In this modern age of racing, we often take it for granted that despite all the safety improvements in riding gear, machinery, and racetracks over the years, motorcycle roadracing is still very dangerous. Grand Prix circuits now are relatively safe compared to decades ago, with plenty of runoff and any potentially threatening walls and other stationary objects moved from harm’s way. Technological advances in manufacturing, materials, and miniaturization have produced racing leathers with inflatable airbag systems in addition to superior impact-absorbing components; those same impact protection advances have made their way into gloves and boots as well. Despite power levels that push the limits of metallurgy and design, even machinery failures resulting in injury have become rare events.
But our sport involves a human component that is unavoidably exposed to danger. And that point was hammered home once again this past October, when rising MotoGP star Marco Simoncelli was killed on the second lap of the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang circuit.
The San Carlo Honda Gresini rider had just taken fourth place from Rizla Suzuki’s Alvaro Bautista, and had his sights set on the Repsol Honda trio of Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa, and Andrea Dovisioso who were battling up front. Charging into the apex of right-hand Turn 11, Simoncelli’s front tire began to lose grip, the rubber leaving a black streak as he slid toward the outside of the track while fighting to keep the bike upright with his knee and elbow. Unfortunately, the tire regained grip while he was still in an awkward position hanging off the bike, which caused him to suddenly veer back across the track — directly into the path of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi, Simoncelli’s good friend.
The awkward position of Simoncelli’s body meant that both Edwards’ and Rossi’s motorcycles slammed directly into his back and head at high speed, with the impact causing Edwards to crash and suffer a dislocated shoulder, while Rossi somehow managed to stay upright while riding off into the grass. Simoncelli suffered severe head, neck, and torso trauma (his helmet came off in the impact), and the charismatic Italian succumbed to his injuries while in the circuit’s medical facility. The race was understandably canceled.
An accident such as Simoncelli’s cannot be prevented in racing; the situation unfortunately put him directly in the path of the other riders, much like the scenario that resulted in the untimely death of rising Moto2 star Shoya Tomizawa last year at Misano. While a few may be asking for Simoncelli’s helmet chin strap to be examined, the fact is that the blunt force to the back of his head was severe enough that any helmet would have come off, whether the strap was intact or not.
Simoncelli’s death affected the MotoGP paddock and roadracing fraternity deeply — and later, the whole motorcycling community, such was the Italian’s growing popularity in just his second year in MotoGP. Simoncelli’s funeral attracted tens of thousands of well-wishers to his small hometown of Coriano, where the service was broadcast to several big screen displays to allow the overflowing crowds to witness the service. Many GP champions past and present were in attendance, including Jorge Lorenzo, with whom Simoncelli had very public words with about the Italian’s aggressive riding during the pre-race press conference at Mugello. In the service’s guestbook, Lorenzo wrote, “I will miss you forever. Forgive me for arguing with you.”
Simoncelli’s passing was also hard on San Carlo Honda Gresini team owner Fausto Gresini, as the pair were very close. Adding to the grief was that Gresini lost another rider back in 2003, when Daijiro Kato — another rising MotoGP star — died of injuries suffered in another freak accident at the Suzuka circuit in Japan.
Perhaps the most fitting gesture in honor of Simoncelli at the season-ending race at Valencia was the one suggested by his father Paolo: rather than a minute’s silence, he asked that all the engines in the MotoGP paddock be revved up in a “minute of noise” instead. After all, the sounds of racing are part of the experience, and racing is what Marco Simoncelli, Daijiro Kato, and Shoya Tomizawa lived for. sr
But our sport involves a human component that is unavoidably exposed to danger "