The Numbers Game - Why Rain At Qatar Is More Likely Than You Think

Clouds in the sky at the Losail track before the Qatar MotoGP race

After the rain-soaked debacle of the postponed MotoGP race at Qatar, any MotoGP fan worth his or her salt will be able to recite one statistic by heart: It only rains in Qatar for eight days a year, on average. And so staging a night race under the floodlights there, in the certain knowledge that the race must be canceled if it starts to rain, seems like a pretty safe bet. After all, 8 rain days out of a total of 365 means that there is only a 2.2% chance of the event having to be called off, right?

It seems like an obvious conclusion, but as with so many other conclusions drawn from statistics, it is completely incorrect. Human beings are notoriously bad at math, and this is just a typical instance. Just why this conclusion is incorrect is obvious when viewed logically, so let us look at it in more detail.

The key term to understand here is "average". It may well rain for 8 days a year on average, but that does not mean that those 8 days are spread evenly throughout the year - after all, the average temperature of the Earth is 14º Centigrade, or 57º Fahrenheit, but tell that to someone in Nuuk or Furnace Creek Ranch and they'll laugh in your face.

Rainfall in Qatar is concentrated in the winter months - though the term "winter" should be taken in its loosest possible meaning. From June through October, rainfall average is zero, and May and November is little more. So those 8 days are not spread over 7 months, but rather 5, from December through April, more than doubling the probability of rain taken over the whole year. In fact, the records held by the World Meteorological Organization show that on average, Doha, the nearest large city, has 1.4 days of rain in April, or a probability of 4.6%, meaning it would rain on average once out of every 21 years on a given day in April.

But again, this too is not an accurate reflection. As the rain tails off towards the summer, it is more likely to rain at night in early April than it is in late April, further increasing the likelihood of rain. In fact, one travel site cites the average rainfall in Doha as between 2 and 6 days of rain a month between November and April, making the chances of rain on a given night in April even larger.

Even at the upper end of probability, the chances of it raining in Qatar are relatively slim - between 1 in 15 and 1 in 20. But given that there is a perfectly good solution for reducing the probability of having to cancel or postpone the race to almost zero - by running the race during the day, instead of under the floodlights - you have to wonder why Dorna would even risk running the race under the floodlights at all.

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I dont agree with this whole anti-night GP lobby. Yeah its a little crazy...eco un-friendly...and turns the sport into a circus and more, however its only as crazy as saying "hey! lets race motorcycles around a ring". This sport is about drama, spirit, machines and people and each of these should be given space.
"Harry Thinks...we need to be a lil more tolerant to new ideas"

Fair point Harry, perhaps if Dorna wasn't making so many other hare-brained decisions then this one wouldn't seem to be just another shoot-from-the-hip attempt at 'fixing' MotoGP?

But there are some good reasons to *not* race at night, such as low temperatures, cost, environmental impact, and rain, while there's not so many truly valid reasons to go ahead and do it - apart from high ambient/track temperatures, which are possible at many of the tracks MotoGP visits, tv viewer figures are about the only other reason that comes to mind. But I reckon that if you looked at who was actually broadcasting the race, you'd probably find that the majority would either be broadcasting to the already converted (eg. in Spain), so the change in time would not make much of a difference, or would be delaying the feed to later so they can run their money spinning programs (the ones that make big bucks from advertisers) in Euro prime time.

So, new ideas that bring little to the sport aren't really the ones we should be welcoming.

a friend of mine who's been to qatar says they have incredibly high humidity as spring goes into summer and only the intense heat keeps the moisture in the air. an unusual temperature drop always = rain & storms.

sounds like another reason not to go for the night race, imho. not that that's going to happen. there's money and politics involved:
1. the season is compressed because of the month later start date
2. they get the prestige of the being the opening round
3. crowd attendance is weak (and i feel terrible for all the australians and americans who trekked out there and may end up missing the race altogether)

all these things would make you think qatar round was unreasonable and yet there it is... money... politics...

