The new American hope in Grand Prix racing Joe Roberts says the overhaul at his American Racing Moto2 team has transformed his fortunes, resulting in him taking a maiden pole position at the 2020 opener, as he reserves his biggest praise for new rider coach and ex-MotoGP star John Hopkins.

The 22-year-old stunned the paddock by topping Friday practice at the opening round in Qatar, before repeating the feat and taking pole position despite setting an identical time to Luca Marini with the American taking top spot thanks to his quicker second fastest lap in qualifying.

On a day which began with Roberts’ home round at Circuit of the Americas being plunged into doubt due to coronavirus fears, the United States rider’s start to 2020 has caught many by surprise as he has never finished higher than 10th in his Moto2 career and scored points on just two occasions last year.

While sticking with the same team this season, Roberts’ surroundings have transformed dramatically with American Racing switching from KTM to Kalex, while he is now working with experienced crew chief Lucio Nicastro and new rider coach and fellow American Hopkins.

Roberts has been given a wealth of experience to rely on in his garage in Nicastro, who previously helped both Chaz Davies and Sam Lowes to their respective World Supersport titles before following Lowes into Moto2 in 2014, plus four-time MotoGP podium finisher Hopkins who enjoyed seven years competing in the premier class.

The complete overhaul has clearly suited Roberts as he becomes the first American in the intermediate class to claim a pole position since Kenny Noyes back at the 2010 French round.

“A lot has changed, we have a great bike, the Kalex which has won the championship many, many times and a bike that I have wanted to ride for a long time,” Roberts said. “Not only that, I have a new crew chief, Lucio Nicastro who has statistically given all the riders he has ever worked with their best-ever seasons. So I am glad I can do him proud on that.

“We have John Hopkins too coming on board who has a wealth of knowledge and has been able to pass on a lot of things to me and I wouldn’t be here without him.

“We have worked a lot together and him being out at trackside seeing the certain things I needed to improve on. Also just keeping it fun, you know, keeping it fun in the box and having a good time. Realising that this is a dream and we are all living it. It’s great.”

While the headline-grabbing changes have made an instant impact for Roberts, smaller technical tweaks are also working well underneath the surface of his outright pace which enabled him to break the Losail International Circuit track record twice (the second time he now shares with Marini).

Roberts is one of several Moto2 riders using a scooter-style rear brake, operating it by hand rather than the traditional foot brake, which the 22-year-old says has given him better feeling for the bike under braking.

“It is like every time I tell my foot to do something it doesn’t really do it like I want it to,” Roberts explained. “We decided to go for the hand brake, honestly the inspiration is from the MotoGP guys as I’ve seen a lot of those guys use that.

“We decided to try it in the test at Jerez and I didn’t ask them to take it off [since]. It works great and you have better feeling with your hand, in my opinion, now we have the auto-blip it is not really necessary to have the footbrake anymore. We’ve taken it completely off.”

While a uniting of nations is a natural partnership between Hopkins and Roberts, their racing backgrounds and subsequent riding styles have allowed the former factory Suzuki rider to quickly nail down where he wants his new protégé to improve.

“Fortunately everywhere he felt he was strong on a bike and everywhere he felt was weak were all the places that were extremely similar to me throughout my career and stuff that I had obviously worked on and remember working on,” Hopkins explained.

“All the little bits of advice and things I’ve been able to offer to Joe he has picked up immediately and it has been an instant improvement.

“We get along really well, he is a great, great guy. I have never met a more down to earth and humble guy.

“The only thing that has been holding Joe back the entire time is self-belief and confidence. I think all racers can understand confidence is everything in racing and confidence breeds confidence. It has just come together in a great way and I am really excited.

“We are looking at trying to start an American Racing programme and academy in America and Joe is heading it right now, he is the role model for American racing. He is the sole rider in the MotoGP paddock at the moment and he is the one on the bike making it happen. I am just offering little bits and pieces of advice here and there and he is making it happen.”

As Roberts and American Racing make an incredible start to 2020, further history awaits them. The last time the United States national anthem was heard after a Grand Prix race, in any class, stretches back to the 2011 Dutch TT when Ben Spies claimed his sole victory in the premier class.

 

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