MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
Postcard from the Coronavirus Grand Prix
The Qatar GP has been MotoGP’s strangest weekend since 2004 – last weekend it got even weirder
The Qatar Grand Prix has always felt a bit unreal. The first time MotoGP visited in October 2004 the newly built track was a 20-minute drive out of Doha into the desert – the Arabian Gulf shimmering in the east, a few caravans of camels ambling along in the distance, but nothing else.
Nothing else at all. There we were, marooned in a sea of sand, watched over by at least a dozen spectators, wondering what the hell was going on.
That weekend the ambient temperature in pit lane reached 48 degrees, but it was even hotter in the Yamaha and Honda garages. The night before the race Valentino Rossi’s crew rode a paddock scooter onto the grid to use its rear tyre to lay some rubber on Rossi’s grid slot, for better traction at the start. Their trick was spotted by rivals and reported to Race Direction, who sent the Italian to the back of the grid.
Rossi accused title-rival Sete Gibernau of doing the snitching, and called his Spaniard’s team “bastards” on live TV. When Gibernau won the race the following day Rossi vowed he would never win another. Spookily, the curse held true.
Doha wasn’t much at that time: a tiny airport, a few dozen apartment blocks and hotels. Now it’s boomtown. The goldrush – or rather the oil, gas and football World Cup rush – has transformed the city into a concrete-and-glass oasis that’s grown out of the desert, fed by billions and billions of oil and gas dollars.
Innumerable gaudy, glittering skyscrapers rub shoulders with each other, competing for attention, vast government buildings loom like sci-fi lairs of future-world villains, World Cup stadiums emerge through a haze of cement dust and new roads are laid so fast that Google Maps can’t keep up.
It’s disorientating in so many ways, because what’s happening is surely impossible. Doha has done in a few years what took London centuries and New York decades. The boom has sucked in people from all over the world, hoping to scrape a living or make a fortune. Twenty years ago the population of Qatar was 590,000; now it’s 2.9 million; 86 per cent of which are immigrants.
The city’s twinkling, multicoloured night-time skyline is a kind of dreamscape, unless you’re a construction worker. Exact figures are hard to come by but by the time the World Cup kicks off in November 2022, many hundreds will have died from accidents or heatstroke, while constructing the stadiums and other facilities.
Back to the track, where the original daytime Qatar MotoGP race became a night-time race in 2008, staged beneath a forest of floodlights. Forty-or-so huge diesel generators power the 5.4 million watt lighting system – enough to light a road from Doha to Moscow! boasts the company that built the system.
And now the night-time race has become an evening race, because going racing later, during or after dewfall, makes the track too treacherous.
The Qatar GP has been the weirdest weekend of the MotoGP season since 2004 and this year it was weirder than ever.
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.