Qatar in WorldSBK history
Qatar first hosted a WorldSBK race when it opened the season in 2005. Almost unbelievably for a desert-based circuit, rain proved to be a factor. Pole position had gone in dry conditions to Regis Laconi, while lap times in both races proved that the Suzuki GSX-R1000 K5 meant business. Troy Corser and Yukio Kagayama celebrated a one-two in Race 1, while the Japanese rider took the upper hand thanks to a better tyre choice in Race 2; Corser – that year’s World Champion – dropped to third behind Regis Laconi’s Ducati.
The maiden race of 2006 proved to be a battle royale, full of unexpected twists. In the early stages, Kagayama fought away with Corser, Noriyuki Haga, Andrew Pitt and Troy Bayliss, but James Toseland came from behind and was soon running third. It looked like Kagayama or Haga would take the win, but the latter hit his team-mate on the final lap as Toseland graciously came through to pick up the pieces. The second race was Troy versus Troy; Corser initially led while Bayliss had to recover from fifth on the grid. Bayliss would take chunks out of his Australian compatriot, attacking relentlessly, but Corser bounced back on every occasion and was ultimately able to keep the charging Ducati at bay.
There were great expectations on the eve of the 2007 races. Four-time 250cc Grand Prix World Champion Max Biaggi had been rapid in testing ahead of his WorldSBK debut, just missing out on pole to Toseland. A first-corner incident saw both men run wide, losing the advantage to Haga and Corser, but both were back in contention and vying for victory in the closing stages. It was Biaggi who came out on top, cementing his name in the list of World Superbike winners in his very first race. The ‘Roman Emperor’ was back to winning ways, as his emotional side took over and tears were on display in Parc Ferme.
The 2008 season also began in Qatar. Corser delivered his 41st pole position (the penultimate pole of his long career), but the lead of Race 1 was stolen by Germany’s Max Neukirchner. During the race, he and Biaggi came into contact; in his efforts to make his feelings to Biaggi clear, Neukirchner lost control of his bike. Bayliss would win the race en route to his third and final title, beating Biaggi by less than four tenths of a second to register the first race-winning success for what would prove to be the all-conquering Ducati 1098 R. Another challenge from Yamaha came in Race 2, but it was the Ducati Sterilegarda machines of Biaggi and Ruben Xaus which led the way, ahead of Bayliss and Fonsi Nieto. Six of the eventual top five proved to be Ducatis, but it was the Alstare Suzuki of Nieto which overhauled both Sterilegarda bikes on the 15th and 16th laps, respectively; this proved to be Nieto’s sole World Superbike victory prior to his retirement from racing in 2010.
For 2009, Losail shifted to the second spot on the calendar after Phillip Island. American Ben Spies clinched pole but his first start of the weekend was not his best, losing ground to Biaggi, Haga, Jakub Smrz and Shinya Nakano. On Lap 5 he regained two positions, passing both Nakano and Smrz into the first corner. He then caught Biaggi and Haga before waiting for the right moment. On Lap 13 came a spectacular manoeuvre: Spies overtook Haga while the Japanese was challenging Biaggi. He pulled away, leaving his rivals to fight for second; Haga would earn it, helped by a mistake from Biaggi on the last lap. Things were different in Race 2; having run third early on, Spies pulled away into the lead from Lap 6 onwards, leaving his rivals in his wheel tracks as he had already done earlier on.
After 2009, Losail had no place on the World Superbike calendar. Following four years of absence, it returned in 2014 for the championship’s first ever night races. It would become one of the most historic and memorable weekends in WorldSBK history. Now the final round of the season, Qatar welcomed title contenders Tom Sykes (the reigning World Champion on a Kawasaki) and Sylvain Guintoli (yet to win the title and riding an Aprilia). Pole went to Ducati’s Davide Giugliano, with Sykes third and Guintoli fifth; this was a difficult start for the Frenchman, who was realistically in need of two race wins in order to clinch the title.
Things were not easy for Sykes, either. On the opening lap of Race 1 he was overtaken by team-mate Loris Baz, who went on to finish second as Guintoli charged to victory. Sykes was third – just holding on from Jonathan Rea’s Honda – as pole man Giugliano dropped to fifth. Contentiously, Baz did not concede second position to Sykes despite an obvious ‘LOSE’ message displayed on his pit board; after the race, Baz made it clear that he had disobeyed team orders. Ahead of the final encounter, Sykes’ lead had decreased to a worrying three points. Baz quickly disappeared from the equation after contact with Leon Haslam’s Honda at Turn 1. Rea then led after passing Sykes, while Guintoli was circulating fourth behind Giugliano. The Frenchman proceeded to pick them off, one by one, with a double overtake on Giugliano and Sykes before quickly dispatching of Rea as well. In the closing stages, Sykes struggled with a distinct lack of grip, dropping to a final position of third behind Rea.
From that moment onwards, Guintoli was no longer troubled by his rivals. He rode on to his second victory of the night, his first WorldSBK double and a symbolic world title. He had become France’s second World Champion, with Raymond Roche having been the first 24 years earlier. Sykes was left to ponder over a massive case of what might have been; he and Baz would engage in a bitter war of words on Twitter, but Guintoli was World Champion.