Remembering the day Marco Simoncelli became a WorldSBK sensation

It's been 11 years since the late Marco Simoncelli made a one-off WorldSBK appearance and went straight to the podium... by dusting up team-mate Max Biaggi!

Marco Simoncelli, Max Biaggi

Originally published 12th September 2019, re-published today to commemorate nine years aince Marco Simoncelli tragically passed away

There are many ‘what ifs’ when it comes to looking back on the tragically curtailed career of Marco Simoncelli, the up-and-coming MotoGP racer killed in the midst of his ascension towards inevitable success.

Whilst it would be easy to save the annual tribute to Simoncelli for the Malaysian MotoGP event at the Sepang International Circuit where he died on 23 October 2011, this weekend’s San Marino MotoGP held at Misano – named the Marco Simoncelli World Circuit in his honour – is arguably a more fitting moment to ride down memory lane.

Though a reimagining a world where Simoncelli could have been a team-mate Marc Marquez at Repsol Honda (he was racing with the satellite Gresini Honda team at the time of his death) is enticing, it’s his brief, but spectacular one event WorldSBK career – ten years ago at Imola - that forms the basis for this throwback.

Indeed, it is easy to forget that Simoncelli not only tried his hand at Superbike racing but proved instantly competitive, claimed a podium and even had the audacity to achieve it by hustling it away from his temporary team-mate Max Biaggi. Ballsy… very ballsy.

A journey from 250GP to MotoGP via WorldSBK

First some background. Simoncelli was already a world champion by the time the 2009 season rolled around having clinched the 2008 250GP World Championship, though he remained in the quarter-litre class for another season ahead of his 2010 MotoGP switch with Gresini Honda.

Competing with Aprilia in 250GP, Simoncelli found time to squeeze in the odd test aboard the firm’s all-new Aprilia RSV4 superbike, making its racing debut for the 2009 WorldSBK season with Biaggi and another MotoGP-exile in Shinya Nakano.

Rumours circulated early on in the year that Simoncelli was pitching for the odd third bike wild-card but it never materialised. 

However, an injury for Nakano in the closing stages of the year, coupled to a break in the 250GP season meant he was the man to call when Aprilia needed a replacement at Imola, round 12 of the season. He duly accepted. 

Marco Simoncelli: A prelude to a superstar

With his mop of hair, lanky frame and – most notably – a feisty riding style that dazzled fans and infuriated rivals in equal measures, Simoncelli was without a doubt one of the most exciting talents to rise the ranks in GP.

However, it was his performance in WorldSBK that arguably rubber-stamped that approval as he quickly got to grips with both the still-developing (albeit already race winning) Aprilia RSV4. Even so, with another fiery, unabashed Italian on the other side of the garage in Biaggi, one might have anticipated a fairly modest approach. 

In reality, by having nothing to prove, he thus had a golden opportunity to prove everything. 

His achievements developed over the weekend, firstly reaching Superpole to qualify eighth before ascending the order in race one, only to crash while pushing at Tosa on an Imola track beset by slippery surface issues all weekend.

Marco Simoncelli vs Max Biaggi (1-0 Simoncelli)

Race 2 he fared better, overcoming a sluggish start to work his way back into contention as Biaggi was slipping back after mistakes. 

Whereas WorldSBK newcomers are often caught out by the one thing they have little time to prepare for in practice session – tyre wear – Simoncelli simply got quicker as the race progressed, spurred along by the RSV4s superior top speed advantage. 

As the Aprilias closed on one another, Biaggi left the hint of a door open at the Variante Bassa final corner chicane, with Simoncelli not waiting for a second invitation. Block passing up the inside, an alarmed Biaggi was forced to sit up and allow him through.

It was a little scruffy, perhaps even rude, but that can as easily be a synonym for determined and unapologetic too; two words that could comfortably describe Simoncelli’s riding style right up to his death two years later. 

One event, one podium… the Simoncelli way

We’d seen Simoncelli on several podiums by this point in his career, but the sight of him next to – or rather, towering over - Noriyuki Haga and Michel Fabrizio is almost haunting now.

At the time Biaggi said he ‘complimented’ Simoncelli for his podium, but it’s up to you if you think that quote came via the hand of the Aprilia press officer instead.

With MotoGP beckoning either way, Simoncelli’s WorldSBK ‘career’ was always destined to be fleeting one and whilst it may have left a more memorable impression had his legacy not been lost to tragedy instead, it deserves to be remembered not just for the result, but for the way it was achieved in his own inimitable style.

Rest in peace #58