Welcome to Doha, it's time for the last test of the Preseason!
It's plenty bright, in the middle of the night.
Teams arrived in Qatar last week, not quite sure exactly what to expect when the first Night Tests would take place. Already adjusting to a relatively minor 2 hour time difference from Europe, everyone would then further adjust to another shift of about approximately 7 hours, as the bikes were scheduled to be on track from 5PM through 12AM. I was just as curious as everyone else, and as I transferred flights in Madrid on my way to Doha, I spent some time wondering about the additional logistics needed to make the test and the race successful. Certainly, this would be one of the more complicated races of the season . . .
We flew in on Qatar Airways, one of my favorite airlines. They've usually got a decent selection of movies and seat mounted screens, plus the workers are generally courteous. Typical, we would be flying in overnight and would land at dawn, heading to the circuit later that same day. This was something I was quite familiar with, having campaigned the Qatar National Cup here in early 2006 and flying in multiple times that year. Luckily, I wasn't stuck in this seat, which is one of the bummers of economy travel. I don't understand how the ticket prices can all be the same if one seat is clearly lacking in foot space. Another thing I've noticed is that, regardless of the airline, aisle seats are often left with less foot space than center seats, perhaps as a trade-off because you don't have to do the "elbow fight" with people on both sides of you.
My dinner was pretty good, a nice mix of beef things with pumpkin, one of my favorite vegetables. I have gotten so used to watching mindless entertainment on flights that I hardly remember what I saw on the flight. The only film that I do remember watching was a Pang brothers murder mystery in Cantonese but filmed in Thailand.
We spent some time tracking down a lost piece of luggage once we arrived, and then it was off to the Mercure Hotel in old downtown, the are known as the Souq. This area was full of dust, commotion and noise, and I was sure it would provide some excellent people and culture watching on the days when I wasn't at the circuit. After checking in and resting for a few hours, we headed into the desert, to the Losail National Circuit. Even before we got to the entrance, you could see the hundred, if not thousands, of lights that had been put up around the track. There were clusters of green generators powering them, interspersed sporadically and reminding me of giant green scarab beetles in the sand.
Closer inspection revealed that they were all Pramac Generators! I've seen them before at other circuits around the world, but never on this scale. It just shows how everything is all connected, and it was good to see both the circuit and one of our Team's main sponsors were benefiting. I secretly hoped that would bring us some kind of good luck, somehow, but racing is way too complicated for just luck to be a factor these days.
I'm not sure how he came by this information, but a Yamaha guy told me that during the Night Test, the power to run all the lights was made at the cost of about 1000 liters of gasoline per hour! This would be a huge deal at a European circuit, but gas is incredibly cheap in Qatar. We filled up 50 liters in the car for about 8 Euros, which in "American-speak" translates into roughly 1.1 gallons for a dollar!
After a few days of getting the garage built and the bikes ready, it was time to take pictures! We held off the first practice session by an hour so a local member of royalty could officially kick off the Night Test.
A bunch of the Qatari children came out waving flags and singing songs.
And the riders made an appearance, too. All the bikes were fully dressed, and it was a nice moment to step back and just savor. Soon enough we would all be engaged in a season long war.
Maybe one of my favorite pictures of this trip. The bikes are just sitting there, like predators. I can't wait for my Bull Sharks to be unleashed.
Soon enough, the testing was underway. The days kind of passed by quickly, because by the time we'd get back to our hotel, nearly 3 or 4AM, there was only time to shower and sleep before getting up and doing it all over again the next day. One thing that's been brought up online already was the fact that it was COLD at night. We're talking about the middle of the desert, so naturally we're looking at hotter hots in the day, and colder colds at night. The wind would pick up in the late afternoons, early evenings, as the weather would transition from day to night, and as the nights wore on, the temperatures would drop rapidly. It wasn't so bad if you were busy working, but for the riders I know this was some cause for concern. Without the sun to heat the tarmac, the boys were all running around hoping that the tire guys had brought the right stuff.
