Saturday was the kind of day that makes you question the wisdom of allowing Qatar to be the first race of the MotoGP season, and to hold the race at night. Doing one or the other – either being the first race of the season but holding it during the day, or taking place later in the year and racing at night – is feasible, but doing both is a risk. If it wasn't for the fact that the sanctioning fee the Losail International Circuit at Qatar pays to Dorna for the privilege basically covers the overseas travel budget for the teams for the entire season, the MotoGP season opener would be very different.
It was an entirely wasted day. Or perhaps not entirely wasted: we learned that the Qatar circuit badly needs the drainage fixed. Whatever the decision on racing in the rain, when it does rain, the track and the run off areas just don't drain fast enough. That led to Loris Capirossi, Dorna's representative in Race Direction, trying to explain in increasingly exasperated tones that there was no point trying to test during the day or at night, because there was simply too much standing water in the gravel traps and in certain sections of the track to allow it to be used safely.
Capirossi was speaking at an impromptu press conference organized directly after the qualifying press conference, to explain why all on-track action had been canceled on Saturday. It had started with the cancellation of the Asia Talent Cup, and a revised schedule was issued containing a track inspection, then a twenty-minute session for the riders to go out and see whether it would be possible to ridein the wet under the floodlights. But as each schedule approached, events were delayed. In the end, the entire day was canceled. The track was unusable after such intense rainfall.
In search of a scapegoat
Who is to blame for this debacle? It is easy to point fingers, and even easier to point them in the wrong (or only half-right) direction. The roots of the problem lie in a confluence of unusual events, including circuit planning, circuit location, expected and unusual weather patterns, and the approach to dealing with all this when organizing events. But first and foremost, the blame lies with the weather gods.
It seems geographically apt to label the downpour which was unleashed this part of the Arabian peninsular as a deluge of biblical proportions. Social media was (excuse the pun) awash with photos of flooded streets. Teams and journalists driving to the circuit were up to their axles in water. At the circuit, there was standing water on the track. Gravel traps were transformed into paddling pools, some enterprising spirits mulling opening fish farms in them. Parts of the service roads on either side of the track where emergency vehicles and photographers move around the circuit were flooded waist deep, or worse. The hard-packed limestone on which the circuit is built could absorb no more. The water had nowhere to go.
This, Capirossi pointed out, was the main problem. "This is not because we are in Qatar. We have the same problem in Malaysia, or Jerez, or Misano. At every track it’s the same. When we have a lot of water we have to cancel. Like you say, in Misano, a couple of years ago, we had to cancel a day. Many times it’s happened like that."
Build an ark
The rain had been so heavy, and left so much water, that it was simply impossible to use the track safely. When even the gravel traps are retaining that much water, they become potentially lethal. If a rider crashes and is knocked unconscious, and lands face down in a gravel trap with an inch of water, they could risk drowning before the medical marshals could reach and help them. The standing water in corners and streams of water flowing across the track were another reason the track was perilous. Even after the track started to dry, the mixture of wet sections and dry sections made it impossible to ride safely. No tires could cope with these conditions. Not even the now abandoned intermediates.
There may have been nothing the circuit could do about the amount of water which fell from the skies – and it truly was exceptional for Qatar, about a third of the annual rainfall in a few hours – but the way it went nowhere once it fell was clearly a failure of the circuit design. To an extent, this is not surprising. The track was not built with such exceptional circumstances in mind. In the past, when it has rained, the strong winds which blow through the desert would quickly dry the track.
"We have never seen a lot of rain like this," Loris Capirossi explained. "Because also in 2009, when we had really strong rain, it rained for maybe one hour, and then it stopped. And we didn't have a problem of standing water in the run off area or on the track. This is why we never discovered the problem. Today, we only really discovered this problem, and this is why we can work to resolve that."
Design flaw, or feature?
The problem, of course, is that when you design a track in the desert, drainage is not a high priority. Even circuits built at the behest of gas magnates with the wealth of Croesus are built to a budget, and drainage capable of coping with heavy rains were not high on the list of design priorities. Now that the weather gods have exposed this weakness, it will be addressed.
Capirossi told the press conference that he had already had talks with the circuit about improving drainage, and that it would be fixed by next year. The track is also due to be resurfaced, probably for next year, and this would also offer a chance to improve the drainage of the circuit surface. It would also allow the subsurface drainage to be addressed.
The most fractious part of the press conference came when several journalists insinuated that the lack of action was also down to a lack of planning. If, they contended, riders had been brought to the track earlier, then they could have tested the circuit in the rain. Why, they asked, had the lack of drainage not been considered when the forecast was for rain on Saturday? Why had Dorna not arrived at the circuit with a playbook ready to deal with every possible contingency?
Planning is easy, when you're not the one doing it
Capirossi replied testily to some questions, more patiently to others. His arguments came down to a few basic points. Firstly, actually organizing to test with several riders during the day was not that simple, as it required not just the presence of a few riders, but also of a couple of hundred marshals, medical staff, Dorna staff, and sundry other assistants. Secondly, even if they had organized that, there was still no guarantee of being able to ride, as the conditions were so awful in the morning and early afternoon that the track was simply not safe.
