2016 Qatar MotoGP Wednesday Round Up: Oppressive Regimes, Muzzled Speech, and Unknown Quantities

There is good news and bad news for MotoGP fans. The good news is that the 2016 season is just a few hours away from kicking off, with the Moto3 bikes the first to go out at 6pm, shortly after the sun sets in Qatar. The good news is that the season opener takes place at the Losail International Circuit, a first class facility featuring a fantastic track, with a good mixture of fast and slow curves, and a serious test of both rider and machine. The good news is that with the switch to spec electronics and the unified software, the racing is set to get closer among the factories, and put more control in the hands of the rider. The best news is that the MotoGP field has never been so strong, so deep in talent, and feature such a broad range of competitive machinery, that Moto2 looks like being much more of a contest this year than it was in previous seasons, and that Moto3 features some spectacularly talent rookies, up against fiercely competitive established riders. The racing this year is set to be outstanding in all three Grand Prix classes.

The bad news, though, is really bad. Of immediate importance to MotoGP fans is that it has rained on and off in the Gulf region for the past couple of weeks, and rained all day on Wednesday. The fact that Qatar is a night race means that if it rains at any time, the track will be immediately closed, the floodlights causing dazzling reflections from any water on the surface, making it impossible to ride. The current forecast is for it to stay dry until Tuesday, but whether such forecasts can be trusted remains to be seen.

The worst news is that the opening race of the season is in Qatar. The first race of the year will be held in front of a tiny crowd (more fans will often turn up at a European track on a Thursday, when there is no on-track action, than on race day in Qatar), at a track surrounded by desert, where sand and dust tends to blow in and cover the track, causing severe tire wear and making the track treacherous if a rider gets off line. Beside the track sits the Lusail Sports Arena, part of a massive expansion of sporting facilities which have cost the lives of over 1200 migrant workers already, and are set to cost the lives of more. You see these migrant workers packed into buses as you drive to the track, on their way to work long hours for little pay, which all too often they do not receive. They cannot leave, as under the country's Kafala system, the employers take away their passports, making travel or complaint impossible.

Geological serendipity

It is hard to imagine a less suitable place for a MotoGP race. Through an accident of geography, the country sits atop a rich seam of plankton which died 200-300 million years ago, decaying under pressure to create natural gas. That gas is a valued commodity, and the billions of dollars it generates bestows accidental wealth upon the natives of the country (some 10% of its population). Some of its natives become so wealthy they can afford to build their own racetracks, and pay Dorna enough to convince them to host the opening race of each MotoGP season. Of course, Qatar is hardly the only morally questionable place to hold a MotoGP race – corruption is endemic in Malaysia and Argentina, and depressingly common in both Italy and Spain – but nowhere are human rights abuses and the suppression of freedom so egregious as in Qatar. Without access to a VPN, 10% or more of even the most innocent Google searches are likely to run up against the country's national internet censorship policy, websites being blocked for no discernible reason. The combination of a vampire schedule and a disagreeable record on human rights is the reason I would rather stay at home.

The ban hammer?

Seen in the light of Qatar's expanding censorship legislation, the atmosphere at the first pre-event press conference to be held under the new FIM regulations curtailing freedom of expression was suitably restrained. Despite the fact that this was the first press conference in which Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez appeared together since the fateful Thursday presser at Sepang, where the 2015 season descended into paranoia and conspiracy, there was no drama, no untoward words, no blazing rows. In an atmosphere which can only be described as Antarctic, Rossi and Márquez deflected questions about their rivalry with vague platitudes, studiously ignoring one another all the while.

Even after the cameras were switched off, the two men were remarkably restrained in their statements to their respective national media, though a little more pointed than in the press conference. Rossi once again referred to the incident between Senna and Prost, telling the Italian press that he did not appreciate the greatness of Senna until it was too late. He praised Senna's audacity in wiping Prost out in the first corner at Suzuka, while insisting that he hoped he never found himself in a situation like that, and then hinting that the danger of such a maneuver was related mainly to the speeds involved. "But I hope that everything is fine," Rossi said. "I hope that there is respect on the track. I hope that everyone races only for themselves."

Was the lack of fireworks down to being muzzled by Dorna? Though Dorna may have had a word, the bigger factor was probably their respective employers. Neither Yamaha nor Honda are keen to see any fanning of the flames of this feud. Both factories had to cancel major PR events at the end of 2015, something which given the money involved will not have gone down well in Japan.

