The reign of Spain

The Spanish rule MotoGP and in Marc Márquez have a genius that can live up to the country’s bygone legends. It’s time for fans to rejoice

Spanish riders dominate MotoGP. They’ve done so for quite a while, winning all but one of the last eight MotoGP world titles. And their domination goes further than that, with Spaniards mostly ruling the Moto2 and Moto3 classes. Indeed it was in the sport’s smaller categories that the nation first made an impression. Over the past 15 years more than half the intermediate and junior world titles have been won by Spanish riders working their way into the top category, including current MotoGP champion Marc Márquez, former champion Jorge Lorenzo plus MotoGP race winners Maverick Viñales and Dani Pedrosa.

Márquez clinched his latest success at Valencia in November, the MotoGP championship’s traditional fourth visit of the year to Spain. And he secured the title in true “Márquez style” (his words): fighting for the win, even though there was no need, and very nearly crashing in the attempt. The 24-year-old lost the front of his Repsol Honda into the 100mph first corner, averting a nasty accident by digging his left elbow and knee into the asphalt. “When I lost the front, I said, ‘Okay, I will be with my bike until the end’,” he grinned. “I don’t know if we will finish in the gravel, in the wall, or… I don’t know, but I will be with her.”

The reception he got from the capacity crowd was suitably ecstatic – Márquez is like a god in Spain. However, he’s more than just a very special Spaniard, as fellow Honda rider Cal Crutchlow observed. “There are seven billion people on this planet and only one of them could have saved that crash.”

To understand why Spaniards race motorcycles better than anyone, you need to go back decades, all the way to the 1960s, because this is a tale of politics, protectionism, industry, media money and balmy Mediterranean weather.

During the 1960s Spain was still under the heel of dictator General Franco. Since the end of the Second World War, the country had been a pariah to the rest of Europe, which had fought off fascism at a terrifying cost, while Franco blithely remained neutral.

Spain was therefore isolated, so Franco prescribed an economy of self-sufficiency and protectionism. The nascent Spanish motorcycle industry was one of many protected from outside competition, most importantly from Japan. Companies like Bultaco, Derbi, Montesa and Ossa were able to flourish – to an extent – by manufacturing cheap little two-strokes that helped mobilise the nation. Inevitably, locals started using these bikes in street races, organised in towns and cities across the country.

By the late 1960s, Bultaco, Derbi and Ossa were building bikes and training riders good enough to compete in Grands Prix. The best of these riders was Angel Nieto, a tough little streetfighter from the Barrio de Vallecas, the rough part of Madrid. Nieto pursued his childhood dream of racing motorcycles by moving to Barcelona, the centre of the industry. He ended up at Derbi, where legend has it he started out sleeping in the factory’s coal shoot.

Nieto and Derbi, then Nieto and Bultaco, became formidable partnerships, dominating the 50cc and 125cc world championships for a decade from 1969. During his world-class career Nieto won 90 Grands Prix – all of them in the smaller classes – which makes him bike racing’s third most victorious rider, after Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi.

At a time when Spain had little place in the larger world, ‘El Nino de Vallecas’ (the kid from Vallecas) became its first modern hero, fêted across the nation. His successes won him nerve-wracking audiences with Franco, who believed that motorcycle racing would promote Spain as a brave and technically advanced nation. Later Nieto became close friends with racing fan King Juan Carlos; a much easier-going relationship.

Nieto was undoubtedly the start of Spain’s love affair with bike racing and thus vital to its subsequent MotoGP hegemony. Following his death earlier this year, the result of a quadbike accident, Márquez, Lorenzo and other Spanish MotoGP stars acknowledged their debt to their compatriot who had blazed the trail.

When Nieto retired from racing in the mid-1980s, Spain’s motorcycle industry and racing industry knew they must work together to find a new Angel. Bultaco and the RFME (the Royal Spanish Motorcycle Federation) organised a one-make series “to discover the next generation of world champions”. The winner of the first Copa Bultaco Streaker was a young Catalan by the name of Alfonso ‘Sito’ Pons, who in 1988 became Spain’s first 250cc world champion. This was the beginning of the country’s long march up the ranks, from 50s and 125s to 250s and finally to the 500cc world championship, the Formula 1 of motorcycling.

