Ángel Nieto, the thirteen-time (or "12+1", as he preferred to call himself) world champion has died as a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident. He suffered head injuries after an accident with a quad bike in Ibiza last week, and was taken to hospital and placed in an artificial coma. Though there were initial signs of recovery, Nieto took a turn for the worse last night, and finally passed away on Thursday.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Ángel Nieto to Spanish motorcycle racing. Nieto rose to prominence in the late 1960s, winning his first races in the 50cc class in 1969, as well as his first title. He came to dominate the lightweight classes in the 1970s, winning races and championships in the 50cc and 125cc classes, as well as winning a race in the 80cc class which replaced the 50cc class in the 1980s. By the end of his career, he had racked up a grand total of 90 Grand Prix victories, 139 Grand Prix podiums and thirteen Grand Prix championships, as well as 23 Spanish championships. He retired in 1986 at the age of 39.
At the time of his retirement, Nieto was the second-most successful Grand Prix racer in history, behind Giacomo Agostini. He was overtaken by Valentino Rossi at Le Mans in 2008, but it was a cause for celebration for the Spanish legend. Rossi handed over the reins of his Yamaha M1 to Nieto, and rode pillion for the lap of honor behind Nieto.
During his time in Grand Prix racing, Nieto put Spanish motorcycling on the map, and inspired a generation of racers who would follow in his footsteps. Nieto concentrated on the lightweight classes, as heavy import duties imposed on large capacity motorcycles during the fascist Franco dictatorship era meant there were very few big bikes around. The restrictions on large capacity bikes did spawn a plethora of small Spanish manufacturers, especially in the Barcelona region, and Nieto's partnership with Derbi and Bultaco brought him great success. But Nieto was not afraid of switching manufacturers in the pursuit of success and money, racing for Morbidelli, Garelli, Minarelli and Kreidler.
Nieto's success increased the popularity of racing in Spain, and has inspired young riders ever since. In many ways, his successes spawned the golden era of Spanish racing which we are seeing now. From Nieto came Criville, and from Criville came Gibernau, and from Gibernau came Pedrosa, Marquez, Viñales, and so many more.
Nieto was notoriously superstitious. Though he won a total of thirteen championships, he steadfastly refused to name the number, preferring always to refer to "doce mas uno", or twelve plus one. That "12+1" logo was proudly displayed on the motorhome he still had in the MotoGP paddock, a symbol of the high esteem in which he was held.