Classic Racer - - IN TRIBUTE - Words by: Alan Cath­cart Photo credit: Biker Edi­ciones and For­mula Moto

Spain’s 13-time world cham­pion and so-called ‘king of the tid­dlers’ Án­gel Ni­eto passed away on Au­gust 3, from head in­juries sus­tained in a road traf­fic ac­ci­dent a week ear­lier. This saw him thrown off a quad bike he was rid­ing on the hol­i­day is­land of Ibiza, where he’d lived for many years. He was hit from be­hind by a car, and was ap­par­ently not wear­ing a hel­met when his head struck the ground. He was 70 years old. Ni­eto dom­i­nated small-ca­pac­ity Grand Prix rac­ing for two decades, win­ning a re­mark­able 90 GP races and tak­ing 139 podi­ums en route to his 13 world crowns – or ‘12 + 1’ as he su­per­sti­tiously in­sisted on terming his ti­tle tally. Six 50cc world cham­pi­onships and seven in the 125cc class be­tween 1969 and 1984 rid­ing Derbi, Bul­taco, Garelli, Minarelli and Van Veen Krei­dler two-stroke ma­chin­ery also made him the rider to have won mul­ti­ple world ti­tles with dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­tur­ers. Ad­di­tion­ally, he won a to­tal of 23 Span­ish Na­tional Cham­pi­onships in the 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, 500cc and 750cc classes, es­tab­lish­ing him­self as a liv­ing leg­end whose earthy per­son­al­ity as it came to the fore in TV com­men­taries and talk shows brought him a charis­matic fame ex­tend­ing be­yond the mo­tor­cy­cle com­mu­nity, even af­ter re­tir­ing from rac­ing in 1986. Born in the hill town of Zamora, near the Por­tuguese bor­der, on Jan­uary 25, 1947, Án­gel Ni­eto Roldán came from a poor back­ground, and was just one year old when his fam­ily moved to Madrid in search of work. There, he be­came pas­sion­ate about mo­tor­cy­cles from an early age, play­ing tru­ant from school from the age of ten to be­come an er­rand boy for a lo­cal mo­tor­cy­cle work­shop, pro­gress­ing to sweep­ing the floor at the end of the day.

First road race

In 1960, aged 13, he had his first road race in Granada on a well-worn 50cc Derbi that was one of the work­shop’s bikes, but had to forge his fa­ther’s sig­na­ture to en­ter the race in which he fin­ished third, rac­ing against 125s. It was a mark of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to go rac­ing that saw him leave home in 1961 aged 14, to move to Barcelona where all the Span­ish bike man­u­fac­tur­ers were based. He joined up as an un­paid helper with Jose Me­drano, Bul­taco’s fac­tory road racer, com­pet­ing in races all over Spain. At the end of the sea­son he found work at Du­cati’s satel­lite Mo­to­trans fac­tory, though he couldn’t go rac­ing with their bikes at age 15, you needed to be 18 years old to ride a 125, but the Ital­ian head of the HR depart­ment there took a shine to Án­gel, and asked his friends at Derbi to fur­nish a 50cc racer for him to race in the Cir­cuito Car­los III, held on a street course in the cen­tre of Barcelona. He fin­ished fifth in the race, prompt­ing Derbi to of­fer him a job as a trainee race me­chanic, with the prom­ise of oc­ca­sional races. In 1964 Derbi en­tered Ni­eto in hill climbs and Span­ish cham­pi­onship rounds, and also some 50cc Grand Prix races – in the­ory he was still too young at 17 to race in these, but he faked his li­cence and did it any­way, fin­ish­ing fifth in his de­but 50cc GP run on the Mon­tjuic Park street cir­cuit in down­town Barcelona, to earn world cham­pi­onship points in his very first GP. He joined Du­cati, and scored his first ma­jor race vic­tory for them by win­ning the Span­ish ti­tle round at Seville on the ex­otic triple-camshaft 125cc Desmo twin. But he much pre­ferred the faster, lighter and more ag­ile two-strokes he’d grown up with, so when Bul­taco asked him to take over the bikes of the re­cently de­ceased Ra­mon­tor­ras, he left Du­cati mid­sea­son to do a cou­ple of races on these. But

