I WAS THINKING of opening with the clichéd beginning of, “GO GO GO!” But that’s not really necessary as everyone knows the name, the face, the voice.
Murray Walker is a living legend in more than just motor racing circles. A commentator for more than 50 years, his knowledge, presence and fame are unprecedented; writes John O’Brien.
Interviewed by Automotive Journalism lecturer, Andrew Noakes, as part of the Coventry Conversations series, Walker spoke openly of his career as well as sharing his fondest memories.
Born in Hall Green, Birmingham, Walker was thrown into a motorsports lifestyle. His father, Graham, was a very successful motorcycle racer, who later went on to commentate alongside Murray.
During the war, Walker was part of the Fourth Armoured Brigade, commanding a Sherman tank. After the war, Walker worked in Advertising for both Dunlop and Aspro. He later moved to Masius, who had a range of high profile clients, including Mars. “I can’t tell you about A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play,” joked Murray, “but I can tell you that Trill makes Budgies bounce!”
He then went on to try his hand at his father’s trait: “I wanted to show my father how a motorcycle really should be ridden,” said Walker, “I quickly learned that I couldn’t show my father how a motorcycle should be ridden!”
“There’s an old saying: Those that can, do. Those that can’t, talk about it!” Walker added. His passion for motorcycle was quickly unearthed: “The TT for me is the greatest spectacle on earth, bar none.”
Moving into broadcasting, Murray began at club level, commentating on hill climbs. He rapidly went on to motorcycles, alongside his father, then rally-cross and rallying before entering the glamorous world of Formula 1 in 1970s. It was in the 80s however, that he struck up a partnership with former World Champion, James Hunt.
“James had very different priorities, he cared about certain things I didn’t, and didn’t care about a lot that I did,” Walker regales fondly. “At the Monaco Grand Prix, we sat on little folding chairs, behind the Armco with no discernable cover, just the headphones on so we could hear the producer. James turned up five minutes before the start of the race, which is early for him I might add, in tatty, ripped jean shorts and a grubby T-shirt.
“His left leg in plaster, the result of him attempting a 360 spin on a snowboard and being unsuccessful, and in his right hand, a half drunk bottle of Rose. He sat down and plonked his leg on my lap and carried on drinking whilst commentating, and to my horror, when he’d done, the producer sent out for another bottle.”
The polarized personalities produced an unlikely good partnership. Still they almost came to blows when forced to share a microphone for a race. Part way through, Hunt decided he’d had enough of Walker; pulling down hard on the microphone cable, saw it shoot from Walkers hands and into Hunt’s lap, who calmly carried on oblivious to the now enraged Walker.“I had my fist raised, only to look across and see the producer standing there shaking his head,” said Walker.
Ever regarded as the true gentleman, Walker is still adamant that Schumacher’s move in 1994, which saw Damon Hill lose the championship, was just. As was Schumacher’s move on Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. “They are racing drivers at the end of the day, they just want to win,” explained Walker.
Walker’s admiration stretches beyond those behind the wheel. Formula 1 supremeo Bernie Ecclestone ranks high amongst those Walker holds in high regard. “You need to get down on one knee when you speak about Bernie,” warmly laughed Walker, “I have a lot of respect for Bernie and Max. They have made Formula 1 what it is today.”
This high regard for others is more than returned. At Indianapolis, Walker’s leaving party saw over 300 people turn up; from Ecclestone to circuit and team owners, members and drivers. Among whom, included a rather bewildered Michael Schumacher, who could not understand Walker’s English sense of humour. “Tony Jardine had wrote down things I had said on pieces of paper, that people had to read out,” regales Walker, “Michael said, ‘This party is for you, but these people are laughing at you’, to which I replied ‘That’s just who they are’.”
Regaling the highs and lows of his career, it was almost inevitable what he would pick, with the majority of the audience uttering their predictions, which proved to be right.
Having seen Damon Hill go from true and genuine riches to rags and to riches again, it was to be expected that his 1996 World Championship was the highlight. An emotional time then, it was obvious that he is still potent for Walker, as he told the tale of Hill’s life.
The low point was also inevitable, the rise and rise of Formula 1’s global popularity, was unfortunately in time with the demise of Aryton Senna. “He was a living god in Brazil and Japan and many other places, but seeing his demise televised live globally has to be the low point for me,” said Murray, in a saddened tone.
When pressed by the audience to his opinion on the current state of Formula 1, Walker retorted: “What exactly is wrong with it? Four world champions and eight potential race winners, what is not to like?”
It is this passion that has seen him at the forefront of motorsports commentary for over 50 years. It is only when you hear him speaking about his passions, you realise that it his him that Formula 1 is missing more than anything.