In the 40-degree heat of the Malaysian palm groves, on the other side of the world, an energy-drained but radiant Marco Simoncelli sits atop his Gilera, his curls blowing in the wind. His smile says he can’t quite believe it. Simoncelli has just won the 250cc world championship. “It’s wonderful”, he says before donning his SuperSic Experience T-shirt, a tribute to Jimi Hendrix, another unconventional type with curly hair and plenty of creativity. The date was 19 October 2008. Life was great, the future was full of promise and the sky free of clouds.
Three years later, on his second lap of that same track in a MotoGP race, Marco lost control of his Honda. Instinctively, he clung on – as many race riders would – and the bike took him across the track. If he had gone off the track, which is what usually happens, the incident would have ended in a tantrum and yet another barrage of criticism: “Simoncelli is always coming off. When is he going to grow up?” Instead, Marco and his Honda headed for the wrong side of the track – and life – together.
It was a terrifying rerun of what happened to Shoya Tomizawa, who died at Misano on 5 September 2010 when he was run over by the blameless Scott Redding and Alex De Angelis in a Moto2 race. This time, Simoncelli’s innocent executioners were Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, one a Texan Marco respected because he knows how to give and take knocks without complaining and the other a friend who shared so many practices, parties and escapades. There was no stopping the Yamaha and Ducati as they came off the bend like bullets from a gun, careering into Marco and his Honda. Marco’s helmet flew off and he lay motionless on the track. Unlike Misano, this time the race was suspended, never to restart.
It was 4.05 pm local time, 10.05 am in Italy. Marco Simoncelli, 24, was pronounced dead at 4.56 pm. Attempts were made to resuscitate him at the track’s medical centre but his life had been snuffed out by a tyre – it is not known whether it was Edwards’ or Rossi’s – that broke his neck, leaving a mark. Unconscious, with no heartbeat and with other injuries to his head and chest, Simoncelli succumbed. Today’s autopsy will clear up the few remaining doubts about the cause of death. Marco’s father Paolo, who stuck to him like a shadow, is an astonishing man. HIs first thought was to donate his son’s organs, an operation that was no longer technically possible. He emerged from the medical centre and said: “It’s all over”.
Marco’s father, his girlfriend Kate, with him at Sepang, and his mother Rossella and younger sister Martina who were at home in Coriano were joined in their grief by the entire paddock because, as Nicky Hayden said, “We are all brothers”. A shaken Valentino Rossi wept, as did Fausto Gresini, the team manager who lost another rider in 2003, Japan’s Daijiro Kato, who crashed into a wall at Suzuka. Jorge Lorenzo, who has criticised Marco’s impulsive style, was silent, as was Dani Pedrosa, who once expressed the hope that Simoncelli would end up in jail. That’s all water under the bridge now. There is only a sense of disbelief. An emotional Andrea Dovizioso, who once raced against Marco on the minimoto circuit and was his keenest rival until yesterday, admitted: “I thought he was invulnerable”. One thing is certain: leaving aside improvements to tyres and electronics, yesterday there was nothing anybody could do.
On-track safety standards are high. Riders have all sorts of protection, including an airbag, but the neck is still exposed and unprotected. In addition, current race director Franco Uncini, who had a miraculous escape in Holland in 1983, observes: “Unfortunately, it is not possible yet to intervene on collisions”. Uncini was struck on the head by Wayne Gardner, who appeared to decapitate him. He lost his helmet and went into a coma. Franco pulled through, Marco didn’t. If there is a plan in this, or if it is chance, or something else, depends on what you believe. But even if we knew, it’s too late now.