Marco Simoncelli will be honoured as a MotoGP legend at the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello in June. The Italian tragically lost his life at the Malaysian Grand Prix in October 2011 after an opening lap crash.
Simoncelli, racing for Gresini, was in his second year in the premier class and had looked to have made a major step forward in marrying his speed and aggression with a greater consistency and tampering some of his wayward habits that had led to crashes and controversy. But to admit him to the elite group of MotoGP legends is an honour not befitting his achievements.
Even though Simoncelli was a 250cc world champion his achievements pale in comparison to numerous other riders of the past 30 years and while he was undoubtedly fast his flaws mean that it is very difficult to consider him as a true legend of the sport. While it is easy to surmise that Simoncelli was ready to make the step from fast but inconsistent to being a general front runner his crash in Sepang robbed everyone of the chance to see if it would occur. The MotoGP Legends should be for riders who achieved success in their career rather than ones who had the potential to do remarkable things.
Simoncelli’s career spanned ten years across three Grand Prix classes with the majority of his success coming in the 250cc class. The Italian won the championship in 2008 but prior to that he was a 125cc rider who was viewed as being too large for the class to be able to compete with the leading riders. In the 250cc class he was a regular front runner and deserved his chance to move into the premier class in 2010 with Gresini.
When he moved into MotoGP he was instantly a fan favourite. His aggressive style of riding and his outgoing personality won a legion of followers looking for a new hero. Aboard the white Gresini he was a throwback to a bygone era. He was fast and furious and willing to whip up a controversy. His MotoGP career was filled with incident. Whether it be his clashes with other riders or his speed he left an undeniable mark on the class.
While Simoncelli’s career was a successful one by most measures compared to the riders already bestowed the honour of being a legend Simoncelli’s falls short. While the likes of Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Mick Doohan or Wayne Rainey had little left to achieve when their careers ended the same cannot be said for Simoncelli.
Of the MotoGP Legends Daijiro Kato is the easiest comparison to Simoncelli. The Japanese star was a 250cc champion and died in his second MotoGP season riding for Gresini. Kato’s career however was remarkable in many ways. His career effectively spanned only three seasons yet his successes amazing. Kato made his name as a Japanese wild card racer with his first four races all coming at Suzuka. In those four starts he had two wins and a third place finish before the 2000 season saw him compete as a regular rider for the first time.
That season Kato finished third in the championship and claimed four race wins before the following season when Kato had one of the most dominant championship winning campaigns in history. The Japanese rider won 11 races and had two more podium finishes along with six pole positions. Kato then moved into the premier class with Gresini, riding a 500cc Honda for most of the season, claimed two podium finishes and a pole position as a rookie.
It looked as though Kato would be a championship contender but at Suzuka, the season opening race of 2003, he lost his life. Similarly to Simoncelli there are many who had no doubts that Kato would be a title contender but like the Italian we’ll never know. However unlike Simoncelli his career until that point was nothing but sustained success. To illustrate this Kato, who made just 53 starts in his career, scored an average of 14.6 points per race start. Simoncelli on the other hand scored 8.5 points. Kato had 17 race wins whereas Simoncelli had three less even though he started three times as many Grand Prix.
While Simoncelli won 14 Grand Prix and stood on the rostrum 31 times his compatriots Max Biaggi, Loris Capirossi, Luca Cadalora and Marco Melandri are more deserving candidates. Biaggi was a four times 250cc world champion also finished runner up in the premier class three times. Biaggi did not win over fans as easily as Simoncelli but his career record certainly trumps the younger Italian.
Biaggi won 42 Grand Prix and stood on the podium almost every other race over the course of his career. Having won 250cc titles on both Aprilia and Honda machinery the Roman Emperor made the move into the 500cc class in 1998 aboard a Honda and promptly won the season opening Japanese Grand Prix from pole position. That rookie campaign saw him go toe to toe with Mick Doohan for the championship with his disqualification in Catalunya effectively ending any hope of being the first rookie world champion since Kenny Roberts.
When Doohan retired in 1999 following an injury it was expected that Biaggi would be the rider to take on his mantle as the world’s leading motorcyclist. However his move to the factory Yamaha team and the arrival of Valentino Rossi in 2000 meant that Biaggi’s premier class career will be remembered as one where he was largely seen as the bridesmaid.
Biaggi’s career however should not be remembered for his failure to win a premier class title but rather in its entirety and scoring an average of 13.5 points per race and winning four 250cc titles, as well as a World Superbikes crown, shows just how good a rider Biaggi was.
