As news, rumor and speculation seep out from Qatar, with news stories contradicting each other appearing almost every minute or so, there is only one thing that we know for sure about the 2009 MotoGP Grand Prix of Qatar at Losail: That it wasn't run at its scheduled time. The latest state of affairs is that the race is to be run on Monday, at 9pm local time - though by the time you read this, that may have changed.
The story so far: Unseasonal thunderstorms have been plaguing the Qatari peninsula for the past few weeks, causing the loss of a day of testing, and hanging like a sword of Damocles over the practice sessions by spattering thick, heavy raindrops on the paddock's rental cars as they made their way to and from the track. Rain started to fall during the 125 race, causing the race to be shortened to just 4 laps, the shortest race in MotoGP history, with half points awarded to the finishers.
The rain started to clear after the podium ceremony, and the 250 race started 40 minutes later than scheduled, though drastically shortened to just 13 laps so as not to force the MotoGP race to be rescheduled. But Mother Nature had other plans: rain started as the MotoGP bikes sat on the grid, falling in earnest once the grid was cleared ready for the warm up lap. A downpour of almost biblical proportions then ensued, scuppering any chances of running the race later that night.
If the race had been scheduled to take place during daylight, then the rain would not have been a problem. Racing has taken place in similar conditions before, and only the severest of downpours has stopped racing before, and then only if the rain falls once racing begins. But Qatar is held under the floodlights - ironically to avoid the extreme heat that can scorch the desert state at most times of the year - and though the Musco lighting systems are ingeniously designed not to dazzle the riders, the rain turns the track into a mirror, reducing visibility for the riders to zero.
The cancellation of the race caused a veritable whirlwind of activity among staff from Dorna, the teams, the riders, the MSMA and the track authorities. Meetings were held, adjourned for further consultation, held again, adjourned again and then continued. The teams were consulted, the riders were consulted, most importantly of all, the TV companies were consulted, and eventually, the race was rescheduled to take place on Monday, in the early evening.
The decision was not met with universal enthusiasm. A group of riders including Casey Stoner, Sete Gibernau, Chris Vermeulen, Dani Pedrosa, Nicky Hayden and Loris Capirossi were opposed to race being put back a day, with Stoner telling Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport, "It's not a good idea to run on Monday. We can't be sure it won't rain tomorrow, and the rain today has washed sand onto the track, so there's a safety risk."
Valentino Rossi was none too complimentary either: "For sure it would have been worse not to race. We waited an extra month to avoid the cold we had in 2008, compressing 17 races of the world championship into the time between April and October: Not to race would have been a big joke. Also for the fans. We would have literally wasted the days of practice. This is the risk you run when you have a race at night. I have never agreed with this, I don't like it at all. I don't think it adds anything to the spectacle. It's just a TV show. Now we need to look at what we do for the sport, and what we do for the show, because to turn the world championship into a circus is not a good thing."
As ever, irony is never far from the scene in MotoGP. All winter long, the FIM, Dorna, the MSMA and IRTA have engaged in talks and hammered out a series of proposals aimed at cutting costs in MotoGP. And at the very first race of the season, the weather causes the race to be delayed for a day, forcing the teams, manufacturers and press to engage in a frenzied bout of flight and accommodation rescheduling. Valentino Rossi was booked on a 3:45am flight out of Qatar, and Rossi is not subject to Yamaha's economy class flight edict. Many team members will not have had hotel rooms for Sunday night, as they expected to fly out on Sunday night, and the trucks will already be pouring into the paddock at Qatar ready to ship the containers off to be flown to Japan for round two of the series, at Motegi. Adding an extra day of truck hire will be expensive enough, but if a freight aircraft has to be rescheduled, this could get very expensive indeed.
There were also doubts about the logistics of running a race on Monday. It's not certain that the teams will have enough tires to run another warm up on Monday, followed by the race. And with the time of the race having been brought forward by two hours, the temperatures could be very different too. Tires aren't the only problem though, as Sportmediaset is also reporting that they may not have enough of the special gas the teams use to run the race either.
One suggestion bandied about by Loris Capirossi was to run the race in the slot vacated by the abandoned Hungarian Grand Prix which was due to take place in September, until it was canceled over wrangling about money between the Hungarian authorities and the Spanish construction company building the track. But other riders were less attracted to this idea. "For sure I would like to race tomorrow and go on holiday in September," Marco Melandri responded, when asked about this possibility by the official MotoGP.com website.
Will this be the last of the night races at Qatar? It's too early to tell. But one thing is for certain, if anyone doubted that there were risks involved in running a race at night, those doubts will by now surely have been removed.