Losail National Cup, Doha, Qatar Rd. 1
Little Nacho had called me and asked if I was working for five races in the Middle East. I was a bit nervous, but thought, why not? We were contracted by D'antin MotoGP, and were acting as an extension of his group, which competes in MotoGP, the Spanish Nationals, and also preps and maintains the racebikes for the Losail National Cup.
I haven't slept more than an hour in the last two and a half days. The night before I left BCN I was up late packing, reading, and generally puttering around because of my nerves. Then following night was aboard a luxury plane headed for Saudi Arabia, in a large group of rambunctious Spanish kids! No one slept. Got off the plane at 6:30AM and snapped this quickly as I debarked down the stairs. Welcome. . . . . . to
Doha, Qatar! Just moments before the plane touched down, we actually flew over the Losail International Circuit and it was a unique perspective to gain, not only of the track, but also of the surrounding desert and how the city meets the sea.
This is Tony, a Nigerian working at the super hotel that d'Antin put us up in, the Grand Regency Hotel, Doha (no stupid Craigslist Nigerian crap replies, please).
Always nice to have some Barf gear stashed away, thanks Budman! Can anyone guess what it says under my name? I got some great pics at the track today, and some of the job I'm involved in, but unfortunately, it's about 10 Euros per half hour of internet use here so I won't be updating and posting that often! I got work to do!
On to the Qatar stories! This is where I am, somewhere off the peninsula of Saudi Arabia. That's where Ali Baba is from.
This trip to the Middle East was one of a kind, and I learned a lot. In fact, I'm still digesting everything and haven't fully settled back down to earth yet. It'll be hard to encapsulate everything so I'll just start at the beginning and hopefully everyone will get a clear picture of how things went.
Starting at the top, I first heard about this job in the Qatar a couple weeks ago from a kid I met through a former employee of Dorna (it pays to make as many friends as possible, because you never know. . . . ). I wasn't sure at first if I should go, but after some small checks I decided that it was safe enough (as if safety bothers me, haha). Many people spoke English, and in fact, it was a small requirement of the job. I fit the bill perfectly and I wondered if I was really hired because I was an English speaker or because I was a mechanic. I would soon find out. This is inside the airport, and I was a little worried because everyone was wearing long shirts (guhtra) and head cloth (shumagh). No fear, though, and my passport was promptly stamped after the visa fees were paid. Apparently, you have to pay up front before they let you through the exit. It was approximately 18 Euros for my entrance.
Before I got to Qatar, I first had to meet some of the group of mechanics who would be my teamates for the next couple days. They came from all over Spain (literally) and half of the group lifted off from BCN and the other half from Madrid. We flew via Qatar Airways, first to London's Heathrow airport. It was a short flight and I now know how bad Heathrow can be. Throw in some flight delays, some busses, multiple levels, poor signage, and a wacky Gate arrangment, and you have a complete hodge-podge ripe for screwing up in. Add the crazy Spanish and we were in for a frenzied time just trying to meet and navigate through the mess that is Heathrow. I got separated from one group due to my non-EU passport and although I knew what my next flight was and where to go, my group members kept freaking out and calling me every two minutes. For an hour! Finally, we boarded our plane to Qatar and it was quite likely the nicest plane I've ever been on. Beautiful flight attendants, free drinks, great food -- it was a great way to start this adventure. For dinner I had Lamb Tikka with cabbage and pea curry, basmati rice, and several bottles of wine. I should point out that we left Spain at 3PM and were due to arrive in Doha around 6:30AM the following day, Thursday. As I mentioned earlier, no one slept, and it was a party atmosphere the whole trip. The flight was not even half full, so everyone was moving around, joking out loud, throwing girly magazines at one another, and generally being very unorthodox towards the girls (who were very patiently dealing with them). I did my best to distance myself from all the trouble making because I didn't want to upset any Islamic principles before I even arrived in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the spanish kids were involved in all manner of "terrorism", like hanging three page girly fold-outs in the bathrooms, and things like that.
Anyway. I arrived in Doha with no rest and the sun had just started to shine. I was here to work for Luis d'Antin, a former GP rider and since '97, a team owner who has campaigned with Norick Abe, and Shinya Nakano, among others. d'Antin currently has the Ducati Satellite team, Dantin Pramac, and you might remember that last year his rider, Reuben Xaus, was regularly beating the factory Ducati team. He also runs a team in the Spanish National Championship. Qatar hosts it's own National Cup racing series, and you must first be a Qatari citizen, and also qualify to race one of the identically prepped machines, in this case an '05 Yamaha R6. Some of these guys are pretty fast and the bikes are well set-up, with suspension modifications and some other bits. Qatar contracted d'Antin Racing Service to build and maintain these machines for their series, which runs from December through April. Like everything he does, d'Antin is hands on and involved, and even in Qatar he was busy directing all the action (while simultaneously making and receiving calls concerning his other teams and organizing this week's testing in Sepang, Malaysia). I can't figure out how he gets it all done, without an assistant. As you can see, this is box #16 of 28. Ten of the boxes were lost in transit, and this would prove to be very problematic for me in the coming days.
