“Magic” numbers, certain color clothes, special foods, gestures, nervous tics… Often, it serves no special purpose. Simply, it’s a way of internalizing a preliminary protocol, such as the manual review that airplane pilots perform before takeoff. From footballers who always enter the pitch with the same foot, to tennis players who use the same top or socks throughout the whole tournament, the world of sport is full of routines, superstitions, and obsessions that help athletes build confidence before facing a competition.
There is no doubt that if you think about those obsessions that some riders had – and still have – the first that comes to mind is the great Ángel Nieto. His mythical “12+1” responds precisely to one of those superstitions associated with bad luck because Nieto never liked the “number 1 with 3”, as he used to say, and always resisted even naming it, lest it give him bad luck… His animosity once led him to change rooms when he was assigned one with this number, and even change floors in the hotels he was staying in.
But Nieto’s habits aren’t only limited to that. There was a time at the start of his career that he always feared someone would enter the team’s garage at night and sabotage his bike, so he was the last to leave and the first to enter the box, and to mark that he was last, he sometimes resorted to some trick such as leaving a hair or a thin piece of paper between the door and the frame. If the next day that “marking” wasn’t in its place, that meant that his garage had been “desecrated”. When he was wearing a race suit for the first time, before going out to the track with it, he used to drag it across the floor before putting it on. It was a way to keep the “shadow of crashes” away from him and has become a ritual that many other riders after him have inherited.
Fortunately, time and success have allowed him to gain confidence and stop thinking about those things, although there were rivals who tried to exploit Nieto’s superstitions, thankfully without much success. One of them was Maurizio Vitali. Not content with racing with the number 13, something that has as much to do with driving Nieto crazy as it does with the fact that 13 is the number of good luck in Italy, Vitali decided to paint a black cat on the rear cowl of his bike. It did little good, though: Nieto was always ahead of him.
The black cat idea wasn’t new. In the 20s and 30s, there was a very peculiar rider, Eric Fernihough, who was the 1928 champion of the European Grand Prix – the first predecessor of the MotoGP World Championship, which was disputed in a single race – in the 175cc category, but who also distinguished himself as a specialist in the hunt for the speed record. In the 30s he continued to race in the Grand Prix but became the alternative to the main manufacturers of the time –Germans and Italians– in his hunt for the record, using a motorcycle developed by him and based on a 998cc V2 engine. He was a kind of mad genius because, as well as being an engineer and chemist, he was a tremendously superstitious man. He had a serious accident on July 13th, 1933. Later, one Friday the 13th, he again suffered another serious accident, so he decided to disown that number, even refusing to make record attempts when the race date was the 13th.
Ferni, as everyone called him fondly, was sure that he had been put under a spell, and to ward it off, he decided to paint an image of a black cat on his helmet and the front of his bike. From then on, Ferni and his bikes were called Scalded Cats. It didn’t go bad for him because in 1937 he managed to break the record; and for four months his mark of 273.244 km/h was the motorcycle speed record, until Piero Taruffi beat it by a mere km/h.
Fernihough’s was going a bit far, without a doubt, but obsessions and curious habits, so to speak, are constant in the racing world. Sometimes it’s part of a ritual. Always getting on the bike from one side and getting off the other, or doing so in a certain way, as was the habit of Valentino Rossi, who got off from the left side passing his right leg over the clip-on handlebars. Of course, his 1.81 m height and long legs allowed it.
Others liked to relax before the start by having a cigarette. They were different times, in which riders weren’t the athletes that we know today. Barry Sheene, who took this vice to an extreme, even made a hole in the chin bar of his helmets to be able to take a few last puffs on the starting grid, shortly before the start of the race.
And then there’s the topic of clothes. Sheene liked to wear a shirt featuring the North American rider Gary Nixon under his race suit, a habit that he kept until his final days racing. Marco Lucchinelli, 500 World Champion in 1981, often wore a shirt and tie under his race suit. Walter Migliorati, a contemporary of Lucchinelli’s, bordered on fetishism: he sometimes wore his wife’s underwear under his helmet. No comment.
Of course, if we’re talking about underwear, how can we not mention Marc Márquez’s old habit, who since arriving to the World Championship as a teenager, got used to wearing underwear of a certain color: blue in practice and red in races. Of course, they aren’t the same underwear from when he was 15, but even today that old habit remains. It doesn’t make him faster, but it is part of his ritual to achieve that necessary concentration to take to the track.