As I will be writing my MotoGP travel guides in the same order as the calendar, I will start it in the same place that MotoGP kicks off every year: in Qatar. Why does it start in the middle of the desert so very far away from the vast bulk of MotoGP fans? The answer is simple: money. Qatar pays a lot of money to be the first race of the MotoGP season (and the last race of the WorldSBK season). So if you want to see the MotoGP season opener, you have to travel out to a sandy peninsula in the Persian Gulf.
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Where is it?
The Losail International Circuit is located some 30 kilometers north of the center of Doha, the capital of Qatar. It is situated just off the Al Khor Coastal Road. It is clearly visible from the plane when you fly into Doha, and visible as you drive to the track because of the floodlight system, which appears after the bulbous blue-and-white Lusail Multipurpose Hall, a sports facility.
How to get there?
The only way to get into Qatar is by flying into Doha airport (Hamad International, DOH), just south of the city. Before the Gulf Crisis blew up between Qatar and the GCC states in the region, it was also possible to cross into Qatar from Saudi Arabia, but the land border has been closed since June 2017.
Visitors used to need a visa to get into Qatar, but since August 2017, the country has applied a visa waiver program for 80 countries, which allows entry for either 90 or 30 days, depending on your nationality, if you can present a return ticket. The visa waiver will be issued at the airport on arrival.
If you have dual or multiple nationality, and have entered the country previously, it is best to use the same passport to enter a second time. Entering once on a British passport and then a second time on an Irish or Australian passport can end with an interview with immigration staff. This is not unique to Qatar, of course, and worth bearing in mind for all your travels.
Once in Qatar, the only way to get to the track is either by car or by taxi. There are no public transport options. A taxi to the track will cost QAR 50-65, around €15 or $18.
Driving to the track can be tricky. So much building work is going on that the maps on your GPS will almost certainly be out of date, and even Google Maps can be misleading. If in doubt, follow the signs to Al Khor, and hope for the best.
Where to stay?
Accommodation for the Qatar round of MotoGP means staying in Doha. The capital is the only city nearby where race fans will find hotels and guest houses.
There are two types of hotel in Doha: big international hotels, aimed at travelers from outside of the Arab world, and smaller local hotels mostly serving guests from around the region. How much you want to spend on accommodation will determine which kind of hotel you stay in. The big international chains tend to be significantly (ie. multiple times) more expensive than the local hotels.
In both international and local hotels, the rooms tend to be large and spacious. All have air conditioning – a necessity in a country where daytime temperatures hit well into the 40s °C during the summer, though in March, during the race, temperatures rarely get much above the mid-30s °C. Many rooms will also have blackout curtains and double-glazing.
Noise is an issue wherever you go in Doha, as the city (and most of the country) is a permanent building site. The more expensive international hotels are better insulated, and tend to have rooms on much higher floors, well above the noise. As a Muslim country, the local muezzin's call to prayer is broadcast via loudspeakers five times a day, including at dawn and late at night. The nearer you are to the ground floor, the louder you hear the muezzin. Depending on the muezzin, this can be a good thing or a bad thing: some are beautifully melodious, some would be greatly improved by the addition of autotune.
With Doha your only choice for accommodation, there are few options for cutting down travel time. It is worth giving preference to hotels on the north side of the city, rather than south, towards the airport. Traffic can add 15 to 30 minutes to your commute to the track. The traffic on the south side (the old or Souq side) is particularly bad, and so can add a lot of time to your journey to the track. Staying in the north side of the city – near The Pearl, an artificial island built on the coast, or in the West Bay area – can save travel time.
For nervous (Western) travelers, the best choice is one of the international hotels – Ritz, Hyatt, Intercontinental – in the West Bay area. This is opposite one of the largest malls in Doha, where there is a wide range of international food available. However, staying there will rather take away from the experience of staying in Qatar. You will be staying in a generic hotel, eating generic food, in generic surroundings.
Food & Drink
Food is very varied in Qatar, and a pleasant surprise. Qatari cuisine is typically Middle Eastern, though with a lot of seafood. Food is well-spiced, but not particularly hot. As the region has historic links with the Indian subcontinent, and a large part of the working population is from places like Pakistan, Bengal, and India, there are strong Indian influences, and a wide range of curries are commonly available.
For those who prefer a more standard Western fare, typical Western fast food restaurants are ubiquitous. McDonalds, Burger King, Hardees, KFC, Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut, Wagamama, and many others are dotted throughout Doha, as well as local fast food joints selling shawarma and falafel.
