Infotainment Factory: F1 icon's wildest memories from 1000 GPs

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Saturday, 13 April 2019

F1 icon's wildest memories from 1000 GPs


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He was the voice of Formula One for generations of fans, and as the sport gets set to celebrate the historic 1000th Grand Prix this afternoon in China, former commentator Murray Walker has opened up on some of its most iconic moments.

Walker commentated on F1 from 1976 until 2001, but his memory of the sport stretches back even before the world championship was formed in 1950. And even at the age of 95, he retains a keen interest in the sport that made him famous around the globe.

He was renowned for his mistakes during commentary, although he once claimed: “I don’t make mistakes, I make prophecies that immediately turn out to be wrong,” and he was famously described by Clive James as sounding “like a man whose trousers are on fire,” but Walker, who has seen more races than almost anyone alive, is one of the most beloved figures in F1.

For many years he formed a Jekyll and Hyde combination with 1976 world champion James Hunt – the straight as an arrow Walker and the renowned playboy Hunt. They were two completely different characters, but as Walker told F1’s Beyond the Grid podcast, that’s what made it work.

Murray Walker (right) with triple world champion Jackie Stewart.

“It’s difficult to know where to start from with James because he was a unique character. He didn’t care what anybody thought, he was an extrovert, a showman. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he womanised like there was no tomorrow,” Walker said on the podcast.

“He could be the most arrogant, overbearing, objectionable person you’ve ever met in your entire life, and frequently was, but all the time there was a really decent, cheerful, friendly, nice person hiding inside."

Hunt died suddenly in 1993, leaving a void that was almost impossible to fill. But Walker admits there were times when Hunt’s professionalism left a little to be desired.

“On one occasion he didn’t turn up at all. It was the Belgium Grand Prix one year, and we were frantically getting retired drivers to come to the commentary box to talk to me about what it was like,” Walker recalled.

“James formed up afterwards and said he was sorry he hadn’t been there, but he was in bed with a stomach complaint.

“It was the first time I’d ever heard two Belgian nurses called a stomach complaint!”

Perhaps the height of Walker’s fame coincided with the career of the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who won three world championships before being killed during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

A complex character, Senna is always one of the first names mentioned when discussion turns to the greatest driver of all time, along with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio.

Senna’s legacy was tarnished by the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, when he crashed into fierce rival Alain Prost at the first corner, denying Prost any chance of claiming the world title off Senna.

Senna later admitted he deliberately collided with Prost.

“Is Senna the greatest of all time?” Walker said.

“Not to me he’s not. A brilliant, charismatic, superb person in so many ways, but so utterly determined to win.

“What he did in Japan (in 1990) was absolutely outrageous.”

The start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, with Ayrton Senna (left) challenging Alain Prost.

Walker was also behind the microphone when the Brazilian was killed in 1994, and admits it was one of the toughest moments of his broadcasting career.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s a big one’ which sounds pretty casual but I said that because I had seen in other years, at exactly the same corner, Michele Alboreto go off, and he was all right.

“(Then) Nelson Piquet went off and hurt his foot, but he was all right. (I saw) Gerhard Berger not only go off, but to be in the car with it on fire, and I was thinking I’m talking about someone who’s being done to a crisp before our very eyes, but they got him out.

Ayrton Senna 1994.

“My first instinctive reaction was, ‘It hasn’t been too bad in the past, it probably won’t be too bad now.’

“But then I rapidly realised … the body language was very ominous, and I didn’t know what was happening because I was in the commentary box.

“I had to walk the tightrope between, ‘Don’t worry folks, I’ve seen three others go off at the same point and they were perfectly alright’ and, ‘Oh dear, I fear this is terminal.’

“Somehow or other you have to find the words to walk that tightrope between the two.”

Walker visited countries from all over the world during his time in F1, across all the major continents. But he admits to a special love affair with Australia, although he preferred Adelaide over Melbourne.

“It was indefinable difference between the F1 race being everything to Adelaide, and the F1 race being, subconsciously, another major sporting confrontation in Melbourne, with tennis and lots of other things against it. But either venue was absolutely brilliant, and I loved Australians and the country.”

Murray Walker named Adelaide as his favourite race.

With 999 races in the books, there’s plenty of discussion around how Formula One might look in the future. Formula E has been up and running for five years, now boasting 22 electric cars on the grid, a bigger field than F1.

But the category has struggled to gain acceptance from racing purists, with Red Bull motorsport boss Helmut Marko describing it as a “marketing excuse to distract from the diesel scandal.”

Walker is another who views electric cars with some scepticism.

“I find it very difficult to generate any enthusiasm about Formula E, to be honest,” Walker said.

“Part of the attraction of F1 is the noise. And to hear something whining past you is not the same as hearing a full-blooded V12, or even as they are now, a turbocharged engine. ”

And as the sport celebrates the 1000 race milestone, Walker has a warning for those who think electric cars are the way forward.

“If it becomes electrical then I think I have lived through the best of it.”