with all the Span­ish man­u­fac­tur­ers now chas­ing his sig­na­ture, he made peace with the Rabasa fam­ily that owned Derbi, with which he’d win his first five world ti­tles. In­deed, later in 1965 Ni­eto won his first Span­ish ti­tle round for Derbi, and two years later be­came Span­ish cham­pion in both the 50cc and 125cc classes, as well as earn­ing his first GP ros­trum fin­ish with se­cond at Assen in the 1967 50cc Dutch TT, on what he al­ways re­garded as his favourite cir­cuit. He was Span­ish 125cc cham­pion again in 1968 and the fol­low­ing year 250cc cham­pion on a Yamaha. But for the 1969 sea­son the FIM changed the world cham­pi­onship class rules, with the 50cc cat­e­gory re­stricted to sin­gle­cylin­der bikes and 125cc to twins, each with a max­i­mum of six gears. This side­lined the ex­otic 12-speed Ja­panese multi-cylin­der ma­chines, and lev­elled the play­ing field for the Ital­ian and Span­ish man­u­fac­tur­ers, es­pe­cially Derbi, which built com­pletely new ro­tary-valve bikes for the 1969 sea­son.

First GP vic­tory

Án­gel Ni­eto scored the first of his 90 GP vic­to­ries in the East Ger­man 50cc GP at Sach­sen­ring, go­ing on to take the first of his 13 world cham­pi­onship ti­tles that sea­son, to be­come Spain’s first-ever world cham­pion – although pub­lic ac­claim af­ter he clinched the ti­tle on the Opatija street cir­cuit in Yu­goslavia, wasn’t yet as great as a cou­ple of years later. In 1970 he con­cen­trated on the 50cc tid­dlers, be­com­ing both world and Span­ish cham­pion in the class, but in 1971 Án­gel be­came a triple Span­ish cham­pion, win­ning 50/125/250 ti­tles as well as be­com­ing 125cc world cham­pion for the first time, af­ter a sea­son-long bat­tle with fu­ture British su­per­star Barry Sheene on his Suzuki twin. This was in­deed also the start of Ni­eto’s golden decade, in which he amassed a suc­ces­sion of world and Span­ish crowns. He re­peated the Span­ish ti­tle triple in 1972, and be­came a dou­ble world cham­pion in the 50cc/125cc cat­e­gories af­ter the fi­nal GP in Barcelona – though only af­ter ty­ing on points with de Vries for the tid­dler ti­tle, win­ning by just 21.32 sec­onds af­ter the sea­son’s race times were added to­gether. How­ever, on vis­it­ing the nearby Derbi fac­tory next day for what he ex­pected to be a cel­e­bra­tion lunch, Ni­eto was in­stead told that Derbi was pulling out of GP rac­ing, os­ten­si­bly to fo­cus on a new range of street bikes. Án­gel briefly con­sid­ered switch­ing to car rac­ing, but though ini­tial tests at Jarama went well, he de­cided to stay with bikes, switch­ing to the Ital­ian Mor­bidelli team. How­ever, the chronic un­re­li­a­bil­ity of both their 125cc and 350cc bikes meant he didn’t win a sin­gle GP race all sea­son, with just three se­cond places to show for it and eight DNFS in the 125cc rounds. For the Span­ish ti­tle se­ries Derbi sup­plied unim­proved ex­ist­ing 125cc and 250cc bikes with which he won two more Span­ish ti­tles, a feat he re­peated in both 1974 and again in 1975. That year, alerted by the coun­try’s star rider that he didn’t have good equip­ment for the world stage, Span­ish RFME Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Luis So­ri­ano used the funds at his dis­posal to un­der­write a deal for Ni­eto to race in 50cc GPS with the Van Veen Krei­dler. The re­sult was to­tal dom­i­na­tion, with Ni­eto win­ning six of the eight races and fin­ish­ing se­cond in the other two, en route to what he termed: “The eas­i­est and most bor­ing of my 12 + 1 world ti­tles”. For 1976, So­ri­ano’s Fed­er­a­tion cheque book was put to use again at Ni­eto’s urg­ing, this time to en­able the 50/125cc mono­coque ma­chines con­ceived by two Dutch tech­ni­cians, en­gine guru Jan Thiel and chas­sis de­signer Mar­tin Mi­jwaart, for the now de­funct Ital­ian Pio­vat­icci team to be trans­ferred to Bul­taco, for Ni­eto to ride. Án­gel duly won his sev­enth world ti­tle with the 50cc bike with five vic­to­ries, but was only able to split the Mor­bidelli-mounted duo of Bianchi and Pi­leri in the 125 class, wind­ing up se­cond to Bianchi. In 1977 it was more of the same, re­peat­ing his tid­dler ti­tle by de­feat­ing his re­place­ment at Krei­dler, Eu­ge­nio Laz­zarini, but fin­ish­ing third be­hind him on the 125 Mor­bidelli as Laz­zarini’s new team-mate Bianchi re­tained his ti­tle.

