The news came just seven days before the 71st running of motorcycle racing’s premier class was set to get underway. Increased travel restrictions on passengers arriving from Italy imposed by the Qatari government were reason enough for MotoGP’s cancellation. The Gulf state confirmed the first known case of the virus within its borders on Saturday.
“As of [Sunday], all passengers arriving at Doha on direct flights from Italy, or having been in Italy in the past 2 weeks, will be taken straight to quarantine for a minimum of 14 days,” an official statement read. Such restrictions would have made it impossible for many premier class teams to operate with high numbers of riders, technicians and team personnel hailing from Italy, a country with an excess of 1700 reported cases of the virus (only China and South Korea have more).
The first grand prix hasn’t been completely axed, however. The Moto2 and Moto3 races will go ahead as planned as its teams were already present in Qatar for the IRTA test held last weekend. Thus the junior classes will begin free practice on Friday, March 6, and race on Sunday, March 8, as planned. While the test went ahead, tensions were fraught throughout. Multiple grand prix victor Romano Fenati showed symptoms associated with Covid-19 upon arrival last Friday for example, only to be cleared by local medical authorities soon after.
The activity didn’t end there. On Monday, it was confirmed the Thai Grand Prix, scheduled from March 20-22 has been postponed until further notice. Officials from the South East Asian country that had 43 reported cases at the time of going to print communicated it would be impossible to hold the event on those dates. Series organizer Dorna is hopeful of rescheduling the event in September.
In MotoGP circles the news was inevitable. Teams like Ecstar Suzuki had asked some of its Japanese and Italian members to stay in Qatar after the preseason’s final MotoGP test concluded there for fear they would not be allowed back in. Team boss Davide Brivio said the decision to cancel the first MotoGP race was “a shame” as his squad was “all really ready to start.
“Some of our team staff stayed in Qatar following the test days, as we were aware of the seriousness of the outbreak. But at this time the most important thing is the safety of the people, and we have to respect the decision made by the local authorities and by the MotoGP officials.
“It’s a delicate and strange time for everyone around the world, and we need to take things race by race at the moment and see what develops in the coming weeks. I’d like to wish good luck to those riding in Moto2 and Moto3 next weekend, and I hope we can be back on the track soon.”
Rider reaction has understandably been one of disappointment. Valentino Rossi expressed what many were feeling by saying, “It’s really bad news. Such a pity. After a winter spent training, we were ready to start the season, both physically and psychologically. After the test in Qatar, I really wanted to start with the first race.
“The MotoGP class cancellation for Qatar is difficult news to take, also for the fans, because now we do not know how long we will have to wait before we can start racing. It is certainly a long time, considering the next GP in Thailand has been postponed for all classes. I hope everything will get better in the next weeks.”
Another issue to consider is logistics, with some personnel from Italian teams Ducati and Aprilia unable to enter Qatar to help pack their equipment, which is already at the Losail International Circuit following the MotoGP test, and send it on to the USA.
And even then the possibility of further cancellations remain. How will the USA view a sudden influx of personnel from infected areas such as Italy ahead of the Grand Prix of the Americas on April 5? National airlines didn’t exactly ease these fears. On Saturday, American Airlines suspended its operations from Milan, Italy to New York and Florida “due to the reduction in demand.” That service is scheduled to resume on April 25. Delta is following suit with its last west-bound flight leaving Milan for the U.S. on Tuesday, March.3. That service will resume on May 2.
Dorna is now prepared to see how the situation develops. As Brivio mentioned, they will need to “take things race by race.” But judging by the speed of the weekend’s developments, we may well know for sure whether the MotoGP contingent will resume hostilities around Austin’s curves on April 5 sooner than “the coming weeks.”