Like Biaggi John Kosinski will not be remembered as a rider who was easy to like for many fans. The American however will be remembered as one of the fastest riders in the world when everything was to his liking. In 1988 Kosinski made four starts but the following year, making just two starts in the 250cc class, he won both races while also making his 500cc debut and finished fourth. The following year Kosinski won his only world title, the 250cc crown, with seven wins from 15 starts and five other rostrum finishes.
A move to the 500cc class, riding for Yamaha, brought with it the expectation of success and finishing fourth, and winning in Malaysia, as a rookie showed that his speed translated to the bigger class. The following season he won again and improved his championship position to third but the following year he returned to the 250cc class with Suzuki before leaving the team mid-season to join the Caviga 500cc squad. Kosinski added another race victory by winning his home Grand Prix and the following season he won the season opening Japanese Grand Prix and finished third in the championship.
A stint in World Superbikes following, including wining the 1997 title, before returning to the 500cc squad with the Pons team in 1998. His return to the series was a disappointment and with only a rostrum finish at Paul Ricard a lone highlight. Even so the American had more podiums, pole positions, fastest laps than Simoncelli and scored over ten points per outing even though until 1993 the points system was different to today with less offered
Another rider to average ten points per race was the 1999 500cc World Champion, Alex Criville. The Spaniard made his debut in the 80cc class and was instantly quick with a front row start and a podium on his debut before finishing second in the championship the following year and finishing on the podium in all but two races of the 80cc championship. A move to the 125cc championship saw him continue to impress with a first title in 1989, including winning his first Grand Prix, continued to mark Criville as a potential 500cc star.
Not even a disappointing two year spell in 250’s held back the Spaniard from a move to the premier class in 1992. At Assen that year Criville won his first 500cc race and in the following years he continued to grow. By 1995 he was ready to make the next step and be a consistent front runner and a regular thorn in the side of Mick Doohan as the Australian started his dominance of the premier class. Over the following five years Criville was a constant front runner but it took until Doohan’s retirement for him to make the step and become the first Spanish world champion in 1999. Over the course of his career Criville won 20 races and two titles and scored an average of ten points per race even though the early stages of his career had lower points offered.
Current World Superbike racer Marco Melandri’s career also shines in comparison to Simoncelli. Both were 250cc champions but Melandri’s overall volume of work is more impressive. The Italian won 22 races and finished on the rostrum 62 times in 207 starts and in 2005, riding for Gresini, he was the MotoGP vice-champion and over the course of the next few years he was a regular front runner before a move to Ducati in 2008 marked the start of the downturn in his Grand Prix career. Even taking into account that year at Ducati and one at Kawasaki at the tail end of his career Melandri still scored over ten points per outing throughout his Grand Prix career.
Another Italian, Luca Cadalora, was a triple world champion and won 34 Grand Prix yet he has not been honoured as a legend. Sito Pons was a double champion and won 15 races, stood on the rostrum 41 times and established one of the most long standing teams in the paddock yet the Spaniard is yet to be honoured.
To show that winning titles is not the only standard required to be a legend Randy Mamola is famously one of the best riders never to win a title. The American started 151 Grand Prix and won 13 races but his career will be remembered for finishing second in the championship four times. Mamola was one of the most spectacular riders in history with his ability to eek every last ounce of performance from a bike still the thing of legends within the paddock. Mamola finished his career with claiming an average of seven points per race but given that throughout his career the sport’s scoring system paid scored eight points for finishing fourth it shows just how superb a rider Mamola truly was.
Interestingly to compare Simoncelli to one of his contemporaries, Alvaro Bautista, does not make for favourable reading either. Both are smaller class champions, Bautista was the 2006 125cc world champion, but Bautista was more successful in their formative years. The Spaniard won eight times in both 125cc and 250cc classes compared to Simoncelli winning 14 times over a similar number of races. Interestingly while many would say that Simoncelli was hampered in 125s by his size their relative intermediate class careers saw Bautista stand on the rostrum more times even though he competed one year less in the class and score on average three points more per outing.
Over their careers Bautista has won more races, stood on more podiums, had more pole positions, more fastest laps and won the same number of titles as Simoncelli yet it is unlikely that he will be honoured as a MotoGP legend.
To put Simoncelli’s career in perspective here is how he compares to the riders listed above and some others. It’s worth remembering that for Sito Pons, Randy Mamola, Luca Cadalora, John Kosinski, Alex Criville and Loris Capirossi also raced under the older scoring systems.
Simoncelli’s career was good but far from the stuff of legends. There are other riders more befitting to bestow the honour of being a MotoGP legend. The Italian was fast and spectacular but his career was unfinished. He was an outgoing and popular rider who paid the ultimate price for following his passion but that does not mean that he should be honoured as a MotoGP Legend.