Today would have marked the 29th birthday of Marco Simoncelli and MotoGP fans all over the world have taken to social media not just to say happy birthday to the rider who lost his life in Malaysia in 2011 but also to share their stories about his career. Here I share my history of his career and some of the highlights that stood out for me.
The Italian rider with ‘Sideshow Bob’ hair never won a grand prix in the premier class but still manage to capture the hearts of millions of race fans before he was taken too soon on that fateful day in October 2011. In my time watching MotoGP since the 1980s I can think of very few riders who have grabbed the fans in quite the same way as Marco apart from Kevin Schwantz and Valentino Rossi. Just before my time, there was Barry Sheene too and all these riders stood apart from the rest not just because of their character on the bike but off it as well. Of course Schwantz, Rossi and Sheene were all champions but I have no doubt that Simoncelli would have joined the roster in time.
Simoncelli began his grand prix career in 2002 at the Czech GP racing a Matteoni Racing Team Aprilia RS 125cc which he then rode in five other races before the end of the season (including his first points finish in only his second ride when he finished thirteenth in Portugal). He stayed with the team for his first full season the next year and finished in the points in five races before the season finale in Valencia. Before that race in 21 rides he had finished in the points on just six occasions but in the last round of 2003, he qualified third and finished fourth behind Casey Stoner, Steve Jenkner and Hector Barbera. With two more seasons in the 125cc category (still with Aprilia) he earned two wins, both at Jerez each year, and five podiums with a fifth place finish in the standings of his final season in the class.
In 2006, Simoncelli was the only Gilera rider in a field of mostly Hondas and Aprilias in the 250cc class riding for the Squadra Corse Metis Gilera team and he was joined by Roberto Locatelli the following year (who had won the 125cc title in 2000). In those two years, he didn’t finish on the podium but top ten finishes in 22 out of the 33 races placed him tenth in the final standings of each season. It was in 2008 though when we finally saw the real Marco Simoncelli as the machinery matched his talent and he took the 250cc title with six wins beating Alvaro Bautista by 37 points. That was despite missing the season opener in Qatar and finishing seventeenth in the second race in Japan too. 2009 was his final year in the 250cc class but a second title failed to materialise as he was beaten into third place by Hiroshi Aoyama and Bautista despite all three going into the final round in contention. Simoncelli was leading and on his way to winning the title when he fell on lap 21 out of 27. Barbera inherited the lead and the win to take second place in the standings and Aoyama finished seventh to take the title. It was an event that showed despite Simoncelli’s undoubted talent and raw speed he was a flawed genius.
2010 saw him ride for San Carlo Gresini Honda in his maiden MotoGP season and finished in the points in all but two races as he went from strength to strength. By the end of the season, the races where he’d finished ninth, tenth and eleventh at the start of the year had become sixth, seventh and eighth. At the penultimate race at Estoril, Portugal he came close to his first MotoGP podium after losing out to fellow Italian Andrea Dovizioso by 0.059s after a fantastic battle between the pair in the closing stages. He finished the season in eighth place with some credible results to build upon.
If you look at the results alone from 2011, it’s hard to see why everyone was raving about him. He had mostly fifth or sixth place finishes with two podiums but thankfully MotoGP is about more than mere statistics. Sadly 2011 would be Marco’s last but he was getting better and better as the season went on. Now joined by Aoyama to replace the departed Melandri he was now clearly the team leader. At round one in Qatar, he qualified 4th (only the ‘aliens’ Stoner, Pedrosa and Lorenzo were in front of him) and finished 5th just over a second behind Dovizioso. This was the year that the works Repsol Honda team fielded three bikes to accommodate Stoner as they already had Pedrosa and Dovizioso under contract. At the next race at Jerez, he qualified 5th but fell in the wet when amazingly leading on lap 11. At the next round at Estoril, he achieved his highest qualifying position to date with 2nd behind Lorenzo but did not capitalise on that when he fell on the first lap. There was no doubting Simoncelli’s pace but questions were starting to be asked about his mental fortitude.
After qualifying 2nd again at Le Mans and finishing 5th, he achieved his first MotoGP pole position at Barcelona where he eventually finished 6th. Just going back to the French round, though, this was where he had a famous coming together with Pedrosa at the S bend at the end of the back straight. The pair made contact and the Spaniard suffered a broken collarbone. Rather than review the evidence after the event race direction chose to hand Simoncelli a ride through penalty during the race which he duly served. It was a hasty decision in my eyes and one that clearly cost him a higher finish. It seemed to me at the time that the establishment did not like this fiery young Italian mixing it up with the factory riders.
