Marco Simoncelli is probably the most exciting rider in MotoGP at the moment. Obviously, his physical presence - tall, lanky, with an enormous and tangled bush of hair atop his head - helps him stand out from the crowd, but it is his riding which has endeared him to the fans. The boy is fast, utterly fearless and willing to fight for every inch of the track. Simoncelli stands aside for no man, which means that at any time, at any track, he can pull the most astonishing moves to try and either defend his position or snatch a place from out of the blue. The fans love it.
The riders, not so much. That impetuousness, seizing the first hint of a gap as soon as it opens, and opening it by force if necessary, has not made him very popular with the remainder of the MotoGP field. Simoncelli, they say, is a wildcard, a rider who is so unpredictable that they don't feel comfortable racing in close proximity with him. The kind of fairing-bashing action that leaves tire marks all over leathers may make Simoncelli a favorite with the fans, but having to deal with it at 300 km/h while manhandling a MotoGP bike around is not an enjoyable experience.
So it is hardly a surprise that opinion is so bitterly divided on Simoncelli's pass on Dani Pedrosa, and the ride-through penalty he subsequently received. The clash, in which Pedrosa crashed and broke his right collarbone so shortly after his left had healed, is either a hard-but-fair pass which Pedrosa could have avoided and not worthy of a penalty, or a dangerous pass in which Simoncelli cut off Pedrosa's nose, hitting his front wheel and leaving the Spaniard with nowhere to go, meaning a crash was inevitable, depending on your point of view. The camps divide broadly along clear lines: On the side of Simoncelli are the US and UK fans, a significant part of the English-speaking media, the more belligerent part of the Italian media (which is most of them), a number of key veteran racers such as Kevin Schwantz and Darryl Beattie, and a large number of current and former World Superbike and BSB racers. On the side of Pedrosa are almost all of the current MotoGP riders, the Spanish media (as belligerent as the Italians), the Spanish fans and a number of key veteran racers such as Wayne Rainey and Wayne Gardner.
To my eyes - and I have studied the footage as carefully as I can, viewing all the videos and photos that are publicly available, and which most of you will have probably seen just as often - the blame lies with Simoncelli, as Simoncelli cut Pedrosa off and left him no room. On the onboard shot looking backwards from Simoncelli's bike (shown on this MotoGP.com Youtube clip from 2:53 to 2:57), you can see Simoncelli clip Pedrosa's front wheel with his knee, which caused Pedrosa to stand his bike up and clip Simoncelli's back wheel, which then precipitated the crash. Simoncelli's defense that he left Pedrosa enough room is true, but only in the narrow, theoretical sense. If Pedrosa had known Simoncelli would make that move, there was just enough room for a single bike to be slotted between Simoncelli and the inside kerb, though that would have required bumping Simoncelli and his knee out of the way. So to me, it seems clear that Simoncelli is to blame for the incident, though with both sides of the argument so deeply entrenched, I don't expect anyone to be convinced of the merits of my case any time soon (and if you're commenting below, frankly, you can save your energy trying to convince me).
The penalty, though, is a different matter, and I'm not convinced that a ride through should have been awarded for the pass on its own. That pass was, to quote Simoncelli's friend Valentino Rossi, a little bit too aggressive, and definitely the result of poor judgment. But what makes this more than just a slightly overly aggressive pass and turns it into a crime worth punishing is not the maneuver, but the fact that it was totally unnecessary at that point in the race. For the four laps prior to that passing attempt, Simoncelli had been catching Pedrosa by between two- and four-tenths of a second, and clearly had the measure of the Spaniard. After two DNFs, Simoncelli was well on his way to his first MotoGP podium, a reward he richly deserves judged solely on his speed on a MotoGP machine. Simoncelli had just demonstrated his superior pace with a clean and convincing pass on Pedrosa at the previous corner, the double right of Garage Vert. The Italian may have lost a position again down the short back straight - losing out to the superior acceleration of the lighter Pedrosa - but that situation was never going to last long. Simoncelli - using the advantage his greater weight and height confer - caught Pedrosa on the brakes, and got half a length ahead of the Spaniard going into the Chemin aux Boeufs esses, before slamming across his nose and clipping his front wheel.
Is it possible to pass at Chemin aux Boeufs? It certainly is, indeed, it is one of the favorite passing spots at the Le Mans circuit. Can you pass using the outside line going into Chemin aux Boeufs left hander? You certainly can, if you leave enough room on the inside before flicking back and holding the stronger line for the right.
Should you pass at Chemin aux Boeufs? If you clearly have the superior pace, there are plenty of better places to make a pass: the double right at the final corner; the Dunlop Curve and chicane, or any of the three extra-large hairpins which comprise La Chapelle, Musee and Garage Vert. If you hold the inside line at Chemin aux Boeufs, it is possible to get by, even put a classic block pass - in which you get well past in the first part of the esses, before slamming the door on the second part - to secure the place.
