Books for Christmas: Public performances of a cavalier privateer: Derick Allsop salutes Rob Walker, bon vivant and dean of derring-do

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ANOTHER motor-racing year closes with Ayrton Senna, three times world champion, punching a rookie opponent and snarling at the media for daring to criticise his behaviour; with Alain Prost, four times world champion, retiring under a dark cloud of innuendo; and with Rob Walker's book.

Praise be . . . Many people connected with the sport will know, or at least know of, Walker. The anecdotes from his eventful life and times are enshrined in folklore. No matter. Rob Walker, by Michael Cooper-Evans (Hazleton Publishing, pounds 40) brings precious respite from the frowns and boorish antics of the more recent past.

Walker was the great privateer entrant who had the audacity to take on and, on nine occasions between 1958 and 1968, beat the factory teams in world championship grand prix racing. That is a measure of the man's ability, though by no means an adequate recognition of the man.

He was born in 1917 to a wealthy family (Walker as in Scotch whisky fame) and raised in an environment where one took mansions, trout ponds and MCC membership for granted. At the age of 11 he had his first car and raced it up and down the drive. Late in 1938, 'as usual playing truant from Cambridge', he espied a gorgeous sports car in a Park Lane showroom. He was introduced to the weird and wonderful world of hire purchase and the Delahaye was his. His escapades were pure P G Wodehouse.

Walker distinguished himself as an amateur racing driver and entered the 1939 Le Mans 24-hour race. After four hours he took over from his more experienced partner, Ian Connell, and, since it was by then the hour for dinner, he considered it appropriate to wear a dark blue, pinstripe suit. His concessions to pragmatism were a pair of goggles and rope-soled, canvas shoes.

Connell relieved him at midnight only for hot gases to find their way into the foot well and burn his feet. He handed the Delahaye back to Walker at dawn and could take no further part. Walker, now in day suit, dipped his feet in water at pit- stops to resist the heat and keep going.

A couple of hours before the finish he was given the signal to stop. 'My pit crew called me in for a glass of champagne because they said they thought I might be getting a bit tired . . . I don't know how much time I lost but I rejoined the race so refreshed I think I must have made it all up again without any trouble.'

Walker crossed the line in eighth place. He had raced for 16 hours and promptly set out on the road again, this time to Paris, where most of the British drivers celebrated in a night club until 10 o'clock the following morning.

The intrepid Walker survived still more harrowing experiences as a Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot in the Second World War. He gave up track racing as part of his wedding vows to Betty Duncan. Instead, he would indulge his other love as an entrant. His drivers included Peter Collins, Tony Brooks, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt, but his most celebrated association was with Stirling Moss.

They had their first victory in Argentina, in 1958. Their success in the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix, where Moss resisted the might of Ferrari, gave Walker even deeper satisfaction. 'I thought it was Stirling's greatest drive. In fact, I thought it was the greatest drive, by any driver, that I had ever seen in my life.'

The one disappointing, even frustrating, aspect of the book is that there is too little first-person Walker. It cries out for more tales in his own, beguiling words. At pounds 40, it is also rather excessively priced. It is, however, splendidly illustrated and does capture the humour and compassion of a man and his eras. In his passport, alongside occupation, he wrote 'gentleman'. How ironical that he should list as his all-time greatest five Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark . . . and Senna.

Walker has mixed opinions of Graham Hill, who features in a number of publications this winter. The emergence of the late double champion's son, Damon, as a grand-prix winner has persuaded Patrick Stephens to re-issue the autobiographical Life at the Limit ( pounds 16.99). It conveys the man's courage, determination, ambassadorial presence and sense of fun, though not so much of the abrasive characteristics Walker and others relate.

Hill is one of the seven British world title winners Christopher Hilton and John Blunsden consider in Champions] (Motor Racing Publications, pounds 19.95). Not an original route but, Hilton being Hilton, he takes intriguing detours in search of fresh material.

The prolific Hilton is first across the line with a tribute to one of those Britons, James Hunt - Portrait of a Champion (Patrick Stephens, pounds 9.99). Again, Hilton seeks new sources of information to cover familiar territory and the result is a nice account of the 'bumptious' schoolboy type who beat his own fear to win the title and then earned wider respect and affection before his death, last June.

Of all Hilton's works this year, Gerhard Berger - The Human Face of Formula One (Patrick Stephens, pounds 16.99) is the least likely and perhaps most enjoyable. The Austrian's fabled pranks - often at Senna's expense - illuminate the book but then, as Berger propounds, winning is not everything, a philosophy, it is suggested, that separates him from Senna and Prost.

A sign of the times: the increasing number of publications on IndyCar racing. IndyCar, by Kris Perkins (Osprey, pounds 9.99) offers the history, rules, circuits, teams, personalities, facts and figures in a neat, colourful package.