We still haven’t heard the results of the official investigation into Marco Simoncelli’s fatal accident, but we do know who will ride the Honda RC213Vs originally intended for the hirsute Italian.
For some weeks it wasn’t even certain that the bikes would be there to ride. Simoncelli’s team boss Fausto Gresini (below) – a twice 125 World Champion during the 1980s – seriously considered quitting the sport following the accident that claimed his rider’s life last October. Gresini had good reason to wonder whether he should continue – he had already lost one rider, Daijiro Kato, who died after crashing his Honda RC211V at Suzuka in 2003.
Finally Gresini decided to keep on keeping on: racing is his life, he announced, there was no way he could stop. Immediately there were two men in line for Simoncelli’s berth: Suzuki MotoGP rider Alvaro Bautista and Moto2 firebrand Andrea Iannone.
Both were great choices. Iannone has been one of the truly great finds of the nascent Moto2 class, already notorious for its thrills and spills. The 22-year-old Neapolitan looks like a young assassin stalking the backstreets of Naples, and he rides like one too, slicing past his rivals with barely an inch to spare. In that sense alone, he would’ve made a perfect successor.
Simoncelli and Iannone were arguably the two toughest riders in the MotoGP paddock last season and they had a keen mutual respect for each other. When the Simoncelli witch hunt was at its height last summer, Iannone was one of the few to leap to his compatriot’s defence.
“Simoncelli is a good rider, a little more aggressive than some, but I don’t think he’s ever done any illegal manoeuvres – risky maybe, but not illegal,” Iannone told me at Barcelona last June. “This is motorcycle racing – it’s not the swimming pool. You have to fight. I think the other riders don’t like Simoncelli because he is new and fast.”
Damn right, sir.
Some believed that Iannone’s nationality might help him secure those much-coveted RC213Vs – Gresini Honda is Italian (the team is based at Misano) and is sponsored by Italian snack manufacturer San Carlo – but finally Signor Gresini opted for the more experienced Bautista. The Spaniard has been around for a while – he won the 125 world title in 2006 – and has been in MotoGP since 2010.
No worries, Iannone (above) will get his chance in MotoGP before too long.
On the face of it, Bautista is a very different person from Simoncelli. He seems more boy band than scruffy rock and roll star, with carefully sculpted hairdo – hair gel, highlights and all. But inside he’s just as much a maniac as Simoncelli ever was, with a similarly entertaining riding style.
Remember that it was with Bautista that Simoncelli spent his final few laps, jousting back and forth around Sepang. Like Simoncelli the 27-year-old possesses a willingness to push it to the very limit and beyond. He is certainly error prone – he crashed out of the final three races of 2011, though some would argue that his frequent tumbles last year could be blamed on his determination to get the under-powered Suzuki closer to the front.
In fact Bautista’s reputation goes back further than that. He was favourite to win the last-ever 250 World Championship in 2009, when he had the best bike on the grid, but mucked it up by crashing out of three races. By then he had already fallen out with reigning 250 champ Simoncelli, following several vicious on-track encounters. Last season – as fellow MotoGP wild men – they made up and became friends.
Bautista admits he was “f**ked up” for some while after Simoncelli’s death and he knows that taking over a dead man’s ride will be an extra burden. He says his main concern this year is “to do a good job for Marco”. There’s certainly a good chance that he will be every bit as exciting…