Night riders mount up for historic dash into the dark

For first time in its 60-year history, MotoGP will race under floodlights in the desert of Qatar tomorrow. Gary James looks for his torch
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As if riding a motorcycle at 200mph in the daylight were not a scary enough way to earn a living, MotoGP's organisers have tossed competitors a fresh challenge for tomorrow's opening skirmish in the 2008 world championship: now see if you can do it at night-time.

But motorcycle racers are a curious mix of the hedonist and the stoic, so they are not whingeing, or erecting protest barriers across the 3.34-mile Losail track here in Qatar, the scene of this historic first night race in grand prix racing's 60-year history.

"I'm quite relaxed about this," says Valentino Rossi, who has amassed his seven world titles under afternoon blue skies. "I think they've done an excellent job with the lights and you can ride just the same as you can by day."

"It's going to be fun to race at night," says the reigning world champion, Casey Stoner. The fearless 22-year-old is renowned for chucking his Ducati Desmosedici into tyre-smoking slides, even though the 800cc bike weighs nearly three times as much as his spartan 9st (58kg) frame, so it was hardly likely that he was going to quibble about candlepower, or bulb wattages.

"For me it won't be a completely new experience because I've already done a couple of speedway and dirt-track races at night when I was a junior back in Australia," Stoner explains.

"It will be different, but I don't think it changes the job for the rider. We've already had two days of tests to get used to the track conditions and the lights."

In fact, the biggest problem facing riders will be how to adjust to a new sleeping schedule. "At a normal race weekend I get to my motorhome at about seven in the evening and chill out with a film or something," says Chris Vermeulen, the 25-year-old Australian who heads the Rizla Suzuki team. "I try to get as much sleep as I need, which is about seven hours.

"But it won't be much before 2.30am before I get to bed in Qatar, and if I qualify on the front row on Saturday night that could be quite a bit later. Normally, I don't have a problem with sleeping as I'm able to 'come down' quite quickly. You have to get on with the next job – even if I've won the race by a second I would start working on why it wasn't two seconds and what I can do to improve things next time," Vermeulen says.

James Toseland, Britain's lone entrant on the 18-rider MotoGP grid, has stayed in the desert state since completing tests there last week in order to acclimatise to the new sleep regime.

"James is working night shifts," says his manager, Roger Burnett. "He's getting up at midday and having breakfast. He will eat at 6pm, and then he's going to the gym at 9 or 10pm and working to a two – or three – hour programme. He's going to bed at 2 to 3am."

The American company Musco, which has installed the lighting at Qatar, claims that its 3,600 floodlights are environmentally friendly because they use almost half the energy of rival systems.

"Musco is able to do this by using technology that focuses more of the light on to the racing surface and less into the environment as glare and spill light," the company says.

Anti-global warming warriors might be outraged to know, however, that Musco shipped 113 ocean containers and air-freighted 44 crates of equipment here.

Why race at night at all? Cynics have suggested that it is so that the TV cameras won't pick up the empty grandstands in this oil-rich Middle Eastern country, where a camel or a Cadillac might arouse more interest among its 841,000 inhabitants than the advanced desmosdromic valve-operating system inside the Ducati's cylinder heads.

But this move was never about getting more people to the circuit, where temperatures may drop from a daytime mid-20 C to a chilly 15 for tomorrow night's race, which starts at 8pm British time. The MotoGP organisers Dorna wanted to get the spectacle on to the TV sets of European homes at a peak viewing hour, and not at the mid-morning slot that a normal race time would have entailed.

The Dorna chief executive, Carmelo Ezpeleta, probably feels proud that his 18-round series has beaten Formula One to night-time racing: Lewis Hamilton will not make his debut in the dark until the Singapore round of his championship in September.

All that Ezpeleta must pray for now is that Stoner does not make a procession of the championship as he did last season. And now: lights, action, go!

MotoGP championship schedule

Tomorrow Losail, Qatar

30 March Jerez, Sp

13 April Estoril, Por

4 May Shanghai, China

18 May Le Mans, Fr

1 June Mugello, It

8 June Catalunya, Sp

22 June DONINGTON

28 June Assen, Neth

13 July Sachsenring, Ger

20 July Laguna Seca, US

17 Aug Brno, Cz Rep

31 Aug Misano, San Marino

14 Sept Indianapolis, US

28 Sept Motegi, Japan

5 Oct Phillip Island, Aus

19 Oct Sepang, Malay

26 Oct Valencia, Sp

Rossi at crossroads as Stoner looks to keep grip on crown

When Valentino Rossi dropped to third place in the MotoGP championship last year, he criticised Yamaha's underpowered YZR-M1 bike and Michelin for producing inconsistent tyres.

Now Yamaha has developed a more powerful engine with pneumatic-valve technology, and Rossi (pictured) has binned the Michelins and embraced Bridgestone's rubber.

But can the 29-year-old, the greatest rider of his generation, regain the MotoGP world championship that Casey Stoner and Marlboro Ducati captured so effortlessly in 2007?

By midnight tomorrow, when the podium ceremonies at the Qatar circuit will be under way after the first of the 18 rounds, Rossi will know whether he has a realistic chance of battling for his sixth MotoGP crown, and his eighth grand prix title (he has also won in the 125 and 250cc classes).

Winter testing has shown that Yamaha have closed the gap on Ducati's vaulting top speed, and that Rossi is content with the way the Bridgestones feel as he hurtles through corners at a fighter pilot's 55-degree angle, his hip almost gouging the track.

"Yamaha have worked very hard over the winter and our new bike is very good," Rossi says guardedly. "Of course, there are some things still to work on, but I am confident that we are in good shape overall."

In the red Ducati camp, the project manager Livio Suppo responds: "Compared to this time last year Casey has improved even more and his world championship success has not taken anything away from his desire to win."

The probability is that Stoner will win again – a situation that would pose dilemmas for his Italian rival. Should Rossi stay with Yamaha and believe that the Japanese company can eventually out-slug Ducati down the straights? Should he switch to another bike? Or should he quit MotoGP and pursue his love of rally cars, or just do something different in life after hanging around grand prix tracks for a dozen years?

But there again, that wild street-fighter element in Rossi's soul could equally well fray Stoner's focus this year and give "The Doctor" the career-crowning title that he strives for.

Gary James

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