Joe Roberts says standing on top of MotoGP Moto 2 podium is ‘where I’ve got to be’

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A sip of success for Joe Roberts in the 2020 MotoGP Moto 2 championship has him thirsty for more in 2021.

After two full-time seasons in 2018-19 that failed to produce a podium or points finish in the top 25, Roberts entered 2020 determined to revive MotoGP’s U.S. legacy at American Racing. His elevation to the top 10 in the standings might have caught some by surprise. But as is often the case, it just takes getting all the pieces aligned properly before things start to click. And once they start clicking, there is a lot of noise.

This week, NBC Sports announcer Leigh Diffey caught up with Roberts to get a glimpse of what to expect as the American rider heads to a new team with momentum on his side. This weekend, the MotoGP series kicks off the 2021 season with the Barwa Grand Prix of Qatar on the Losail International Circuit.

“It was a bunch of stuff that kind of came together to give me a great season (last year) and we had some great results – three poles and a podium,” Roberts told Diffey in the interview (video above). “It was something I always felt I could do in this class and finally got the package to be able to do it. It was a great year, but obviously I want more.”

Moto2 & Moto3 Winter Tests
American Joe Roberts and Italtrans Racing Team head down a straight during the Moto2 & Moto3 Winter Tests at Losail Circuit on March 20, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Mirco Lazzari gp/Getty Images)

Roberts’ career-first Moto 2 podium came early in the season when he finished third in the Czech Grand Prix in Round 4.

It almost came earlier when he finished just a little over a tenth of a second behind the third-place rider in the opening round. Roberts scored one of three 2020 MotoGP Moto 2 poles for that race.

“To get a podium is pretty incredible,” Roberts said. “Immediately it’s a weight off your shoulders that you have reached that point.

“But then you look at the guy standing next to you standing first and think, ‘that’s where I’ve got to be.’ ”

Enea Bastianini was the third-place rider who denied him his first podium in the opening round – and he was the rider standing on the top step of the podium in Czechoslovakia.

Bastianini is a great rider to try and emulate. He won last year’s Moto 2 championship. Roberts won’t get a chance to best him in 2021, however, as Bastianini is moving up a division to MotoGP. That left one of the most coveted rides in MotoGP Moto 2 open.

Two-thirds of the way through the season, the announcement came that Roberts would leave the American Racing Team. As it turned out, Roberts’ new ride is with year’s championship organization – the Italtrans Racing Team.

Last year was just the preparation Roberts needs to challenge for the MotoGP Moto 2 championship. Racing at the front of the pack is distinctly different than riding in the middle. When one is midpack, the race is about reacting to what is happening in front of you. The closer one gets to the lead, the more the task at hand evolves to strategy and race management.

“There’s a different kind of mentality you go into a race when you know you can win it,” Roberts said. “It’s something that last year … I don’t want to say I struggled with, but maybe I did a little bit. It was something new to me to be at the front of a Grand Prix race.

“The main thing is figuring out the structure of the race, when to push, what the pace is like. That was something, last year at this track, I didn’t know how quick everyone was going to be at the end of the race. Because when you’re at the back, you’re just working your way forward and doing what you’re doing. You’re not managing a race.”

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Roberts did not stand on the podium again after Round 4, but the remainder of his season was far from disappointing. He finished fifth in Round 9 at Catalunya, won his third pole the following week at LeMans and scored points in four of the next five rounds.

Roberts believes the added experience he gained in last year’s MotoGP Moto 2 competition will be that extra edge he needs to pad his points total in 2021.

Last year’s seventh-place finish was earned with 94 points. But the MotoGP system heavily favors winners with 25 going to first-place, 20 to second, and 16 to third. Bastianini’s championship came with 205 points, so there is considerable ground that is most easily made up by standing on that top podium step.

“There is a lot more different things,” Roberts said about the expectations of a front-pack rider. “Some more pressure. I think that’s stuff that I experienced last year and now I take it into this year and I know more or less the things I need to do.”