Alcohol is available in Qatar, but under very strict control. It is on sale (and exorbitantly expensive) in international hotels and restaurants, but only non-Qatari residents with a special permit are allowed to purchase it for drinking at home. If you are driving, drinking in Qatar is a terrible idea. Drink-driving laws are strictly enforced, and even the merest hint of alcohol in a breath test (even the morning after) will be dealt with very harshly.
The Qatar round of MotoGP is not cheap, but it won't break the bank either. The biggest cost flying from Europe used to be the flight, but the Gulf Crisis has meant cheap flights have become available. Prices can vary from €400 to €900, depending on who you fly with, and how much discomfort you are willing to suffer.
Hotels vary in price, depending on whether you want to stay in an international chain or a local hotel. Prices are not wildly different to what you might expect to pay in Europe.
Food is relatively cheap, as is car hire. Fuel is ridiculously cheap, as it is subsidized, just as it is in all the countries of the region.
Reasons to go
There are two main reasons for going to Qatar. The first is that it is the first round of the season, and nothing can quite match the explosive release of the tension the first race brings. All of the preseason testing, all of the speculation, all of the time comparisons and extrapolations from race simulations in testing, it all goes out the window as it rebounds of the brick wall of reality. There is always a special atmosphere, but the first race has that little bit extra.
The second reason to go is because it is a night race. It may be a massive waste of electricity, but the floodlight track around Qatar is truly spectacular. The factories will sometimes use special paint to allow their bikes to look even better under the lights.
And because of the dark, you get to see things you normally don't. The brilliant orange glow of the carbon brakes as the MotoGP machines are hard on the anchors into Turn 1. Blue and yellow flames licking out of the exhausts as riders downshift, or as the bikes are warmed on the grid. The Tron-like reflection of dashboard lights reflected in riders visors. Photographers love the Qatar race, for all of these reasons.
The darkness brings a special atmosphere too. Despite the fact that the crowds are tiny by MotoGP standards, there is something unique about the place. The vicious howl of a MotoGP bike is a special noise whenever you hear it. But to hear them screaming through the dark is a visceral experience, touching parts of the human psyche normally lost in the mists of prehistory.
How the atmosphere changes with the new schedule remains to be seen. With the MotoGP race at 7pm, it is the only race which is still truly in the dark. Moto3 and Moto2 will now take place in daylight, with Moto2 running into twilight. That, too, can be a special experience, the light turning tangerine as the riders race round.
If you can get your hands on a paddock pass, the trip is even better. With the paddock almost empty, riders, team members, journalists all have a little more time to chat, and riders are certainly more relaxed without the pressure of fans and media commitments. Qatar is the opposite of a place like Misano, which is so ram-packed that you can barely move.
(Similar arguments can also be made for going to the WorldSBK race at Qatar, in late October. There, it is the last race of the season, and so it has its own special atmosphere.)
Non-racing reasons to go
If the heat is your thing, you will love Qatar. The weather is dry and hot, and at the time of the MotoGP race, bearable even for those of us who are not big fans of the heat. The skyline is spectacular, and ever-changing, new buildings going up every year. Cheap electricity (and an excess of money) mean the buildings are beautifully illuminated at night, becoming living canvasses on which the architects have painted with light.
There is the usual vast array of entertainment you might expect from a large metropolitan area. There are several huge malls selling almost everything imaginable. There are cinemas, and movies are generally shown in pretty much the original version.
As Qatar is the most liberal country in the region, there are very few places where men and women are segregated. Shopping malls, cinemas, sports facilities, etc are as mixed as you might expect.
This can also create dramatic contrasts. Women wearing the full Islamic veil pass women wearing shorts and t-shirts. Men wearing the thawb, the traditional white Arab robe pass men in pinstriped suits. The modern and the ancient, the liberal and the conservative collide frequently and seamlessly. Young Qatari men, forced by tradition to wear the thawb, embody that cultural collision. They were the robes, and the ghutrah, the white cloth head covering. But the agal, the rope that keeps it in place, is worn at a jaunty angle, rather than straight. It is the Qatari version of wearing your baseball cap with the peak facing backwards, or off to the side.
Those looking for culture will find it at the Museum of Islamic Art, a spectacular museum chronicling 1400 years of arts and culture in the Muslim world. The museum contains manuscripts, textiles, ceramics, glassware and much more from all over the world. The building it is housed in is elegant, and set in Doha bay. There is also the Qatar National Museum, which shows the history of the Gulf state, as well as several other museums in and around Doha. Like many countries in the Gulf region, Qatar is trying to profile itself as a cultural center, and so more and more museums and libraries are being built, and arts and cultural festivals being held there.
