By the time he arrived on the Grand Prix scene as a 15 year-old Marco Simoncelli already had a wealth of experience and titles behind him, and his entry into the World Championship arena in 2002 was the start of a career marked by success, ambition, determination, some controversy and plenty of admiration as he progressed through the classes to become one of MotoGP’s most recognisable stars by the time of his tragic death on October 23rd 2011.
Growing up in Coriano, some 10km from the Misano World Circuit, Simoncelli spent his youth racing on the Italian east coast and was a frontrunner in the Italian Minimoto Championship from 1996 to 2000 – a competition he won on more than one occasion.
Stepping onto 125cc machinery after his exploits in minibikes Simoncelli was quick to adapt, riding in the Italian National Championship in 2001 and then taking the European 125cc title the following season. It was in 2002 that he made his World Championship debut, riding six rounds of the 125cc campaign before a first full season the next year.
2004 saw the then 17 year-old take his first GP victory – which was also his first podium result and his first start from pole position – when he won at a rain-soaked Jerez on his way to 11th overall in the standings. Simoncelli’s final season in the category in 2005 produced six podiums in total, including another win at Jerez, as he ended the year fifth overall taking further steps forward.
Moving up to the 250cc category for 2006 it took two seasons for Simoncelli to settle in and find his feet, and when he did so it was in stunning style. 2008 did not start in the most encouraging manner as Simoncelli failed to score points in the opening two rounds, but in Round 3 at Estoril he qualified on pole for the first time in 250s and finished the race in second – his first podium in the class. From there, Simoncelli’s season took off in a phenomenal fashion. He took his first 250cc win in his home GP at Mugello, the sixth round of the campaign, and only finished outside the top three on one more occasion on his way to the title. Winning six races and stepping onto the podium a total of 12 times in 2008, Simoncelli was the first Gilera rider to win the 250cc title and became the first man to take the intermediate crown after not scoring points in the first two rounds since Dieter Braun in 1973.
Speculation linked the charismatic new 250cc World Champion with a move up to the MotoGP class but Simoncelli opted to stay and defend his title. He again displayed his fearless riding style as he engaged in a series of great battles, taking the title fight to the final round in Valencia where he eventually lost out to Hiroshi Aoyama. Simoncelli finished the campaign in third, having won six races, and was by now ready to make the step up to the top level.
Pre-season testing for the 2010 campaign was something of a baptism of fire for Simoncelli, who was shaken by a big crash at the second Sepang Test. He was back on the bike for the final Qatar outing however, and then finished his first MotoGP race at the same Losail circuit one month later in 11th place. Simoncelli gained in confidence as his rookie season went on, steadily improving his qualification and race results and ending 2010 with a strong run of notable displays which included fourth in the penultimate round at Estoril, where he was unlucky to miss out on a podium spot.
With a full season’s experience behind him his second year in MotoGP saw Simoncelli get off to a flying start, as he immediately set about converting the promise shown towards the end of 2010 into results in 2011. After a top-five finish in the first round in Qatar, he then crashed out of the Jerez race when leading in only the second race of the campaign. Next time out Simoncelli secured his first second-row start, in Portugal, and a first premier class pole position came shortly after in Catalunya as the excitement surrounding the daring Italian continued to grow.
Another pole followed at Assen but Simoncelli was unable to seal that elusive podium spot that seemed an almost certainty every time he took to the track, something he finally managed at Brno where he took third position in the Czech GP to great acclaim.
Fantastic rides continued to flow as he finished fourth for three races in a row at Misano, Aragón and Motegi, the last of which saw Simoncelli prevail in a toe-to-toe race-long battle with age-old rival Andrea Dovizioso. Just two weeks later at Phillip Island Simoncelli again held off his compatriot in an epic fight to take second place, his best-ever MotoGP result.
Qualifying on the second row for the Malaysian GP Simoncelli was battling with Álvaro Bautista for fourth position in the race when he crashed on lap two, sustaining the injuries which brought to an untimely end a rapidly evolving rider and individual who was hugely admired both on and off the track.
I have just landed in Manchester having spent two seven-hour flights wondering how I could ever possibly begin this blog that I have been asked to write. During that time I came up with nothing.
All I can say is that this is not an objective piece of journalism. This is not an obituary. These are my thoughts.
There can be scant higher praise to bestow on Marco Simoncelli than saying that he was the most exciting thing to happen to motorcycle racing since Valentino Rossi.
As outrageous on the track as he was off it, his wild afro hairstyle and swashbuckling riding style won the hearts of fans all over the world. His death has brought us all to our knees.
Simoncelli brought his unique style to the world of MotoGP
Inspired by Rossi but quite evidently another maverick entirely of his own breed, Marco feared no rival and made no allowances for reputation, not even that of his great friend, the greatest of all time.
His final act was a lap and a half of pure adrenaline, swapping positions with Alvaro Bautista, a familiar foe, with trademark panache and derring-do. Riding on the edge, the only way he knew, delighting in his own impudence and improvisation, revelling in the one act he loved the most.
His two race performances before that were arguably the best of his career, both of them breathtaking battles to the finish with compatriot and another fierce rival in Andrea Dovizioso. Marco won out on both occasions to take fourth - despite a ride-through penalty - and second - his career best result - at Motegi and Phillip Island respectively.
In those two races the signs were there that he had finally managed to curb the overly combative style that had cost him further podiums or even wins earlier in the season and worked out how to channel his fearless aggression in the most productive manner. Up to then it had been the only ***** in his armour.
