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David Emmett

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For a place which 95% of the paddock hates going to, Qatar certainly knows how to make us want to come back. The area between Doha and the Losail International Circuit has been a mixture of noisy construction, omnipresent sand and dust, and an ever-changing and convoluted road system (the route to the track regularly and literally changing overnight) ever since I first went to a race there in 2009. But once at the circuit, the track layout serves up some of the best racing in the world.

Fittingly, the title sponsor for the Qatar round of MotoGP was VisitQatar, the Qatari tourist office aimed at stimulating inbound tourism to the Gulf peninsula. To be honest, the best thing VisitQatar could do to attract visitors to the country is just play all three of Sunday’s races on a loop. In the Moto3 race, the first eleven riders all finished within a second.

The first five riders in MotoGP finished within six tenths of a second. And the winning margin in all three races was five hundredths of a second or less. These were races decided by the width of a wheel, the winner in doubt all the way to the line.

The MotoGP race was a thrilling affair, a close race from start to finish, with wild passes as far as the eye can see. Riders jockeyed for position, vying to make their contesting strategies pay off.

Yet it still left some fans feeling empty, with the impression that they were being cheated of an even better race if the riders has been willing and able to go flat out as soon as the lights went out all the way to the end.

You don’t expect to be cold in the desert. On Friday evening, most of the paddock was wandering around in short sleeves and t-shirts until after 9pm. On Saturday, people were pulling on jackets shortly after sunset. By the time MotoGP finished, people were starting to lose feeling in their hands.

It wasn’t just the temperature. The wind had picked up enormously on Saturday, blowing sand onto the track in places, and blowing any residual heat from ever nook and cranny around the circuit. It was not the normal chill of the desert evening. It was cold.

That caused more than a few problems during the evening. Session after session, class after class, riders fell, mostly at Turn 2. That is the first left-hand corner for nearly 2km, after the final right-hander before the long straight, and then hard braking for Turn 1.

That is a lot of time for the front tire to cool down, especially when there is a hard headwind blowing down the main straight, whipping the heat from the tires.

And so hope and expectation meet reality. On Friday, we could stop fantasizing about just how good this season might be, and see for ourselves just how close the field is in the premier class.

Well, how close it is outside Marc Márquez’ insane record-crushing lap in FP2, made following Maverick Viñales around and using him as a target. It may only be Friday, but Márquez beat Johann Zarco’s pole-setting lap record from last year by three tenths of a second. And they will only be going faster gain tomorrow.

Any concerns that Marc Márquez might ease himself back into MotoGP, nursing the shoulder he had operated on last year until it was back at 100%, were laid to rest. “No, I ride full attack. I am riding full attack, I am pushing,” Márquez said.

Viñales, who knew that Márquez had been following him when he made his fastest time, joked about it being a magnanimous gesture towards a weakened rival. “Yeah, I knew he was there, but I know he is injured, so I tried to help him a little bit…” the Monster Energy Yamaha rider joked.

“Maybe I helped him too much! But it was important to see where our competitors are, so at the moment, we have to put the head down and work, work, work. They are ahead at the moment, some tenths ahead, so we need to keep working really hard.”

It is tempting before each season to say that this is going to be the best season ever. It is a phrase that oscillates somewhere between hope and expectation, though more often than not, it is hope which has the upper hand. The 2019 MotoGP season promises to swing the balance back toward expectation, as the sport goes from strength to strength.

The reason MotoGP went from having 17 bikes on the grid in 2010 and the races decided virtually by qualifying position is simple. Thanks to a mixture of coaxing and cajoling, bribing and bullying, Dorna managed to get most of the rule changes they wanted.

First, a switch back to 1000cc, bore limited to impose a theoretical rev limit (which has remained theoretical, as revs soar back above 18,000). Next, the adoption of spec electronics, forced through with the threat of CRT bikes, along with a promise by the factories to supply bikes at an affordable price.

Then the introduction of the more user-friendly Michelin tires. The concession system, whereby successful factories have engine designs frozen, giving less successful factories a chance to catch up. And finally, an influx of talent to fill a field of closely competitive bikes.

The Grand Prix Commission has approved the long lap penalty trialed by the MotoGP riders during the Qatar test last weekend.

From the first race in Qatar, riders who exceed track limits, or are deemed to have unfairly gained time, will be punished with being forced to take a trip through a lane placed on the outside of a slow corner, handing them a penalty in the order of approximately three seconds.

The penalty is to be used instead of forcing the rider to drop a position, although both penalties will remain available for the FIM Stewards Panel to impose as they see fit. 

The Qatar round of MotoGP is problematic for all sorts of reasons. Even setting aside the human rights issues, there are challenges from every direction in staging the race at the Losail International Circuit, just north of Qatari capital. Those challenges are due to the choices being made, and the choices are being made because of money.

The biggest problem is that the choices being made are all slightly at odds with one another. Qatar wants to be the first race of the MotoGP season, and pays a large premium for the privilege. Enough to cover air freight for the series for all of the flyaway races during the season.

That need not of itself be a problem, but to make the race look more spectacular, the circuit wants to hold the race at night, under the incredible set of floodlights which light up the track.

And of course, because it is the first race of the season, Dorna want to hold it at a time when it will receive maximum media attention. The right time slot for the race in key European markets is important.

The good news is that the next time the MotoGP assembles inside a racing circuit, nobody will be able to use “it’s only testing” as an excuse. From now on, everything counts.

The bad news is that strong winds and low temperatures made the last day of testing a treacherous affair, disrupting testing plans, and causing a spate of crashes. (Which, in turn, disrupted testing plans even further.)

The really good news is that it looks like we are in for another immensely competitive season, with fifteen riders ending the test within a single second, and the list of realistic candidates for the title weighing in at around seven: the Honda, Ducati, and Yamaha factory riders, plus Alex Rins at Suzuki. Winning will be tough, but finishing on the podium if you can’t win will be the key to taking the title.

But first, there was one last day of testing to do. The wind proved to be a real problem, testing plans being reshuffled because riding was difficult, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, when the wind was at its strongest. The wind blew sand onto the track, which didn’t help grip, and the cool temperatures made that even worse.

The track temperature dropped below 20°C around 8pm, the time the race is scheduled to start in just under two weeks, and rider after rider went down. Among the fallers: Bradley Smith, Johann Zarco, Alex Rins, Cal Crutchlow, Takaaki Nakagami, Marc Márquez, Miguel Oliveira, Tito Rabat, Jorge Lorenzo, Pecco Bagnaia. And that is probably not a complete list.

Indonesia is to get a round of MotoGP and WorldSBK from 2021. Confirmation of the news came faster than we expected, as Dorna issued two press releases on Saturday, announcing that both World Championship series it manages will race at the new circuit to be built at Mandalika in Lombok.

That MotoGP would race there is not a surprise, but that WorldSBK would also visit had not been much talked about.

But, this follows the same pattern as the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand, where WorldSBK was sent to the track first as a trial run, before MotoGP went to race there.

The agreement announced by Dorna envisages both series going in the same year, starting in 2021.