It’s the ultimate motorcycle trivia question – go on, have a go: Which rider was the last to win two Grand Prix road racing World Championships in the same season? Did you say Freddie Spencer, with his double-up 250/500GP titles for Honda in 1985? Wrong..
It was the 80cc and 125cc machines that continuously gave us the closest GP racing of the 1980s and here’s the inside-out tale of two of the very best of them and what they did in the same season of shoulder-to-shoulder action.
Consult the motorcycling history books and you’ll find the answer to the question: exactly 30 years ago this year, Spanish star Jorge Martinez ‘Aspar’ (a nickname given to him thanks to his dad’s job as a cobbler) won both the 1988 80cc world crown for the third time, (to complete a hat-trick of titles on his Barcelona-built Derbi tiddler), as well as the first-ever 125cc world championship to be restricted to single-cylinder machines, for the same marque. Aspar’s 1988 double-up title year was a vintage season for team underdog, because in winning the inaugural single-cylinder 125cc world championship with las balas rojas – the red bullets – he and Derbi not only tweaked Japanese giant Honda’s nose, but also showed that the age of the European factory in GP racing was far from over, as commonly supposed. Aspar, the reigning 80cc world champion, gave the new 125cc Derbi a triumphant debut on home ground at Jarama in spite of a broken exhaust, then went on to win nine of the 11 GP races held that year to clinch the title one round early, with just a single DNF at a drenched Nürburgring. He had a good excuse for that though – having just spent 40 minutes splashing to victory in the 80cc race, he’d then been whisked directly from parc fermé to the front row of the grid for the 125cc race without even the chance to change into a dry set of leathers, let alone attend the rostrum presentation. Hardly surprising that he was still so wet and cold from his first race victory that he crashed on the third lap of the 125 race, his only mistake of the year...
The exquisite 80
Born 1984, died 1989 – rest in peace. The demise of Grand Prix racing’s 80cc class came at the end of the 1989 season, at the bidding of the IRTA race team cartel which had paradoxically (since the 80cc teams it was trying to get rid of were its members, too!) been trying for many years to reduce the number of Grand Prix classes. However determined the rearguard action fought by the 80cc pressure group, the net result was the end of the then ‘tiddler’ class at GP level, but it delivered some great racing over the six short seasons of its existence. After kicking off in 1984 as a replacement for the 50cc category, the fortunes of the once-dominant German Krausers waned in direct proportion to the rise of the allconquering Spanish Derbi team. 1986/88 saw an often titanic struggle between the two, which was no less vivid or exciting than that between Honda and Yamaha in the bigger classes. A combination of the upper hand that Derbi and their star rider, Jorge Martinez ‘Aspar’ seemed to have gained by the end of 1987 and the introduction of the new single-cylinder 125cc class, seemed to indicate that the last two years of 80cc GP racing would be a Derbi walkover and a couple of easy titles for Aspar. Just to show you shouldn’t take things for granted though, the opening race of the 1988 GP season saw a shock defeat for Derbi in front of their home crowd at Jarama when Swiss former champion Stefan Dörflinger brought his Krauser through from a terrible start to pick off the entire Derbi factory team. He won easily from Aspar, whose bike had been jetted much too rich in an effort to overcome a seizure problem in practice. At least Aspar made up for it by winning the 125GP later that day, implicitly thus revealing a likely reason for the 80cc bike’s initial failure. Derbi had poured all its efforts into developing a 125cc Honda-beater, at the expense of the 80cc bike, which was little changed from the previous title-winning season. However, Derbi had the resources to react quickly, and by the next GP a week later in Jerez, the problem was sorted. Aspar slayed the Krausers that day, going on to win every other round in the seven-race series, to proclaim himself world champion for the third year in succession. In the history books recording the passing of defunct categories at world championship level, the Derbi occupies the throne as the ultimate 80cc bike, just as the Van Veen Kreidlers were in the 50cc category, the tandem-twin Kawasaki in the old 350cc class, and the TZ750 Yamaha in the long-gone era of F750 racing. Gone but not forgotten.
