Times are hard for American racers in the Grand Prix paddock. The series has seen a dearth of riders from the USA since Nicky Hayden left for the WorldSBK paddock after holding the fort for fourteen season, winning a MotoGP title along the way. Motorcycle racing in the US is clearly in a rebuilding phase, the MotoAmerica series focused on producing and encouraging new talent.
There are signs that it is working. Cameron Beaubier is taking on multiple champion and veteran racer Josh Hayes and winning. Jake Gagne, JD Beach, and Garrett Gerloff are all promising young racers capable of going places. But few have taken the leap of faith required to come racing in Europe. Josh Herrin tried in 2014, but never found his feet in the tough Moto2 class.
Now, there is Joe Roberts. The 20-year-old Californian moved to Europe this year after spending three years in MotoAmerica, winning the Superstock 600 title in 2015. He already had some experience, having raced in the Red Bull Rookies for a couple of seasons. He started the 2017 season racing in the FIM CEV Moto2 championship for the AGR team, alongside fellow American Jayson Uribe. When AGR parted ways with Yonny Hernandez in July after the Sachsenring, the team asked Roberts to step up the Moto2 world championship. It was not a particularly hard choice, as that was precisely the reason Roberts had come to Europe in the first place.
Moto2, the toughest class in the world
But the Moto2 world championship is arguably the toughest class in all of motorcycle racing. Times are tight, so much so that a couple of tenths during qualifying can translate to three or four rows on the grid. World championship points are like gold dust, and are often the difference between keeping and losing a ride the following season. Battles are ferocious, no quarter asked nor given, as Roberts found out in his first race at Brno.
"First thing I can say is riders in the world championship are freaking ***holes," was Roberts first reaction after the race in Brno. "They are. They’re like hitting me. I think [Remy] Gardner tried pushing me off the track. I was like, okay. This is how we’ll have to play it." Roberts survived the baptism of fire, making it through on a wet track to take a remarkable tenth place in the restarted race.
"On the first laps I was riding around, I was feeling pretty good. I was like," Roberts said. "I think I can do a good race. I didn’t know I’d make it up to the top ten, but I was just kind of riding around. It was a little sketchy. The bike was sliding around a lot. If you got out on the kerbs the thing would just spin out. So, it was like trying to stay off the kerbing as much as possible."
Seizing the opportunity
The wet had been a boon for Roberts, allowing the American to show what he could do "I love the rain. It’s always been a fun thing for me. A fun fact is actually that this track in the Rookies Cup we started the race off and it was dry, and I was having so many problems with my bike and everything and I fell back to last place. The same thing – the rain came and stopped the race and I had to start at the back, and I won the race. I didn’t quite win the race today, but I think that’s pretty funny. But anyway, it was fantastic. I’m so happy to get this. It’s amazing to come in and already been in the top ten on the first race."
Riding in the wet wasn't something which came naturally to the American,though. It was something he had been forced to learn, and riding dirt track had helped. "You know what? I actually wasn’t always good in the wet. In the Rookies Cup I hated the wet. Then I had one good race here, and then the next weekend I think it was wet and I didn’t like it. But then I went back to America on a 600 and it was a wet practice and I didn’t really know what to expect. I went out and found this new kind of love for it. Kind of found some new feelings and new ideas. I think riding flat track helped a lot too because I learned how to have really good throttle control in slippery conditions. It’s sliding going into the corner, or in the corner the rear is sliding. You just don’t have to panic. There’s a couple things that over a period of time I’ve come to love the wet."
New championship, new bike
Riding in the dry was tougher, especially as he had so many things to learn. Roberts knew the Brno circuit from his time in the Red Bull Rookies, and he was racing a Moto2 Kalex when he received the call to go to the world championship. But there were still a lot of differences, between the two bikes, and Roberts still had to find some feeling with the bike in the dry.
"I need to improve on the dry," Roberts said. "I’m only like 2.1 seconds off, but I’m not quite comfortable yet with this bike. It doesn’t quite feel the same as my CEV bike. I’m still struggling to find that kind of feeling that makes me like, now I can really go for it. The thing is that the CEV bike is just an older generation of this bike. This is a 2017. The one I’m riding is a 2015. So, there’s some different things. The forks are a little different. The brakes are a little different. The shock is a little different, and of course the frame is a little different. So, there’s always a little bit of an adjusting period to come with it."
The mixed weather conditions at Brno had not helped Roberts adapt to the world championship bike. "I think this weekend has been difficult because we started the first session off in the wet, so we’re already kind of behind on everything. So, kind of qualifying to me is more my free practice 3. I think though I’m getting the feeling of it a little more. Starting to work with my new crew a little more because it’s new guys and everything."
There was much to learn. "It’s hard. There’s a couple things I’m looking for in the front to kind of give me the confidence to really get into the corner. Then just opening the throttle – I just feel that I can’t get out of the corner. It’s all a learning curve. I wasn’t like way off the pace. Moto2 as you know is I think the hardest championship in the world, like we were talking about. I think we’ve shown some potential. I got another four races, so we’ll see what I can do. Let’s hope a couple more of them are wet."
In at the deep end
At Brno, Roberts had made up a lot of places in the first couple of laps, after starting from 29th. "I got a pretty good start. The first corner I just railed around the outside of everybody. They were all kind of just timid through there and didn’t really want to lean it over. I just kind of went around the outside and made up a few positions there. Found I was pretty strong on the brakes, so I was kind of making some passes there. It was so twitchy. I was just trying to be as smooth as possible and just really not be too aggressive with the throttle and keep the bike upright."
The fight grew fiercer as he made his way forward. "When I started getting up to the top positions, I didn’t really know where I was. There were so many riders that I was like, I’m just going to keep picking off as many as possible. And then I looked and saw I was like thirteenth and then twelfth. I could see the guys in the top ten. I was kind of gaining on them. So, I was like, I’m going to try."
Was tenth so much better than finishing eleventh? "Oh yeah. Eleventh is like you almost got there. It’s not quite like, I got there." Being tenth had left him hungry for more, however. "The thing about ten is that you want to be five, then you want to be on the podium, then you want to win. But, this is amazing to get this top ten. I think it’s great. I couldn’t ask for more out of this weekend, really. "
Moving to Europe wasn't without risk, but it was necessary if Roberts is to fulfill his dream of succeeding in the Grand Prix paddock. "It’s always a little bit of a gamble coming here because you’ve seen plenty of riders’ careers go down because they come here and not done well. I definitely need to do well here," he said.
His team have been patient with so far, however, and tried not to put too much pressure on him. "The whole terms of everything wasn’t like, come in and be top ten right away. It’s kind of let’s just see how it goes. I’ve proven this year on the European Championship that I could be quite competitive with this bike. And the times compared to the world guys have been not too bad, pretty close. So, I think everyone was just curious to see how I would do. We still need to find a couple more steps with the bike, but we’ll find it. So far so good."
Roberts is now based permanently in Europe, rather than flying back and forth between California and Europe. "I’ve been basing myself out of Barcelona," he said. "The team is from there and I have some people, a friend of mine I can train with all the time and ride supermoto, flat track, motocross, anything. Better to be on the time zone and kind of be integrated with the culture."
Recognizing and adapting to that culture was important, Roberts said. "It’s a different culture. I think if you always think about things the American way, I don’t think you quite adapt so well. You have to kind of embrace the culture you’re racing – well, I was racing in Europe. So, I needed to kind of do things their way. So, you have to learn that. I think that’s the important thing."
Gathering the background information for long articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, buying the beautiful MotoMatters.com 2017 racing calendar, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.