I've sort of struggled with the idea of whether or not to write anything on this subject as I'm definitely not as eloquent as some of the others that have shared their thoughts since Sunday's tragic accident (I'd personally recommend reading the beautiful autosport.com piece that Toby Moody wrote or the Kevin Schwantz blog on superbike planet). I've decided to do something simply because I loved Marco's personality, his enthusiasm, his relentless riding style and have had the pleasure to see him do what he loved for the last few years courtesy of the excellent Eurosport coverage over the years and most recently Setanta and BBC's Moto GP coverage. The outpouring of grief and tributes across Facebook, Twitter and the motorsport community in general shows how much Marco meant to most of us all. When the official announcement of Marco's passing was made I found myself tearing up as we'd not only lost an amazing sportsmen who was the heir apparent to the "Vale46" throne both on the track and off it in the hearts of the fans adorning the #58 t-shirts; we'd lost a rare breed of person too from all accounts of his competitors and friends.
Admittedly in his 125 days I really didn't recognise Marco as the talent he was. Sadly for Marco he wasn't at that stage on the competitive machinery capable of challenging the top teams in the championship. Remember in 2004 that Marco was racing against seasoned 125 campaigners in the likes of Stoner, Locatelli, Barbera and Lorenzo. Even with this in mind he did still manage to claim his first World Championship win that season in Jerez when Stoner went down the road in the wet conditions. The next season saw another victory in Jerez again but once again the Aprilia bike was no match to the Red Bull KTM or the Honda 125 which had seen some big investment over the previous few years. A career best championship position of 5th and a more consistent season saw Marco move up to the 250cc class the following season. It was here that Marco started to make his mark.
Having moved to the Metis Gilera team that had recently rejoined the quarter litre class Marco and Gilera spent most of 2006 and 2007 finding their feet in the class as the bike developed. The podiums were missing but the finishing positions were consistent. In 2008 this however changed and Marco would be the name on most fans lips when they talked about the 250's on a Monday morning. Having retired from the first two races of the season Simoncelli found himself on his first 250 podium in the 3rd round in Portugal. He followed this up with a 4th and continued the momentum with an excellent 2nd behind Alex Debon at the Le Mans Bugatti circuit. When the circus moved to Mugello Marco pulled off a move with 2 laps to go that would be come infamous and an illustration of the aggressive riding we would come to expect. A lot of people said Simoncelli had overstepped the boundaries but this was an Italian at his home Grand Prix chasing an elusive first victory on an Italian bike after 3 years without a win. People don't always put things into context but at that moment I don't think anything could have been more important to the then 21 year old. If you've never seen it you can catch it via this link http://www.myvideo.de/watch/4345624/Horrorcrash_bei_220_kmh. Sorry I can't embed the file to just stream directly. These are the only 2 pictures I can find of the scene after the collision on the 2nd last lap.
After that first victory; Marco proved it was no fluke by winning the next race. Claiming victory in the Catalan Grand Prix much to the annoyance of the Spanish riders and then taking another 4 consecutive podiums (including a further victory in Germany) to throw himself into the heart of the championship battle with Bautista and Kallio. A brief slump to 6th at Misano saw Simoncelli's worst performance of what was remaining in the season. He went on to claim the next 2 races and finally the championship at the Malaysian Grand Prix with a third placed finish. It would be a sad irony that the track that saw Marco's greatest triumph would later be the scene of his tragic death just over 3 years later.
After claiming the title he went on to win the last race of the 2008 season in Valencia to round off an amazing year. With this title Marco had arrived. The happy go lucky demeanour that came to be his calling card masked the determination he had when his visor was down, leathers on, tyres and engine screaming to find a lap time. The 250cc championship was fast becoming the race to watch each weekend due to the battles involving Marco, Barbera and Bautista. No quarter was asked for and certainly none was given as Mugello illustrated. This would continue on into the 2009 season all three of them remained in the class for another season.
Having been injured in the off season Marco missed the 1st round of the championship completely and could only manage 17th in the second round of the season. Soon after though Marco hit his stride and started charging down the usual suspects of Barbera and Bautista as well as an inspired Hiroshi Aoyama who with the backing of Honda was putting a challenge up for the championship. Honda had invested in their 250cc machine that season in order to try and claim the final 250cc championship.
One of my favourite Simoncelli races was actually one he didn't win. The Italian Grand Prix of 2009 where in horrid conditions he went off track after another bit of hard battling with Bautista only to get back on track and chase down Pasini. In one of the most incredible bits of heart he came 2nd and even lead at points on the final lap despite his earlier excursion. Again video clips are scarce unfortunately but I've located a french audio highlight reel of the race. It's worth catching. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x9gmcq_mugello_sport
Retirements that season would cost Simoncelli dear and he ultimately lost out in the championship to the ultra consistent Aoyama who finished every race with a finish of no worse than 8th. Despite Marco's 6 wins that season his retirement in 3 races and missing the season opener left him 3rd in the final standings. Even with this in mind he was still in contention until the last race of the year which can tell you how much ground he gained throughout the year despite the early issues. It was announced that Marco would be graduating to the Moto GP class with the Gresini Honda team.