We waited for the next flight to show up, hoping the boxes would be on board, but no luck. I walked outside to check things out, and already the day was heating up. This is a neat "cup" that was built next to the airport. The 2006 Asia Games (something like a smaller scale Olympics) are going to be held in Doha, so I think that's the reason behind this.
I figured it was going to be a loooonnngg day, so I decided it was best to start hydrating immediately! I didn't have any Qatarees, but they took my Euros, so it worked out.
The guys were all excited about being here, and the whole flight they were telling me about the cars. I saw everything on the road, from Bentley sport coupes, to lots of Hummers and Land Cruisers. I don't think I've ever seen such a variety of road vehicles in one place. Not too many bikes on the road, but the ones that were were crazy, and fast. I think crazy must be a box you check when you apply for a license here, because people don't use the brakes. It's either GAS or HORN. Most of all, the Spanish guys seemed super excited about the Yellow School buses. Yes, they run the standard yellow buses here that took us to school in the mornings!
Qatar is known as the Pearl of the Middle East. With good reason! The average per capita income here is the highest in the world, roughly 30K USD, making Qatar the richest country in the world! Based on the fact that there are some very, very poor people here in the desert, that should tell you how unbelievably rich some of the other people are . . . . .
We stopped at the hotel to drop off our bags and take a quick shower. It was a rush, but everyone made it. We all managed to have a coffee before leaving the hotel, and we would surely need it, after travelling all night and not sleeping. Here you see part of the room I was in, and the carton of Malboros I bought on the plane for the princely sum of 10.50 Euros, or about 13 dollars. How this would become the most expensive box of smokes I ever bought will come out later. . . .
Thirty minutes after arriving at the hotel we were loaded into four cars (about 20 of us total) and speeding towards the circuit (pronounced theer-Quit). Once again it was like driving in a rally race, with former racers and testosterone taking over. Our caravan made *excellent* time and stopped once for fuel, where I spotted this.
I wonder if I'm the first Barfer to make it here? I'm definitely going to be back at some point! The natives are friendly, and the food is great! Well, mostly the food is great. The circuit's cafeteria left much to be desired, but then, I was spoiled by the hotel's restaurants. In the background is the Losail Cup coordinator, Tony Escola. He's been around GP for more than ten years and recently raised up Max Berger to compete in World Supersport. He's got some history.
Walked in to the hangar like pit area to find a couple of these! These two bikes were some of the spares, though frames, swingarms, wheels, engines, and more were situated nearby if necessary.
Actually, there were lots of bikes, all needing love and attention. The bikes were used the previous year and had about 1700 Kilometers on them, all track time. That's about 1100 miles. They were in decent shape, but nothing to write home about, haha, just kidding. We spent the day cleaning them up and changing fluids, checking torques, and generally just making sure they were race-worthy. The day finished about 6:30PM, an hour to drive back to the hotel (we got lost), and dinner was at 7:30. Everyone needed sleep, including me, and 8 hours was not enough. We were up at 6 the next morning and due at the track at 7:30. Enough time for a shower and some breakfast, though smart cookies like me showered the previous night. Who wants to get in bed all nasty?
The following day was rough! I had gotten some sleep the night before, so I was better prepared for the long day. And it was long! We got to the track around 8AM, after a breakneck romp through the desert highway, and the adrenalin was pumping when we jumped out of the cars. There was a trackday scheduled that day so the locals were out in force. It's about forty Euros a day, as much as you want to ride. I met with some ExPats there and they explained that this is the only way to go. You can either buy a boat in Qatar, a dune-buggy, or a motorcycle and race/tracktime with it. There are about thirty expats and thirty locals who regularly use the track. . . several times a month. Who wouldn't like to have their own personal track?!?Everything is relatively cheap there because people get paid so much so most of the Expats were decked out in some pricey gear. One of whom was wearing a Colin Edwards Laguna Seca helmet! I grabbed some photos, but mostly I was busy working and I didn't want to be spotted with a camera in my hand, so I didn't take a ton of pictures. I'll have other chances in the future to capture some neat shots The day became night, and because of the missing boxes lost in transit we didn't have all the pieces to put the bikes together. They arrived late the second day and by the time they got to the track it was early evening. Naturally, we stayed to make sure the bikes would be ready to go the next morning. 20 guys, no radio, all working hard until 4:30AM. Then it was another race back to the hotel (again we got lost) and by the time we got to sleep, it was for an hour. Up at 6 on Saturday for another day . . . .More pics of the event to come, I haven't downloaded a bunch from my camera (and others). Here's a neat picture of how the Qatari also like to illegally hide their license plates like back home! Squids are international, too!
