O Opinions & Commentary

A Dramatic Close to an Anti-Climactic Year

The Curtain Falls on Two Stellar Racing Careers

Marco Simoncelli, 1987-2011. Photo by LAT PhotographicThe end of the racing season is always tinged with a little sadness—after all, how do you occupy all this time until the start of the next campaign? This year, there’s more sadness than usual as the racing world has lost one top rider to retirement, while a second suffered a far worse fate.

The 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix, held on October 23, represented a traumatic day for the sport. On the second lap of the race, while running in fourth position, Marco Simoncelli lost grip aboard his Honda RC212V and started to slide towards the gravel trap outside turn 11.

According to the rider’s father, it was at that point that Simoncelli’s true nature revealed itself; whereas most riders would’ve thrown in the towel, released their grip on the bike and cascaded into gravel, the Italian held on to his Honda in the hopes of saving the situation.

The exact opposite happened. His machine regained traction and was sent spearing directly into the path of the riders behind. In the accident that ensued, Simoncelli was run over by the machines of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, his helmet coming off in the process.

The helmet was, quite possibly, the deciding factor that gave the crash such severity; “Super Sic” suffered massive trauma to his head, neck and chest and was pronounced dead at the trackside medical centre after a lengthy attempt to revive him. The incident robbed the MotoGP circuit of one of its most electrifying performers.

Just like Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo before him, Simoncelli arrived in the upper ranks of racing with an established and feverish fan base. These three men shared other qualities: All showed genuine speed right out of the gate and all had a propensity for hitting the ground too often.

This season was Simoncelli’s second in MotoGP and the flashes of brilliance were still being undermined by the mistakes. The Italian came under criticism from the likes of Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa and for good reason—his risk-taking knew few bounds and his riding style was having too big an impact on the championship for the wrong reasons.

But before the fatal crash, there were signs that Simoncelli had turned the corner. He arrived in Australia, the race immediately prior to Malaysia, riding a wave of success—three consecutive fourth-place finishes. At Philip Island, he produced his best ride yet, finishing second behind world champion-elect Casey Stoner.

In the final analysis, Simoncelli ended up sixth in the 2011 championship standings, tied with his friend and countryman, Rossi. His record of success includes 14 wins in 125cc and 250cc Grand Prix competition and, of course, the 2008 250cc World Championship title. He will be missed.

In a fitting tribute, the rider wearing Simoncelli’s number 58 at the season-ending Valencia Grand Prix was Loris Capirossi, the veteran Italian competing in his final Grand Prix race. The gesture was appropriate because Capirossi has already assumed the role of MotoGP safety advisor.

In the future, he will provide the rider’s perspective on everything from track conditions to rules changes. A single statement describing the appointment was particularly noteworthy: “His insight will be valuable as we introduce significant changes.” No doubt, one issue to be addressed in light of Simoncelli’s accident will be helmet standards.

Capirossi had the kind of career that some might say Simoncelli was destined to enjoy as well. In coming up through the ranks of Grand Prix racing, “Capirex” showed genuine speed and tenacity, winning the 125cc world championship in 1990 and 1991, and the 250cc title in 1998. This latter win came heaped in controversy as Capirossi bashed into teammate Tetsuya Harada’s machine on the final corner of the final race to secure the title. The move may have helped him win the championship, but it did not endear him to Aprilia; Capirossi took refuge with Honda and finished third in the 250cc title chase the following season behind Rossi and Tohru Ukawa.

While he enjoyed great success in the lower ranks, Capirossi could not repeat those results in the top echelon of Grand Prix racing. The Italian had some very good seasons—in 2001, he raced to third in the championship in the final year of 500cc competition and in 2006 he finished third again by muscling the Ducati GP6 into contention.

But there were some lean years as well—the times when Capirossi found himself on the wrong bike, with the wrong team and suffering through too many niggling injuries. This season was his least competitive in the sport; he started just 13 races for the satellite Pramac Racing squad and finished a lowly 17th in the championship, last among those with a season-long ride.

Of course, the veteran racer did have the luxury of being able to choose when his career would come to a close—and that career featured plenty of highlights. Capirossi started a staggering 328 Grands Prix, winning 29, capturing 41 pole positions and recording 32 fastest laps. Of that total number of victories, nine came while riding in the 500cc/MotoGP ranks.

In interviews following the final race of the season, Capirossi described himself as being at ease with his decision, despite a rumoured offer to race for the same Claiming Rule Team (CRT) that lured Edwards off the couch for 2012.

So this difficult off-season will be even more difficult for fans of MotoGP racing. They must deal with the loss of two revered riders and wait in breathless anticipation for the dawn of the 1000cc era, to say nothing of the impact of the CRT entries and the possible resignation of the Suzuki Grand Prix team from active competition.

They can only hope that next year proves to be a better season—one in which Rossi and Ducati regain their direction, one in which leading riders such as Pedrosa and Lorenzo stay healthy all year long and one that honours the competitive spirit of Marco Simoncelli.

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