Nieto had taken a crack at the 500 class, albeit in the twilight of his career. Spanish riders of his era could never hope for a Japanese factory contract because their country’s protectionist policies blocked the import of Japanese machines. However, there was a way around this problem, if you had friends in high places. In early 1982 King Juan Carlos contacted Soichiro Honda, asking him to provide a factory NS500 for Nieto at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. Nieto got the bike, but was caught by its power and speed. He crashed out of the race, breaking several ribs.

Victory in the premier class was always the ultimate goal of those enthusiasts in charge of Spanish racing, who step by step initiated their plans for world domination. These people had their eyes on the bigger classes because, although Nieto’s successes were well celebrated at home, much of the rest of the world viewed the lightweight classes with a certain distain.

American bike racer and journalist Dennis Noyes made Spain his home in the 1970s and well remembers an exchange with a British racing journalist, with whom he wanted to trade information.

“I would tell him the news from Nieto and Victor Palomo [another of Spain’s early greats] if he would help me out with Phil Read and Barry Sheene,” Noyes said. “The British guy laughed and replied, ‘I’ll agree to a better trade: if you promise to tell me nothing of your Spaniards, I will supply you with some snippets from Sheene and Read’.”

No surprise that jibes like this didn’t please Spain’s motorcycling elite. The country’s racing ambitions have always been fired by a fervent patriotism, then supercharged by the world’s most partisan bike-racing fans. (At least until Valentino Rossi arrived.)

It is interesting to compare the trajectories of Britain and Spain in MotoGP. British riders have won 43 world championships, all of them between 1949 and 1976. Spain has won 48, all of them since 1969.

Empires come and go in sport, just as they do in the real world. In the early years of motorcycle GP racing, British and Italian riders dominated, because their motorcycle industries led the world, which fostered strong national racing scenes that honed local talent.

Usually, riders succeed because they’ve got an industry and/or governing body behind them. But not always. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s the premier class was ruled by Americans and Australians, who had neither. Their advantage? A certain riding technique.

During most of those two decades 500 GP bikes were malevolent pieces of machinery, their wild two-stroke engines overwhelming tyres and chassis. Americans like ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Australians such as Mick Doohan grew up on dirt tracks, so they knew how to ride with the engine overpowering the rear tyre. This is why Americans and Australians won all but two of the 500 world championships between 1978 to 1998.

And this is why Spain didn’t conquer the 500 class until the late 1990s, when advances in engine, chassis and tyre technology had tamed the 500s, so they could be ridden more like 250s and 125s.

In 1999 Alex Crivillé became Spain’s first 500 world champion. His ride from the smaller categories to the class of kings was cheered all the way by much of Spain, where bike racing had gone fully mainstream, the second most popular sport after football. Crivillé achieved his first Grand Prix podiums with Derbi in 1987, then won the 125 world championship in 1989, riding a Rotax-powered Cobas. Cobas was one of many Spanish teams – small, perfectly formed and backed by local sponsors – that began to dominate.

Crivillé graduated to 500s in 1992, a case of perfect timing, because this was the year Honda introduced its so-called big-bang engine configuration, which made 500s easier to ride. Former 250 champion Pons had graduated to 500s in 1990 and retired at the end of 1991, battered and bruised by the light-switch power of earlier 500s. Pons then established his own team and hired Crivillé, who scored Spain’s first 500 GP victory in his rookie season.

Pons is still in the GP paddock, running a Moto2 team that brings young riders through the ranks. Half of the 10 Spaniards on the 2017 MotoGP grid rode for his Moto2 team before moving up to the big class. And he’s not Spain’s only grand old man who has dedicated his retirement to keeping the country at the sharp end of MotoGP. Former 125cc world champion Jorge Martinez runs teams in both MotoGP and Moto2, while Alberto Puig, the second Spaniard to win a 500 GP, has spent years coaching youngsters.

