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.
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.