After the late change of schedule, the lightweight class got all the best views while the sun was retreating at Losail. However, with one eye on the provisional top 14 ahead of qualifying day, there was little time to enjoy the views. Raul Fernandez ended Day 1 as the fastest rider after dropping his laptime to mid 2:04s, one tenth of a second faster than Darryn Binder. FP1 leader Sergio Garcia kept close to finish the day third, with Ai Ogura also at the top end of proceedings after leading the action early on.
The intermediate class was in such a rush to get the season underway that much of the early action was concentrated in the run-off area at turn six, where some fairly experienced names like Xavi Vierge, Enea Bastianini and Jorge Navarro got some early tumbles out of the way. Once the dust had settled, Tom Luthi set camp at the top of the timesheets and could not be moved until the checkered flag. Jorge Martin was back in action after a troublesome winter and proved that his speed didn’t go anywhere, the Spaniard trailing the Swiss rider by less than two hundredths of a second.
After all the obstacles in its way, the 2020 season has finally and officially started with Doha gleaming in the backdrop of shiny new Moto3 machines. Straight off the back of a serendipitous test, the lightweight class got up to speed real fast, with Tatsuki Suzuki leading most of the first practice session of the season. The pace hotted up even more for the final five minutes, when a tentative time attack saw Valencia victor Sergio Garcia take over the top of the timesheets.
Eerie. That was how a Dutch colleague described the MotoGP paddock at Qatar. Using the English word, after which we both struggled to find the right Dutch word to describe the same atmosphere. That is the joy of language, of course, that one language can have a word that perfectly encapsulates an emotion, an atmosphere, a concept, where others need half a sentence or more. In this case, English came up with the goods.
Lost. That was another word that was used. "We are all feeling a bit lost," Red Bull Tech 3 KTM team boss Hervé Poncharal said, as he stood outside the garage of his MotoGP team, where staff were busy packing bikes and equipment into flight cases and packing boxes. A couple of hundred meters further down the paddock, the Red Bull Tech3 KTM's Moto3 team were preparing for the start of the season, the riders suited up and heading to the grid for the traditional class photo, which marks the formal start of the 2020 season.
The contrast was stark, and a little confusing. MotoGP packing up, bikes and equipment stored ready for shipment to the next race, wherever that may be. Moto3 and Moto2 teams buzzing with excitement, eager to finally get down to work, go into battle after the phony war of winter testing.
With the MotoGP class absent from the first round of the MotoGP series, Dorna were forced to draw up a new schedule for Moto2 and Moto3 to fill up the space vacated by the premier class. The changes come down to Moto2 moving up to take over the slot originally scheduled for MotoGP, with Moto3 moving up to take the place of Moto2.
What it means in practice is that both classes will practice in daylight, but for the Moto3 class, FP2, and qualifying will be held at 5:05pm, shortly before sunset, while the race starts at 4:20pm. Moto2 holds FP2, qualifying, and the race at 6pm, after the sun goes down and under the floodlights. The Asia Talent Cup is also holding its opening round of the season at Qatar, with two races.
On Sunday, at 6pm, the desert night will erupt in a cacophony of sound, as Grand Prix motorcycle racing gets underway for the start of the 2020 season. But it won't be the vicious bellow of MotoGP machines which will shatter the desert silence; instead, the more modest howl (118 dB compared to 130 dB of the MotoGP bikes) of the Triumph triple-engined Moto2 machines will scream away from the lights and around the floodlit track.
It wasn't meant to be that way, of course. The Moto2 machines were supposed to race an hour and forty minutes earlier, their original start time planned for 4:20pm local time. Now, it will be the Moto3 riders starting their race at that time, and not the 3pm slot originally scheduled. The MotoGP machines will be sitting in packing crates, waiting to be shipped to the next race.
As I write this, it is not entirely clear where that will be. It might be Austin, Texas, unless the US authorities impose further restrictions. It might be Termas De Rio Honda, in Argentina, unless the Argentinian government changes its mind about allowing entry from Italy, or Japan, or anywhere else. It might even be Jerez, if international air travel is subject to sudden and extreme restrictions.
The Qatar and Thai MotoGP Grands Prix have been cancelled due to the Coronavirus outbreak but this isn't the first time when MotoGP has been affected by world events
Motorcycle racing and other sports are bubbles – microcosms of life that allow competitors and fans to invest themselves in something wonderful but ultimately trivial.
When working in the paddock during a MotoGP weekend it’s possible to forget that the rest of the world exists. All that matters is who steps onto the box and pops the prosecco at 3pm on Sunday afternoon.
After Qatar blocked the entry of Italian and Japanese passport holders into the country, causing the MotoGP race (but not the round) to be rescheduled), it was inevitable that the WorldSBK round would follow suit. Today, Dorna and the FIM announced that they had to postpone the Qatar round of WorldSBK, pending further rescheduling.
If the situation was difficult for MotoGP, it was even worse for WorldSBK. Not only is Ducati competing in WorldSBK, but Pirelli, the official tire supplier, is Italian, and staffed entirely by Italians. The Pirelli tire fitters and engineers had all headed home to Italy after the opening round of WorldSBK at Phillip Island, with no possiblity to enter Qatar. Without tires, nobody can race.
The round is now due to be rescheduled, with a suggestion that the most likely time for the races to be held being the end of the year.
The press release from Dorna announcing the postponement of the Qatar round appears below:
Pramac Racing is one of many Italian teams in the MotoGP paddock. Owned by Paolo Campinoti, but managed by the charismatic Francesco Guidotti, son of a rider scout and the brother of Giacomo Guidotti, crew chief of LCR Honda rider Takaaki Nakagami. From his home in Pesaro, Italy, Guidotti has to manage the satellite Ducati team’s next steps, unable to enter Qatar, as the Gulf state has barred entry to everyone from Italy.
But he still has to deal with problems presented by the disruption at the start of the season. And almost 24 hours after the Qatar race for the top class was canceled, Guidotti still has a lot of questions as yet unanswered.
“I really don't know," Guidotti said. "We have never been in a situation like this and we don't know yet how much we are going to get from this situation, It all needs to be figured out, as a situation like that has never happened before. We have a big question mark, a race that was completely canceled that has never happened to us. We started the weekend, ran practice and qualifying, we did qualifying but then missed the race. But like this without even going, without getting there, this has never happened to me so I have no experience."
"It happened a few years ago with Fukushima [ The 2011 Japanese round was postponed following the April 2011 Fukushima earthquake which caused severe damage in the area], but I was in World Superbikes at the time. I don't know how it was managed, but the race was postponed, and it was something somehow planned to go not there. It wasn't 2 days before when everybody was ready to travel. It's something to discuss and understand.”
The cancellation of the Qatar MotoGP race and the Thai round of MotoGP in Buriram throws MotoGP's regular schedule into a bit of disarray. The deadlines under which the MotoGP manufacturers were working have suddenly been opened up again. Factories without concessions – Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, and Ducati – were due to homologate their engines this week, ahead of the first race, and all six manufacturers were due to submit their aerodynamics packages for homologation, although aerodynamics packages can vary per rider.
Similarly, teams were due to submit their gearbox ratios ahead of the first race, with a maximum of 24 different gearbox ratios and 4 different final drive ratios allowed during the season.
So now that Qatar and Thailand have been canceled or postponed, what happens next?