Bilbao – ‘Grand Prix Circuito de Begona’

The end of season Spanish races starting in Bilbao on the 30th August, followed by races in Valladolid, Jerez, Barcelona and ending in Madrid on the 14th October, 1964, were referred to as the Spanish Series within the ‘Circus’.

These races were scheduled by the FIM and Spanish Motorcycle Federation to take place at the same time as the Cities, or Towns, in which they were being held, were celebrating their annual ‘Feira’, a local festival and public holiday which would normally last for up to one week. The Feiras included a number of carnivals and religious celebrations and in some instances, even included Bullfighting!

In the 60’s, motorcycle racing in Spain, as a spectator sport, was 2nd only to football and as such, was often the highlight event of the Feiras.
The Series was usually restricted to 125 and 250 cc races with the majority of riders being Spanish riding locally manufactured Bultaco, Montesa, Derbi, Ducati and Ossa race machines, these named manufacturers had Works riders present at most of the meetings.

Fortunately for us ‘privateers’ the Japanese and Italian Works Teams were preoccupied racing at Imatra, Finland or preparing for the final European round of the World Championship at Monza on the 13th September, so did not make it to these end of season Spanish races.

Arriving with my two young companions in Bilbao late in the afternoon on the day before practice was to begin; we soon found the Club secretary’s office and after registering, were taken out to the circuit paddock where most of the riders were camping out.

Again with the racing being restricted to 125 and 250 cc machines, we were to discover on our arrival at the paddock that the usual hard core of regular Circus riders was now down to Barry Smith, Ramon Robinson, Andy Rickman, Tom Leslie and me. Jess Thomas from the USA was also there, having a one-off ride on a Works Bultaco, but we did not see him again until the last race of the series in Madrid.

If we had been in any other European country, we would have all been rubbing our hands in anticipation of gaining good prize money, but this was Spain where their riders were known to be very quick, particularly on their home circuits!

Within minutes of our arrival at the paddock, I was informed Morrie Lowe had been killed in a racing accident when participating in a Hill Climb event at Freiberg, Germany, this was at the same time I was racing at Dundrod.

The news came as a shock and surprise to me as Morrie was one of those very rare riders who were extremely fast but so smooth that they gave the impression of always having something in hand and seeming never to ride over the ragged edge.

There is no doubt that motorcycle road racing and particularly street racing, was very dangerous in the 60’s. In addition to Morrie, we were to loose three other colleagues from within the Circus, during 64 and 1965.

Bilbao Program Cover

On the evening of my arrival the ‘Colonials’, as I used to call them, and I being the only true Brit present, went off to a restaurant where we had the local specialty ‘paella’ with a beer or a glass or two of wine. Fortunately, perhaps, my two travelling companions who were clearly protecting their limited funds, had decided not to join us at the restaurant and had already camped down in the paddock for the night.

I had not detected a half closed mussel in my paella and by 3 o’clock in the morning, I knew I was in real trouble having to spend the rest of the night and most of the next three days, on the loo!

I had been warned of the Spanish ‘lurgi’ more commonly known as ‘the trots’, but I could never have imagined it was going to be as bad as this.

A temporary street circuit ‘Circuito de Begona ’was simply a closed public dual carriageway of approximately 1 mile in length (2 miles overall) with hairpin bends created at each end at the point where the riders came off one side of the dual carriageway and turned to go back down the other side. At approximately 300 yards from one of the hairpin bends the riders swept through a long tunnel/bridge, similar but shorter than the tunnel at Monaco. The dual carriageway was built on a slight slope giving us a gradual climb up one side before turning and descending on the other, making this a near perfect circuit on which to compare the acceleration and top speed of one bike against another.

When the 125s were called out for the first practice session the circuit was still damp from an earlier shower of rain and there was an early incident in practice which Ramon Robinson recently recalled :-

“It probably hadn’t rained all summer in Bilbao until a shower arrived just before the practice session. All the diesel oil on the tarmac came to the surface and made the circuit extremely slippery. One of the marshals walked through the line up before the off and warned of this. Understanding Spanish, I took heed and was very careful down the hill to the first hairpin, where a host of riders that had gotten there ahead of me came off! The road was strewn with bikes and riders! The Spanish works Ducati got busted up so bad it had to retire from the event! I can’t recall ever riding on such a greasy surface apart from riding a motocross bike on the ice here in Sweden. Don’t recall your whereabouts at that moment”

My whereabouts? Most probably I was still sitting on the loo!

Later in the morning, between longer and longer spells in the loo and having missed the first 125 practice session, I had to get on the bikes and go out! This is when I realised just how fortunate I had been in stopping to pick up my travelling companions as they now did most of the work, preparing the bikes for practice, under my supervision, as I just sat in the shade until it was time to go.

Once on the bikes I actually felt a little better but fatigue rapidly set in after only completing 7 or 8 laps of practice. The fatigue and other issues required me to make frequent visits to the paddock and my personal loo which now had a notice on the door advising that it was permanently occupied! This was very close to the truth!

