MXGP Blog: Will MX head back to Qatar after ’17?
For half a decade Grand Prix motocross has opened a new season in Losail, Qatar (on the permanent track, just outside T1 for anybody curious) and for what has tended to be a slightly surreal occasion. There is hype and excitement at a new campaign, a degree of contentedness in the paddock with teams able to swap winter clothes for summer and work in clean and organised conditions thanks to the permanent facilities but then the Grand Prix of Qatar is also an event that takes place in front of a skeletal crowd and something of a vacuum of atmosphere; oddly appropriate with the desert setting.
2017 should be the last in a five-year contract between the QMMF and Youthstream and – so far – there is little indication as to whether MXGP will continue at Losail. The federation, circuit and powers-that-be in Qatar have considerable resources – more than perhaps any club or facility in the championship – and have been able to fashion a venue with a customised lighting set-up and a dedicated track crew. Arriving to Losail is easy, the paddock set-up more than comfortable, the teams seem to enjoy the possibility to exist for several days in decent hotels and the climate is agreeable. For Youthstream the contract with the QMMF is suitably lucrative and puts the series on the same plinth as MotoGP and WorldSBK, with the Qataris enjoying that privileged ‘first race on the calendar slot’ that they have paid for with MotoGP since 2007.
Will MXGP continue in Qatar? Should it continue? Undoubtedly talks will have taken place and could well continue this week in Doha. Unless budgets have to be cut then QMMF should have little reason to terminate their association with MXGP. Losail is home to other motorcycle series’, as mentioned, and while they run track days, kart events and pop up for private use (as seen with the launch of KTM’s recent Super Duke 1290R) the agenda does not seem to be overflowing. One recently promoted activity was for Ladies Training days for walks, runs and cycling around the asphalt; scrapping motocross would be a waste of what Losail has to offer.
In terms of promotion it is another FIM motorsport that provides a window. Qatar – already a home to top-flight sporting events in tennis, team sports and equestrian – is trying to pitch itself as the gateway from the west to the east and the presence of Qatar Airways ensures that Doha is an accessible city and increasingly a hub for long haul connections to the other side of the world.
What counts against the Grand Prix is the fact that not many people (even in the region it could be argued) are bothering to take flights or drive through the Losail gates (the tickets cost 25 euros with paddock entry as well). The MotoGP fixture is the lowest-attended meeting of the year (around 10,000), which means expectations have to be realistic for motocross but it is slightly dismaying to see the throng at the first round of the year remain decidedly slim (maybe questions of promotion in Doha have to be asked?). The QMMF – who have made political overtones of wanting to promote health and exercise in their country and have to be one of the most proactive, bullish and unashamedly proud nations in their pursuit of bringing sport, athletes and world class facilities to their land just 120km in length – also spoke of local motorcycling talent being able to use the Grand Prix as a source of inspiration and the hopes of one day seeing a Qatari rider hitting world championship level. The federation have run their own team with this goal in MotoGP for almost a decade and motocross is an evidently an easier route for any young racer to consider a career or progress. As I’ve written in past Blogs, the case of Latvia is a clear example of a country investing in Grand Prix and a sport and reaping the benefits over time with more and more riders breaking into MX2 and seeing the professionalism and dedication needed to get anywhere near the top.
Qatar, with just over 300,000 nationals and a daunting 2.6 million ex-pats in residency, according to the country’s official Wiki page, boasts very little motocross tradition and is a mere babe in relation to the history found in other countries, particularly in Europe, but you cannot fault their efforts to want to get something going.
Losail has served as a useful platform for MXGP to then head further east and satisfy Asian fans of the sport. Indonesia is a large question mark but motocross will find a hungry audience in one of the craziest countries for motorcycle racing in that zone of the globe. For manufacturers it also covers an important market and re-affirms MXGP’s status and reach as an FIM world championship. It actually says quite a lot for the structure of what the paddock finds in Losail that the comedown in the earthier and often challenging circumstances a week later in Thailand (two years in Pattaya, one in Nakhonchaisri, one in Suphan Buri) have been tricky to deal with. The new build in 2016 was publicly derided by Ben Townley. I genuinely hope that Indonesia hits the ground running….even if the crew at Pangkal Pinang should be given leeway with their maiden event.
In an ideal world the Qataris would have to cope with a crowd ten times the size of what currently flocks into Losail for the opening foray of MXGP and the delicious treat of who is fastest, sharpest and keenest in the initial dash of a damn long year. They pretty much have every other aspect of a quality race meeting in their pocket. If one of the first press conferences of the 2017 Grand Prix is a renewal of the deal to keep motocross at Losail I believe it would be a positive thing for the series. It is then down to the promoters and the QMMF to continue work on ripening interest in the race, develop any fast national riders and keeping Qatar as part of the motocross map.
Photos by Ray Archer