The death of a celebrity affects people in different ways and displays of public grief have always left me slightly bemused. I assume that the reason for this is very simple, I have never felt particularly ‘connected’ to anyone well-known. People I admire greatly have passed away and I have felt little more than a pang of sympathy for the deceased’s family. When Ayrton Senna died in 1994 I was 15 years old and although I was stunned there wasn’t a sense of sadness. I suspect this was more to do with the fact that Roland Ratzenberger had died at the same race meeting and due to massive safety improvements in the preceding 10 years Formula One had become a much safer environment. It was a real shock that a sport I had naively regarded as almost bullet-proof had claimed two lives in such a short space of time.
The stunned feeling appeared again when I woke up on the 17th of October to discover that Dan Wheldon had been killed during an Indy race in Las Vegas. Again, I felt terrible for Wheldon’s family. he had left behind a wife and two young children and being a parent myself thoughts inevitably turned to how hard it would be to raise kids on your own in those circumstances. Being a British driver it was understandable that the media was full of stories about Wheldon. His peers were rightly splashed across the TV and newspapers paying tribute to the popular man from Buckinghamshire. For me it was a regrettable racing accident but the world kept turning, as callous as I am sure that may sound to some people.
With all this in mind then, it has become very hard to deal with my emotions concerning the death of young MotoGP rider, Marco Simoncelli last weekend at the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia. Simoncelli lost control of his bike and in the subsequent fall he was hit by two other riders, Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards. Simoncelli was pronounced dead within the hour, unable to recover from the injuries sustained. Another, it would seem, regrettable racing accident. If this was just another terrible day in the litany of motor racing tragedies why do I still feel such utter sadness when faced with pictures or tributes to Simoncelli?
By my own admission I am not an enormous MotoGP fan. I have watched a lot of races and I can tell from numbers or helmet designs who the top 5 or 6 riders are but to call myself an avid watcher would be patently untrue. In the last few years I have become friends with a few biker and as a result of this I have even more respect for the men who race these two-wheeled behemoths. The danger of the sport has been brought home to me in vivid detail over a beer in the pub with these friends. As a person who grew up surrounded by four-wheeled motor sport I almost took driver’s safety for granted as technology moved forward. The very act of riding a motorcycle means that the rider is in degrees of danger for large amounts of the of his or her time in the saddle and this is vastly increased when placed in a racing environment.
As my respect grew for the riders of MotoGP I began to take more notice of their personalities off the track. Casey Stoner loves a moan, Jorge Lorenzo knows how to celebrate a win properly and Marco Simoncelli? Well, he was just a stone-cold nutcase. Routinely criticised by other riders for being too dangerous on the track. Far too big to ride a race bike and a hairdo the likes of which we hadn’t seen in professional sport since the Brazilian World Cup squad of 1974, what a man he was.
I am not going to pretend I knew just how good he was but talking to those who know the sport inside out he was destined for great things. I had watched an interview with Marco after the Australian Grand Prix , a week before his death, where he had just finished in second place, his highest MotoGP result. It genuinely seemed that he was moving on to bigger and better things and I think this is where the root of my sadness lies, it was such a waste of an outrageous talent.
Any loss of life in these circumstances is tragic but when it happens to someone yet to fulfill their potential completely it is somehow harder to bear. The deaths of people like Senna and Wheldon are absolutely awful but the saving grace, if any, was that they has reached the pinnacle of their chosen sports with titles and big race wins. With Simoncelli we will never know just how good he could have been and for that reason, personally, I feel this loss enormously.