When that enormous red ball of the sun disappeared below the barren desert landscape and you heard thousands of light bulbs clicking into action, you knew the new season was underway. For 16 years the floodlit Lusail circuit was the beginning of a new season, but now the roles are reversed. Suddenly the 5.380km circuit is the venue where a MotoGP™ World Championship can be settled rather than started. 14 precious points separate Pecco Bagnaia (Ducati Lenovo Team) and Jorge Martin (Prima Pramac Racing) at the penultimate round on Sunday. For the first time this season, the title race could be settled after the Tissot Sprint and the Qatar Airways Grand Prix race in the desert
Arrival in Doha always heralded a complete change of life. The winter was over and family and friends knew better than anybody the travelling lifestyle had returned, after a seemingly too-short winter. You soon discovered the waistline you had requested on the uniform trousers had changed dramatically over those hungry winter months. The shoes you requested were too big and those shirts had problems covering your larger than it had been in November tummy. You reunited with colleagues who you were going to spend much of the next eight months within commentary boxes, media centres, airports, hotels and, of course, bars.
The Lusail International Circuit staged its first Grand Prix in 2004 and its first opening round in 2007. The heat and television timings back in Europe made it tough and so Qatar came up with a solution, which I honestly thought was pie in the sky. Flying in over hundreds of kilometres of desert sand the next year suddenly the silhouette of the floodlit Lusail circuit pierced the darkness below. In 12 months the circuit had been floodlit. The 2008 Qatar Grand Prix was the first ever World Championship motorsport event on tarmac to be staged under lights. The transformation took just 175 days. The opening round was staged under the Lusail lights until this season with just one break for Covid.
I loved those Thursday afternoon Championship photo sessions on the Losail start and finish straight, before the first practice session of the season the next day. There had been Valencia and pre-season testing but this was the first time we saw the bikes and riders in their new livery. Valentino Rossi on a Ducati in 2011 and back on the Yamaha two years later. Casey Stoner on a Repsol Honda in 2011 and four years earlier, even before the floodlights arrived, the first Ducati ride that led to a World Championship in 2007. That same year the number 1 plate was proudly displayed on Nicky Hayden’s Honda for the first time. Marc Marquez made his MotoGP™ debut for the same team in 2013 and Jorge Lorenzo in Ducati leathers for the first time, after leaving Yamaha in 2017.
Qatar will be full of added tension and anticipation with so much at stake this weekend, but it will be different. Already the Moto2™ World Championship is sorted and 37 points are up for grabs in MotoGP™. The first chance for Pecco Bagnaia to retain his world title, although Valencia looks the most likely showdown venue a week later. I always remembered the Lusail circuit as the start of the adventure. Next year it returns to herald the start of the 2024 season. Marc Marquez’s first race on the Ducati sums up my memory and feelings perfectly, although Sunday could be a very special Championship decider.