Not far from the bay is the Souq Waqif, the traditional Arab market. A low-set building with a warren of narrow passages which take you past shops selling spices, textiles, and more. It has become something of a tourist attraction, of course, but then just like, for example, the Boqueria in Barcelona, it is still an active market used by locals, as well as a hive for tourists.
There is plenty to do outdoors as well. Golf courses abound (an absurdity in the desert, but money is no object), and the desert offers plenty of adventure. There are camel tours, and off road trips on quads, MX bikes, and 4x4 jeeps.
The sea which surrounds the peninsula offers opportunities too. Trips in a traditional Arab dhow, a type of sailing ship, around the coast, or trips into the Gulf. Diving is possible too, and as the sea around Qatar is shallow, it is a good place to learn to dive.
The one issue you may have with extracurricular activities is the clash with the race schedule in Qatar. Though the new schedule is not yet completely set, a 7pm race time means that bikes will be on track some time around noon. That leaves little time to do much in the morning, and by the time you return from the track in the evening, little time to do much then either.
Reasons not to go
There are a lot of reasons not to go to the race in Qatar. Crowds at the track are sparse, so you never feel you are being swept up by a tide of emotion as you are at tracks like Mugello or Barcelona. There is no race atmosphere at all outside of the track. The race may as well not exist once you are back in Doha, life there revolving around natural gas, and the money that comes with it.
That money, and its blatant display, can be jarring. The contrasts between rich and poor, haves and have nots are harsh and blatant. Displays of wealth are gaudy – the rich drive not just big expensive cars, but the biggest, flashiest, most expensive cars they can find. Everything is gold plated, personal jewelry looks more suited to muscle building than decoration. Meanwhile the poor – immigrant workers, mostly – are discarded and abused.
Qatar is a permanent building site. Noise is everywhere, but also dust. The sand comes not just from the desert, but also from the endless digging of foundations and pouring of cement and filling in of holes. The road you drove to the track on in the morning may be closed, or even gone, by the time you return in the evening.
Driving in Qatar can pose a challenge. The wealthiest Qataris are a law unto themselves, and so rocket around Doha in large, fast vehicles without paying any attention to other traffic. Beware the Toyota Landcruiser or Range Rover, as the driver is likely to be too busy posting an Instagram story to pay any attention to the road. If they hit you, it will be your fault, no matter what happened. The local police always side with the wealthy, not with the facts.
Messing with the police in foreign countries is always a mistake, but some places are worse than others, and Qatar is pretty bad. One paddock regular spent nearly a month in a local jail for driving that was stupid and reckless, but otherwise harmless. This, again, is a reminder of why it is absolutely a bad idea to even contemplate drinking and driving, or even driving the day after drinking heavily the evening before.
The hive of economic activity in Qatar has a very dark side indeed, and one that has fortunately received a lot of attention in the media over the past couple of years. You may not notice it as you drive from the city to the track, but if you look, you will see it. Buses taking workers from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka from their quarters to factories, the fans in the bus betraying the lack of air conditioning.
The kafala system under which these workers have to live leaves them virtual slaves. Forced to hand in their passports when they arrive, unable to change jobs or even leave the country without permission from their employers, often brought on travel paid for with loans up front, which they have to pay back while working. Working conditions are often truly appalling, water withheld despite the heat, and deaths because of unsafe conditions are chillingly common. How many died building the Losail International Circuit? I failed in my duty as a journalist by not asking.
Then there is the anti-semitism and bigotry prevalent in the region. It is almost impossible to enter Qatar as an Israeli, and even having an Israeli stamp in your passport will prevent you from being allowed into the country. Open displays of homosexuality are punished, though few questions are asked as long as everyone plays along with the pretense that we're all straight.
The opinion in the paddock
The paddock is divided on Qatar. A few love it, some enjoy it, most hate it. Those who love it (apart from the photographers who love the light), like it because of its uniqueness, and the schedule.
I am glad I went to Qatar, as it is a unique experience. But the second time added nothing to my first visit, and things went downhill from there. Once is worth it, but once is enough.
Atmosphere: What's the atmosphere at the track and in nearby towns? (Higher is better)
Exoticness: How easy is it to understand local customs, culture, and cuisine, and navigate your way around? (Higher is more exotic)
Cost: How expensive is the overall cost of a trip? (Higher is more expensive)
Non-racing: How much does the region have to offer to people who aren't interested in racing? (Higher is more)
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