While Qatar’s aspirations to host a Formula 1 race have been known for some time the decision to aim for a street race around Lusail has taken many by surprise. With the Losail International Circuit just miles from Lusail these plans seem to be ambitious for the country. The plans centre around a desire from the country to raise their international profile further ahead of hosting the 2022 World Cup.
The national motorsport president, Nasser Khaifa al Attiya, spoke to me about his passion “to make records” at the final round of the World Superbike championship and hosting the first street race in the region would certainly tick that box however the Middle-Eastern nation will face difficulties in finding its way onto the Formula 1 calendar. The biggest stumbling blocks are likely to come from neighbouring Bahrain and Abu Dhabi who may be unwilling to accommodate their regional rival on the calendar.
“It is good for the region if there is a competition between countries in the region,” said the QMMF president. “Everyone wants to prove that they have better races, this has helped all of the countries. I treat the GCC market as an open market. There are no rules for this market, you can have ten flights between Qatar and Bahrain or the UAE each day, so this has helped a lot of people to move very easily. For sure we went with a different direction in the beginning, with motorcycle racing, to be special in this region but for sure we have no doubts that we are thinking about Formula 1 and other car races.”
Where Qatar would fall on the F1 calendar is a major question mark with teams likely unwilling to race in the desert in the summer leaving the beginning or end of the season as the only options. Al Attiya spoke of his desire to relax the motorsport calendar in Qatar and move away from hosting the season opening races in multiple series and with this being the case twinning the race with Abu Dhabi would make the most sense given their long term agreement to host the opening MotoGP race of the year.
This however is complicated by the circuits certification as a potential F1 testing venue and previous plans for F1 to make Qatar a winter test ground with the circuit able to host warm-weather testing in the pre-season. This would give teams guaranteed good weather away from the harsher European climates. Of course Qatar could look to give teams this en-route to the season opening Australian Grand Prix or it could tie in with Bahrain being offered the opening race in future.
“We have already licensed the track for Grade A+1, which means that we can already host the teams for testing, so that will be amazing if we can do that in future. For sure we will need to accommodate the teams in the proper way so that we can give them the correct services.”
Qatar’s inability to generate interest from local fans has been an issue from when MotoGP first went to the country 11 years ago and with the recent WSBK finale drawing a tiny crowd, even though tickets were free on the Sunday, the challenge of growing the sport in the country is clear. In the past the QMMF has toyed with the idea of twinning the World Superbikes and MotoGP rounds with each other to give European fans a more enticing package to warrant a two weekend trip to the race.
Hosting a Formula 1 race in the country would obviously be a much bigger draw than motorcycle racing and with the growing list of races in Qatar it is clear that they are using motorsport as a key marketing tool for the country:
“The motorsport culture is growing a lot in Qatar, between auto and moto, and there are a lot of activities that we are having here. We have five world championships on motorcycles and in the region we have an Asian round and a Qatar national superbikes. This is only in motorcycles but we also have rallying, Porsche GT and other series. We are looking to balance auto and moto. We are preparing for more surprises with the top automobile series in the future.”
Those “big surprises” clearly involve Formula 1 but hosting the World Endurance Championship and a cross-country rally are also being considered by Qatar:
“We are looking at the World Endurance Championship as well but they have an exclusive agreement with Bahrain so we’ll see if Bahrain will accept Qatar to join the series. We have Porsche GT races here and in Bahrain and Dubai so we are managing to [work together] but we need more calibration between the clubs to harmonise the rules and regulations and to check the calendars so that we don’t clash with each other.
“We could do something similar to the Dakar rally here because already we have done cross country rallies. We can link the transports to other countries but at this moment the custom rules are different in each country so without guarantees of the customs [it is difficult]. For sure we will look at it in the future and Qatar is an open country and we can link it to Oman, UAE or Saudi Arabia and in my obligations as FIA vice-president I will look into it.
“The terrain allows us to link it together but we need the clubs to work together. We don’t need to play politics, we need to play sport because if we do that we will give our societies different types of races in the region. We need to have a regional race that will link all the countries together and it would be interesting to do it with bikes and cars but we need to think in a sporting way and not a political way.”