The announcement a couple of days ago that I was attending Qatar as a guest of the Fiat Yamaha Team and the Fiat on the Web team drew one comment drawing into question whether I could maintain my journalistic integrity in the face of such generosity. The first day of the Fiat Yamaha Team's road trip to Losail shed some light on that question, and on the question of motorcycle racing in general.
The day started at the hotel, where we were picked up by Aref Akhal, the Fiat Group's importer for Qatar, and a pearl white Fiat 500. The crew immediately started the process of transforming it into an Official Team Vehicle.
With that task complete, we headed off to the Museum of Islamic Art. After a few moments discussion at the gate, we were allowed into the grounds, and stopped to shoot some footage and take some pictures around the spectacular building.
Unfortunately, due to our early start, the museum was still closed, so we headed off to the Souq Waqif, a traditional Arab market and one of the few parts of the capital still left standing before the profits from oil and gas triggered a construction boom. The narrow passageways and crowded shops filled the air with the scent of spices, and the sight of almost everything else you might be inclined to purchase. Though still highly cosmopolitan, the Souq's clientele featured more of Qatar's traditional population, who have been completely outnumbered by the immigrants from Southeast and South Asia, Africa and Europe, with the Arabic dishdashah and hijab on prominent display. But both male and female clothing, though traditional of cut, were made of extremely fine materials, and trimmed with gold thread.
As we left the souq, we came across our first PR setback. We had parked the Fiat 500 between two larger vehicles, and we returned to the car to find an elderly gentleman taking advantage of the natural cover to relieve himself in the space between the cars. The situation was too surreal to raise any real ire, and after checking that the Fiat had come away unscathed and unsullied, we headed off from the old world into the new.
The new skyline of Doha is spectacular, and the pace at which building work is going on is frantic.
Driving through the city center, we then headed off to the Pearl Project, a private construction project which reclaimed land to build a luxury apartment complex and retail center on. It is the only place I've been to so far apart from Andorra - where I saw two Porsche dealers directly across the road from each other - where there was a Rolls Royce dealer and a Ferrari and Maserati dealer on the same street.
After driving around and getting more footage and more photos for use by the team, we hit our second PR snag. The private security firm brought in to protect the property pulled us over, and firmly but politely requested that we delete all the material we had shot so far. Aref went off in search of a higher authority, and after driving off and having our footage reviewed, to ensure we were not damaging the reputation of the project, we were allowed to continue. The final stop was one of Aref's showrooms, where we went in and admired the Fiat 500 Abarth he had on the showroom floor.
Today's road trip around Doha was illuminating, about more things than one. From Aref, I learned a lot about Qatar's history, its economic circumstances, and its future. The most interesting comparison was that Qatar was acting more like Norway than like some other oil-producing countries, investing its oil and gas revenues in creating a different kind of economy when the gas and oil starts to run out, in 20 to 25 years.
But from the Fiat on the Web people, I learned a lot about their goals, and in turn about motorcycle racing itself. For although I am a guest of the Fiat Yamaha team, it is not the team that picks up the tab. That honor, if honor it is, goes to Fiat, the sponsor that spends so much to have its name linked with Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi.
The goal of the exercise - of spending 8 figures on having Rossi and Lorenzo racing, and 4 figures on having me turn up and hang out in a car - is to bring the Fiat brand to the attention of the public, and to create an awareness and a buzz among a larger audience. The choice of the Fiat 500 to link with these road trips is obvious - the shape, staying so close to the original, is iconic, and is immediately recognizable as part of the brand.
I am grateful to Fiat at having been given the chance to come here, to attend the race and to be part of this road trip. But frankly, I am far more grateful to Fiat for spending the money to fund the Fiat Yamaha team, and keep both such a high profile manufacturer and two such great names inside the sport - as I am grateful to Repsol, where I buy petrol when I am in Spain, to Marlboro and Rizla, though I don't smoke, to San Carlo, though their potato chips aren't available in my supermarket, to Pramac, though I am not in the market for a generator at the moment, to LCR's many sponsors, including Playboy and Radio Monte Carlo, to Interwetten, and to Monster and Red Bull, whose fortified sugary water keeps so much of motorsports running. Without their support, and your support in buying their product, there would be no MotoGP. So think of that next time you go to buy a car.
You can see more photos and more videos from the road trip on the Fiat Yamaha Team Youtube and Flickr pages, and get updates on Fiat On The Web's Follow the Fiat Yamaha Team Twitter list.