup.
“They’ve got an amazing track record,” Roberts said. “Most riders that have come through here have gone to MotoGP or done great things. Like Enea last year winning the title. You come to a new team, and it takes a bit of adjustment. And adjustment at this level can mean a little less in results. But overall, the future can be really strong. The way they work is really nice. It’s just very low pressure. I feel like I have the least amount of pressure from a team than I’ve ever had in my career. In the past it was like, ‘Am I doing enough to keep my ride for next year?’ It’s not the case this year.
“They’re just amazing people, man. I crashed out of Le Mans and my crew chief came and gave me a hug and said, ‘Don’t worry, it’ll come.’ That’s the type of mentality these guys have. I’m thankful for them. It would be nice to learn Italian. That would help some areas. But it’s not like determining anything. We get by with the language. In some areas it would make me feel more bonded with the team. But overall, it’s good.”
One of the reasons behind Italtrans’ recent success—the squad has scored podiums with Takaaki Nakagami, Franco Morbidelli, Mattia Pasini and Bastianini in recent years—is Giovanni Sandi, the squad’s technical chief. A former engineer for Aprilia’s all-conquering 250cc team in the mid-90s, Sandi has worked alongside lions of the class, including Max Biaggi, Tetsuya Harada and Jorge Lorenzo. Last year’s title with Bastianini was the eighth of his career.
“It’s funny because in past times there have maybe been crew chiefs I had who I didn’t fully trust their opinion or judgement. You have to try and understand exactly what is on the bike. Sometimes to even go to other people to get advice and then give that to your crew chief. It can be a mess if you really don’t believe in him.
“Giovanni is a legend. I’d never ask him what’s on the bike. I trust he has so much experience and knowledge that he can make things work for any kind of rider or any kind of style by how many championships he’s won. It creates a calmness when you have someone you can trust. I mean, it’s not always perfect. There have been times this year I haven’t loved the bike I’m riding. But I wouldn’t blame anyone. It’s just that we didn’t find it that weekend together. Sometimes it can be difficult with certain things that go on.
“He helps me try and work on some areas of my riding to take the most of it. To be more consistent on used tires [for example]. Fast on used tires is something that has never been my strongest point. As far as the working process is concerned, he’s helping me be a more mature rider and be stronger at the end of the race.”
Italtrans is managed by Robertino Pietri, the former MotoAmerica rider based in the USA. But aside from the Venezuelan, the squad is fully Italian. Does this even inhibit communication inside the box?
“Giovanni, his English isn’t the best as far as fully communicating,” Roberts said. “But with bike stuff he understands what I’m saying. And he can repeat enough that I understand what he’s saying. Anytime there is miscommunication Robertino is there. He helps fill the void. Obviously Robertino speaks perfect English and lives in America. I wouldn’t say that’s an issue, really.”
For 2021, Roberts decided to relocate to Aljezur in the south of Portugal while racing in Europe. Before he had lived alone in Barcelona. Then through 2020’s crazy, compact Covid-hit schedule he had no base to speak of. Surrounding himself with a small group of people has given him a more stable environment, which, in turn, helps him on track.
“I wasn’t really living anywhere, man. I was just floating around like the wind, never settling anywhere. With the schedule last year, it didn’t make sense to settle somewhere because I was only there for a week. I’m not going to spend money on a place when I’m never there. I tended to stay with friends. Like I went and stayed with [former Moto2 rider] Edgar Pons in Galicia last year. I’m doing it a bit different this year. I’ve been living in Portugal with Robertino. Even there I’m not there that much. Portugal’s cool.
“The thing about this year is I’m surrounded by people whereas in years before I’d always lived alone. It honestly got lonely. This is an amazing world, but it can be on the lonely side when you’re traveling from place to place. This year I’ve tried to create more of a community around me of people I like in Portugal. Robertino has been helping me with that.”
That stability has been welcomed, especially after a hectic end to 2020, when Aprilia attempted to lure Roberts to their MotoGP project in late November. Did the fact that a factory courted him provide a confidence boost, knowing that they saw he was potential premier-class material?
“MotoGP, man, can mess with so much of your head,” Roberts said. “Yeah, I had the opportunity to go. But it wasn’t the right time. And to go that late in the season wouldn’t have been cool to my team now. It was the wrong timing. I’ve come a long way in my career. Just in the last couple of years I’ve gone from riding around at the back to being considered as someone that can fight up at the front. I think it’s something that is nice, but it brings a whole different mindset and different pressure. But the validation from a MotoGP team—this paddock is so up and down. You’re hot then you’re not. I tend to block all that stuff out. You definitely get looked at a bit differently when you walk around the paddock so that’s nice.”
MotoGP, man, can mess with so much of your head. Yeah, I had the opportunity to go [to Aprilia]. But it wasn’t the right time. And to go that late in the season wouldn’t have been cool to my team now.
Despite showing promise, Roberts is still awaiting his first top three of the year. What has been missing so far? “What I’d love to improve is my outright one-lap pace. Our end-of-race pace is good, it’s just that one lap that is missing. Maybe that affected me in Mugello. The bike they set up isn’t usually a qualifying setup. I’ve not really been strong in qualifying all year apart from the rain, where I was third. Last year was the opposite, I was killing it in qualifying, with three poles. It’s a different way. To make the bike faster over one lap is a direction that I’m trying to go in with them.”
So, what would represent a good end of season for the American? “We’ve been on the cusp of a podium a couple of times now,” he said. “In Mugello I got on the podium, but the Stewards took it away from me. That was not cool. In Portugal I was super close there. A nice little move from Remy put me out of that one. I think it’s right there, man. On paper it’s like, ‘Oh, Joe hasn’t got on the podium.’ But there are places we’ve come so close. I can really say a podium and win would be nice. I stayed in the class because I wanted to win. It would be nice to get that.”CN
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