All hail the godfather

by Mat Oxley on 9th August 2017

Marquez, Pedrosa and Vinales all pointed to the heavens on Sunday, acknowledging Spain’s 12 + 1 time world champion Ángel Nieto, who died last week following a quad-bike accident

You could not have organised a better tribute to the late, great Ángel Nieto: three Spaniards on the podium, who, like all Spanish bike racers, owe their success to the man who started Spain’s motorcycle racing revolution.

I wrote the following story a few years ago, after a long chat with Nieto about his amazing career…

Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi; these are the names usually spoken when fans search for the impossible answer to that perennial question: who is the greatest motorcycle racer of all time?

All three men have earned their right to be among the greatest of the great, simply by the number of Grand Prix victories they have achieved. Ago won 122, Hailwood won 76 and Rossi has so far won 105 [now 115...]. But what about 50cc and 125cc ace Ángel Nieto? He is the third most successful rider of all time, yet his name barely rates a mention in barroom discussions simply because the smaller classes are looked upon with a certain disdain by some fans?

Nieto won 90 GPs and 13 World Championships, just two fewer than Ago, during a remarkable 22-year career that won him some unlikely friends and acquaintances. A close friend of Spain’s King Juan Carlos, during his early years Nieto was required to press the flesh of the country’s fascist dictator, General Franco.

His occasional meetings with Franco weren’t purely social. The General wanted to bask in the reflected glory of Nieto’s success, rather like Tony Blair inviting Oasis to Number 10 in 1997. He also wanted to use Nieto’s fame to advertise Spain and its motorcycle industry. Franco believed that bike racing could do a lot for Spain, promoting the country as brave and technically accomplished.

Born in 1947, Nieto still remembers those agonising meetings with Franco, the man who started the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s that killed half a million people.

“I was always really scared – with Franco you had to be like a soldier,” says Nieto, miming the act of coming to attention, rigid with terror. “When I won my first world title in 1969 I was doing military service and I was told I had to meet Franco. I was so scared because I’d never seen a General in my life! The second time we met, he asked me if the battle [in the races] was so hard. It’s better with the King now…”

Nieto’s Grand Prix successes spanned three decades, during which he was crowned so many times in the 50cc and 125cc classes that he too became a king – the king of the tiddlers. His first GP win came in 1969, in communist East Germany. Wonder what Franco made of that? His final victory came at Le Mans in 1985. In between he won six 50 world titles and seven 125 world titles for Derbi, Bultaco, Minarelli and Garelli. On the racetrack he was clever, cunning and very, very fast.

Nieto made his career in the small classes because Spain’s bike factories mostly produced small-capacity machines and because he is pretty small himself. But even though he isn’t be a big man you wouldn’t want to fight him. Nieto is stocky and wiry with a glint in his eye that suggests you shouldn’t get involved. Son of a chicken farmer, he grew up in the rough part of Madrid, the Barrio de Vallecas.

By the age of 12 he had left school and become an apprentice mechanic in a bike shop. Nieto admits he wasn’t good with the spanners but it was the only way to get close to motorcycles. Whenever his boss was away he would climb aboard one of the Triumphs or BSAs he was supposed to be fixing, fire it into life and cause havoc in the streets.

Aged 15 he forged his identity card to get his first licence and enter his first event, a gymkhana. Next it was a hill climb outside Madrid and then a street race in Granada, aboard a Derbi road bike. Nicknamed ‘El Nino de Vallecas’ (the kid from Vallecas) he had a baby’s dummy painted on his pudding-basin helmet.

Nieto knew exactly what he must do to make it as a racer: move to Barcelona, the centre of Spain’s motorcycle industry. He got jobs in the motocross department at Bultaco, with the Ducati importers and at Derbi, where legend has it he spent his nights sleeping in the factory’s coal shoot.

“I was moving around, trying to get the chance to ride, asking, asking, asking,” he says. “I wanted to race, I didn’t want to be a mechanic.”

Finally, the Rabassa family, which owned Derbi, spotted his potential and gave him a ride on one of their rinky-dinky 50s. At first Nieto’s efforts were restricted to the national scene because the Spanish factories had no chance in GPs. This was the late 1960s when Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha ruled their world with their fabulous multi-cylinder GP bikes: 50cc twins, 125 fives and 250 sixes.

“It was impossible to fight with the Japanese,” he says. “When Derbi finally started making a 50cc twin, they got it more or less ready and then discovered that Suzuki already had built a three-cylinder 50!”

But history was on Derbi’s side. At the end of 1968 the FIM banned the most exotic machinery, limiting the 125 class to twins, the 50s to singles and both to six-speed gearboxes. With the brush of a pen in Geneva, the Japan factories quit the smaller classes and Derbi was in business.