Plus ça change

Did the new Dorna edict play a role? I asked this of people inside some of the larger teams, getting their honest response on condition of anonymity. They confirmed that the new rules are virtually identical to the terms in the participation agreements, the commercial contracts signed between the teams and IRTA, who grant teams their grid slots. "The general feeling is this is in response to press releases put out last year," one source told me. It had not had an effect on riders particularly, sources told me, but it had made the teams a little wary. "Everyone is waiting to find out what the rules mean by 'irresponsible'", a source told me. "Once Dorna tells a team they have broken the rules, we will know where the limit is."

That limit will immediately be challenged, however. "The first thing we'll do if they accuse us is point to old press releases and ask why those weren't irresponsible," said the source. They would immediately use those as counter arguments, in an attempt to get Dorna to drop the charge. It seems like a rule which is simultaneously excessively onerous, and utterly ineffective. The text of the rule (shown below) does not include any penalty, making it unclear just how Dorna intends to punish any breach.

Overall, the impression was that moving the terms of the participation agreement into the FIM rulebook was entirely unnecessary. "It's not in our interest to make wild claims against the sport," a source told me. "This is our livelihood, and our passion. We want the sport to be a success, and we want to be a success in the sport. We have nothing to gain by saying negative things about MotoGP." MotoGP may be a passion first, but it is a business second. And the business is a very important part, for everyone involved in it.

An almost comical moment came during the press conference when the riders were asked how they felt about the responsibility for decisions on dangerous riding being taken out of the hands of Race Direction and put into the hands of the FIM Stewards Panel. The news was met with surprise by nearly all of the six riders in the press conference, who quickly responded that they thought it was probably a good thing. The moment provided an insight into the mind of a MotoGP racer. They do not know the minutiae of the rules and regulations, nor do they particularly care about it. They only want to know what is allowed and what is not, and how they can use that knowledge to try to win races. It takes intense focus to compete in MotoGP. There is no room for fripperies such as this.

Tires and electronics, as ever

But enough of politics. There was talk of racing too. Jorge Lorenzo repeated that he felt that the combination of new Michelin tires and the spec software would make the bike much more physical to ride. More interestingly, he acknowledged that it might not be possible to use his old strategy of pushing hard to make a break from the start of the race. The Michelin tires take a little longer to come up to temperature, and riders who have pushed too hard on a cold tire have paid the price. (Danilo Petrucci was once such rider, now having a total of three plates and twelve screws to hold the three broken metacarpal bones in his right hand together).

Riders would have to change their strategy, Jorge Lorenzo claimed. The truth of those statements will appear in the timesheets over the next few days. If Lorenzo tries to push hard straight out of the pits on some of his runs, as he did on the Bridgestones, then we will soon find out whether that is still a viable strategy.

Scott Redding raised another issue with respect to tire life on Wednesday. MotoGP always races after Moto2, the 600 class leaving big swathes of rubber from their fat tires on the track. "Maybe with the Dunlop it's going to affect the feeling," Redding said. This was one reason he had not done a race simulation at Qatar, but had instead focused on doing lots of runs with old tires. "We didn't want to set a pace, and then in the race feel like, why can't I reach that lap time?" the Pramac Ducati rider said.

The truth is out there, on track

Of course, all there really was on Wednesday was a lot of speculation. Everyone believes the spec electronics will make the racing closer. Everyone believes the Michelins will have a big effect on who goes fast and who doesn't. Everyone believes that the championship is wide open. They can believe that, because testing is not the same as racing. The intensity, the competition, the sheer blood lust for success is all missing. Valentino Rossi expressed it best. "Tests are important, but the race weekend is different and all the riders can do a little bit better and give a little bit more." From Thursday, we find out exactly what the riders can give. There is no place to hide any longer.


New MotoGP rules on public statements:

1.11.4.1 Public Pronouncements by Teams and Riders

a) Teams and Riders must avoid any public declaration or press release which could damage or negatively affect the MotoGP World Championship. Accordingly, it is an obligation for all Riders, Teams and Teams’ directors and/or personnel and/or representative thereof, to refrain from releasing any public pronouncement which may irresponsibly harm the lawful interests of the MotoGP Members or which may be contrary to the integrity of MotoGP or the sport.

b) Public pronouncements which harm irresponsibly the lawful interest of MotoGP or which are contrary to the integrity of MotoGP or the sport shall include, but not be limited to:

  • public statements or comments to the media that irresponsibly attack, disparage, disrepute or damage the MotoGP™ Members.
  • Public comments that members and Riders of the Team know, or should reasonably know, will irresponsibly harm the reputation, image or best interests of the sport and/or any of the MotoGP Members are expressly covered by this regulation.
  • It is understood that responsible expressions of legitimate disagreement with the MotoGP Members and/or MotoGP policies are not prohibited.