Thanks Harry for a bit of reason and perspective. If all these MotoGP-bashing whingers had their way, nobody would ever try anything new. As you say, nobody would ever have tried to race motocycles around a ring, climb a mountain, paint a picture, or crawl out of the cave to see what's over the horizon. It's just motocycle racing, let's enjoy it in all it's glorious diversity!
Even if that means tempting the [unacceptable/interpreted-to-suit-the-argument] (delete as applicable) odds of [2.2%/4.6%/1-in-15/1-in-20] (delete as applicable to suit your argument) of getting rain in the Doha desert at night.
Sometimes we try new things and sometimes stuff just happens, no?

First up, I love new ideas. I am a fundamentalist progressive, and believe that things change, and this is a good thing.

Secondly, I admire Dorna for even trying the night race. It's different, it looks spectacular, and as a technological achievement, it really is remarkable. The images of the circuit lit up at night are some of the most breathtaking we see all year.

However, the problem with the night race is that on a regular basis - a more regular basis than was probably thought - the night race won't be a race at all, because the track is wet. The difference between this race and another race which could be affected by weather is that this one can be called off due to a relatively small amount of rain. Certainly, Sunday's downpour was extraordinary, but even light drizzle would have called the race off, because of the lights. That makes it extraordinarily sensitive to the weather, more so than other rounds.

Of course, there are other rounds which are susceptible to weather problems - the Indy GP at the tail end of hurricane season, Sepang in the tropics where it can always rain, and if it does, it's a foot a minute - but the difference at Qatar is that just a small amount of rain stops play completely.

On the other hand, we can just accept the risk of rain, and take the date of the Qatar MotoGP race as more of a guideline than a hard and fast date ;-)

If you think about things some more, you can actually make it more likely that the race will be run. Your 4.6% number assumes that if it rains that day, the race can't happen. As we saw yesterday, it can very easily rain earlier in the day and the race can still happen. I would say that only about 1 in 4 times when it does rain, the race could not be run, putting the odds of a race cancellation at more like 1.15%

That was my point, mostly. The "8 days a year" number was the one I had seen bandied about most, but like all numbers, is meaningless without context. I tried to be more accurate, and you have been more precise still. What's important is that we don't take numbers fed to us without stepping back and examining them, and then trying to make a decision about what the best course of action is. 

Living in the desert myself, I can give a little perspective on rain.

Like most places, rain is seasonal in the desert; there are times of year that you know it is likely to rain. You can also bet on not having any idea *when* it is going to rain. Clear skies are no indication that there is no chance of rain. Most of the time, in the spring, rain will appear instantly when no clouds are in the sky just minutes prior. Unlike many other places, rain clouds don't get blown in, they just form.

Additionally, rain is almost certain to occur when the temperature drops suddenly which is most likely to happen at night. A night race is far more likely to get rained out than a day race.

What does this mean for MotoGP? However you count the odds, you have to assume there is a possibility of rain and you have to have contingency plans. Racing at night reduces the number of contingencies available.

So, what can you do? You really only have 3 options:

1. Don't race at night. Is the spectacle worth it? I have no idea.

2. Plan for a possible Monday race. This is likely to be expensive to keep all race personnel available for an extra day. This doesn't mesh well with the cost-cutting efforts underway.

3. Move the race to another time of year. Improve your odds. I am guessing that Qatar is paying a significant premium to host the opening round and it is hard to walk away from that cash. If so, does the extra income justify keeping the teams around an extra day just in case?

Each of those options has the financial calculations built in. The only thing that isn't accounted for is the soft cost of putting off your fans by delaying a race. This can't be a small cost and is very likely significantly steeper as a result of this being the first round, however, it is also hard to calculate.

I love the intelligent, reasoned arguments put forwards on this site.

Bike racing is, has been and, more than likely, always will be a niche sport. Someone (not here) commented that a night race drops right into Western Europe prime time. But Sunday evening primetime is where high value (re high viewership figures) programs are placed. It's also where the family might get together and watch a program. I can't imagine that moving this race to nightime has improved the viewing audience, beyond the casual observer who may have tuned in accidentally.

Bernie wanted a night race for Asia as it fits into a morning slot in Europe.

Whatever we say, Dorna won't change their mind. They have a product that they think is equivalent to F1 and a head honcho who looks like he wants to emulate Bernie.