MotoGP loses its young lion
Marco Simoncelli’s arrival in MotoGP’s lead pack earlier this year was a much-needed boost for the series. Here was a man who didn’t care about the status quo, who wasn’t interested in merely taking his place in the dreary follow-my-leader processions that had become the norm in what is supposed to be bike racing’s greatest championship. Here was a real racer, and a real racer with a lion’s mane of hair.
Of course, Simoncelli’s graduation to the premier class in 2010 wasn’t greeted with delight by some of his rivals who feared his reputation for fearsome riding. Simoncelli didn’t know how not to have a go. If he saw the slightest chink of daylight between a rival and the kerb, then he went for the gap. His childhood hero was Kevin Schwantz, so it’s no surprise he raced thus.
That’s why Simoncelli was becoming hugely popular, just as Schwantz had been. He was one of those riders you always looked forward to watching, because you knew that he was never going to just find his place in the pack and circulate. He was a fighter, who would do whatever he could to hunt down the rider in front of him. He loved racing motorcycles but he lived for the battle.
It is a horrible irony that the crash that killed him should have been an innocuous front-end lose in a 65mph corner, the result of which would normally have been nothing more than a helmet-full of Italian curses and a scuffed set of leathers. Usually, that crash would have sent Simoncelli sliding out of harm’s way. But when he went down the tyres kept gripping, continuing the arc of the corner. That’s what brought him into the path of two riders behind him. At least he never knew anything about what happened next.
Simoncelli was a racing throwback: scruffy and wild, like racers of 20 or 30 years ago. The lanky, hirsute Italian reinforced that link to the good ol’ days by assuming a Jimi Hendrix persona with his crazily unkempt mop of hair. When he won the 250 title in 2008 he celebrated with a Hendrix-style T-shirt, but in fact he couldn’t name a single Hendrix song! He wasn’t embarrassed by that and indeed he was one of those people who never seemed embarrassed because he was never trying to be anything but himself. He was funny and a bit eccentric and he made a virtue of his goofiness. If he messed up or did something stupid, he’d shrug his shoulders to suggest that no one is perfect, which of course is entirely true.
Simoncelli was just as fearless in the paddock. He was a great interview – not at all guarded in what he said, obviously excited about going racing and a delight to watch as he talked with his hands, those big arms always flailing around to emphasise every point. His honesty was always refreshing, especially in a paddock where too many people try too hard to toe the corporate line.
Simoncelli liked to live large and he would have made a great superstar. Asked to conjure up his dream dinner party, he named Valentino Rossi, Barry Sheene and Steve McQueen as his guests. You can only imagine how messy that would’ve got.
Rossi says Simoncelli was like his younger brother. They were born a few miles apart: Simoncelli in the beach resort of Cattolica, Rossi a short ride into the hills in Tavullia. They trained together and were often seen enjoying a beer and a pizza.
As a boy, Simoncelli didn’t only worship Schwantz, he also appreciated the talents of Eddie Lawson – the Americans who were once the yin and yang of GP racing. His aim was to become a rider who blended the Texan’s wildness with the Californian’s cool: “I try to become like both of them”. His recent form suggested he was on his way to achieving that dream.
He was stunningly fast at the start of 2011 but still had to learn how to run with MotoGP’s leading pack. The controversy that followed his Le Mans collision with Dani Pedrosa affected his results but by Brno he had put that behind him to score his first podium. He backed that up with a brilliant runner-up finish at Phillip Island, the weekend before his fatal crash. Phillip Island was surely the race that proved he had come of age, where he found some yin to go with all that yang. He was running a safe second when a squall of rain hit the track. Several other riders crashed but Simoncelli didn’t. He slowed down, had Andrea Dovizioso come past him, then counter-attacked to regain second place.
Like every racer, Simoncelli searched for that knife-edge between riding over the limit and not riding close enough to the limit. In Australia it seemed like he had finally found it. It’s a tragedy he’s gone and we will all miss him – he would have been a sight to behold on a 1000.
It started with a Christmas present
Like nearly all his MotoGP rivals, Simoncelli inherited his love of motorcycling from his father who ran an ice-cream business in their home town of Cattolica, a popular beach resort on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Paolo Simoncelli – who used the profits from his business to fund his son’s career – was a late starter on bikes by Italian standards. He was in his thirties when he bought his first motorcycle, and while he was visiting his local dealer, four-year-old Marco spotted a minicross bike. His father gave it to him for Christmas.
“I started riding the minicross bike around the garden, just for fun,” Simoncelli recalled. “Then four years later my father bought me a minimoto bike and I told my father I wanted to race. We went to my mother to ask her. At first she said, no, no, then after she said okay.”
From his earliest days racing minimotos around tracks in the Adriatic resorts – the crucible of Italian racing talent – he was well known for his willingness to rub elbows with rivals. During this time he began a bitter rivalry with Andrea Dovizioso that continued all the way into MotoGP.
After back-to-back victories in the 1999 and 2000 Italian minimoto championships, Simoncelli made the traditional step into 125s, winning the European championship just two years later in 2002.
Super Sic’s GP years
Simoncelli may only have been 24-years-old when he was cruelly struck down at Sepang, but he was already close to completing his ninth season in GPs. ‘Super Sic’ (the nickname came from his on-screen name abbreviation – ‘SIC’ – which was chosen because ‘SIM’ had already been taken by Julian Simon) started his full-time GP career in 2003 and took his first GP win the following year at Jerez. He only scored one more 125 GP in the next year and a half, his progress hampered by too many falls.
Nevertheless, his talent had been noted by Giampiero Sacchi, the man who had brought Valentino Rossi into the GP racing. Sacchi signed Simoncelli for the 250 Gilera team in 2006, but for a couple of years Sacchi wasn’t sure if he’d done the right thing. Simoncelli jumped off to often and didn’t score his first 250 podium until his third year in the class. The 2008 season was a massive turnaround: he scored his first top-three, took his first win and went on to claim the championship. He failed to retain the crown in 2009 after a couple of crashes late in the season.
Last year Simoncelli didn’t make the greatest of starts to his MotoGP career. “It was terrible,” he said. “I didn’t feel the bike and the Bridgestones were difficult to understand. I had some bad crashes, but we stayed calm and step by step we solved our problems.”
By the end of 2010 Simoncelli was on the pace: he scored his first front-row start at Valencia and battled for his first podium at Estoril. This year he took his first pole at Catalunya, but the first half of the season was spoiled by a number of mistakes.
Simoncelli’s GP career
2002 32nd 125 World Championship (Aprilia)
2003 21st 125 World Championship (Aprilia)
2004 11th 125 World Championship (Aprilia)
2005 5th 125 World Championship (Aprilia)
2006 10th 250 World Championship (Gilera)
2007 10th 250 World Championship (Gilera)
2008 250 World Champion (Gilera)
2009 3rd 250 World Championship (Gilera)
2010 8th MotoGP World Championship (Honda)
First GP: Brno, 2003 (125)
First GP win: Jerez, 2004 (125)
Total GP wins: 14 (12 x 250, 2 x 125)
Total GP podiums: 31 (2 x MotoGP, 22 x 250, 7 x 125)
Total GP poles: 15 (2 x MotoGP, 10 x 250, 3 x 125)