Friday was to be our longest at the circuit. I took this shot early in the morning before the heavy work began. It's totally surreal to be at a big track when no one else is around. Mystical, really. After getting eight hours of sleep the night before, my batteries weren't recharged, but I wasn't hurting as bad as before. I knew that I would have what it takes, for as long as it would take because plain and simple, I love bikes! Something kicks in whenever I start working on them, and this has enabled me to spend many a night working right up through dawn until I have to go to my "day" job.
This was my bike, #14, in the line. Each rider was assigned one mechanic and although we were all technically "teamates" there was definitely a feeling of competition going on as far as servicing the machines. Since this was my first time working on an R6 I took my time, and soon enough I was discovering little tricks and shortcuts to make my life easier. Not to mention, I was the only guy to bring a couple tools on my own, and let me tell you, Snap On is the bomb! Thanks to some of my rachet wrenches, trick ratchets, and more, I was able to breeze through things and I knew I was going to have a good time.
We worked through the day, checking and re-checking things and waiting for our parts to come in. Lunch was uneventful, another day at the cafeteria (which is also open to the public -- if you're ever in the area). Dinner was another story! We didn't have time to go back to the hotel for food so we split into two groups to go eat. D'antin took us to the Doha Golf Club, an exclusive resort style course with fantastic food. At dinner I had a chance to speak with him at length, and also I became friends with Manuel Pescino, who basically runs the biggest Spanish motorcycle magazine, Solo Moto. It's weekly!I suggest the Australian Sirloin, and I even managed to have a couple of Guiness', too! Finished the meal off with some espresso, naturally, and made our way back to the track around 9PM. We all knew it was going to be several hours before we'd be headed back to the hotel so the mood was a little quieter than normal.
You know you were looking at it! This is how the ballers in Qatar roll when they hit the greens!
Around ten we finally started adding some bodywork, and it couldn't have been too soon!
Bit by bit the bikes started to come together. The paint was *fresh*, and if your weren't careful. . . . well, you get the idea.
Ahhhhh, just about wrapped up. We worked past 4:30AM that morning, and some guys weren't close to being done so they stayed straight through the night! I wouldn't have minded staying, but my work was done and applying the decals is delicate work, not suited for large groups of guys around a single bike. Of course, we got lost on the way back to the hotel (no landmarks in the desert!) and by the time my head hit the pillow, it was just after 6AM. I know that race mechanics can expect long hours, but to be frank, I wasn't expecting it to be like this from the Qatar Nationals!
Bright an early on Saturday the support races started. I want to say it was "run whatcha brung"! I was confident that my bike was working fine and in good shape for the race, so I took a moment to run out of the garage and snap this off. Vroom!
This guy literally blew the doors off the rental car on our way to the track that morning. I forgot to mention, since the desert is long and relatively flat, when we raced in the rentals, it was always at WFO. As soon as we'd pass 120 KPH, the door dingers would start ringing. Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding, and we kept on going! There is nothing so fun as playing spit on the car you're beating at 180 KPH on a two lane desert highway. At least, the Spaniards thought so. I earned my "cool" stripes by getting everyone in my car to moon two of the other mechanics' cars as we were taking the lead, but it got even better once we started off-roading. I think we cracked an oil pan; because it sure did stink. . . .
Finally, my race came around, and I was on deck to receive the rider on the track. Row four, position one. I tried not to give him any advice, other than to have fun, but he was a little sad because his parents hadn't shown up, and neither had his brother. I let him know that I had his back, ran back to my pit board, and got ready for one of the kookiest starts I've ever seen.
How many wheelies can you count?!?
Some of the race fans were normal.
Some of the race fans were *intense*.
I spent the race monitoring my rider's times and position and making sure my pit board was visible and the information was correct. We were doing pretty good I thought, and even though the lead guys took off and left everyone else in the dust, my guy was creeping up slowly on a pack of four riders. Eventually there was some dicing going on! The race came to a close and these are the winners up on the podium.
