‘I remember the 1950 Grand Prix vividly. It was all magical to me’
➤ Legendary F1 commentator Murray Walker is still besotted ahead of 70th anniversary of first world championship race
Formula One returns to Silverstone this week for the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, a celebration of the first world championship race, which was held at the Northamptonshire circuit in 1950. Sadly, one man synonymous with that historic event will not be there.
Murray Walker, the long-standing BBC commentator who, in the immortal words of Clive James, always called races as if his trousers were on fire, will be at home in Hampshire with his wife of 60 years, Elizabeth, following the action on television. “Oh yes,” he says. “I’m still absolutely glued to every second of every race.”
It has been almost 20 years since Walker bowed out of commentary duties, after the 2001 United States Grand Prix. But he has never really left.
Walker continued to contribute to the BBC and Channel 4 coverage until much more recently. A broken pelvis from a fall while on holiday in 2013 slowed him down, as did a cancer diagnosis during treatment for the fall. But nothing can diminish his enthusiasm for the sport.
“I’m all right mentally, but I’m weak physically,” he says, almost apologetically, of his absence this weekend. “Four days at a grand prix, you’re on your feet all of the time, and wherever you are you need to be somewhere else, and it’s always at the other end of the paddock … I just don’t have the stamina to do it.”
It is understandable. Walker will be 97 in October and, even were he feeling more sprightly, is shielding from coronavirus. He is not exaggerating about his mental faculties, though. It may be 70 years since he called Giuseppe Farina’s win for Alfa Romeo, but his memories of that day are razor-sharp.
Partly, he says, that is because of what the race meant to him and to the nation, taking place so soon after the end of the “dreadful” Second World War in which he served with the Royal Scots Greys as a tank commander. Walker fought in the Battle of the Reichswald with the 4th Armoured Brigade and got to Belsen shortly after the concentration camp was liberated.
“There was a tremendous feeling of elation and liberation at Silverstone that year,” he recalls. “To be able to go and see an international motor race was something very special, especially as it was the royal meeting with King George VI, Queen Elizabeth [later the Queen Mother] and Princess Margaret.” The princess, he admits, looked “very bored with the whole thing”. But Walker was in heaven.
“There were over 100,000 people there and it took us all hours to get in,” he says. “You have to remember the motorway didn’t exist then. We were all trying to get into Silverstone on B-roads. But everybody was so happy that the event
was happening, they were all relaxed. I vividly remember the fantastic buzz because, as I say, with the exception of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions before the war at Donington, we hadn’t seen the top continental cars and drivers. And certainly not during the war period. To have Farina and Reg Parnell driving an Alfa Romeo in their official team was something very special indeed.”
The race itself was rather onesided.
“Really it was an Alfa Romeo demonstration because they were light years ahead of the British cars, which were largely pre-war ERAs, with people like Bob Gerard, who drove an extremely good race, at the wheel. And they just weren’t in the same league. But it was all magical to me.”
Walker, then 26, had been at Silverstone the two previous years as well. He was there in 1948 to watch Luigi Villoresi win in a Maserati when the race was still known as
‘There was tremendous elation, but Princess Margaret looked very bored with it all’
the RAC International Grand Prix. And again the following year for his first official broadcast as opposed to public address. “I was at the No2 position at Stowe Corner,” he recalls.
“Max Robertson, who was the BBC’s tennis commentator and who knew as much about motor racing as I knew about tennis, was there, and not happy because he didn’t like motor racing at all. But I got a tremendous buzz out of it. Because of that I then went to the Isle of Man to do the TT for years with my father.”
Walker had, in fact, grown up around motorcycles. His father, Graham, was a works rider for the Norton Motorcycle Company who competed in the Isle of Man TT, the race that first cemented his love of motorsport.
“I’ve never made any secret of the fact that motorbikes were my first love,” he says. “I did motocross scrambling on the box for the BBC and ITV for many years in the 1960s and 1970s. And then, when the cars took over, they switched me to the cars with the coverage and dropped the bikes, to my great regret.”
Motorcycling’s loss was Formula One’s gain. Walker’s distinctive high-pitch, high-octane commentary – for which he remained standing throughout – made him one of Britain’s best-known and bestloved voices, up there with the likes of Peter O’Sullevan, Bill McLaren, Dan Maskell and Barry Davies.
His infectious enthusiasm, willingness to poke fun at himself – memorably in a Pizza Hut advert with Damon Hill in the Nineties – and obvious love for the sport and its characters, ensured that love was returned by millions of fans. He remains as besotted as ever, talking excitedly about Lewis Hamilton’s win on three wheels last Sunday.
“It’s amazing to think the first time I met Lewis he was at the Autosport Awards in whatever year it was and he came up to about my knee, and he had a dinner jacket and a black tie on, and his autograph book, and he wanted my autograph!”
Walker chuckles, then adds, anticipating the next question: “People ask me who is the greatest of all time and I always say: ‘You really can’t compare drivers of one generation with drivers of another, because the regulations are different, the circuits are different, the cars are different and the competition is different.’
“But, having said all that, I used to unhesitatingly say ‘[Juan Manuel] Fangio – five world championships, they’re never going to beat that’, and then it was ‘[Michael] Schumacher – seven world championships’. And people talk about [Ayrton] Senna. Well actually I think Hamilton can be called ‘greater’ – in inverted commas – than the last two for one very real reason, and that is their driving tactics. Schumacher and Senna were not always irreproachable. Hamilton has always been as clean as a whistle. And I have a great deal of admiration and respect for him.”
Walker will be sorry to miss the Silverstone celebrations this weekend. But he will be at the former airfield in spirit. “It holds so many happy memories for me,” he says. “The first year I was there they were using the runways and the cars were literally driving towards each other at a cumulative speed of about 280mph and then peeling off just before they hit each other.”
Before hanging up, he tells me about a cruise which he and Sir Stirling Moss – who died in April – and their respective wives, went on a few years ago. Then, rifling through his mental database, he pulls out another fact. “Of course Stirling had his first proper victory in Formula Three in 1948, which as I say was the first year I went to Silverstone.” He pauses. “I was very fond of Stirling. He is a mega loss to the sport.”
Happily, Murray – quite why he is not Sir Murray, like Sir Stirling, is difficult to fathom – plans to be with us for a while yet. He is not taking any risks with the pandemic. “You bet I’m not,” he says. “I’ve stayed in and been a good boy and done everything I was supposed to do. Sadly, I think the pandemic has got a long way to go yet. Mostly because there are so many idiots who don’t know how to behave properly. But I’d like to live a bit longer if I possibly can.”
‘Hamilton is greater than Schumacher and Senna because he is clean as a whistle’
1950 A row of hay bales helps drivers keep to the right course
1950 Italy’s Giuseppe Farina wears the victor’s laurel wreath
2020 Lewis Hamilton sports a mask to minimise the risk of Covid-19
1950 King George VI and dignitaries are introduced to the drivers
2020 Run-off areas give drivers greater safety on tight bends
1950 At ground level with the fans crowded around
2020 Drivers take a knee to honour the Black Lives Matter protest
2020 A champagne affair high above the paddock
2020 Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo is sleeker and more aerodynamic
1950 Juan Manuel Fangio looks exposed in his Alfa Romeo