During my only test run with the short stroke 125 back in the UK on the Hogg’s Back, I had not exceeded 7000 rpm as all engine and gearbox components with the exception of the cylinder head and racing multi spring clutch, were new. Prior to the test run, the bike had only been run up and down Puttenham Lane by Ron Kenwood’ for less than one hour. I now had the opportunity to progressively increase the engine revs on each occasion I went out to practice and on the final session of the day, I took the engine up to 9200 rpm and it was still pulling well!

There appeared to be very little difference between the performance of the long stroke and short stroke engine up to around 4000 rpm but from here on the short stroke was clearly the better engine. For the very first time on the 125, I could hear and feel megaphonitis coming in at around 7000 rpm, the engine would then continue to pull well right up to 9200 which were the maximum revs I was prepared to take it at this stage. With the long stroke engine, it would run out of breath much earlier at around 8400 rpm. The new gearbox and selector mechanism all worked well and the 5 gear ratios chosen proved excellent for this and subsequent circuits in Spain.

After the practice sessions for the day were all over I was feeling and looking very poorly when some of the Colonials decided to seek medical assistance from the organisers for me.

RM trying to hold on to Ramon Robinson on his 125 TSS Bultaco

In brief, a doctor was called and within less than one hour I was being accommodated at the home of one of the organisers or a very close relative? Here approximately 2 miles from the circuit I was to stay for the next 3 days and nights, when not at the circuit. My travelling companions stayed on at the circuit to look after the bikes and all my gear. After 2 days without eating a thing, I slowly began to recover and was feeling a little more comfortable and optimistic, on the morning of the races.

The first race of the day was the 125 class and although the bike had gone very well in practice, my lap times had not been very good and as a result, I was well back on the starting grid. Still feeling rather weak, I decided to play safe and take two extra steps before trying to bump start the bike and as a result of this, I found myself being swamped by the other riders all around me, as we got away!

Starting at the back of the field gave me a good opportunity to test the performance of the engine and gearbox against my fellow competitors’ machines as I worked my way up through the pack. I could also keep an eye on the progress of the leaders as they turned at the hairpin bends and passed me in the opposite direction going down the other side of the dual carriageway.

Against the standard over the counter TSS 125 Bultaco, my Parilla in first gear was initially as good on acceleration out of the hairpins but once I was in 2nd and 3rd gear the Bultacos would pull away from me, once in 4th I could hold my own and in 5th I had a slight advantage over most standard TSS Bultacos as they began to run out of steam at the top end of their power range.

In the early stages of the race, I could see Spanish Champion Ramon Torras having a close dice on his Works Bultaco with a Works Ossa or Derbi rider for the lead, followed closely by a gaggle of others. My Parilla was going very well at this point and I was able, without taking too many chances, to pass 2 or 3 riders on each lap in the early stages of this 20 lap race.

By the 10th lap or so and after a number of the front runners had fallen by the wayside (seized up)? I caught up with Ramon Robinson who was in turn closing on Jess Thomas on their Bultacos, in 3rd or 4th place but I just could not overtake. As I had discovered earlier, Ramon’s Bultaco could out accelerate my Parilla in the mid range and then I would pull him back as the end of the straights as we approached the breaking points for the two hairpin bends.

Two or three laps later our battle came to an end when Ramon encountered some ignition problems with his Bultaco. Now without a tow down the straights, I could not make any further progress in this race, however I was both surprised and very pleased when getting a 3rd place podium finish – not bad for a home built 125 Parilla and gear cluster, straight out of the box! Andy Rickman came in 5th on his Bultaco.

Some would claim I had an unfair advantage of riding when under the permitted minimum rider weight limit! What could these Colonials think up next?

In the 25 lap 250 race which followed an hour or two later, I more or less had the same poor start which I had had in the earlier 125 race. The fatigue from which I was now suffering set in quite early in the race so I decided to take things very easy and I was even in two minds as to whether I should retire or just keep going at what I felt was a relatively slow pace.

125 race podium:Jess Thomas (2nd) Ramon Torras (1st) RM (3rd)125 race podium:Jess Thomas (2nd) Ramon Torras (1st) RM (3rd)

Again a number of the early front runners began to fall by the way side and I saw 2 or 3 over enthusiastic local heroes leaving their braking too late and then sliding off at the hairpin bends, however it still came as quite a surprise to me when I discovered I had taken 6th place at the finish.

Collecting my start money and prize money from both races, I was beginning to feel a lot better and joined the others again for a meal in a local restaurant that evening after first splitting my prize money with my two travelling companions, as a reward for all their hard work in keeping me on my feet, or should I say, in the saddle? Needless to say I did not try the paella or any other fish dishes on this trip!

Before leaving Bilbao, I tried very hard to get the Spanish family which had so kindly been looking after me for the past 3 days, to accept some financial contribution from me for my stay, but they just would not hear of it. I knew then, that I would never forget their hospitality and generosity to me, virtually a complete stranger, on the day of my unannounced arrival at their home!

On to the next chapter…Valladolid