On a side note and with a little encouragement from his close friend Valentino Rossi. Simoncelli had accepted a guest ride on an Aprilia WSB at Imola. Rossi is said to have jokingly sent a text to Marco telling him to at least duff up Max Biaggi at least once. Of course Marco being Marco was all too happy to find a way past his fellow Italian much to the annoyance of the elder statesmen. Marco finished 3rd in Race Two to claim a World Superbike Podium on his debut weekend! Different bike, different championship. Same supreme talent. It was with this performance that Simoncelli was illustrating that he had the potential to be something big and ride the wheels off any bike. His determination on the track and charisma off it set him out as a rider that fans wanted to see more of as he wasn't the same sort of P.R. conscious rider that fans had begun to see in the modern era.
Teamed with the experienced Melandri; Simoncelli got off to a slow start to the season partially due to two huge pre-season testing crashes in Sepang. Having picked up two 11th place finishes to start his Moto GP career Simoncelli then improved over the next 3 races to then finish 7th at the British GP. His highest of the season to that date on the privateer Honda. By now Simoncelli's racers edge was becoming ever more apparent as Marco raced for every point he could gather as well as going head to head with the other riders on the track with his agressive style. The improvements continued with Simoncelli completing a season high finish of 4th at the Portuguese race. He then rounded off the season with a 6th place finish. The impressive season was enough to catch the eye of HRC and Marco through Gresini Honda was provided with a works specification bike for the 2011 season.
After pre-season testing Simoncelli was being tipped as a darkhorse for the season and tipped as a man to make a further breakthrough. Having worked with Honda in their wind tunnel to find ways to limit the negative effects of his towering frame. Honda were growing ever more impressed with the Italian. A fact that would not be lost later in the year when they offered Simoncelli a works bike for the 2012 season over Dovizioso who had been with Honda for the previous four years in Moto GP. The contract having only been signed a number of weeks before Simoncelli's tragic demise. The season started with a solid 5th position in Qatar at the Losail circuit. When the circus found it's way to the wet-dry race in Jerez Simoncelli found himself leading and driving away from the field prior to losing control and having to retire. None the less the warning shot had been fired and Marco was stepping up to fight with the elite of the class. He was ready to take on the "aliens" as Colin Edwards refers to them (Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner). Another retirement at the next race left much to be desired. When the teams returned to action in France Simoncelli was immediately on the pace and qualified a close 2nd. In the race there was to be another polarizing moment for Simoncelli when he was deemed to have caused an accident with Pedrosa (who ended up breaking his collar bone as a result) and earned himself a drive through penalty that wrecked his hopes of a first podium. Simoncelli was under attack. Riders began voicing criticisms of his aggressive style but Simoncelli took things on his chin and continued to work to his ultimate goal. One of the highlights of this period was a press conference with Lorenzo and Marco where Lorenzo was critical of Simoncelli's aggressive riding and said if another incident happens they'll have to do something. Simoncelli's retort was priceless. "They'll arrest me!" This got a few chuckles in the press room and showed Marco's undoubtable sense of humour.
A crash in the wet British Grand Prix whilst fighting for a podium then crashing into Lorenzo at the first corner in the Dutch Grand Prix led to some columnists and riders commenting that it may be time for a ban or some sort of reprimand. Simoncelli yet again kept his head down and continued to do his talking on the track. A couple of solid top six finishes followed the 9th he achieved despite his early fall at Assen. Another retirement at the US Grand Prix at Laguna Seca left Simoncelli with plenty to think about going into the summer break. When the teams returned to racing at Brno Simoncelli seemed to have lost some qualifying pace but had seemingly found more consistency in the race. After 29 races of asking. Simoncelli finally got his first Moto GP podium to the delight of many pundits who'd continued to support him and the legions of fans that he was fast attracting as the excitement built around the Italian continued to grow. A poor Indianapolis performance was followed by Marco's most consistent run in the top class to date three fourth place finishes in a row. The last of these in the Japanese Grand Prix was the most impressive by far as Simoncelli received a ride through penalty after a jump start and fought his way back through the field eventually finishing 23 seconds behind the winner Pedrosa. What might have been. The next Grand Prix in Philip Island with the knowledge that he would receive a works bike for next year Simoncelli recorded what would ultimately be his best finish with a 2nd place behind Casey Stoner.
And that leads us at the end of the story. The Malaysian Grand Prix 2011. Marco was battling with the old adversary Bautista and swapping positions throughout the first lap and up to that fateful turn 11. It appears Marco lost the front and instead of the usual lowslide occuring Marco tried to save it and was fighting until the end. It appears the front re-gripped dragging Marco into the path of Edwards and Rossi. And with that he was gone despite the best efforts of the medics. I've still got vivid pictures in my head of the riders and Simoncelli's father being shown on the TV when the official news broke. Having been a motorsport fan I've sadly witnessed this more times than I'd like to remember over the years.
This time was different as to me Marco emboddied something completely different to most sportsmen. He was a man living to a different set of rules. He was an amazing ambassador for motorsport and a loveable guy. Who couldn't love that smile or laugh at the pertruding affro from his helmet. Not to mention when he was on a bike he gave total commitment. The number of times he pushed the front of his bike to the point where it was chattering away like a ventriloquist dummy's jaw was incredible. What may have been? We'll never know sadly. It would have been interesting to see Marco ride a 1000cc where he wouldn't have been at as big a disadvantage due to his size as he was on the 800cc. All that's left to say at this point is Grazie Marco. We love you. We miss you. Ciao Super Sic.
RIP Marco Simoncelli 1987-2011