Marco Simoncelli wasn’t your average 21st century MotoGP rider. He was a throwback to the old days: scruffy and wild, always determined to barge his way to the front, never mind who was in front of him.
The tall, ambling Italian approached his sport with a gladiatorial swagger, convinced that it’s as much about the battle as it is about the lap time. “The fight is the most beautiful thing about bike racing,” he told me last June at Silverstone.
Simoncelli’s death during October’s Malaysian motorcycle Grand Prix left MotoGP dumbstruck. The former 250 World Champion was on the verge of winning his first race in the class of the kings. The previous weekend he had finished a best-ever second at Phillip Island, a position he won with a typically robust move on Andrea Dovizioso during the final lap.
He was such an exciting rider, all knees and elbows on his Honda RC212V, making the bike look like a 125. He was one of those racers with whom you always rode shotgun, sitting on the edge of the sofa, willing him on, praying the front wouldn’t tuck, hoping he would find a way past the rider in front. He usually did.
In recent years MotoGP has had a tendency to produce somewhat processional races. Due to various technical factors, most riders struggle to find room to overtake their rivals, but Simoncelli made sure he found room. If he saw a chink of light between the kerb and the rider in front, then he went for it.
“At this moment in MotoGP there are two styles of rider,” he said in June. “There is the old-style rider – me, [Valentino] Rossi, [Ben] Spies, [Colin] Edwards, [Loris] Capirossi, [Randy] de Puniet and maybe some others. And then there are the others – [Jorge] Lorenzo, [Casey] Stoner, Dovizioso and [Dani] Pedrosa. For me the right way to go racing is like the old-style racer, I don’t like the new style.”
Simoncelli’s aggression and willingness to take risks got him into trouble and made him some enemies, most notably Lorenzo, Pedrosa and Dovizioso. But not everyone in MotoGP considered his riding style to be beyond the pale. “I don’t think Marco is overly aggressive – he just enjoys the fight,” said Edwards a few months ago. “You don’t bring gladiators to the opera.”
It wasn’t only Simoncelli’s gung-ho style on the race track that set him apart and made him so popular. Away from the track he was a very different man: warm, open and lacking any artifice. He seemed like a straightforward human being and was always a great interview – confident in himself and happy to say good things and bad things about his rivals, those long arms flailing around to emphasise every point. One of the first times we spoke his whirling hands made contact with my voice recorder, launching it to the other side of the Gresini pit. As it landed with a clatter he was already laughing and saying sorry, that unruly mane of hair shaking atop his shoulders.
Simoncelli started out racing minimotos, those Lilliputian motorcycles that have been the standard kids’ gateway into bike racing since the early 1990s. His interest in motorcycles had been sparked by his father, Paolo, who owned an ice cream business in Cattolica on the Adriatic coast, the crucible of Italy’s racing talent.
Twice Italian minimoto champion at the turn of the century, Simoncelli moved onto 125s, taking the Italian and European titles in successive years. He rode his first full World Championship season in 2003, winning his first race, still in the 125 class, the following year. He graduated to 250s in ’06 but struggled to master the machines. Only when he received full-factory bikes in ’08 did he turn the corner – he won his first 250 GP and went on to take the 250 World Championship.
Last year Simoncelli made a crunching entry into the premier class (who doesn’t?) but by season’s end he was scoring front-row starts and battling for podiums. This year he took his first pole position at Catalunya and his first podium at Brno. He was due to race a full-factory 1000cc Honda RC213V in 2012.
The extent of Simoncelli’s popularity was such that F1 remembered him – and late Indy driver Dan Wheldon – with a minute’s silence at the Indian Grand Prix.