The Qatar round of MotoGP is problematic for all sorts of reasons. Even setting aside the human rights issues, there are challenges from every direction in staging the race at the Losail International Circuit, just north of Qatari capital. Those challenges are due to the choices being made, and the choices are being made because of money.
The biggest problem is that the choices being made are all slightly at odds with one another. Qatar wants to be the first race of the MotoGP season, and pays a large premium for the privilege. Enough to cover air freight for the series for all of the flyaway races during the season. That need not of itself be a problem, but to make the race look more spectacular, the circuit wants to hold the race at night, under the incredible set of floodlights which light up the track. And of course, because it is the first race of the season, Dorna want to hold it at a time when it will receive maximum media attention. The right time slot for the race in key European markets is important.
This makes planning the time schedule of the Qatar round of MotoGP a giant headache. As more races are added to the season, the race needs to start earlier in the year to prevent the calendar from becoming more crowded. Between 2010 and 2018, the date of the race went from the first week of April to the last week of March, moving earlier and earlier almost every year. In 2018, the race was on 18th March. This year, it gets its earliest date yet, with the race taking place on 10th March, eight days earlier than last year.
The earlier, the trickier
This matters because average temperature in Qatar increases significantly through the month of March. Average minimum temperatures at the beginning of the month are around 15°C, increasing to around 20°C by month's end. After the sun sets, the temperatures start to fall, and at some point, the moisture in the air starts to condense and form dew. This dew settles on the track, and is invisible to the riders, even under the intense floodlights at Qatar. It reduces grip significantly, causing riders to crash without warning.
That was precisely what was happening on Monday night. Roughly half the field went down in the last two hours of the test, all victims of falling temperatures and settling dew. Paddock members, such as Valentino Rossi's mechanic Alex Briggs, were posting pictures of the thick layer of dew accumulating on the roofs of their rental cars from the first night. It was very obviously a problem.
This is the roof of the Renta car at midnight last night. Wet from dew. pic.twitter.com/rSKlg2WSzz
— Alex Briggs (@Alex__Briggs) February 24, 2019
Jorge Lorenzo was one of the riders who went down on Monday evening because the dew. "I got a big crash at the end of the night because the temperature dropped a lot and there was a lot of humidity, a lot of dew and a lot of riders started crashing," he said. "So that's why we would like to speak quite seriously with Carmelo Ezpeleta and the ones who decide the schedule of the race, because if we can put it earlier it would be much better for the safety of the riders. Hopefully we can modify this. Half an hour, one hour. As much as possible because if we are unlucky to have a very humid night for the race it will be dangerous."
At press event held in Madrid on Wednesday, where Jorge Lorenzo was also present, Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta acknowledged that Dorna was open to reexamining the schedule. "We will have to take a look at it," Ezpeleta said. "We will have to see how the weather develops in the coming days. If there is the possibility to do the race in better conditions, we will absolutely do that, because it is already dangerous enough."
At the moment, the race has been scheduled to start at 8pm. This is an hour later than the 2018 race, which started at 7pm. This, in turn, was a change made from previous years, after rain played havoc with the 2017 race, threatening to delay the race. The initial change was to increase the chances of a race actually taking place, creating more leeway in the schedule for the track to dry if it rained, or for the MotoGP riders to have a practice session on a wet track, to see if the reflections from the floodlights render the track unusable or not.
But moving the MotoGP race time to 7pm complicated affairs for the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. The timing of the sessions made for wild swings in track temperature, with the track in the early sessions hitting nearly 50°C, and dropping to 30°C for the late sessions and the race.
For the Moto2 class, there was the added complication of the sunset. The race started at 5:20pm in 2018, while the sun set at 5:44pm. That meant that in a couple of the short straights, the riders were facing almost directly into the sunset. Furthermore, they had to ride through a major lighting transition, from full daylight, to twilight, to floodlight. While such transitions are common in endurance racing, they make life very difficult for sprint races, where riders are pushing at maximum for 40 minutes, and there is no time to compensate for mistakes made due to lighting conditions.
The switch from 7pm in 2018 to 8pm in 2019 would help alleviate some of that. It should create more consistent track temperatures for all three classes, and reduce the effect of the sunset on the racing (the Moto3 race is currently to start at 5pm, and due to finish almost exactly at sunset, 5:40pm). However, if temperature and humidity is like they were at the test, then an 8pm start for the MotoGP race would put the riders right in the middle of the dew point danger zone, with the risk of damp patches forming and causing the riders to crash. That would be a bad start for what promises to be an outstanding season.
No good solution
Is this problem fixable? It is, but unfortunately, only with solutions which are not acceptable to the circuit. If the race was run in May, or in September, then the chances of dew forming at 8pm or 9pm would be minimal, though temperatures during the day for practice would be punishing. But Losail pay a lot of money to be the season opener, so this is a non starter.
Alternatively, the race could be switched to the day time. This would have an added bonus, of allowing the season to start even earlier, which would allow much more flexibility in scheduling the calendar, something which the expansion to 20 races, and the addition of Finland and Indonesia, in 2020 and 2021 respectively, will make imperative. When the calendar expands to 20 races, the second preseason test will be dropped, meaning the season could start as early as late February.
Racing during the day at Qatar in late February would be a solid proposition, with track and air temperatures manageable, and no threat of dew. However, it would be unacceptable to the circuit, as running the race under the floodlights provides a unique spectacle, and makes the race stand out. (It also helps to disguise the minuscule attendance, with around 10,000 spectators at the track on race day, a fraction of the attendance at the other rounds).
And so all Dorna have left to play with is the race start time. And the earlier the season starts, the narrower the window of safe track time they have to work with. There are no good solutions to this problem, because of the conditions involved.
What time with the MotoGP race at Qatar start? There is every reason to believe it will still be 8pm. The two-week period between the test and the race may be sufficient for temperatures to rise, and to push back the time at which the dew starts to form, and make it safe to race between 8pm and 9pm. But if temperatures drop below normal, the hour of the race could be the most treacherous part of the day.
The Moto2 and Moto3 classes are heading to Qatar for a test, from 1st to 3rd of March. Dorna and IRTA will be watching temperature and humidity closely, to see if the situation is improved. But we will not know the race schedule until some time after that. Qatar remains a problematic race.
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