Motor Racing: Turning up the boost on the microphone: 'For something really spectacular, watch this]' Giles Smith meets Murray Walker, the high-octane voice from the pit-lane

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The Independent Online
FOR those in the stands, the thrill is in the noise of the engines and the smell of the fuel. But for those of us who do our motor racing from home, via the television, the sport will be forever the Fleetwood Mac theme music and the high-octane roar of Murray Walker, the BBC's man in the pit lane - the man who, at moments of acute excitement, can turn each word into its own super-charged sentence. 'There] Is] The] Red] Ferrari] Of] Gerhard] Berger]'.

This weekend, Walker will get himself, and us, worked up about the Pacific Grand Prix at the new TI track in Aida, Japan. He's not saying, but it is likely that, given the access problems at the circuit (it's 90 minutes by bus from the nearest hotel and down nearly impassable tracks), he will be forced to deliver his commentary from a studio in London.

But it's a rare occasion when a televised motor event takes place without Walker in the vicinity. Moto-cross, rally-cross, Formula Ford - you name it, he's done it, for both the BBC and ITV. He speaks proudly of a Saturday afternoon in the 1970s when he was on both channels at once: 'There was no escaping me.' And for 16 years now he has been in pole position for the BBC's Formula One grand prix coverage, becoming the foremost practitioner of the deceptively complex job he modestly describes as 'shouting at a monitor'.

Walker is 70, though he neither looks it nor, in those bursts of enthusiasm, sounds it. He lives with his wife, Elizabeth, deep in Hampshire in a beautiful white house with a thick gravel drive in 13 acres of wooded land, bought, one imagines, not with the BBC's paltry freelance payments, but with the earnings from a successful career in advertising, from which he retired in 1982.

We sit in his sunny study, stacked high with motor-racing books and mementoes. He takes down from a shelf a six-inch model of a green W163 Mercedes in a perspex case. He points out on the wall a painting of his pre-war driving hero - Tazio Nuvolari. . He opens a copy of a book called Piloti Che Genti (roughly translated: 'Drivers - What Great Guys') to reveal the signature in purple ink of its author, Enzo Ferrari. 'I am passionately, deeply interested in motor sport,' he says, in case you hadn't guessed.

Displayed prominently on a low table is a large, plastic egg with bug eyes on springs, a present some years ago from Noel Edmonds to mark Walker's supreme contribution to the art of the commentating cock-up - in Walker's case, not the usual verbal blunders so much as moments of hapless slapstick. Commentating once on a hill-climbing event, he thought he should alert us to a particularly fancy driver called Malcolm Wilson. 'I said: 'For something really spectacular, watch this]' He immediately lost control, went plunging down the hill, turned over and slid down on his roof.'

Then there was the legendary rally-cross moment with Stan Hastilow. 'I'd found out a technical detail about his car. I said: 'If you look closely at the windscreen, you'll see that using his skill and experience as a computer programmer, Stan has caused a large number of holes of varying diameters to be drilled into the windscreen to a random pattern, as a result of which if any mud lands on it there's going to be a hole he can see through.' As I said this, he left the circuit, hit a bank and disappeared through a plyboard hoarding.'

This clip ran for six consecutive weeks in the viewers' requests slot on Sportsnight with Coleman. 'But that's not a mistake,' Walker says, when he's finished laughing. 'I don't make mistakes. I make prophecies which immediately turn out to be wrong. And I've done a lot of those, but I have no regrets and I make no apologies, because they're a reflection of enthusiasm and involvement, I like to think.'

The involvement dates back. His father was Graham Walker, a top professional racing motorcylist from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s. Walker says he 'worshipped' his father and after the war (which he spent in the tank corps), he attempted to emulate him by taking up bikes himself. When he realised he would never be more than 'good, club standard', he went into broadcasting, again following his father who was by now reporting on motorcycling for BBC radio. For a while, the pair worked together - 'as far as I'm aware, the only father-and-son commentating duo the BBC has ever had'.

Graham Walker died in 1962 and Murray went across to television. In 1978, the BBC appointed him to front their new season-long Formula One coverage. Two years later, though, he was worried for his job.

'I was very hurt, worried, perplexed when Jonathan Martin, the head of BBC Sport, said, 'We are now going to have two commentators on grand prix, Murray - you're one and the other is going to be James Hunt'.' Hard to imagine anybody further from Walker's meticulous approach than Hunt - the ex-racer and all-round good-time boy.

'At the time, James Hunt was generally regarded as a wild, drunken, irresponsible Hooray Henry. The view was confirmed, in my eyes, when James turns up drunk for commentaries, arrives in the commentary box, if we're lucky, five minutes before the race begins, and the moment the chequered flag appears, it's as though it was co-ordinated with a spring up his arse - off he went]'

In their first seasons, they struggled openly. 'James would wave his hand when he wanted to say something and I would give him the microphone, but there were times when I wasn't giving it to him quickly enough, as far as he was concerned, and it was a case of ripping it off me. And vice versa.' Walker had to live, too, with the frequently brisk nature of Hunt's analysis (sample: 'Jarier is a French wally - he always has been and he always will be').

But Walker and Hunt gradually warmed to each other, mostly as Hunt became more interested in the job and began to turn up days in advance with the rest of the crew. 'In the closing years of our partnership, we got on very well together. We were friends.' When Hunt died last year, his brother Peter asked Walker to deliver the address at the memorial service.

Walker is up at the shelves again, looking out a book on the pre-war Mercedes which he saw as a boy. 'This is the era that people talk about as the greatest era in the history of motor racing,' he says. 'And I say, 'Balderdash'. Since 1984, people have been able to watch two of the greatest grand prix drivers of all time - Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna - racing against each other in the same and rival teams. The best era for motor racing is now.'

(Photograph omitted)