He was the voice of Formula One for generations of fans, and as the sport gets set to celebrate the historic 1000th Grand Prix this afternoon in China, former commentator Murray Walker has opened up on some of its most iconic moments.

Walker commentated on F1 from 1976 until 2001, but his memory of the sport stretches back even before the world championship was formed in 1950. And even at the age of 95, he retains a keen interest in the sport that made him famous around the globe.

He was renowned for his mistakes during commentary, although he once claimed: “I don’t make mistakes, I make prophecies that immediately turn out to be wrong,” and he was famously described by Clive James as sounding “like a man whose trousers are on fire,” but Walker, who has seen more races than almost anyone alive, is one of the most beloved figures in F1.

For many years he formed a Jekyll and Hyde combination with 1976 world champion James Hunt – the straight as an arrow Walker and the renowned playboy Hunt. They were two completely different characters, but as Walker told F1’s Beyond the Grid podcast, that’s what made it work.

Murray Walker (right) with triple world champion Jackie Stewart.

“It’s difficult to know where to start from with James because he was a unique character. He didn’t care what anybody thought, he was an extrovert, a showman. He drank too much, he smoked too much, he womanised like there was no tomorrow,” Walker said on the podcast.

“He could be the most arrogant, overbearing, objectionable person you’ve ever met in your entire life, and frequently was, but all the time there was a really decent, cheerful, friendly, nice person hiding inside."

Hunt died suddenly in 1993, leaving a void that was almost impossible to fill. But Walker admits there were times when Hunt’s professionalism left a little to be desired.

“On one occasion he didn’t turn up at all. It was the Belgium Grand Prix one year, and we were frantically getting retired drivers to come to the commentary box to talk to me about what it was like,” Walker recalled.

“James formed up afterwards and said he was sorry he hadn’t been there, but he was in bed with a stomach complaint.

“It was the first time I’d ever heard two Belgian nurses called a stomach complaint!”

Perhaps the height of Walker’s fame coincided with the career of the legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who won three world championships before being killed during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

A complex character, Senna is always one of the first names mentioned when discussion turns to the greatest driver of all time, along with the likes of Michael Schumacher, Jim Clark and Juan Manuel Fangio.

Senna’s legacy was tarnished by the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, when he crashed into fierce rival Alain Prost at the first corner, denying Prost any chance of claiming the world title off Senna.

Senna later admitted he deliberately collided with Prost.

“Is Senna the greatest of all time?” Walker said.

“Not to me he’s not. A brilliant, charismatic, superb person in so many ways, but so utterly determined to win.

“What he did in Japan (in 1990) was absolutely outrageous.”

The start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, with Ayrton Senna (left) challenging Alain Prost.

Walker was also behind the microphone when the Brazilian was killed in 1994, and admits it was one of the toughest moments of his broadcasting career.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s a big one’ which sounds pretty casual but I said that because I had seen in other years, at exactly the same corner, Michele Alboreto go off, and he was all right.

“(Then) Nelson Piquet went off and hurt his foot, but he was all right. (I saw) Gerhard Berger not only go off, but to be in the car with it on fire, and I was thinking I’m talking about someone who’s being done to a crisp before our very eyes, but they got him out.

Ayrton Senna 1994.

“My first instinctive reaction was, ‘It hasn’t been too bad in the past, it probably won’t be too bad now.’

“But then I rapidly realised … the body language was very ominous, and I didn’t know what was happening because I was in the commentary box.

“I had to walk the tightrope between, ‘Don’t worry folks, I’ve seen three others go off at the same point and they were perfectly alright’ and, ‘Oh dear, I fear this is terminal.’

“Somehow or other you have to find the words to walk that tightrope between the two.”

Walker visited countries from all over the world during his time in F1, across all the major continents. But he admits to a special love affair with Australia, although he preferred Adelaide over Melbourne.

“It was indefinable difference between the F1 race being everything to Adelaide, and the F1 race being, subconsciously, another major sporting confrontation in Melbourne, with tennis and lots of other things against it. But either venue was absolutely brilliant, and I loved Australians and the country.”

Murray Walker named Adelaide as his favourite race.

With 999 races in the books, there’s plenty of discussion around how Formula One might look in the future. Formula E has been up and running for five years, now boasting 22 electric cars on the grid, a bigger field than F1.

But the category has struggled to gain acceptance from racing purists, with Red Bull motorsport boss Helmut Marko describing it as a “marketing excuse to distract from the diesel scandal.”

Walker is another who views electric cars with some scepticism.

“I find it very difficult to generate any enthusiasm about Formula E, to be honest,” Walker said.

“Part of the attraction of F1 is the noise. And to hear something whining past you is not the same as hearing a full-blooded V12, or even as they are now, a turbocharged engine. ”

And as the sport celebrates the 1000 race milestone, Walker has a warning for those who think electric cars are the way forward.

“If it becomes electrical then I think I have lived through the best of it.”

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