I had hoped my guy would do well, but alas, he lost the fight with gravity and slid out. I knew something was up when one lap he was there. . . and the next, he wasn't! He came back in an ambulance, a little embarrassed but no worse for wear, and I started preparing my tools while I waited for the truck to bring the bike back to the pits. It's doesn't look that bad in this shot, but he snapped a steering stop off the lower triple tree so I ended up having to change that, too, before I could go home after the race. So much for my plans to go shopping at the mall! I didn't have enough parts to completely repair the bike, but I did the best I could and eventually everyone had to leave the track and go back to the hotel. Zoom! Had a shower and some dinner and then we had almost two hours to figure out how to have some fun in Doha. . . . .
It's not so much that they "don't" let you drink there, it's just that it's not encouraged. Muslim culture is strict, and I was very impressed by certain aspects while I was there. In particular, I was amazed at how well spoken they were (in English, no less!) and at their high level of intelligence. I had a misconception before, I underestimated the Arabic peoples; that maybe because there wasn't much to do in the middle of nothing, people wouldn't be very interesting. Boy, was I way off! I think being in an environment like that can cause people to go one of two ways. . . . . one is to meditate and ruminate on things all day long, the other is to go the way of the midwest! There are Thinkers in the Middle East! While it's true that not everyone was well educated, the ones that were were eloquent, passionate, and had a particular kind of grace that I hadn't encountered before.
I got a xeroxed map of the downtown area of Qatar from a Roumanian girl who worked in our hotel and marked off a couple spots. Finally ended up at the Ramada!
This was a very strange bar that was filled with Filipinos! In fact, many of the hotels and service industry jobs in Qatar (and on their airline) are full of Filipino and Thai people. Yet another bizarre touch to this place. There were these three little Filipina girls up on stage singing and dancing and doing a really good job pulling off songs by Destiny's Child and other hip-hop songs. Whiskey and Tequila. . . and a couple rounds in it was time to go! We jumped in our cars and blasted back to our hotel to catch a shuttle bus we had chartered to get us to the airport in time for our 2AM flight.
Something was decidedly wrong at the airport, because all flights had been delayed by two hours! Two! That meant a couple hours of sitting around, and sweating while we guarded our belongings in shifts. The Duty Free shop was the only thing keeping people occupied but I managed to squirrel away and have a drink at this place:
Remember that carton of Malboros? Well, at the Duty Free, everyone in my group picked up another one because they were so ridiculously cheap. We eventually boarded our flight, much to the consternation of the uptight Germans on the way to Munich, and had some celebratory drinks once we were on the move. Arrived in an icey Munich, Germany, and because of our delayed flight in Doha we had to really hustle to make our flight transfer back to BCN! We had some snags at the passport checks, because they just wouldn't take "Tourist" for a straight answer, instead, repeating the same questions over and over. Add to that what I suspected was some racism towards the Spanish, and it just wasn't a very cool scene. We boogied downstairs, missed our turn into the connecting flight aisle, and ended up wandering around the baggage claim. We passed this really cool BMW ad and based on the blurriness of this photo, I think the guy that took it was still partying a little bit!
This display belonged at a car show, it was so cool. Large, three dimensional, just slick all the way around.
Anyway, we were lost and someone in an official looking uniform waved us over to him. I tried to explain we needed to find Terminal G but he escorted us into a room and proceeded to search our bags. I was a little worried because boarding was supposed to be taking place at that exact time, but he wouldn't let us go. Instead, he confiscated our passports and said we were each 200 Sticks over the limit and that because we entered the room through the "green" entrance, instead of the other side of the room, the "red" entrance, we were also going to have to pay fines instead of taxes. I was trying to get it through his head that we weren't even staying in Germany, or trying to leave the airport, or trying to smuggle cigarettes, or whatever, I just wanted to get to my plane. I told him to hand the stuff back and I'd go outside and walk around the room and come back in on the Red side, but noooooo wayy. The guy wouldn't even let us throw the smokes away. He was very "by the book". By now there were about ten customs agents surrounding us and watching from behind glass windows. They were primed and ready to kick some ass over some cigarettes. I detected some perverse satisfaction from them, that hahaha, we had broken the rules and he was going to set us straight. The taxes came to 30 Euros per carton, and another 30 Euros for the fine. It adds up! He cheerfully took our money and then escorted us directly to the Gate we were looking for. I have only one word for the way things went down but it's not suitable for the board. So, Thank You Germany! Now I don't have to visit any wartime museums!
This little baby finally got me out of there!
Phew, what a rush! An incredible trip where I would meet some of the people who would make a difference and work with me in the future.