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The rider making a breakthrough to awaken MotoGP’s "sleeping giant"

For the first time since 2006, an American rider leads the world championship in a grand prix class of the MotoGP world championship.

Joe Roberts, American Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

MotoGP has a storied history in the United States, beginning with the country’s very first premier class race winner Pat Hennen in 1975 before the likes of Kenny Roberts Sr, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz celebrated title success for America across the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2000, Kenny Roberts Jr took the 500cc crown, before the late Nicky Hayden beat Valentino Rossi to the 2006 MotoGP title.

That remains the last highpoint for US representation in MotoGP. Hayden wouldn’t win a race again after 2006, while the final premier class victory for an American rider remains Ben Spies’ 2011 Dutch TT success.

The last American to race full-time in MotoGP was Hayden in his final year in 2015, while Garrett Gerloff was the last US-born racer to start a premier class event when he was an injury replacement at Petronas SRT in 2021 at the Dutch TT.

The page, however, does appear to be turning. At the end of the year, following the collapse of RNF Racing, MotoGP announced NASCAR squad Trackhouse Racing would be joining the grid for 2024.

Decked out in a stars and stripes statement livery, Trackhouse has lofty ambitions of being so much more than a simple customer Aprilia team. A few months after Trackhouse was confirmed as an entrant for 2024, news came of US media giant Liberty Media’s move to buy MotoGP for a deal worth €4.2 billion.

With expanding MotoGP’s reach in America already outlined as a key battleplan for Liberty – who hopes to close the deal at the end of the year – one rider in Moto2 is perfectly placed as a potential poster boy for the USA.

Raul Fernandez, Trackhouse Racing Team

Raul Fernandez, Trackhouse Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Joe Roberts has had “my journey” in grand prix racing since stepping into the Moto2 category full-time in 2018. On an uncompetitive NTS chassis, he scored just five points that year, while an equally underwhelming KTM frame with the American Racing Team saw him manage one less point in 2019.

A switch to a Kalex frame for 2020 yielded better form, with Roberts kicking off the season in Qatar with a fourth having qualified on pole before scoring a breakthrough podium in the Czech Republic later that year.

Picked up by Italtrans for 2021, who won the Moto2 title with Enea Bastianini the year before, saw him score a first grand prix win in Portugal the following season. But only one more podium followed before he elected to return to American Racing – helmed by Eitan Butbul and MotoGP podium finisher-turned rider coach John Hopkins.

“To be honest I don’t regret it,” Roberts said of his move to Italtrans. “What’s a life if you live with regrets, man? You gotta live it, make mistakes and things. But at the end of the day, I’ve grown a lot as a person, as a rider, and I know for a fact the group of guys that I’m working with wouldn’t have been available for me for that next year. And all the people who are around me right now have come from environments they’ve not been happy with and we’ve just found each other.”

Roberts, 26 – and no relation to those Roberts’ – has made a strong start to 2024. A steady ride to seventh in Qatar gave way to back-to-back-to-back second-place finishes in Portugal, on home soil in America, and last time out in Spain. The latter came from starting 11th on the grid, with a better qualifying perhaps putting him in a better position to breach the top step of the podium again.

But the philosophical Californian didn’t stew over that fact. Second at Jerez, behind Ducati MotoGP-bound Fermin Aldeguer, moved him into the lead of the Moto2 standings for the first time in his career. Coincidentally, the tally of points he now stands on after four rounds in 69 – the number Hayden rode in his career, who was the last American to lead a grand prix championship table and also the last in any class to have three podiums in a row.

“The motto that we always said was ‘maybe these things all happen for a reason’,” adds Roberts. “It’s funny how the universe works. The race today [at Jerez] I could have won, but I wouldn’t have had that statistic of 69 points. The world’s a funny thing and all you can do is your best each day and we’ll see – get those points and see where we tally up at the end of the year.”

Joe Roberts, American Racing Team

Joe Roberts, American Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

Several things have come together for Roberts in 2024 that have seen him following up on his potential. He credits the team he has at American Racing, particular a new data engineer from Speed Up and being able to bring crew chief Mario Martini with him from Italtrans.

While he acknowledged that on the face of it, bringing someone from a team he didn’t have much success with, Roberts noted that it was Martini who was able to get the bike pointing in the right direction for him in the second half of last year which led to a podium return in India.

The other key thing for Roberts has been the switch to Pirelli tyres for 2024.

“To me, I need that feel in the front,” he explained. “You get more feedback and I remember the first time I rode them in Barcelona right after the race last year. Turn 5, it’s a notorious corner for tucking the front. I mean, I crashed out of the lead there. I remember just going in there thinking ‘oh shit, shit, I’m not going to make it’, and I just held the brake and it just went [makes bike noise] and turned.

“And immediately at that point I knew that with these tyres you could hold the brake a little longer and have that last bit of turning. So, yeah, I think it gives you that ability to adjust, move your lines round if you need to. I felt in the past that whatever I have, I can’t move from doing. I have to brake at the same point, turn at the same point, open the same point. And if I blew it by like a couple of feet, it was done, I was just going to lose about half a second. So, there’s just a lot more playability and a lot more feel.”

Strong from pre-season testing, Roberts has been the most consistent frontrunner in Moto2 in what he is branding a “no-bullshit” year. Despite not having a win, he’s the only rider to have scored three podiums in 2024 so far. Asked where he could expect a win to come, he responded, “Shit, the next one man! And the one after that,” before noting that the next run of races through Le Mans, Barcelona and Mugello are some of the best for his riding style.

What’s most impressive about Roberts’ start to the new campaign is that the expectation and rumours of a MotoGP move in 2025 with Trackhouse haven’t distracted him. While it could easily be seen as a foregone conclusion that an American rider will end up at an American team, Trackhouse’s winning mentality means it will be looking for the best option available – and the current MotoGP grid is full of them.

Joe Roberts, American Racing Team

Joe Roberts, American Racing Team

Photo by: Gold and Goose / Motorsport Images

But Roberts is doing something an American rider hasn’t for a long time in establishing themselves as a genuine contender for a MotoGP seat. That’s commendable given not even highly rated five-time MotoAmerica Superbike champion Cameron Beaubier could do that in his switch to Moto2 from 2021 to 2022.

America’s long, successful history in MotoGP has somewhat faded into the background over the last decade and that, as Roberts admits, has made it difficult on occasion “to keep the enthusiasm”.

But his surge in form is coinciding with a major changing point in America’s MotoGP story.

“Well, there’s not been a real competitive American for some years,” Roberts concludes. “I’ve been here and had years that have been good and had great results. But to fight for the title, that was just Nicky, right? So, sometimes it’s hard to keep the enthusiasm. I think America’s a sleeping giant that needs to be woken up… is that a good title? I think that works, right?”

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