In July 1969 Nieto won that first victory on the old Sachsenring street circuit; a few months later he was crowned 50cc world champion. He retained the title in 1970, added the 125 crown in 1971, did the double the following year and then added a hat-trick of 50 championships in ’75, ’76 and ’77. In the early 1980s he won four straight 125 titles for Italian brand Garelli. That’s what you call domination.

Spanish 50cc singles weren’t quite as rare-groove as the 18,000rpm, 14-speed Japanese twins but they were still strange pieces of kit. Although an early 1970s Derbi 50 made only 14 horsepower it was almost certainly the trickiest machine to ride on any GP grid.

“It was really difficult to handle because you only had 500 revs that were any good,” he says. “If you over-revved the engine it would break and if you went too low with the revs you had no power.”

Nieto didn’t merely need to ride the 50, he needed to intimately know its inner workings to get the maximum out of the minimum that was on offer. “I worked a lot on the dyno, so I knew exactly how the engine worked, where it made the best power, where I should change gear and so on. I was always working on the bikes, changing the brake pressure, changing many things.”


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Unsurprisingly, the secret to riding a bike with so little power was corner speed, and lots of it. “But this was also tricky because it was really difficult to find the limit. Look at the tyres, they weren’t so big, so when you think you’ve found the limit you are already on the ground.”

Nieto reckons he crashed 500 times during his career. “I think 250 of those were my own fault, the other 250 were because the bike broke.”

Engine seizures were painfully common, especially in his early years, when fascist Spain was somewhat cut off from the rest of Europe. “The materials we had for parts weren’t so good. So we started looking abroad for more reliable engine components because the target was to make the engines last before making them fast. We bought a lot of stuff from Mahle.”

Funnily enough, Suzuki solved its disastrous reliability issues in the early 1960s by quietly knocking on the door of the same German company, which had earlier supplied parts to East German factory MZ, creator of the modern two-stroke.

Although Nieto scored his first victories on 50s, he scored his greatest successes on 125s and he much preferred riding the bigger bikes.

“The 125 was faster, easier and more fun to ride. You could brake harder because if you made even a tiny mistake on a 50 you lost two or three seconds. With the 50, everything had to be perfect, you had to make perfect lines, you felt very restricted. On the other hand, riding these bikes taught you much about getting the best out of any bike. For example, if you moved your head on a straight the engine would lose 200rpm.”

Nieto wanted to ride even bigger bikes but found himself typecast to the tiddlers, so he bought himself a Yamaha TZ750 to race in the street races that dominated the Spanish scene. That adventure ended in Benidorm, of all places. “I was racing the 750 in Benidorm when the brakes failed. Big crash.”

Although he first made his name on street circuits, Nieto never fell in love with the TT. His Isle of Man debut in 1968 ended with a broken leg and he never went back. “The TT wasn’t so much fun on a 50 – you started a lap in the morning and you finished in the afternoon! The street races in Spain weren’t so bad, because the tracks were four or five kilometres, so you knew where you were going, but with a 60-kilometre lap... It was crazy, the whole lap you had this big, big tension.”

Broken legs and Benidorm disasters aside, Nieto had a good time when he was a racing. He was a member of the 1970s paddock jet-set, hanging out with Barry Sheene, Marco 'Lucky' Lucchinelli and the other hell-raisers.

“We were so afraid of getting hurt in races that when we got off our bikes we wanted to enjoy life. Every day after practice Barry, Lucky and everyone would come to my motorhome. We had a lot of fun.”

Nieto has only one regret. “I’m still a little sad because I didn’t make the change to big bikes. For too long I didn’t want to move up because I was very comfortable winning in the small classes and the factories were like a family to me.”

Nieto had his only 500 GP ride at Jarama in 1982, after King Juan Carlos phoned Soichiro Honda to request a factory NS500 for his friend. Honda san obliged, because his company was keen to see Spain’s hefty import tariffs reduced, so that Honda could sell more bikes in the country.

Nieto qualified 13th on Lucchinelli’s spare NS, then crashed out of the race while trying to ride round the outside of double 250 and 350 world champ Kork Ballington. That’s what you get for being cheeky. The previous autumn he had ridden one of Lucchinelli’s title-winning Suzuki RG500s to second place in a non-championship race at Jarama, behind Sheene. “If I had worked harder at 500s, I think I could’ve succeeded,” he says.

So, who does he think is the greatest ever? “Hailwood! He was better than Rossi. F**king incredible! He could ride anything: two-stroke, four-stroke, whatever. If he was here now he would be on top for sure.”

R.I.P Angel Nieto

 

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