‘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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Then And Now - By Tom Cary

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

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