Gary Meenaghan looks at how the MotoGP rider's death has affected the motorsport fraternity.
Sombre sentiments at forefront in Malaysia over Marco Simoncelli
At 4pm local time today, the lights will go out to mark the start of the Formula One Malaysian Grand Prix and with it will begin the first major race at Sepang International Circuit since Marco Simoncelli died here following his horrific MotoGP accident five months ago.
The 24-year-old Italian was competing in the penultimate race of the 2011 MotoGP season, on October 23, when his Honda Gresini lost traction during the second lap. Simoncelli was hit by Colin Edwards and then, having had his helmet knocked off, was hit again by Valentino Rossi as he slid across the track.
He suffered insurmountable head, neck and chest injuries.
Simoncelli's death shook the close-knit motorsport fraternity, which was still mourning the loss of Dan Wheldon, the British driver who had died a week earlier in Las Vegas as a result of a massive crash during the IndyCar World Championship.
This weekend, as the Sepang paddock buzzes ahead of the second round of the new F1 season, a solemn undercurrent also can be felt as drivers and race officials pay their respects to the flamboyant Italian.
In the immediate aftermath of Simoncelli's accident, the stricken rider was taken to the Sepang Medical Centre, where a team of doctors tried for 45 minutes to resuscitate him. As news filtered through the circuit, the Italian's team and officials from the track were seen in various states of distress.
Razlan Razali, the chief executive of Sepang International Circuit, said many of his staff were troubled by the news of Simoncelli's death, which was the first fatality to occur at Sepang in 13 years. The former 250cc world champion was renowned for his charisma and had built friendships with several circuit officials.
"Drivers feel for anyone who has died on track regardless of whether it is four wheels or two," Razali said.
"For us at the circuit, we were quite affected because MotoGP is different to F1 in nearly all areas: it is much more fun and friendlier. Also, MotoGP has been in or around Malaysia for 21 years, so the teams and riders are very close to my team here. Some of the guys had communicated with him the day before, so it was a huge shock for us."
Professionalism soon took over as the track had to be open three days later for a local bike event. Such were the circumstances of Simoncelli's accident that the track was never blamed and alterations not considered.
"We always maintained there is nothing wrong with the circuit, although that particular weekend there was some issues with marshalling - human error, that kind of thing - but nothing with the track," Razali said. "It happened in an area where nothing was expected to happen."
He said that FIM, the sanctioning body for international motorcycling, "came out and reiterated that Sepang is one of the safest circuits in the world, so we are pleased with that".
Mark Webber, the Red Bull Racing driver, said he was competing at Sepang "with a heavy heart", while fellow driver Heikki Kovalainen tweeted "big respect" as he underwent a track walk on Thursday.
Simoncelli's funeral in north-east Italy was attended by an estimated 20,000 people and broadcast live on Italian television. This weekend, Ferrari, the Italian manufacturers, have led the way as the Maranello-based marque visited the site of the accident to remember their compatriot.
Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, accompanied by their physios and other Ferrari staff, visited Turn 11, where the crash occurred. The two drivers held a pit-board with the message "Sic, always with us". Alonso said he believed "the Ferrari family and all Italians who love sport and motorcycling will remember him always". Massa recalled the moment he watched the accident.
"It was shocking," he said. "It seemed as soon as it happened, even watching on TV, that it was very serious. An accident like this has happened before, it comes to my mind what happened to both Greg Moore and Gilles Villeneuve."
Villeneuve died after a high-speed crash during qualifying for Formula One's 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Moore, a Canadian CART driver, died in 1999 following a horrendous smash on the 10th lap of the Marlboro 500 in California.
"Simoncelli was an exceptional rider," Massa added. "It was not an accident that was difficult to take just for the Italians; it was difficult for the whole world to see that happen. I think [the pit-board photo] is the minimum we could have done for him and I hope this is just the beginning of a good race that we can make for him, his family, for the fans, for the Italians and for the team."
Webber, who also visited Turn 11, said accidents such as Simoncelli's remain "still at the forefront of your mind", but Kovalainen and his Caterham teammate Vitaly Petrov said while they will never forget, they will aim to block out such memories this afternoon.
"I still remember the incident very well and felt it while I was walking the track," Kovalainen said. "But when you are driving the car, you will be fully focusing on the job and nothing else. It was one of those things, and life must move on. We have a job to do, so we have to focus on that."
Petrov added: "At the same corner, I had a big flight last year and it is not nice when you pass this area.
"We must always remember these kind of things, but when you are in the car, you must forget about it because otherwise you will never reach your maximum potential at that section."
No special tribute is planned for today's Formula One race, Razali said, but he revealed a plan is being looked at by organisers of MotoGP and Simoncelli's family to be unveiled during the weekend of this year's Malaysian motorbike race. The 2012 Malaysian MotoGP takes place on October 21.
Malaysian Grand Prix, 12pm, Abu Dhabi Sports2 & 6
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