Riding the bikes – The 125
I discovered how compact even the bigger bike of the duo was when I levered myself aboard Aspar’s 125cc world champion motorcycle at Jarama. Levered, because he’s about six inches shorter than me, and the Derbi’s wind tunneldesigned bodywork didn’t allow moving the seat back to give me more space. This was a bike moulded to the rider, and vice versa. The problem was compounded on the first of the two bikes I rode by a deeper, more voluptuous screen which didn’t give me room to get tucked away behind it, and the steeplydropped bars with which Aspar cheated the wind while still retaining control. The riding position was quite extreme, even by 125GP standards, and closely derived from Derbi’s 80cc racer on which this bike was so closely based. You sat in a semi-reclining position leaning forwards, with your feet a long way back, your body moulded to the tank, and most of your weight thrown on to the steeply-dropped bars via your wrists. “I do find this tiring, but I use the fuel tank to rest my chest on down a straight to take the weight off my arms,” said Aspar. “But the 80cc bike has a very similar riding position, and this was important for me to be able to switch from one to the other without many problems of adjustment, as I constantly had to do in both training and on race day.” The Derbi’s setup helped reduce the frontal aspect, in turn improving air penetration, but also had the desirable effect as Aspar saw it of loading the front wheel as much as possible to increase the already high 55/45% frontwards weight bias even more, with the rider in place. Unlike the later Aprilias, the Derbi had no power valve to smooth out the delivery and increase bottom end torque, which dictated an ultra-delicate touch to ride the bike effectively. The Derbi wouldn’t even move forward in pit lane till I wound the tacho needle up to at least eight grand, and a lot of clutch slip was needed to get it off the mark – much more so than was already usual then. There was none of the flexibility we later took for granted on reed-valvers like the Mx-derived Honda RS125R, so I needed to make the clutch my new best friend to keep the Derbi engine on the boil in the slower turns abounding at Jarama. This in turn made gearbox selection critical in races – making it seemingly all the more surprising the Derbi didn’t have an extractable cassette-type gearbox by then commonplace in GP racing, so the engine had to be split to alter the internal gear ratios, and thus ensure the right gear for each corner at every track. However, all these rotary-valve idiosyncrasies were nothing compared to the biggest single problem I faced in riding the 125 Derbi – the fact that, with that big carb and those extreme port timings, you had to preload the throttle going into turns, accelerating into them like in a racing car. This took a lot of getting used to: you couldn’t just tear up to a corner, stand on the brakes, zip down three gears with the throttle closed and the clutch home, then crack it wide open
again on the way out, as was normal practice with a reed-valve two-stroke. With the Derbi, you had to prime the throttle to keep it partly open and the engine under load all the time, even on the way into a turn after braking hard for the entry, then open it up gradually as you hit the apex until you had about half-throttle, and could then wind it wide open without the engine stuttering. This accounted for Aspar’s very unusual technique by two-stroke GP standards of backshifting down through the gears one at a time, four-stroke style. It also explained the very big brakes for such a light bike – twin 250mm front Brembos and a single 200mm rear, with a very powerful lever action that gave total braking effect instantly with the lightest touch. That’s okay in the dry with the crossply Michelin slicks then fitted, but in the wet – well, it’s maybe another reason for that crash in Germany. Aspar told me he’d never yet locked the front wheel, but correct pad choice would make him one of the must-watch exponents of late-1980s tiddler racing as he left his braking death-defyingly late into corners, sliding deep into the apex with both tyres drifting, the throttle already open to keep the engine on the boil for the drive out, the WP upside down forks (which Derbi were the first to use in GP racing) soaking up the bumps and ripples as his knee skimmed the tarmac, all the while keeping a watchful eye open. What a star. After 15 laps of Jarama, trying in vain to compose a single lap without any major mistake like letting the engine bog down exiting a slow uphill turn, or completely messing up my throttle-preload technique into it, I came in and swapped to Aspar’s second bike – the Derbi team had a total of five 125GP engines and three chassis. Within half a lap, I wished l’d started out on this one – it felt so completely different. Apart from having even fiercer brakes, it had a shallower screen which at last allowed me to get more or less tucked away down the straight, but more to the point completely different engine characteristics, thanks to an alternative Tombas-ported cylinder. The bike I’d started with had the most powerful 40bhp engine, but only at the expense of a narrower powerband. While 3bhp less powerful, this one was not only jetted right so that it revved cleanly to 13,000rpm but also pulled hard from 10,200 revs, which coupled with a smoother-shifting one-up right foot gear change (Aspar was a traditionalist!), suddenly made everything so much easier. Plus I had my throttle-preload technique better sorted... Ultimately the factor which Aspar owed his against-the-odds 125GP world crown to was that superb rotary-valve motor, reliable as well as the most powerful in the class. As a single without any power-sapping counterbalancer, there was a fair bit of vibration which you noticed more through the footrests and seat than the ‘bars, but it wasn’t uncomfortable and didn’t increase rider fatigue. It was, though, undoubtedly potent, and on the second bike with more torque on tap, I eventually managed to pluck up the nerve to take the Rampa Pegaso hard on in fourth gear without lifting – then found myself having to cope with a minor but still definite wheelie as I hit the bump on the crest, which on a 125 single with my body weight on board and so much of it inevitably over the front wheel, was pretty incredible....
Group shot: Aspar the great and the team that gave him two in one.these days even BSB teams have bigger squads than the Derbi set-up in the 1980s. But when push came to shove nobody could hold a light to the men or their machines.Right: At the end of the race, a familiar sight. And an unwelcome one if you were one of Aspar's rivals.
Small enough to fit in a backpack, powerful enough to beat the rest of the world.
Helmet on tank looks cool. Name on the screen isn’t cobblers. It’s Aspar, of course.
No computer-controlled fuel injection here. Perfectly setting up a carb was always a dark art.
The 125 shares many visual similarities with the 80, as you may expect.
Make do and mend. And mend. And mend.there’s some miles on that motor and it’s still going strong.
The author squeezes himself onto the small Derbi to discover just how talented Aspar was at tucking himself away.