We tried a new lighting system in Qatar, but found that it wasn't very effective with all the crosswinds, hahaha.
I particularly like the focus on Sylvain's face in this shot. He's in the zone . . . .
. . . . . and he rides with a lot of Heart.
It was good to see that Toni was still laughing and having a good time. Sometimes when the results aren't coming you sit back and wonder why, and then self doubt can creep its way in. This might be the most serious poison for a rider's confidence, but I know from talking and hanging out with my boys that no matter what the testing times have shown thus far, we'll be charging hard come race time. On the last day of testing, with about fifteen minutes to go, Sylvain lost the front in a fast corner and went down pretty hard. The gravel traps in Qatar should really be called boulder traps, because the stones are huge and invariably they do quite a bit of damage to the bikes, not to mention the riders! At first, we were pretty worried that Sylvain had broken his wrist, but a quick onsite x-ray showed that it was likely to be a bad sprain. I saw him zipping up his sweater later that night with both hands, so I think he's going to be alright for this Sunday's race. When all the bikes had gone home to their garages to roost, we packed up and left the track. NOT! This was the first time I can remember not breaking down the bikes and the garage, and instead we simply left everything in place and locked up, knowing we'd be back in a few days to start repairing the #50 machine and getting some maintenance done to all the bikes in preparation for the race.
That meant a three day break for the Squadra, and we all slept in the next day!
I woke up in the afternoon, fresh and ready for some new adventures. I always have mixed feelings when I'm in Qatar, and I often find it a difficult place to write about. The view from my hotel balcony showed a mix of rubble and older buildings. There was a constant haze of dust, either from the desert sands, the automobile pollution, and likely, also the desert sands. In my immediate area were dirt roads, cheap vendors (of all manner of things), and I really got the sense of the Souq, that this place was were all the Old World trading was taking place, as it had been for thousands of years. You'd hear traffic, cars honking, people shouting into their cel phones, and the smells! The smells were intense, hahaha!
Another thing you'd hear was the 5X daily prayers rising up towards Mecca. I took a short video clip so you can all hear what it's like.
Sergio, Michele, and I took off for a stroll through the neighborhood. There's something very intense about the way people look at you, and this is one of the reasons why I feel unsettled here. There's such an imbalance between the Haves and Have-Nots. In my experiences, I've come across both obscenely wealthy and subsistence level poverty in Qatar. Many of the workers and laborers have come from India, Pakistan, the Phillipines, and elsewhere across Asia, but the promise and allure jobs and better wages has been largely hollow. From talking with the people at the fishmarket and on the street, it's easy to see that the life here is incredibly hard and generally people cannot even afford to go back home with the money that they're earning building this place up. It depresses me to see, and it explains in some part the hostility that I feel. The sense of naivete that I felt coming from the people in 2006 is already fading, but this may be simply because I'm more tuned in now, or because my eyes are wider. This isn't to say that Qatar is a bad place. It's just that I'm seeing more negatives as I spend more time here.
The traffic is among the craziest I've ever seen. Full size SUVs compete with econoboxes, and with horrible traffic light management (or no traffic lights at all), the large roundabouts at the major intersections have become hail-mary, bomb right in, nightmares. I've never witnessed such poor displays of driving ability and common sense, and it sobers me to think that there's only going to be more traffic as time goes by here. You can't imagine what it's like to slow to a stop and have old freight trucks, busses, and whatever kind of car you can think of continue zooming right past you into the roundabouts without a care as to the oncoming and approaching traffic. It's a kind of bravado and suicide rolled into one, and sooner or later I feel it's going to escalate .