But Simoncelli chose to do none of these. The Italian pulled an at-best marginal move resulting in the crash - and injury - of another rider.
It gets worse. Simoncelli chose to pull a sketchy move on another rider after suffering two DNFs which were entirely his own fault. Those two DNFs were both classic rookie mistakes - a status Simoncelli left behind him last year - pushing too hard in tricky conditions while leading at Jerez, then pushing too hard on cold tires on the first lap of the race at Estoril. Simoncelli's aim, he said in the pre-race press release, was merely to finish in the points at Le Mans. Viewed purely from the point of view of the results sheet, Simoncelli achieved his stated goal, but I don't think anyone - including Simoncelli - view his result that way. Instead, after his two unforced errors, he has blotted his copybook for a third time in a row by incurring a penalty.
And it gets worse still. In his hurry to get to the front, he took out not just another rider, but a fellow employee of HRC, and Simoncelli's theoretical teammate (though Simoncelli is housed in the San Carlo Gresini squad, rather than Repsol Honda where Pedrosa resides, the two men are factory Honda riders, and paid by the Japanese giant). The old adage may say that the first rule of racing is that you have to beat your teammate, teams - or in this case, factories - tend to look very dimly upon riders who beat their teammates by forcing them to crash and injure themselves.
Worst of all, though, is that not only did Simoncelli cause Pedrosa to crash, by doing so, he robbed Pedrosa of the potential championship lead. Had Simoncelli bided his time - for all of, say, 50 seconds - he could have passed Pedrosa, dropping the Spaniard into 3rd. That would have meant Pedrosa scoring 16 points, bringing his points total to 76. Jorge Lorenzo, instead of finishing 4th, would have been dropped down to 6th, scoring just 10 points and bringing his total to 75. Instead of a lead of 12 points over second place man Casey Stoner - another Honda rider - Lorenzo and Yamaha would have been looking at a deficit of 1 point, and standing 2nd to Pedrosa.
Late on Sunday night, Marco Simoncelli was marched to the Honda Racing Corporation truck, where no doubt he was given a lesson in elementary arithmetic, in all likelihood using the World Championship standings as an example. The point was almost certainly made that although HRC held Simoncelli's riding ability in high esteem, they were less than impressed by his racecraft and his judgment.
And this, surely, is the point. Only an idiot would deny that Simoncelli is fast, and has the pace to match the front runners. Only a blind man would deny that Simoncelli is exciting to watch, and greatly enhances the spectacle. But only a fool would suggest that Simoncelli's judgment is beyond question, and that there is no room for improvement in his decision-making process.
There's a lot of talk on online forums about Simoncelli's chance to become the 5th Alien, joining Rossi, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Stoner in the current pantheon of MotoGP. But though Simoncelli has many of the key ingredients, he has so far shown he is missing perhaps the most vital, the intelligence to evaluate risk in an instant, and choose the right course of action to ensure success. Out of four races in 2011, Simoncelli has just 22 points, dropping at least 34 points (25 at Jerez and 9 at Le Mans) and probably more through stupid decisions, losing a chance to be in the top three of the championship and a legitimate shot at the title. Instead, he is mid-pack, 14 points behind his teammate Hiroshi Aoyama, and only just ahead of Colin Edwards.
In many ways, Simoncelli is like the ancient Viking warrior known as the beserker. In a fit of blind fury, with the red mist descending, the beserker charges forward, destroying everything in his path, fearing no enemy, with the strength of twenty men. But as rival bands knew, the way to deal with a beserker was to use his rage against him, waiting until his strength ran out and then striking him down in cold blood from behind. Berserkers, though greatly feared, never made the role of chieftain, as they rarely ever lived long enough.
They say you can teach a fast rider to stop crashing, but you cannot teach a slow rider to be fast. What that old racing maxim means is that being fast is a question of talent, and that results will come once a talented rider learns to make good decisions. Simoncelli is undoubtedly a fast rider, he needs to start learning to make better decisions if he is to progress to the next level. Jorge Lorenzo, Simoncelli's contemporary, had a reputation as a wild man and crasher, but a couple of huge accidents soon taught the Spaniard sense. Without those crashes, Lorenzo would not have understood his limitations, and would not have taken the World Championship last year.
Like Lorenzo before him, Simoncelli needs to learn those same lessons, though preferably through reflection rather than injury. Lorenzo's aggression is still there, lurking below the surface - the Yamaha man's move on Andrea Dovizioso in the early laps was questionable - but he has learned to channel it and let it out only when necessary. Simoncelli's aggression remains untamed, the Italian flailing around wildly at every opportunity.
The question for Simoncelli is whether he can learn those lessons, and become a serious candidate for the championship. So far, he has shown either a stubborn refusal or an intellectual inability to learn. If Simoncelli is merely refusing to learn the lessons, then the occasional penalty and a stiff talking to by HRC may help turn him around. But if he simply lacks the intelligence to understand the subtleties of racing, then Sideshow Bob will remain the Sideshow, and never become the Main Attraction.