ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 51 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   There's Something
about Murray

  by Roger Horton, England

Nothing lasts forever, but somehow we always thought Murray Walker will. The British commentator, at the age of 77 and after five decades of covering motor racing, has announced his time has come: 2001 will be his last season in the commentary box of ITV. Roger Horton, a long time follower, pays tribute to the Legend

Murray Walker is something of a legend throughout the English speaking F1 world. For more than two decades - firstly with the BBC and latterly with ITV - he has chronicled the triumphs and tragedies, the victories and defeats of our F1 heroes, all in his rather breathless commentary style, which so oozes with enthusiasm that even casual viewers find themselves getting taken along for the ride.

Murray WalkerAll along, this has been the secret of his considerable success. In 1982, when the BBC first started to televise all the Grand Prix races live, F1 was still very much a minority sport. The diehard fans didn't really care who was commentating - so grateful were they that their favourite sport was at last getting the attention they felt it deserved.

But, for the casual fan, Murray Walker's great ability has always been to grab their attention from the start and hold it even through the most processional race, filling in all the dull moments with a seemingly endless chatter about the drivers and teams involved. All delivered in his trademark 'high octane' style, which belies the fact that his recall of all this information was the result of hours of research and studious pre-work, always the hallmark of the true professional.

From his privileged commentary position, Walker has, of course, seen it all. He was there when Nigel Mansell clinched his title in Hungary in 1992 and his voice cracked with emotion as he 'talked' Damon Hill around that last lap in his Williams at Suzuka, to finally secure his one and only world title in '96. British triumphs made all the more memorable (for British audiences) by the fact that they were beamed 'home' from far off places by a clearly patriotic commentator.

On that tragic day at Imola in 1994 it was Walker's call of "It's Senna!" that first alerted the world to the fact that the car slithering to a halt, after violent contact with the Tamburello wall, had been driven by the great Brazilian. And, as the BBC director cut away the live feed to seemingly endless shots of the Imola pits area, it was Murray Walker's ever more sombre tones, that broadcasted to the world that we would never again see Ayrton Senna alive, long before the official announcement came.

Now 77 years old, it's hardly surprising that he has finally decided to retire from the job that he loves so much. Walker has always had his critics, usually those whose understanding of the sport is at a level to notice just what goes unreported during his frenetic delivery, and who have got tired of his rather too frequent errors.

But, the live microphone demands a skill that sets it apart from most other forms of the media. There is no spell check or copy editor to correct the errors that even the most experienced scribe makes in the rush to make a deadline. His errors are instantly shared by millions in a live broadcast, and are on the record forever. Lists of his many mistakes - or 'Murrayisms' - abound, but it is a measure of his stature that he can look back and laugh at himself along with his detractors.

Damon Hill gives Murray a driving lesson, 1999Almost from the start, Walker has shared the commentary booth with an ex-driver, firstly '76 World Champion James Hunt, then Dr. Jonathan Palmer, and finally with Martin Brundle. Technically, it's hard to fault the current combination, especially Brundle's contribution, whose deft touch and dispassionate analysis is pretty much unrivalled in the F1 broadcasting business.

The Murray Walker-James Hunt combination, though, set the standards in Formula One commentary at a time when live coverage of the sport was in its infancy. Whether it was action and incidents on the track, or the politics and gossip off it, the combination always spoke with authority. Whilst Walker might tread warily around a touchy subject, Hunt would always get right to the point and pull no punches. He did not always get it right, and often, especially in his early years, carried grudges from his driving days into the commentary booth, but it produced some great television and the fans loved it.

The pairing of the serious, but enthusiastic Walker, with the (sometimes literally) laid back Hunt, did not immediately gel. Many times in the early years, Hunt would breeze into the commentary booth just seconds before the race was due to start, totally unprepared, and rely on his natural instincts to get him through the commentary. Mostly it worked, but the relationship was always strained. It was not until Hunt totally changed his lifestyle, belatedly giving up the drink and soft drugs which had so taken over his life, that he became a serious and well respected member of the F1 media circus.

Then the combination turned magical and it's little wonder that the ratings soared. F1 was rapidly becoming a mainstream sport, and the Walker-Hunt partnership contributed in no small measure to the transition. The tears that came to Murray Walker's eyes as he paid a TV tribute to his partner, following Hunt's tragic death from a heart attack shortly after the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix, was a testament to the depth of Walker's feelings. James Hunt was one of the last 'free spirits' left over from the highly dangerous but romantic days of 70's motor racing, and he was badly missed by everyone.

Into the void left by Hunt's death stepped Jonathan Palmer, another retired Formula One driver for sure, but one blessed with a much less distinguished driving record than his predecessor. 83 race starts, mainly with the under funded Zakspeed and Tyrrell outfits, produced just 14 championship points in an F1 career that spanned just over six seasons.

Murray Walker at work, French GP 1999Somehow the combination failed to capture the public acclaim that the previous duo had enjoyed. Perhaps Palmer's biggest problem being that he was just not James Hunt, always an issue when you are trying to follow in the footsteps of someone as accomplished as Hunt had become.

The same problem will naturally confront whoever gets the nod to finally replace Walker when he walks away from the booth for the last time sometime next season. There never can be another commentator in the Walker mould, shaped as he has been by his wartime experiences and his early radio work when all motor sport, on both two and four wheels, was an amateur pursuit.

Somehow Walker has always given the impression that he wanted to believe only the best in everyone, and skim over the darker side of many in the Formula One paddock. Call it old fashioned good manners, bred by the values on a different generation, but it has made him one of the most respected and liked members of the F1 community, and ensured that many doors remained open to his microphone.

Sometime next year, perhaps at Monza, home of the historic Italian Grand Prix, Murray Walker will call his last Grand Prix and "sign off" for the last time. No doubt the F1 community will find a special way to commemorate the occasion, as indeed they should. But, for the dedicated F1 viewer, it will be the final chance to literally listen to a little bit of F1 history.

Tape the race and lock it away, as one day it is sure to become a collector's item. There never will be another Murray Walker.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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