He was now a front row regular with 2nd at Silverstone and pole at Assen. He retired in the British round and sadly Assen would be the last time Marco was #1 on a grid. I know I keep using the words ‘sadly’ and ‘last’ a lot during this blog but it won’t be for much longer. His Dutch race ended with more controversy as he had another coming together with a leading rider, this time falling when over-using cold tyres and taking out Lorenzo in the process. After the race, Lorenzo was very critical of Simoncelli and rather prophetically said “I think the problem is he’s not very conscious about the risks there are in the category, with this bike and these tyres” alluding to the way that the Italian was pushing too fast too soon on cold tyres. Both riders remounted with Lorenzo salvaging 6th and Simoncelli finishing 9th. The next three races at Mugello, Sachsenring and Laguna Seca brought just one front row start and a 5th, a 6th and a retirement respectively.
At the Czech round in Brno, Simoncelli qualified 5th but grabbed his first ever MotoGP podium finishing behind Dovizioso and race winner Stoner. Marco had shown he could run at the front with the big guns and looked destined for not only a race win in future but a factory ride and title challenge in the coming years.
At the next race at Indianapolis, he recorded his worst finish of the season in 12th but made up for it in the next three races with consecutive fourth place finishes at Misano, Aragon and Motegi. At each of those three the races, the podium was filled by Lorenzo, Stoner and Pedrosa. Simoncelli was now establishing himself as the ‘next best’ rider beating Rossi, Dovizioso, Spies and Bautista each time.
The last race that Marco Simoncelli finished took place on the 16th October 2014 at Philip Island, Australia. He qualified second behind Casey Stoner who was a local legend and had won the last four consecutive races there on a Ducati. Stoner won the race which took him to the title that year as Lorenzo had lost part of his finger in a warm up accident and was unable to race. Simoncelli finished runner up, beating Dovizioso by 0.244 seconds. His highest ever achievement in MotoGP was also his last.
Marco died at the next round at Sepang in Malaysia on 23rd October 2011. He had qualified 5th the day before behind Pedrosa, Stoner, Dovizioso and Edwards so started from the middle of the second row alongside Nicky Hayden. After the first lap, he was in fourth place with Bautista, Colin Edwards and Rossi close behind. In the early stages of the second lap, he exchanged places with Bautista a couple of times and was in front of the Spaniard as they went through the fast Turn 11 right-hand corner. With his bike cranked over onto the right side as he pushed the bike to its limit the front tyre lost grip and in 999,999 out of 1,000,000 similar scenarios when the front goes like that both rider and bike would slide off and out of the race “exit stage left”. But in this one in a million chance as biker and rider slid to the left the front tyre suddenly found grip again and the bike pitched violently back to the right in front of Edwards and Rossi who had no chance to take evasive action. Edwards caught Simoncelli and the bike full on with the impact taking Marco’s helmet clean off. Both bikes then continued right and collided with Rossi taking him off the track.
Simoncelli remained face down and motionless on the edge of the circuit while the world watched in shock. Rossi was unscathed but Edwards broke his collarbone and managed to limp away while Marco lay prone, face down, on the track awaiting medical assistance that would be unable to do enough to help. For Rossi and Edwards, there would be mental scars too. The race was immediately red flagged. Simoncelli was taken by ambulance to the circuit medical centre where an hour later he was pronounced dead. They had performed CPR for 45 minutes but he had suffered catastrophic head, neck and chest injuries.
Marco’s body was flown back to Italy and was placed in an open coffin at a theatre in Coriano. His funeral took place at Santa Maria Assunta parish church on 27th October 2011 (my fiancée’s birthday).
Many riders in the MotoGP paddock paid tribute to Marco saying what a great character he was to race with and although he was a little wild at times he was a great rider who would be sorely missed. Even Pedrosa, who had been injured when in collision with Simoncelli earlier in the season at Le Mans, only had positive things to say. They did say how when you raced with Marco you knew you had to defend your position well as he would do everything and more to pass you and how he was sometimes past the limit.
RIP Marco Simoncelli, Super Sic, forever in our hearts.