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Total votes: 152
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Comments

David, thank you for not shying away from the horrible reality of Qatar, and one of Dorna's many deals with the Devil. Entertainment at the expense of other human beings makes me extremely uncomfortable, and this nasty little place has it down to a science. The World Cup they purchased from FIFA should be especially nightmarish. It's an absurd location for racing, and the exploitation and suffering that went into constructing Losail and Qatar's many other "attractions" should not be swept under the rug.

Total votes: 186

David. You are so very, very good at what you do. Excellence once again. Here... Take some more of my money - I'd hate to lose you or have you go do something else.

Total votes: 135

if journalists let it go and stopped asking questions about it, then he might be able to.

Total votes: 177

Before you pass judgement on Qatar, do pray tell how many innocent lives did that shining beacon of human rights called Britain take in its little illegal adventure in Iraq?

Please keep your comments limited to Dorna/FIM/MotoGP, of which you are an expert. As bad as the conditions are for migrant workers in Qatar, they are worse in their home countries. Nobody forced them to go to Qatar. They are there to earn more than they ever could in their home countries, abuses and all. This is something a white person with colonial privilege, mindset and history will never understand.

Off to FP1.

Total votes: 213

If they were forced or not to go to Qatar is hard to determine but the fact that their passports have been taken away deprives them the ability to go home (or anywere else for that matter) once they have found out the conditions. That´s more or less slavery my friend.

Total votes: 165

Yeah, I'm not going to condone slavery no matter how much worse the conditions are from where the slaves came.

Total votes: 126

"As bad as the conditions are for migrant workers in Qatar, they are worse in their home countries. Nobody forced them to go to Qatar. They are there to earn more than they ever could in their home countries, abuses and all. This is something a white person with colonial privilege, mindset and history will never understand."

It is unfortunate that you are indeed correct. For 9 of the last 10 years I have had the privilege of living and working in many of the Middle Eastern countries: Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia. If not for the imported (indentured) work force nothing would have been constructed in any of these countries. Qatar was not constructed by Qataris, the wonders of Dubai were not constructed by Emeratis. The Middle East would still be an oil / gas filled featureless desert without this imported work force.

The members of this work force are the go-getters of their families. They are the ones who have indentured themselves to these conditions, and indebted their families to huge financial penalties should they not complete their "contracts". They do this to give their family some hope of getting ahead in their own country. Yes when viewed with a "western" eye they live in relative squalor in camps, certainly when compared to our own living conditions. Often though the conditions, both physical and financial, are better than at home.

I am a white person with colonial privilege, mindset and history. I do understand your comment. I deplore the conditions these workers endure to advance their own families. I applaud the bravery and tenacity of the workers. It is hard to write that without sounding condescending, and please accept that no condescension is meant.

Watching the bus loads of workers being driven along, say Sheik Zayed Road in Dubai, or along the Al Khor Coastal road between Losial Raceway and Doha was always accompanied by an internal conflict caused by the contradictions of the achievements we applaud as progress and development, and the human cost in achieving them.

Total votes: 136

I too would like this site to remain focused on MotoGP, and it is. This isn't a political forum, but I think it's appropriate for David to acknowledge a rather large human rights elephant in the room (also it's his site, so who am I to tell him what to do with it?).

No one's saying other countries, Britain included, have unblemished records, but that doesn't negate the issues in Qatar, and right now we're in Qatar. It's tough to reconcile the MotoGP excitement with the human rights issues that literally pave the way for the season to be begin, but let's at least agree the dilemma exists.

On a lighter note, out of shear curiosity does anyone know how many spectators do actually attend this race? I don't recall them ever saying how many in the broadcasts. Is it just that home stretch grandstand and nothing else? Must be a weird place in so many ways for the racers to start the season.

Total votes: 128

Wow, thanks for the #'s Dawg. I wondered if it could be as low as 5000 on race day but thought I was being a bit ridiculous. 5000 for the whole weekend?! I've had bigger backyard bbq's. Not as well lit though.

Total votes: 130

Thanks for that you also have some balls to say truth about Qatar.
I was also surprised that especially Lorenzo didnt know anything about new rules, saying that Wilco will tell him, if need it...

Total votes: 131

As mentioned, Qatar is really a place that tears feelings apart. It offers spectacular racing (like the one witnessed in all classes last year) but you can never shake the human rights violation incidents that go on there. I have some sort of sympathy for Dorna (and most motorsport bodies to be fair); if they act holier than thou, they will never stage a race as most countries in this world have problems ranging from corruption to outright suppression of people's rights. You have to make the deal with the devil, an unfortunate reality for most dealings in this world.

