Matthew Wilson’s Stobart Ford was officially car no.5 on the 2011 Wales Rally GB entry list.
But on its roof it also bore another more poignant number: the 58 of Marco Simoncelli.
It’s 10 years this weekend since the hugely popular Simoncelli died aged only 24 in an accident at MotoGP’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
His gregarious nature and appearance, coupled with a ferociously brave riding style (one that prompted endless run-ins with angry rivals), earned Simoncelli a massive following during his tragically truncated second season at the top level.
A close friend of Valentino Rossi, he shared much of his legendary compatriot’s on and off track spark.
And he also shared Rossi’s passion for rallying, contesting what was then Monza Rally Show four times in the late 2000s – two of them in older-spec Ford Focus WRC cars.
Just a month before his death, Simoncelli got a proper rallying lesson.
Castrol – a sponsor of both Simoncelli’s Gresini Honda MotoGP team and the M-Sport-run works Ford World Rally Championship program – arranged for Simoncelli and future Superbike champion Jonathan Rea to try the WRC Ford Focus at Kirkbride Airfield near M-Sport’s base, with WRC driver Mikko Hirvonen on hand to give a passenger ride and some advice.
Such was Simoncelli’s enthusiasm for rallying – and driving/riding anything fast – MotoGP commentator Toby Moody remarked at the time that when he heard Simoncelli was hurling a rally car around Cumbria he assumed he’d set it up himself for fun rather than it being a sponsor event.
“His enthusiasm and delight at being in the car were clear for all to see,” M-Sport boss Malcolm Wilson later said of Simoncelli.
The in-car footage of Simoncelli riding alongside Hirvonen shows just how much the MotoGP sensation was both relishing and learning from the experience: beaming delight before and after, studious concentration during.
“In the car with Mikko, I tried to understand what he was doing to do that kind of corner in that way,” Simoncelli said at the time. “I hope that I learned something!”
It seemed he had taken on Hirvonen’s teachings when Simoncelli had his own turn at the wheel.
“Marco was definitely a really good driver,” said Hirvonen at the end of the session.
“You could right away tell that he’d been driving before as well, everything wasn’t completely new for him.
“He had a feeling, as well, for where the grip level is. Obviously racing motorbikes, you get that feeling.”
The tributes M-Sport paid to Simoncelli after his death and the livery tweak on Wilson’s car for GB showed how fond the team had become of him on just that one day.
Simoncelli would’ve become an absolute mega-star in MotoGP had he lived longer, and given his irrepressible nature and keen interest in rallying, and the beginning of that relationship with M-Sport, it’s very easy to imagine his rally exploits might’ve gone beyond an annual Monza outing.
That little tribute on Wilson’s car stands as a memorial to what might’ve been.