I happen to have a night club in the lobby of my hotel, and that alone is an eye-opener. I dropped by for a beer the other night, wanting to see how the locals were interacting with one another, and was completely blown away. The floors and tables were all dirty, covered with spilt beer, cigarette butts, and the other stuff I didn't even want to know about. I don't know if it's because drinking is not really endorsed in Muslim countries, but from what I've seen, the locals cannot handle their alcohol at all. Two beers and they're stumbling around, spitting on the floor (well, that happens anyway), and provoking each other. What really stunned me was how angry and upset everyone looked, all the time. Sergio and I went in for one drink to put us to sleep, and immediately we both felt like something was wrong. The guys all looked like they wanted to fight, and indeed it looked like it might happen as one drunk would accost a cheap, asian prostitute who was sitting with another guy. It was shocking, disgusting, and we quickly left as soon as we could. What really stood out to me was how readily people would stare at whatever was going on, not from across the room or sitting at their own table, but that they'd get up and move to get as close to the "action" as possible, standing and staring with complete disregard for anyone's space or privacy. It was odd, and I remember it vividly happening at other moments, in different times and places in the city. I'm not sure if it had anything to do with the class or cultural background of the people, but it reminded me of dogs, waiting to move in on any scraps they could get.
This photo shows Serg next to some sort of wegiht/fortune machine, but more telling is the general disarray of the sidewalk conditions. It speaks to me of poverty, and it helps me to understand the fervor with which people had asked my team mates to help them immigrate to Italy, or anywhere - just to get out of here.
Qatar is not all bad, and I don't want to portray the place that way. I find many of my own values in line with the people here, and while I am not Muslim, I respect their religion and way of life. There are some beautiful mosques throughout this city, and while this is not the best example by far, it was still a nice place to see amidst all the lower income housing.
Just across the street in the center of a roundabout was one of my "landmarks" which we all used to help navigate our way through the city. Everyone on the Team has been coming here for years, but we still often find ourselves getting lost because the face of the city is changing so rapidly. Where in 2004 there was nothing near the large shopping center at one end of town, now there are several skyscrapers being developed, and new buildings and monuments are popping up all the time. I think we've pretty much figured out our route by now, but it made for some even longer nights after work finished trying to find our way home in the dark. I really got a kick out of this old boat for some reason, and I wish I knew more about the people who had sailed it before. I doubt I would have been able to read a plaque in sanskrit, though, but it was still nice to see. I would have liked to have gone fishing on a boat like this, but I ended up spending my free days differently here.
I didn't just want to flip my timeframe upside down completely by waking up early in the mornings because I wanted to maintain the "timezone" I'd established through working at night. Serg and I would sleep until lunchtime, then either take a walk or spend some time in the hotel gym working out. I can't remember the last time I was in a gym, haha, but it felt good to stretch again and get my blood pumping. In the evenings we headed over to the giant mall, Carrefour, and I picked up some supplies like the Herbal Miswak toothpaste I like so much. We wasted time walking around, shopping for nick-nacks, and eventually we found a cheap Casio kiosk, hahaha. JACKPOT! Four of us picked up some nice souvenirs and then it was time to eat at Applebee's. Along the way we'd run into members from Suzuki, Kawasaki, and managed to catch up with Chris V as he was about to check out "No Country for Old Men" with Dean Miller. Nicky Hayden was wandering around with Aldon Baker, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that these riders would stay in Qatar acclimating further to this place and spending their days getting ready for the first race. In fact, I stopped feeling bad that I hadn't gone back to Barcelona for a couple days to rest up, because it all balances out in the wash, anyway.
If you're wandering around the old town and you see a guy selling deep-fried, spicy potato thingy's for a Reial (about a quarter, USD), buy one! They were great. The days swept by, the weekend was over, and now it's time to go back to the circuit tomorrow. I'll get a good night's rest and wake up ready to fight again. We've got a long, tough year ahead of us, but I know we're going to give it everything we've got. At least I am, haha. I've got to do whatever it takes to win races, and sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, I'll pause for a moment and enjoy a brownie.
I'll be seeing you all later this week, as the first race approaches. I haven't been able to connect with my server from this hotel connection, so I've been unable to upload new music for you all. Stay tuned, though, because this week is going to be a doozy!