I do hope that they do offer some sort of help programmes, even if it achieves nothing more than a brief smile on the faces of the many who suffer. Racing itself is one such endeavour and they do it quite well :-). So despite the situation, I am eagerly waiting for the bikes to start cycling the track and for the rain gods hold off the rain. I do have a question though, if it rains so much to make the night race impossible, will they run the race during daylight or will it be postponed to a later date on the calendar year?

Silly season also seems to have started in earnest. Bradley Smith has all but confirmed he won't be with tech 3 next year. to be quite honest, an interview done by Herve earlier this year all but confirmed this. Waiting to see how the chess game gets played out, both on and off track :-)

Total votes: 109

It rained a few years ago and they had the race on Monday night. Dunno what would happen if it rained for a few days. I think the Fukushima disaster led to Motegi being rescheduled from April to September in 2011.

Total votes: 119

he will never ever shut up,

maybe if he wins the title this year then maybe he will back down a little ..

Total votes: 155

With feel being consistent at your limits and knowing how to slide / ride- broken in tires / worn out tires / knowing how to and able to back it in... and rock urban areas (that are safe) :)

Total votes: 123

Thank you David for bringing this unpleasant topic to the surface. It is also a part of the circus we all love so much. Like it or not.
I´ve finally pulled the thumb out and became a site supporter.

Total votes: 141

Please let's stop bitching about Rossi (or any other rider, be it Jorge, Marc or A.N. Other) because that isn't what this place is about!
There's a header on the Forum page that mentions "Intelligent Debate" which is what we're meant to be about!
I rarely post on the Forum these days as a couple of things got out of hand --- please don't screw this part of MotoMatters up with the unreasonable comments!
Yes, I'm a Rossi fan!
No, I'm not one of the blinkered idiots!
I was brought up watching the likes of Hailwood, Read, Ivy, Fath, Sheene, Webster, etc, etc! (The list is endless!)

Back to the subject matter - thank you David for touching on a subject that many people avoid because of political correctness issues!

Your unbiased reporting is one of the reasons that I keep returning!

Total votes: 129

Does Rossi imply that he will hinder Marquez if it turns out to be the other way around (Marquez fighting for the championship, Rossi not)...?

Total votes: 123

Rossi has been around long enough to grasp the basic truth that every competitor tried to prevent all the other competitors from winning the championship. It takes more than a healthy ego to keep on insisting that he has been singled out for this treatment.

Total votes: 122

It is not my custom to write about politics on MotoMatters.com, other than as they pertain to motorcycle racing. I try to steer away from them as much as possible. However, sometimes, I allow myself a little leeway, to address issues which I believe are important. This is one of them.

Normal service will be resumed very shortly.

Total votes: 142

The hallmark of this site is the intelligence of the participation, even though we sometimes talk stupid. But it's a good thing to have an issue such as this talked about within our niche, it bolsters that quality of discussion and makes me at least feel that I come here for the right reasons.

Total votes: 121

We are here as motorcycle racing fans, but above all we are human beings, so at least I, feel that you, also as a human being first of all, had to report about the situation you where confronted with, and thank you doing for that. And as we live in the age of internet where choice is abundant, people who don't like what they read here can just move on. It will be better for them and maybe even for us (who we do like what we read here).

Total votes: 134

After a long time i am commenting here. I totally agree with david about the current condemnable situation of qatar. If there would be no poor people, the rich cannot survive so its the duty of rich to look after the poor. I like qatar a lot and maybe i would visit the season opener next year but i am too disheartened by this cruel behaviour of qatari richs. Some strong action should be taken to redress this. Though the attendance is meagre there, i would like to see motogp grow there and an attendance of 45-50 thousand on race day.

Total votes: 105

But why is Nick Harris not part of the commentary team? It won't be the same with out him.

Total votes: 102

mrmakrus, as you've likely now found out Nick Harris is doing the MotoGP commentary for MotoGP.com, while Steve I-forget-his-last-name (Day?) is doing Moto2 and Moto3 along with Matt Bird. I really don't want to disparage anyone especially when it concerns their livelihood and I assume they're doing the best they can, but FTR I wouldn't mind at all if Steve, Matt Bird, and Dylan Gray did all 3 Moto classes as a team. I feel they're currently the best combination, bringing the best insight to the viewers.

Total votes: 123

No offense to Steve and yeah sometimes Nick can go on a bit. But for me it wouldn't be the same with out him. He has been there as long as I remember and I'm not big on change :)

Total votes: 120

Thank you for giving us a view of what is going on in Qatar. Even if we come here to get the latest news on MotoGP, one must not shut his eyes on what goes on around us. I have this dream of attending every races on the calendar if possible. But this place I will just skip, not worth it at all,never. Thank you again.

Total votes: 123