Sunday, October 23, 2011

Farewell, Super Sic: A tribute Marco Simoncelli - Galactus

I'm still in something of a state of shock at the news that Marco Simoncelli, at the age of 24, died after an horrific accident at the MotoGP race at Malaysia's Sepang circuit in the early hours of this morning.

After losing the front end of his Gresini Honda RC212V he slid into the path of the oncoming bikes of Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi. Neither rider was able to avoid hitting him. In the aftermath of the crash he lay unmoving on the tarmac, his helmet no longer on his head. He was pronounced dead only 50 minutes afterwards.

The plan for today was pretty simple. A lazy late morning breakfast, followed by catching up on the Sepang race on iPlayer. Except the race wasn't available. Then I found out why.

Death is, sadly, part and parcel of motorcycle racing, even more so than in the four wheeled version. You can't build a roll cage around a bike. You can't fit it with crumple zones. I can still remember attending my first live race and realising just how sickening the sound of leather hitting tarmac at high speed truly is.

I've witnessed my fair share of deaths in the sport (thankfully never when actually at a circuit). Shoya Tomizawa at Misano last year sticks in the memory. There have been a number in British Superbikes and its various support classes, Ben Gautrey in the Superstock 600 race at Cadwell Park in August being the most recent. I won't even start going into the Manx TT.

The riders, and indeed the fans, accept that this is the case. It happens, your heart goes out to the riders' friends and family, but ultimately you accept it and move on. So I'm not sure why, to me at least, this death feels so different.

Perhaps it's because Marco, affectionately known as Super Sic, was one of the bright emerging talents of the sport, a world champion at 250cc level. Perhaps it was his racing. He had been criticised many times in the past for his aggressive riding style and, for some of his fellow riders, overly dangerous passing manoeuvres (he and Lewis Hamilton would probably have found much to talk about at a dinner party), but this was what made him so exciting to watch, and had livened up a class that too often in recent years has descended into a procession. Or perhaps it was his infectious personality. He had a bright, engaging smile, an effervescent personality and an obvious love and enthusiasm for his sport.

A gangling young man with a huge shock of curly hair, at 183cm tall he stood out in the MotoGP paddock and looked like his bike was far too small for him, knees and elbows sticking out in a style that would best be described as gawky. He looked awkward on a bike, rather than at one with the machine. Appearances were, however, highly deceptive. After a highest placed finish of 2nd place at last week's Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island a bright future lay ahead. Sadly, no more.

A special thought goes to Valentino Rossi. The two were close friends, with Vale seeming to take the older brother role, defending Marco against the occasional storm of criticism. For his bike to have been involved in the accident is too cruel. I'm not sure whether Marco's helmet had already come off when Vale ran into him, or whether it was this impact that removed it. I've only watched the incident once and have no desire to watch it again. Vale must be in deep despair tonight, and I wonder whether he will even want to continue in the sport. I hope he does.

I've been in a state of numb hurt all day. This death has cut me far deeper than any I've witnessed in the sport before. Farewell, Super Sic. The MotoGP paddock and the world of motorsport will be far sadder for your absence.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The return of motorsport – mimitig

It’s been a long hard winter for all of us, and for the MotoGP paddock it has not been the return to sport that they would have anticipated. At a rough count, about 90 percent of the paddock is Japanese and so this first race of the season, in the desert, is a tough debut.

Honda were hoping to open the 2011 season full of the joys of leading all the times in testing. New signing Casey Stoner went extremely well in winter testing and appeared to be pushing team-mate Dani Pedrosa to new performance highs. Yamaha were looking to a season of co-operation between last year’s Championship winner, Jorge Lorenzo and Rookie of the Year Ben Spies after a few seasons of dis-harmony between Ducati-defector Rossi and Gorgeous George. They never spoke.

Instead all teams assembled in Qatar with not only the Middle East and Arab nations in extreme chaos, but Japan in a state of national emergency. At any time of global crisis, it is hard to see sport as important, but when most of any sporting teams are as hard hit as the Japanese are right now, it feels wrong to sit down and watch. But they go on doing their day jobs, the mechanics, the technicians and riders so who are we, the paying public, to pretend that we are not interested?

Of course we are, and MotoGP really is the pinnacle of motorsport. Oh I know that a certain mr B Ecclestone would like to argue that Formula 1 is the premier sport, but in my humble opinion, he has lost the plot.

With the bikes, there is so much more difference that can be made by the riders and the team. It is not all about who gets it together at the start and spends the most money.

We saw that in the first round of 2011. It was a tremendously exciting race. There were places fought for all through the field, and at the front, we saw Lorenzo, on the unfancied Yamaha split the front-running Hondas. Yes, Casey Stoner did sprint off into the distance to win, but only after some severe battling with Lorenzo.

Pedrosa could not hang on to Jorge in the last few laps – an arm problem we discovered after the race though what sort of arm problem we do not know.

Rossi took the Ducati honours and given the problems they have had during the winter, it was a fairly good result.

Cal Crutchlow finished respectably – novice in MotoGP and hasn’t had any history in GP2 and missing a bit of his finger (from a crash a couple of days ago in free practice) – not a bad result.

For fans of the sport, it was a good opener. Jerez is next where differences in horsepower matters less.

But what I, a huge fan of the sport, am left thinking is why are we in the Middle East and what does a minute’s silence at the start of the race mean to the people of Japan?

It does become hard to care very much about the sport when so many people are suffering. It will be extremely interesting to watch what happens in MotoGP over the next few rounds of racing as the reality of Japan’s suffering takes effect. My hope is that the compassion that has been shown from the UK (and other nations) to Japan in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and radiation fall-out will continue.

Perhaps the mighty presence of the Japanese in the world of motorsport will help the people of their nation who are suffering such devastating consequences of both natural and man-made disasters. Perhaps it will do something to maintain their presence in the news media.

Motorsport very seldom makes the headlines of the print or broadcast media – for goodness sake with the World Cup going on in the Sub-continent, even cricket outranks motorsport! My hope for the next few weeks at the very least, is that some print columns are given up to the start of this season of bike-racing.

If only for this one reason – football did a minute’s silence in respect for Japan’s dead and missing – and they have maybe half a dozen Japanese players in the Premiership and Championship combined. For those involved with bikes – racing is in the blood of the Japanese: riders, mechanics, engineers and everyone. Japan = bikes = sport.

As I said at the start of this piece, about 90 percent of the motor bike racing paddock is Japanese. Factory teams Honda and Yamaha know that the next weeks, even months are going to be desperately hard for them as far as development and parts are concerned. And such is their commitment to the sport, that this is what they are talking about. Not wondering how friends and relatives are doing back in Japan, they are worried about whether they can do stuff to get their bikes going faster.

Admirable in their commitment, and if that’s the approach they are taking then the least we, as fans, can do, is support them and cheer them on.

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