Although the first Grand Prix event ever to be run at night produced some spectacular images, MotoGP fans around the world were left with one question: Why were they running this thing at night?
A good question. A very good question indeed. Various explanations have been offered, official and otherwise. The official line was that by running the race at night, the riders, bikes and tires would be less troubled by the heat of the desert, which even this early in the year can be tremendous. The events of this weekend soon showed that to be entirely spurious, however, as the riders struggled with to keep warm in the chilly desert nights, and the tires had problems getting up to temperature as a cold and cooling track combined with the damp of evening to make finding any grip a difficult task.
The unofficial explanation was that running the race at night served three distinct purposes: The first was to beat Formula 1, who are due to run their own first night race at Singapore in September, an important public relations coup.
The second reason was to serve as a test bed for Sepang in Malaysia, as well as Shanghai and other circuits out in the Far East. There is plenty of interest in running these races in various parts of Asia, but with MotoGP's target market being in Europe, the standard 2pm local time start doesn't work for European TV schedules. Run these races at night, and they suddenly shift from a 4am start on Spanish and Italian TV to something more resembling the regular schedule in the early afternoon.
The third, and more important emotionally reason, was to allow the Qatar race to be moved until after the Jerez round, allowing the Spanish race to once again take its place as the season opener. For many Spanish fans, the Jerez MotoGP race is the start of both the MotoGP season and the motorcycling season in general, so having Jerez kick off the season once more will attract more interest in the Qatar round, as the Spaniards will have had their appetites whetted.
Now, the viewing figures from Spain and Italy are in, and the switch to a night race has been a big success, at least from the point of view of the TV. Italy recorded a small increase in viewers, up to 6,766,000 from 6,337,000 for last year's race, although the race's share declined to 27.54% from 38.24%, mainly due to it facing a much larger TV audience.
In Spain, the success of the early evening race has been much more marked: over 3 million viewers watched the races, with a peak of 4,293,000 watching Casey Stoner cross the finish line. In 2007, the season opener at Qatar only attracted 1,637,000 viewers. The MotoGP race also attracted 300,000 more viewers than the Spanish league soccer match between Real Zaragoza and Atletico Madrid.
The Spanish figures can be explained in part at the excitement generated by the entry of Jorge Lorenzo into the new class, as well as the belief that Dani Pedrosa stands an excellent chance of winning the title this year. One factor which may have influenced the figures is that the race was being shown right in the middle of the TV election specials, being screened to cover Spain's general election which was also shown on Sunday. It is not unthinkable that the race attracted viewers wishing to avoid coverage of the election, as the soccer summary shows also attracted increased viewer numbers.