The sponsors have followed. Three years after Crivillé’s maiden 500 win, Spanish oil giant Repsol became Honda’s title sponsor, securing his future. Backed to the hilt by Repsol and Honda, Crivillé took another five years to take the premier-class title. Repsol is still with Honda and has been joined on the grid by other Spanish businesses like mobile-phone company Telefonica and brewer Estrella Galicia. Five of MotoGP’s 12 teams have Spanish title sponsors.

Success breeds success, especially in this case. Crivillé’s historic 500 GP victory came just months after a Spanish sports-marketing company beat Bernie Ecclestone to the world championship TV rights. Dorna Sports was attracted to bike racing because of its national profile and its international possibilities. The Spanish takeover was now almost complete: Spanish riders, Spanish teams, Spanish sponsors and a Spanish rights-holder.

Of course, it would have been easy to make a mess of it all, just as the British had when they seemed to own the sport. Britain squandered its dominance. The collapse of the country’s motorcycle industry didn’t help, but more crucially the Auto Cycle Union failed to maintain a strong national championship that would sharpen riders and lift them onto the world stage.

This is where the Spanish have been particularly effective. They succeed at world level because they laid strong foundations at home by creating highly competitive national championships and then taking their best riders through international series and into Grands Prix.

Dorna took a while to get a real grip on motorcycle racing. But it got there in the end. As a result Spain has become the global centre of bike racing. The country’s multiple championships – from tiny minimotos through to the larger categories – offers a ladder to the big time. So much so that ambitious riders from around the world quit their national championships and head to Spain.

To underline how things have changed since the 1970s, Kenny Roberts took his eldest son Kenny Jnr away from the US racing scene to contest Spain’s Ducados Open series. He went on to win the 500cc world title in 2000.

Two of the three Britons in next year’s MotoGP championship also left home to further their careers in Spain. Scott Redding, who rides for the Italian Aprilia factory, won the Spanish 80cc MiniGP title in 2005 and became a full-time world championship rider three years later. Bradley Smith, who rides for Austrian firm KTM, got his big break in 2005, when he was invited by Dorna to contest the Spanish championship as part of the company’s MotoGP Academy. Dorna management always knew they needed to create new stars from other countries, not just Spain, because they want to sell TV rights across the globe.

Eventually, the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) acknowledged Spain’s leadership, so the Spanish championship became the European championship, which then became the Moto3 Junior World Championship. More recently Dorna (by luck, more than judgment) gained control of the World Superbike series, formerly MotoGP’s only competitor, and established the Asia Talent Cup to coach new riders from motorcycling’s burgeoning south-east Asian market.

In 2010 Spanish riders made history by winning all three MotoGP categories: Márquez took the 125cc title, Toni Elias Moto2 and Lorenzo MotoGP. This was the first time that one nation had won every title. Spain repeated the triple crown in 2013 and 2014, achieving three times in five years what no other country has ever achieved.

Márquez won his first premier-class title in his rookie 2013 season, which made him the first rookie champion since ‘King’ Kenny Roberts in 1978 and the youngest premier-class champion, taking the record from another American, Freddie Spencer.

Márquez has just become the youngest rider to win four MotoGP titles, relieving Britain’s Mike Hailwood of that record. A few weeks before the 24-year-old secured his latest crown, the 2017 Moto3 title went to Spain’s latest hotshot, Joan Mir, a 20-year-old Mallorcan who graduated to GPs in 2016, from the Junior World Championship.

Somehow Spain keeps the production line rolling, turning out more young racers than anywhere else. Italy is fighting back, though, largely thanks to Rossi. He created his VR46 Academy to create new champions and last season VR46 won its first world title, with Franco Morbidelli in Moto2.

Italy remains Grand Prix racing’s most victorious nation, with 785 wins across all classes, against Spain’s 577 victories. However, Italy has been winning since the very beginning, with Italian riders taking their first GP successes at Berne, Switzerland, in July 1949, 19 years before Salvador Canellas became the first Spaniard to climb the top step of a GP podium, at Montjuïc Park, Barcelona.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that we are thinking too hard in trying to explain why Spain and Italy dominate. Perhaps it’s simpler, perhaps the real reasons are the nice weather and the Latins’ never-ending love affair with the internal combustion engine…