Fifty years ago Sal­vador Canel­las be­came the first Spaniard to win a Grand Prix race. It was the start of some­thing big – there have been al­most 600 such vic­to­ries by his coun­try­men since that day


Sal­vador Canel­las: the first Span­ish GP hero

On the week­end of May 4-5, 1968, the main in­ter­est in the pad­dock en­camped out­side Barcelona’s Olympic sta­dium in Mon­tjuic Park were the Yamaha and MV Agusta camps, where Phil Read, Bill Ivy and Gi­a­como Agos­tini held court as kings of the Con­ti­nen­tal Cir­cus.

But there was also lots of hus­tle and bus­tle in the cor­ner of the pad­dock claimed by the lo­cal Bultaco team, where Ir­ish­man Tommy Robb, New Zealan­der Ginger Mol­loy and lo­cals Sal­vador Canel­las, Pe­dro Al­varez and oth­ers helped their Cata­lan me­chan­ics fet­tle the 125cc, 250cc and 360cc two-stroke sin­gles they’d en­tered in the 125, 250 and 500 Span­ish Grands Prix.

Mol­loy had won Bultaco’s first world cham­pi­onship race, the 250cc Ul­ster Grand Prix, two years ear­lier, but this time it was the turn of Canel­las to make his­tory. On the Satur­day af­ter­noon he rode his fac­tory-tuned, pis­ton­ported, sin­gle-cylin­der TSS125 to vic­tory in the 125 GP, beat­ing Mol­loy by 29 secs. The Bultaco duo was joined on the podium by MZ’S Heinz Ros­ner. Robb and Al­varez fin­ish fifth and sixth. Mod­ern re­ports of that day sug­gest that the 24-year-old’s vic­tory was greeted by a ‘nearhys­ter­i­cal crowd’, but Canel­las re­mem­bers his only Grand Prix suc­cess some­what dif­fer­ently. “It was all very quiet – very dif­fer­ent from to­day,” says the Barcelona-born rider, who won £55 in prize money, plus a £15 bonus from Bultaco.

The Span­ish crowd and press weren’t hys­ter­i­cal be­cause they were wait­ing for the big races, the fol­low­ing day’s 250cc and 500cc events. But Canel­las had cer­tainly started some­thing big.

As I write this, Span­ish riders have won a fur­ther 587 vic­to­ries across all GP classes, mak­ing Spain the sec­ond most suc­cess­ful na­tion in bike rac­ing, af­ter Italy. Span­ish riders have also won all but one of the last eight Mo­togp world ti­tles and more than half the in­ter­me­di­ate (Moto2/250cc) and


ju­nior (Moto3/125cc) cham­pi­onships over the past 15 years. It all started with Canel­las, although Spain’s ob­ses­sion with mo­tor­cy­cle rac­ing didn’t start un­til the fol­low­ing year when An­gel Ni­eto won the 50cc world ti­tle with Derbi. Canel­las started rac­ing in 1961, pi­lot­ing a Vespa side­car in the nu­mer­ous hill-climbs staged in the hills around his home city of Barcelona. Canel­las got his big break in ’63, rid­ing his Mon­tesa Im­pala road bike in an­other Barcelona hill climb, where he beat the of­fi­cial Du­cati en­try. Mon­tesa gave him fac­tory-pre­pared bikes for Span­ish cham­pi­onship races, held on street cir­cuits in towns through­out the coun­try, then Derbi took him on. How­ever, Derbi’s race bikes were no­to­ri­ously un­re­li­able, so he grate­fully ac­cepted a job of­fer from Bultaco for 1968, his first GP sea­son. He scored points only twice, at Mon­tjuic and at Assen, where he fin­ished fourth. Canel­las en­joyed more suc­cess in en­durance rac­ing than in GPS. He won the 24 hours of Mon­tjuic for the first time in 1969, when he com­pleted 684 laps (1611 miles) of the lethal street cir­cuit aboard a Bultaco 360 sin­gle, which he shared with Car­los Ro­camora. The fol­low­ing year he quit full-time bike rac­ing and turned to cars. But the lure of Mon­tjuic re­mained – he re­turned to the Barcelona street cir­cuit ev­ery July for a decade. He won the 24-hour race in 1973 aboard a fac­to­ryen­tered Du­cati 860SS and again in 1975 on a fac­tory Du­cati 900SS. Even in 1981 Canel­las was still go­ing strong, qual­i­fy­ing sec­ond fastest. How­ever, this time he crashed badly, break­ing a ver­te­bra. And that was that, as far as bike rac­ing was con­cerned.

A few days be­fore this year’s Cata­lan Mo­togp round, at the Barcelona-catalunya cir­cuit a spe­cial event was held in Mon­tjuic Park to cel­e­brate the 50th an­niver­sary of Spain’s first GP vic­tory. Canel­las, dressed in his old leathers and pud­ding­basin hel­met, sat on his Bultaco TSS125 along­side Spain’s seven cur­rent fac­tory Mo­togp riders. All but one are Cata­lans, born and raised in or around Barcelona, yet none of them had rid­den or driven the Mon­tjuic race­track, which is a pub­lic road now, as it was way back then.

“I was so sur­prised that none of them had taken a tour of the cir­cuit be­cause to me Mon­tjuic is like a tem­ple,” says Canel­las, now 74. “The track seems very dan­ger­ous to them, but was safer than many of the street cir­cuits on which we com­peted. It is a great hon­our for me to be the first Spaniard to win a Grand Prix, but in 1968 I had no idea that things would turn out as they have done.”

ABOVE: Canel­las on his way to win­ning the 1968 Span­ish GP on a Bultaco 125. But the re­wards were nowhere near what the likes of Mar­quez get to­day...

Derbi’s race bikes proved un­re­li­able, so Canel­las moved to Bultaco

Win­ning the Mon­juic 24 Hours on a Du­cati 860SS in 1975

Mod­ern Span­ish GP hero Marc Mar­quez with Canel­las at Mon­tjuic Park

Canel­las (4) leads An­gel Ni­eto on a Derbi in 1970

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