NIGEL ROEBUCK’S F1 HEROES
Rob Walker, Formula 1’s most successful privateer
Reader’s Digest – to be found in every dentist’s waiting room – each month carried a piece entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’, and occasionally I have wondered who in my life would best fit that bill. If in the end I would go with my great friend Denis Jenkinson, many others are worthy of consideration, not least Robert Ramsay Campbell Walker, whose passport famously listed his occupation as ‘Gentleman’.
To any who don’t know you, I said to him one day, that smacks of affectation, and he agreed. “I know – but what else could I put? Apart from racing – and the war – I’ve never done anything…”
Always self-effacing, Rob sold himself short. In the PG Wodehouse sense of the word, he was emphatically ‘a gentleman’, but there was rather more to him than that. Anyone with whom he was associated, most notably Stirling Moss, will tell you that, for all his languid ‘old money’ drawl, Walker was far from a dilettante.
When I began working in Formula 1 in 1971, he was the first insider to befriend me, and coming to know him well was one of the joys of my life, not least for his salty observations – the more potent for being delivered in those honeyed tones – about people for whom he did not care.
Frequently Rob would come out with an unexpected anecdote: “When I was invited to Talladega, for a NASCAR race, I didn’t really know anyone, but got talking to an awfully nice chap, who invited me home for dinner. After giving me a drink, he showed me some video of the previous year’s race – and when it got to the end, and they were interviewing the winner, it turned out to be my host!
“That was Neil Bonnett, and although he’d introduced himself at the track, his name didn’t really register – terribly embarrassing, but he thought it very funny. Delightful man. I was very sad when he got killed at Daytona…”
Born into the Johnnie Walker whisky family, Rob had a privileged upbringing, and by the age of 20 had been through as many cars as he had years. In 1939 he drove his Delahaye to eighth place at Le Mans, but after marrying his beloved Betty the following year, promised henceforth to be only an entrant.
In the war Walker flew Hurricanes and the like for the Fleet Air Arm – but only after the return of a licence which had been withdrawn for life: “I’d taken a Tiger Moth to a horse race meeting, and during the lunch interval everyone got bored, so I got back in the aeroplane, and started jumping all the fences. Unfortunately, a policeman gave my number to the Air Ministry...”
In the post-war years, the RRC Walker Racing Team won many races with drivers such as Tony Rolt, but in 1958 moved to a different level, Rob’s Cooper winning the Argentine Grand Prix, with Moss, and then Monaco, with Maurice Trintignant. After the withdrawal of Vanwall, Stirling drove for him for the rest of his career, a handshake sufficing for a contract.
“For me,” Rob said, “Stirling was the perfect racing driver – and the other great thing about having him was that in those days, before Bernie Ecclestone, we all made our own arrangements with race organisers. With little prize money, starting money was what mattered, and of course the driver everyone wanted was Stirling. One was thus in a position of strength, and that was very enjoyable – particularly with the Germans...”
Moss relished working with his close friend. “It was a private team, which meant buying cars from another company, but that really appealed to me – trying to beat the factories. And quite a few times we did.”
Between 1958 and 1961, Rob’s cars won eight world championship grands prix, including two – at Monaco and the Nürburgring in ’61 – which are considered Moss’s greatest victories. For ’62 the plan was for him to drive a Ferrari, and such was Enzo’s obsession with Stirling that he agreed to its being operated at the races by Walker, and in the traditional livery of dark blue with white nose band. At Goodwood on Easter Monday, though, Stirling’s Lotus crashed, and he was never to race at the top level again.
Walker was devastated: “The team carried on, but it wasn’t the same – with Stirling anything had been possible, because he was so much better than anyone else.”
It was not until 1968 that a ninth, and last, GP win was added to the team’s tally, this by Jo Siffert at Brands Hatch. “Betty and I adored ‘Seppi’, who joined us in ’65, as number two to Jo Bonnier – who didn’t like being beaten by his team mate, and suggested I should revert to one driver for ’66. ‘I quite agree with you,’ I said, ‘and it’s Siffert...’
“He was a wonderful man, with unbelievable courage – and of course his win in my Lotus 49, after the most fantastic battle with Chris Amon’s Ferrari, was the only British Grand Prix victory my team ever had.”
When Rob ceased to be a team owner, he continued to attend races as a journalist, writing for Road & Track. Having seen everything, any contemporary incident triggered a memory, as at Silverstone in 1994, when Michael Schumacher was black-flagged, and Damon Hill went on to win.
“At Casablanca in 1957 Jack Brabham was in my Cooper, and it had something wrong with it. I saw the Clerk of the Course, Toto Roche, reaching for the black flag, and guessed it was for my car, so every time Brabham was due I engaged Roche in conversation, and it worked perfectly – as he answered me, he’d have his back to the track when Jack went past.
“Eventually he said, ‘I know what you’re doing, Rob – and next time round I’m giving your driver the black flag’, but he didn’t really know what he was doing, and waved it at the next driver through – which was Fangio! It was awfully bad luck on him, but he was terribly nice about it afterwards…”
Gone for 16 years now, he is a man missed to this day.
“THE TEAM CARRIED ON, BUT IT WASN’T THE SAME – WITH STIRLING ANYTHING HAD BEEN POSSIBLE, BECAUSE HE WAS SO MUCH BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE”
Rob Walker was definitely a gentleman, but he was not to be messed with as a team owner and manager, winning nine GPS
Stirling Moss (above) drove one of his greatest races in the under-powered Lotus 18 to take victory at Monaco in the opening race of the 1961 season. Jo Siffert (left) claimed Walker’s only British Grand Prix win at Brands Hatch in 1968, in what turned out to be the team’s last triumph