Written by Lewis Borg-Cardona
Nasser Khalifa Al Attiya, President of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF), is a man who’s left his mark on Qatar motorsports in more ways than one.
The former rally driver – winner of the Qatar International Rally in 1993 – is now in charge of Doha’s Losail Interna-tional Circuit, venue for the only round of the FIM MotoGP World Championship to be held in the Middle East. It’s a track of which Al Attiya has hands-on (the wheel) experience: “When we hosted the MotoGP for the first time, the asphalting was new on the track, so I did a lot of driving around the circuit just to lay down rubber for the riders to get better grip on the corners. So I’m now very experienced on the track – I’ve left my signature on some of the cor-ners.”
That first time was a mere six years ago. So it was no small feat when Losail was voted MotoGP ‘Circuit Of The Year’ in 2009 by the International Road Racing Teams Association (IRTA), an award of which Al Attiya is justly proud: “This was a great feeling for us – a great moment. For a new circuit to win, out of 18 circuits around the world, that really was a good award for all the organisers at the Losail circuit, and it proves we’re on the right track.”
Indeed, the circuit has come a long way in a short time and earned itself a reputation for innovation and enterprise in the process. That vision was exemplified in 2008 when Losail hosted the first-ever night race: a landmark event for Qatar and the whole world of MotoGP. Not that Al Attiya can claim that idea as his own: “To be honest, the idea first came from the Prime Minister of Qatar. He’s the one who proposed to me, to Carmelo Ezpeleta [CEO of Dorna Sports, commercial rights owner of MotoGP] and the FIA that we should do a night race because of the hot weather here in Qatar.” It proved to be an inspired idea. According to the QMMF President, “It’s better from a mar-keting point of view; better for the spectators and the riders; also it’s better for the performance of the bikes; there are many, many benefits.”
Illuminating the circuit proved quite a project, but one which the Losail organisers were equal to, with a little expert help. “The Musco lighting system cost us nearly US$15 million,” says Al Attiya. “This system is really amazing because it’s 45 times more powerful than a set of football stadium floodlights. We have around 44 big generators on the circuit, and from the time we switch on, within ten minutes there will be maximum lighting on the track.”
Whatever the wattage, it only served to put last year’s problems into sharper focus, when an unseasonal downpour caused the postponement of Sunday’s big race at the last moment, causing a huge headache for Al Attiya and his dedicated team: “We moved the race to Monday, at the request of the riders and the teams, and with the backing of the government we set up the event again. We had a big challenge and it was really tough for us, but we passed the test.”
As for the test on the track, last year’s race winner, Casey Stoner, rates the circuit as particularly demanding: “It’s a very technically challenging circuit because of all the braking points,” says the young Australian superstar. “You enter them?very fast, but in the middle it slows up a little bit, so it makes it a really challenging track to ride.”
Losail’s general manager has his own assessment: “Our circuit is very fast and has a lot of flowing corners. The rider has to have the best set-up when it comes to tyre choice. I’ve heard feedback from the riders that Qatar is one of the most difficult tracks to choose the compound of the tyres. That’s really something unique and the team that does more testing, maybe they will better understand the technique on our track. I think Stoner – and Valentino Rossi also – they know the game very well.”
Whatever the result of this month’s race, Nasser Khalifa Al Attiya knows Qatar will be the ultimate winner: “MotoGP for us is a unique event. In the whole Middle East it is only staged in Qatar. We are very proud to host the first event in the calendar. Usually there is official testing that comes to the circuit as well, and that means the teams spend more time in Qatar, so that’s good exposure for us as a circuit and for Qatar as a country.” When it comes to race weekend (April 9-11), Al Attiya will be watching from the sidelines, uniquely qualified to appreciate events out on the track: “When I started building the circuit and building up the culture for motorcycling in Qatar from zero, in 2003 I was invited to Estoril in Portugal to do some activities on two-seater bikes, with Randy Mamola. When I got off the bike, Carmelo Ezpeleta said to me, ‘Now after this experience you will know how to organise the MotoGP in the future, because you will understand how the riders feel.’ I really learnt a lot from that experience. After the finish line I really enjoyed it, but not while in the middle of the track.” Even now, his voice betrays a certain awe: “I was really shocked at the speed of the bike. I know about speed – I was a rally driver after all – but not like a motorcycle. It was a big surprise to me.”
Casy Stoner’s Ducati Desmosedici GP10
The biggest visual change to the 2009 Doha champion’s bike’s outward appearance is the new tail-mounted exhaust, which creates an incredibly smooth line from the side. Indeed, the complete rear-end has been redesigned to elimi-nate ‘squatting’ – where the bike compresses down under hard acceleration and braking. However, it’s under the carbon-fibre skin where all this is happening. A new cooling system introduced in the rules for 2010 limits each bike to just six engines for the entire season. So each engine must run for about 994 miles (1,600km), often at 19,000 rpm. As well as updates to pistons, connecting rods, and crankshaft, the major change is Ducati’s re-introduction of its ‘big-bang’ firing order for the 800cc, liquid-cooled, V4 engine.
This month’s MotoGP race meeting at the Losail circuit will see another notable first for the sport, with the advent of a new category of race – the Moto2 series – which takes over from the old 250cc category. Including single engine- and tyre-suppliers, the new category is bound to offer competitive racing.