Classic Sports Car
Simon Taylor Full throttle
Awell-known television sports presenter called me the day Murray Walker died, and we discussed his place in the annals of live broadcasting. “Things are different today,” he said. “So many channels, so many media. The greats who single-handedly stamped their personality on their sport have gone – John Arlott for cricket, Henry Longhurst for golf, Peter O’sullevan for horse racing, Bill Mclaren for rugby. Murray was like that.”
I was lucky enough to work with Murray, and call him a friend. When he first started doing Formula One for BBC TV I was the Beeb’s radio man, and we often travelled together and shared adjacent commentary boxes. In 1997 F1 moved to ITV, and I was a (far lesser) member of the team. I even commentated with him on a few non-f1 occasions, always a glorious experience. We also wrote a book together, which sold like hot cakes because it had his name on it.
It was Murray who built the sport’s massive ratings on British television, and in the other countries that also took his output, such as Australia. He was an inspired communicator, and the best commentator Formula One will ever have, for three reasons.
First, his passion was totally genuine. Even after describing numberless races for over half a century, every starting grid heralded a new adventure. His headlong stream of excitement, his palpable love for what was going on, was infectious. This is something a cynical commentator cannot simulate: the viewer will always know if it isn’t real.
The second was sheer hard work. Arriving at the track on the Thursday Murray would walk a lap, noting each camera position and any feature that would help identification when he was in full flow. From that he would draw his own annotated circuit diagram to stick under his monitor screen in the box. From Friday to Sunday he would be in the paddock by 7am, memorising each detail of the cars, talking to the mechanics (always a good source), politely asking drivers, team managers and engineers for their thoughts on the race to come.
The third was his language. It wasn’t just his skill in describing, in a frantic torrent of words, what was going on in front of him. It was how he said it. Some of his metaphors were startling: “You can cut the tension with a cricket stump.” He loved adverbs: a driver wasn’t just brilliant, he was gigantically brilliant. And after his most
‘His passion was totally genuine. Even after half a century, every starting grid heralded the start of a new adventure’
hyperbolic statements he would often add: “…to put it mildly.” Occasionally in the full-tilt heat of the moment something would come out wrong – “Prost can see Senna in his headphones” – but these ‘Murrayisms’ only increased his public’s love for him. It would be very unjust if, out of the billions of words that poured into his microphone down the years, he is most remembered for those few errors.
Murray was also the most personable and courteous of men. Everyone in the paddock – drivers, mechanics, team bosses – knew him and were genuinely fond of him. Thus he was able to get closer to them than most, and he was an astute yet sympathetic interviewer. Even Bernie gave him the time of day: he liked what he was doing for the ratings.
His energy was prodigious, not only at the track, but leaping from departure lounge to luggage carousel to hire car in F1’s gruelling travel schedule. But, at the age of almost 78, even Murray decided it was time to slow down, and he did his last Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2001.
The sport’s coverage has continued to grow more comprehensive and more technically clever, but for his millions of F1 fans around the English-speaking world, Sunday afternoons on the sofa will never be the same. When the lights went out and you heard Murray shout, “Go! Go! Go!” you knew that you were in gigantically safe hands. To put it mildly.