Stepped down

For 1978 Ni­eto stepped down to the role of oc­ca­sional sup­port rider to help Bul­taco team­mate Ricardo Tormo clinch the 50cc ti­tle (which he did), while he fo­cused on the 125cc bike. But this was now com­pletely out­classed by the MBA repli­cas of the de­fend­ing world cham­pion Mor­bidelli ma­chine, as well as by the new Minarelli twin cre­ated by way­ward but bril­liant Ger­man en­gi­neer Jörg Möller for the Ital­ian scooter/moped en­gine con­cern. Af­ter re­tir­ing from the Dutch GP which he’d won the pre­vi­ous year on the Assen cir­cuit he loved, and with just four points to his name af­ter six races, Ni­eto got into his car and drove the 1,000 miles to Barcelona overnight to ask Don Paco Bultó to re­lease him from his con­tract. That done, he then drove an­other 700 miles to the Minarelli fac­tory in Bologna to im­plore com­pany owner Vit­to­rio Minarelli to give him a bike with which to sup­port the team’s sin­gle­ton rider Pier­paolo Bianchi in win­ning the cham­pi­onship. A deal was agreed with Bianchi’s ap­proval, and four days later the pair fin­ished one-two in the Bel­gian GP at Spa, then re­peated the re­sult in the next race in Swe­den, for Bianchi now to be lead­ing the points ta­ble. But in the fol­low­ing race in Fin­land the Ital­ian rider crashed and in­jured a leg badly enough to side­line him for the rest of the

sea­son, leav­ing Ni­eto to win the four re­main­ing races and fin­ish run­ner-up in the cham­pi­onship to Laz­zarini’s MBA. Minarelli duly hired him for 1979 while Bianchi was re­cu­per­at­ing, and Ni­eto dom­i­nated the se­ries, win­ning eight of the 12 races en route to his ninth world ti­tle. But af­ter Möller left the team fol­low­ing this suc­cess, Ni­eto could only man­age third the fol­low­ing year be­hind Bianchi, who’d switched to MBA to re­gain his crown. So for 1981 he ar­ranged for Thiel and Mi­jwaart to join Minarelli, and the re­sult was a se­quence of four suc­ces­sive 125cc world cham­pi­onships for the Span­ish rider and Dutch tech­ni­cians. How­ever, af­ter win­ning the 1981 world ti­tle Minarelli with­drew from rac­ing, sell­ing the en­tire 125GP team to Garelli who essen­tially re­painted the bikes black and red, with lit­tle else chang­ing. Thanks to Thiel’s tun­ing bril­liance it would be an un­trou­bled tran­si­tion for Ni­eto, too, the Spa­niard dom­i­nat­ing pro­ceed­ings as he had done in 1981, win­ning six races to clinch the world cham­pi­onship two rounds early, with his for­mer neme­sis, but now team-mate, Laz­zarini se­cond. Same out­come in 1983, once more with six wins, and again in 1984, with Ni­eto’s six vic­to­ries com­ing in the first six races of the eight-race sea­son. By now win­ning the 125c world ti­tle had be­come so rou­tine it was no longer much fun, so rather than keep on rid­ing the 125 Garelli in a bid to equal Gi­a­como Agostini’s record 15 world ti­tles and 122 GP wins, for 1985 Ni­eto com­mit­ted to rid­ing an all-new Garelli ro­tary-valve twin de­signed by Jan Thiel in the 250cc class. But Mi­jwaart had by now re­tired to Hol­land, and while Thiel pro­duced an ex­cep­tional en­gine, his chas­sis de­vel­op­ment tal­ents were not on the same level. Af­ter a trou­bled two sea­sons the bike was ditched, Ni­eto hav­ing re­turned to the Derbi fac­tory he be­gan his ca­reer with as a backup rider to Jorge Mar­tinez in the 80cc class.

