How to explain the status of Angel Nieto in Spain? Let’s try a motorcycling analogy; let us imagine that Kenny Roberts Senior had died suddenly. How would you feel? Well, I can assume the American motorcycle industry, community and media would be devastated. That you and your friends would be communicating with each other instantly, telling stories, searching print and social media for stories and history.
Now imagine that not just the two-wheel enthusiasts were doing that; imagine that a whole country from the Royal Family downwards was doing that, because that’s what is happening now in Spain. They have lost their first champion, one of the few Spanish sportsmen to break out of the enclosed post-War world of dictator Franco’s Spain. In the late ‘60s along with bullfighter El Cordobes, Nieto was Spain’s highest-profile celebrity. He was the first Spanish world champion, but the numbers hardly do him justice. Even the 90 wins and 12+1 world titles.
Some personal memories: watching him sit in the Silverstone pitlane on the 125 Garelli, leathers rolled down, arms folded, staring straight ahead, looking like a particularly tough flyweight boxer. About five or ten minutes before the end of qualifying, he zipped up the leathers, strapped on the helmet and set pole.
The first time I went to Jarama I watched in shock as the crowd left after the 125 race. They’d seen Angel, time to go home.
At Le Mans, towards the end of his career I watched him crash on the first lap, walk away from his bike without a backwards glance, get in his vintage Bentley and head for home. He brought the attitude of a matador, an old school Spanish toughness to his racing. He would no more have indulged in a post-race prank like Valentino than run round Barcelona naked. When Valentino told Angel he would like to celebrate drawing level with his tally of 90 wins, Angel consulted his diary and told Vale that he would be at the French GP so he should win that one. This was not a suggestion. Valentino did as he was told.
And the 12+1? He was, to put it mildly, superstitious about the number 13. If there happened to be that number of people around a restaurant table either one would leave, probably via the window, or a passer-by would be dragged off the street. The statue in his honor inside the corner that bears his name at Jerez says 12+1, you just don’t ever say that other number. I don’t even want to write it.