Dovizioso and Bautista both had previous with Simoncelli from their days together in the smaller classes, as did the likes of Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, the most vocal amidst virtually unanimous criticism of his riding in the early stages of this season - particularly after a collision with Pedrosa at Le Mans left the Spaniard with a badly broken collarbone.
Under pressure from his peers and from the media, Marco's confidence took a beating but it did not crack. He seemed to know what the fans wanted and his refusal to be intimidated by the establishment endeared him to them even more.
At Silverstone I had the pleasure to introduce him to many of you at the Day of Champions auction, where he was given the loudest cheer of the evening - a hero's welcome. I know it meant a lot to him, confirmation that he should never change his ways. Believe me, your esteem was mutual.
Always accommodating, pleasant and professional, I never saw Marco say no to an autograph or a photo. That was not because he enjoyed the attention, he simply took great pleasure in making other people happy.
Marco was not a rider that would sulk or hide. If he crashed out of practice or a race he would always front up and talk to the cameras and if it was his fault he would readily admit it, occasionally behind sunglasses to hide the tears. At Phillip Island he crashed three times during practice in the same corner. The second and third, he joked afterwards, were just to confirm what happened the first time
At Le Mans earlier this year he agreed for us to interview him in his motor home between practice sessions, asking us if we minded that he eat his lunch - a plate of plain spaghetti - while we set up our cameras in his living room. "Of course not," I said. When I thanked him after we had finished filming he replied as he always did, with a firm handshake: "No problem. Thanks to you."
Born with talent but raised with humour, humility and good manners, Marco is a credit to the grief-stricken family left to mourn him. His father Paolo was at Sepang, as he was at every race, a chest we are so used to seeing bursting with pride now so devastatingly deflated by unthinkable hurt. For his son to depart at the age of 24, fatally struck by his hero and mentor, is a grave injustice to all of them.
There will be ramifications for our sport. Doubtless there will be questions about the immediate futures of Rossi and Colin Edwards, already in the twilight of glittering careers, and that of Team Gresini, who were relying heavily on Honda's support of Simoncelli for 2012 - their mutual faith in his future confirmed in a contract penned just three weeks ago.
But the sport itself will survive and will eventually be safer and stronger for this tragedy. It is important to remember that for every life that is lost in this way many thousands more are saved every day by the improvements made in rider protection and circuit design.
Sepang was a bruising weekend with several crashes, including those of Pedrosa and Ben Spies adding to those of Moto2 riders Marc Marquez, Bradley Smith and Axel Pons, who remains in hospital in Kuala Lumpur under observation for a sub-cranial haematoma.
The pain of these riders ultimately provides more valuable data that will help in making their chosen profession and passion as safe as it can possibly be yet, sadly, the quest for risk-free motor racing can never be fulfilled. It is a common and bitter irony that our sport's greatest appeal is also its greatest pitfall.
Motorcycle racing brought Marco Simoncelli to his death but it also brought him to life and you can rest assured that he would not have lived it any other way. Nor would any of his competitors, which is why they will all line up again in Valencia in less than two weeks' time, hand on the throttle, eager for those start lights to go out once again; hoping for the best, prepared for the worst.
It is going to be a very subdued weekend in Valencia as a grieving MotoGP world returns following the death of Marco Simoncelli.
He crashed so often but he seemed invincible. It's like we've all lost a friend.
In a way it's good news that the championship has already been decided as this weekend will be a tribute to Marco. It's the first time I've ever gone to a grand prix and not known what to expect.
Marco's father Paolo wants the riders to come together for a minute of chaos, instead of a minute's silence, and that may help to break the ice at the final race of the season.
He wants the riders from all three racing classes to form on the grid and rev their engines for a full minute which will be a good spectacle
But it is obviously going to be a difficult weekend and I feel sorry for a number of people who were due to be celebrating this weekend as the season comes to an end.
Simoncelli's team have decided to race now, which is the right thing to do, and there is no doubt that Marco would have wanted to get on with it if he was still here.
I've been more affected by his death than I have by anybody for a long time. We have moved into an era when thankfully deaths in grand prix racing are very rare but in my day they were a lot more common.
I had the misfortune to lose team-mates in my career.
Tom Herron was killed at the North West 200 in Northern Ireland, Mick Patrick died in a similar accident to Simoncelli when he was hit by another bike at Cadwell Park, while Pat Hennen crashed at the TT on the Isle of Man and was left in a coma. He survived but has been severely affected for the rest of his life.
So I know exactly how those racing on Sunday will feel about getting on with the job at hand.
But it is extraordinary that once you are on your motorcycle all you see is the track, the stopwatch and the chequered flag.
Marco was admired and liked throughout the world of motorsport and it was very nice to see how much respect he was given in Formula 1 in India last week, along of course with Dan Wheldon.
Elsewhere on the grid, Loris Capirossi retires after 22 years and was due to host a big party but I doubt that will go ahead now, as a dark cloud has descended on the whole paddock.
But it shouldn't be forgotten what a career he has had, with 328 race starts and 99 podiums, he has really spanned the ages since his debut in 1990. Let's hope he gets some recognition this weekend.
But he's hanging up his helmet still in one piece and that becomes even more important in the light of Marco's death. Another veteran, Colin Edwards, has said he will race on for at least another year but he will have had plenty of conversations with his wife and family about what to do.
Edwards is absent this weekend as he recovers from injuries sustained in the accident which killed Simoncelli, while Jorge Lorenzo will not race either so we are short of talent.
The final note to mention this weekend is that it is the last race of
the 800cc era as we return to 1000cc engines next season. It won't be remembered as the greatest period for the sport and we all hope for some better racing on the new bikes, and some better news next season after a terrible few weeks for motorsport.
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