Fi­nal GP vic­tory

He took his fi­nal GP vic­tory in the 1985 French 80cc GP at Le Mans, be­fore wind­ing up his rac­ing ca­reer the fol­low­ing year at the age of 39 in front of a mas­sive crowd of afi­ciona­dos in the post-sea­son Su­per­pres­ti­gio race at Calafat, south of Barcelona. Sadly, af­ter fin­ish­ing third in the first heat af­ter a bad start, he crashed in the se­cond race and broke his foot, rul­ing him out of the third and fi­nal event. In re­tire­ment Án­gel Ni­eto be­came a much-loved TV com­men­ta­tor, and later also a team man­ager, whose rider Emilio Alzamora – to­day the per­sonal man­ager of Marc and Alex Márquez – won the 1999 125cc world cham­pi­onship. His sons Pablo Ni­eto and Án­gel Ni­eto Jnr and nephew Fonsi Ni­eto all fol­lowed him into GP com­pe­ti­tion, too, though with lesser suc­cess. Án­gel Ni­eto was a per­son of some­times vivid con­trasts, who never for­got that the con­sid­er­able suc­cess he achieved in life had come largely thanks to his own ef­forts. He could be ut­terly charm­ing and hi­lar­i­ously funny in an of­ten risqué man­ner – but he was equally ut­terly ruth­less both on and off the race­track in achiev­ing the ob­jec­tives he’d set him­self. He was ex­pert in the pol­i­tics of the sport, and as a madrileño (Madrid res­i­dent) where the RFME fed­er­a­tion was based, he made sure that he ex­ploited their power and cash to sup­port his ca­reer at a time when the Barcelona-based Span­ish mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try was strug­gling in the wake of Gen­eral Franco’s death in 1975, and the con­se­quent open­ing up of the Span­ish bike mar­ket to Ja­panese com­pa­nies. But with the right equip­ment he was lit­er­ally un­beat­able on the race­track for a decade-and-ahalf, thanks to his skill, brav­ery and me­chan­i­cal adept­ness which al­lowed him to wring ev­ery last ounce of per­for­mance and re­li­a­bil­ity from the bike he was rid­ing. In spite of his small 5ft 4in stature, which was an ob­vi­ous as­set in rac­ing 50/125cc bikes, he had the po­ten­tial to ride big­ger bikes, and though his one at­tempt at rac­ing in 500 GPS on a Honda triple in 1982 ended with a crash, he did win the Span­ish F750 ti­tle in 1977 on a Yama­hatz750. But in ret­ro­spect he was right to con­cen­trate on what he knew best, and Án­gel Ni­eto will al­ways be re­mem­bered as the ‘king of the tid­dlers’. In­deed, the Ni­eto name re­mains syn­ony­mous with Span­ish mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing, and as Spain’s first-ever world cham­pion as well as its most suc­cess­ful, ‘El 12 + 1’ played a key role in bring­ing about his coun­try’s cur­rent dom­i­nance of Grand Prix road rac­ing. He will in­deed be missed.

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