As for Dorna's planning, Capirossi emphasized they were at the mercy of the elements. When confronted with as unstable a weather forecast as they have seen in the past few days, any plan they had would immediately be overtaken by events. If they had planned to run qualifying during the day on Saturday, that would have been impossible. It would have meant riders, teams and staff hanging around the circuit even longer with nothing to do.
Dorna face the same problem for Sunday. They could move the race to the daytime, but there is no guarantee it could happen then, as the forecast has been as unstable for Sunday morning as it was for Saturday. They can wait for Sunday evening, and hope it doesn't rain, and if it does rain, they can first let the riders test the track to see if it is safe to ride in the wet under the floodlights before sending them out to race. If it turns out it isn't safe, then it is even possible the race could be delayed until Monday.
Events, dear boy, events
Should Dorna already have a plan to deal with those situations? To an extent, they already have: Race Direction has already discussed all of these scenarios at length. But they remain at the mercy of the elements: they can put their best laid plans into effect, and a sudden downpour can render them worthless.
So the plan for Sunday is for each class to have 10 minutes extra warm up, giving them all half an hour, instead of the usual 20 minutes. Warm up starts during the day – 3:20pm to 3:50pm for Moto3, 4:05pm to 4:35pm for Moto2, and 4:50pm to 5:20pm for MotoGP – with the first race of the evening due to start at 6pm. From there, the races proceed as planned: Moto3 at 6pm, Moto2 at 7:20pm, MotoGP at 9pm.
Rain – good or bad?
How did the riders greet the cancellation? All agreed that it was the only safe course of action to take. It was clear there was way too much water around the track to ride safely, and it was better to skip practice altogether than to take a risk. How the rain would affect the track was a matter of speculation, but several riders, including the ever-cerebral Andrea Dovizioso, felt it may end up improving the circuit. "Maybe the rain was a lot and it could have cleaned the track," he said. "But anything can happen here." That much is obvious.
The concern is that the heavy rain will also have dumped a lot of sand and dirt on the track. The desert dust mixed with rain can create a horrible, greasy mixture. The hope was that the extended warm up would help clean the track, giving the bikes more time to circulate and remove the dirt. That would benefit the MotoGP riders most of all, said Valentino Rossi. "We have an hour and a half of warm up, and the two races before MotoGP. So in normal conditions, the track can be in good shape."
With qualifying lost, the grids were formed on the basis of combined times set during free practice. It is a tried and tested solution, and how happy the riders were with it depended entirely on where they found themselves on the grid. Valentino Rossi, starting from tenth, was resigned to the situation. "For me personally is very bad, because I have to start behind, but for me, is the right choice, no way to make the practice today."
Jorge Lorenzo felt that qualifying could have been held on Sunday, but then, he needs the time on the Ducati. "In my opinion we could also practice more time tomorrow, to make the FP4, the qualifying and the warm up," he said. "But we have to accept it and it's not a bad idea to have a longer warm up. So at the end we have some time to try something on the bike and to choose the right tire. For sure it's good to cancel the Saturday practice, because the track was not right."
Timing is everything
Lorenzo would also have preferred to see the race time moved earlier, to 7pm instead of 9pm. This would help solve the issue with the dew which can descend in the evening. "The temperature is much hotter and less humidity, and this is better for safety and for the riders. So I think 7 o'clock would be OK."
The timing of the race is going to become an ever greater problem for Dorna, as they seek to expand the number of races on the calendar. With 18 races, there is already very little breathing room on the schedule, if the riders are to still have some kind of summer break. If, as Dorna would like they add Thailand, Finland, and Indonesia, the calendar would grow to 20 or 21 races. That would make starting with a night race in Qatar at the end of March, then finishing the season at Valencia in mid-November completely impossible. Something would have to give.
The most sensible solution would be to make a change to the first race of the MotoGP season. Qatar would need to make a choice, to either switch to a day race and kick off the season in February, when temperatures during the day are warm, but entirely bearable. Or give up their slot at the start of the season, and stage a night race later in the year, when dew at night is much less of a problem thanks to much higher temperatures during the day and night.
One journalist suggested that the circuit build a roof over the track, and protect the track entirely. Valentino Rossi liked that suggestion a lot. "They designed this track for no rain, because in the past, it never rained. But in the last years, it's like the overall conditions changed, so a roof is a good idea, for sure. With air conditioning!"
A deal with the devil
Another alternative would be for Dorna to stop going to Qatar at all. There are a host of good reasons not to go there. The country's atrocious human rights record, for one, with laborers brought in from Nepal, India, Bangladesh and elsewhere, held virtual captive in barracks, and at risk of dying from exhaustion, dehydration, or sheer unsafe working conditions. The almost complete lack of interest from the local population (the 9,000 strong crowd on race day consists in large part of ex-pat Europeans, Australians, and Americans posted around the region).
But not going would make a huge dent in Dorna's budget. And given the amount of money Dorna pays to the teams, it would leave the teams a lot worse off too. The truth is that there is nobody in the paddock who goes to Qatar gladly (the rather eccentric exception being veteran US journalist Dennis Noyes, though he now is also retires). But they are all happy to take the oil-stained dollars the circuit provides. Everyone has a price it seems.
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