MOTOGP » Marco Simoncelli
MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli was laid to rest in his hometown of Coriano, in Rimini, Italy, after losing his life on lap two of the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang.
Fast, fearless and unforgiving on the racetrack, Simoncelli was a racer in the purest sense of the word. Rock-star hair and a smiling 'gentle-giant' personality completed the image of a timeless motorsport maverick.
His manager Carlo Pernat described Simoncelli as "a rider from a bygone era" and the 24-year-old sadly joins many of those from an earlier time who paid the ultimate price for pursuing their motorsport dreams.
One glance at Simoncelli indicated he didn't live an ordinary life and the exciting Italian made a close connection with fans around the world, defying those who believe popularity is directly proportional to results.
Simoncelli was yet to win in MotoGP, but looked set to one-day inherit close friend Valentino Rossi's role as the sport's most recognisable and perhaps most popular character, especially as his developing English improved.
On track, Simoncelli's heart-on-a-sleeve riding style often grated with the clinical precision and tactical approach rewarded by the easy-to-upset 800cc bikes.
Simoncelli preferred to attack each corner like he was trying to go faster than ever before and battled furiously for every position. Nothing was given away and every chance taken. It was a warrior mentality that those who dream of racing motorcycles like to believe they would possess.
The downside was too many accidents and Simoncelli had numerous run-ins with Race Direction, most recently after his controversial clash with Dani Pedrosa at Le Mans in May.
Widely criticised by some fellow riders in the aftermath, Simoncelli and his supporters felt he was being singled-out for past misdemeanours. The majority of fans appeared to agree, with a Crash.net poll showing 67% believed Simoncelli's ride-through penalty, which robbed him of a first podium, had been unfair.
But any rider whose biggest fault is effectively trying too hard is difficult to dislike - at least by those that don’t have to race him - and it's a charge most of motorsport's best have faced at some time or another. It's the driving force necessary to reach the very top.
'Super Sic' seemed to mature as a MotoGP rider during the second half of this season and those who battled the #58 without bearing a grudge from past clashes had few complaints. Ben Spies, for example, saw nothing untoward during their numerous close battles this year.
Despite his hard-riding reputation, the accident that claimed Simoncelli's life could have happened to anyone. Not just in motor racing, but any fast-moving sport where a fallen competitor can be hit others - cycling, horse racing, skiing.
Shoya Tomizawa's fatal accident in the Moto2 class at Misano followed the same tragic scenario. Thankfully, most are more fortunate.
Think back to Brno 2010 and Andrea Dovizioso, one of the safest riders in a dangerous sport, losing the front and sliding into the middle of the track on the exit of the turn. Following competitors threaded their way around him and Dovizioso walked away. Such is the fine line of fate.
We will never know what Simoncelli would have achieved in MotoGP, but 1993 world champion Kevin Schwantz believes Simoncelli was one of the sports three future 'standouts', alongside Marc Marquez (Moto2) and Maverick Vinales (125).
Certainly, Simoncelli's past history in the 125 and 250cc classes suggests he was far from reaching his MotoGP potential.
It was only in his third season in each of the two-stroke world championships that Simoncelli had suddenly begun to shine, putting his two poles and two podiums in his second year of MotoGP into perspective.
Simoncelli's best MotoGP result, of second place, came at Phillip Island just one week before his death. Simoncelli holds sixth in the world championship, despite non-scores in four rounds.
Although he tended to build-up to grand prix success, it shouldn't be forgotten that Simoncelli also claimed a podium finish on his World Superbike (and four-stroke) debut at Imola in 2009.
Few doubt Simoncelli would have been a MotoGP race winner, especially with a factory-Honda/Gresini contract extension already signed for the start of the 1000cc era, when Simoncelli's physical size would have been less of a disadvantage.
"It was an amazing experience. 50 laps of pure adrenaline," Simoncelli had said after his debut 1000cc test at Motegi earlier this month. "The bike is so much fun and it keeps pulling in fifth and sixth gear."
Sadly we will never get to see Simoncelli bullying an RC213V, as surely he would have, but the memory of a hard-riding and fast-smiling racer will remain with all those that saw him.
Simoncelli was born in Cattolica, Italy, on January 20, 1987. He raced in the Italian Minimoto Championship from 1996 to 2000, winning the title in his last two seasons.
Success continued when he made the transition to full-sized motorcycles, clinching the Italian 125cc Championship in 2001 and the European Championship in 2002.
That season also saw Simoncelli's debut in the 125cc World Championship, where he scored points in his second race with a 13th place for Matteoni Aprilia at Estoril.
A short-haired Simoncelli remained with the team for a full season of grand prix competition in 2003, where he showed the first signs of his future success with fourth place - from third on the grid - in the Valencia finale.
A switch to the Rauch Aprilia squad for 2004 brought his first grand prix victory (from pole) in round two at Jerez, but no further wins followed until he repeated the feat the following year.
2005 was to be the already oversized Simoncelli's best in 125cc, with five further podiums and fifth in the overall standings.
Simoncelli then began a long-association with the factory Metis Gilera team when he stepped up to the 250cc class for 2006.
The #58's first two seasons brought regular top ten finishes, but also frequent DNFs and Simoncelli started what would be his title-winning 2008 campaign without even a podium in the quarter-litre class.
Simoncelli then failed to score in the first two rounds, but hit his stride with second from pole in Portugal, before celebrating his first 250cc win in front of his home fans at Mugello - after clashing with Hector Barber along the home straight with one lap to go.
His five further victories were less controversial and Simoncelli was crowned champion one round early, at Sepang, before finishing the year 37 points ahead of future MotoGP rival Alvaro Bautista.
Bautista and Simoncelli would swap places several times on the opening lap of the fateful Sepang 2011 race.
Simoncelli matched his five race wins during the 2009 season, but lost out on the final 250cc title to future MotoGP team-mate Hiroshi Aoyama. One again, drama was never far from Simoncelli, who had missed the opening race due to a fractured wrist sustained in a motocross accident - then took pole for round two, only to suffer a flat tyre in the race.
Three other DNFs dropped him to third in the final standings, but his speed was never in question and Simoncelli moved to MotoGP with fellow Italian Fausto Gresini's Honda team at the start of 2009.
After a shaky start adapting to his new machinery, Simoncelli built his speed throughout the year - finishing all but two races and just missing out on a podium in the penultimate round in Portugal.
With a year's experience under his belt and the full backing of Honda Racing Corporation (HRC), Simoncelli was threatening the frontrunners even before the 2011 season began, leading one day of official winter testing.
His speed was underlined by five consecutive front row starts, including two poles - but he fell in five races, including while leading at round two in Jerez, and suffered the penalty for a hard re-pass on Pedrosa in France.
Nevertheless, Simoncelli was a top six rider in all but two races he finished this year and - having removed pressure from his shoulders with a debut podium at Brno - finished outside the top four only once in the six rounds prior to Sepang.
Simoncelli died while trying to chase down the race-leading Repsol Hondas, believing that a third podium - and possible a debut win - was within his grasp.
14 wins, 31 podiums and 1 World Championship. Those are the bare statistics by which most riders' careers are measured, but Simoncelli was so much more than that.
The final words go to Takanobu Ito, President and CEO of Honda Motor Co., who gave the following tribute: “Marco Simoncelli was a passionate rider bubbling over with a challenging spirit and blessed with a cheerful personality. With a promising future on the Grand Prix circuit, Marco had both genuine ability and a large following among racing fans. We are very thankful for his sterling results riding for Honda Racing Corporation as a factory rider. We express our heartfelt condolences to Marco’s family.”