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.


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

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