After losing its MotoGP race to Covid last season, Qatar will make up for lost time by hosting two back-to-back rounds at the start of the 2021 campaign.
The Covid cancellation wasn’t the only drama to have befallen the Losail event, which made history as the sport’s first and only night race in 2008, then had to be postponed until Monday in 2009 due to heavy rain.
Standing water also forced qualifying to be cancelled in 2017, when grid positions were decided by free practice times, while the results for the 2019 race were only upheld after a post-race protest by four of Ducati’s rivals (against the factory’s new swingarm device) was rejected by the FIM Stewards.
Protests, this time pre-race, had also marred MotoGP’s 2004 debut in the desert – and on that occasion the complaints were upheld.
The result was that world championship leader Valentino Rossi (Yamaha) and third in the points Max Biaggi (Camel Honda) were sent to the back of the grid, but is perhaps best remembered for prompting Rossi’s to vow that Sete Gibernau will not win another race.
Slippery sand being blown onto the circuit and gathering outside of the racing line had been a concern throughout the build-up to the first MotoGP in the Middle East.
Rossi arrived at the event with a 39-point advantage over Gibernau with four rounds remaining but could only qualify eighth, while Gibernau was starting on the front row.
That evening, some of Rossi’s crew went onto the track with a scooter and did burn outs on his grid spot, with the tyre marks clearly visible the following day.
A scooter revving off the limiter while doing burnouts directly outside the pit garages is far from a clandestine operation and Rossi’s team clearly believed they were doing nothing wrong.
They were also not alone in such grid preparation, with some of Biaggi’s Camel Honda crew ‘washing’ his starting spot to try and combat the sand.
Yamaha later claimed that, rather than trying to give Rossi an advantage off the line thanks to grip from the scooter rubber left on the grid, the purpose of the burn-outs was for the Italian to ‘use the [tyre] mark [as a guide] during the morning warm-up session to develop [by riding over his grid slot] a good line into the first corner’ and that the crew had been doing such tactics since their days with Mick Doohan.
But by the letter of the law, any such grid preparation is illegal and, with the tyre marks obvious for all to see in the light of day, Honda came under pressure from some of Gibernau’s Gresini team to file a protest.
When the protest against Rossi was upheld, Yamaha instantly retaliated with its own successful protest against Biaggi. Ducati is rumoured to have protested against both Rossi and Biaggi.
Clearly fired up by the protest, Rossi muscled his way past half of the field by the opening turn, and was back to his planned starting position of eighth by the end of the first lap.
Gibernau was already in the lead, but Rossi continued his sharp advance – despite bumping into Alex Barros – and was into fourth place behind Gibernau, Carlos Checa and Colin Edwards by lap 4 of 22.
But it all went wrong for Rossi on lap 6 when he ran wide onto the artificial grass and was thrown from his M1 when the rear kicked out, sending the Italian sliding down the asphalt in a trail of sparks.
Gibernau went on to win ahead of team-mate Edwards slashing Rossi’s title lead to just nine points, while Ruben Xaus took his only MotoGP podium.
“I was amazed and very disappointed by the decision to make me start at the back of the grid,” said an angry Rossi after the race. “I don’t think there is any consistency in some of the decisions made.
“At other races people have cleaned their grid places and nothing has happened. In fact, my crew were doing something they used to do with Doohan when the track was dirty,” he continued, adding: “I didn’t know about it until after it had happened.”
On Italian TV, Rossi pointed the finger of blame for what he saw as an unsporting protest at Juan Martinez, Gibernau’s crew chief. However, both riders sought to play down the feud when the paddock gathered at Sepang five days later.
“I said some things after the race in Qatar about the people involved in this situation and now it is finished,” said Rossi. “”Unfortunately we lost 25-points and I have a hole in my finger but I think it is not a big problem to ride [here].”
“Whatever Valentino did say was in the heat of the moment and I am not interested,” added Gibernau. “I have been in that situation before, when your blood is boiling and you say what you think, but everybody knows he is a good guy.
“To be honest I thought his penalty was unfair, but that is racing.”
Rossi went on to wrap-up Yamaha’s first world title since 1992 by winning at Sepang and the following Phillip Island round.
But Qatar 2004 didn’t prove as easy for Gibernau to shrug off.
After eight victories in two seasons, making him still the most successful satellite rider of the MotoGP era, the Spaniard never won another MotoGP race, just as Rossi apparently pledged.