World Champion Motorcycle Racer Angel Nieto Dies At Age 70

Reflecting on the life and achievements of the legendary Spanish racer

Angel Nieto, Grand Prix, motorcycle, racing
Angel Nieto began racing in 1964 and retired in 1986. His first world title came in 1969 on a 50cc Derbi and his last was on a 125cc Garelli in 1984.Dorna

Hit by a car on the island of Ibiza while riding a four-wheeler, many-time 50 and 125cc Grand Prix Champion Angel Nieto has died of head injuries, aged 70.

Nieto’s career in racing was exclusively on European machines—he won world titles on five different makes—and he rode in the time-honored European manner, more as personal friend and partner of the teams for which he rode than as today’s riders who are employees, almost unknown to the management of those giant companies.

The story is told of a day in Spain in 1972 when Nieto had sensationally clinched two championships. Sr. Rabasa, owner of the Derbi factory for which Nieto rode, told him he must quit racing as there was now no higher achievement to which he could aspire. Nieto replied by asking to use the phone on Rabasa’s desk. Then and there he dialed Giancarlo Morbidelli, agreeing to ride that company’s 50 and 125cc racers the following season.

Nieto’s 90 Grand Prix wins are third behind Giacomo Agostini’s 122 and Valentino Rossi’s 115. Because, like many in racing, Nieto inclined to a degree of superstition, he preferred to number his Grand Prix titles as "12 + 1."

The machines Nieto rode—Derbi, Kreidler, Bultaco, Minarelli and Garelli—were not products of powerful corporate R&D departments. They were rather the personal projects of practical European two-stroke engineers such as Jan Thiel, Jan Mijwaart, and Jorg Moller, working for small-volume enthusiast makers.

Like the peripatetic specialist builders of the Medieval cathedrals, these men took their skills to whomever required them. Thiel said of his time working with Nieto, “There were never problems between us. I found that I could just work well with him.”

More than once, as I have walked through MotoGP paddocks, I have seen a familiar face and suddenly realized, “That’s Angel Nieto!” I won’t see him again but I, and a multitude of others, will remember him.