Walker's enthusiasm firing on all cylinders

'I consider Schumacher courteous, helpful, gigantically authoritative, awesomely eloquent, scrupulously fair and devastatingly realistic'

Murray Walker's reputation precedes him as Michael Schumacher's Ferrari might precede a milk float, which is to say, resoundingly. Anyone with a passing interest in sport knows something about Walker, if only that he has been commentating excitedly on exciting two and four-wheeled races for so long that he can compare the way Mika Hakkinen steers through a tight bend with the way Ben Hur performed a similar manoeuvre. Or so it sometimes seems. For Walker, who last week turned a remarkably spry 77, has been commentating for more than half a century. He covered the 1949 British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, for BBC radio, and has been at it ever since, committing some classic bloopers along the way, but nevertheless becoming the voice of a sport perhaps more emphatically than any broadcaster ever has - including the likes of Dan Maskell, Peter O'Sullevan and Bill McLaren.

Murray Walker's reputation precedes him as Michael Schumacher's Ferrari might precede a milk float, which is to say, resoundingly. Anyone with a passing interest in sport knows something about Walker, if only that he has been commentating excitedly on exciting two and four-wheeled races for so long that he can compare the way Mika Hakkinen steers through a tight bend with the way Ben Hur performed a similar manoeuvre. Or so it sometimes seems. For Walker, who last week turned a remarkably spry 77, has been commentating for more than half a century. He covered the 1949 British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, for BBC radio, and has been at it ever since, committing some classic bloopers along the way, but nevertheless becoming the voice of a sport perhaps more emphatically than any broadcaster ever has - including the likes of Dan Maskell, Peter O'Sullevan and Bill McLaren.

He is, I can also testify, kindly, generous, self-effacing and altogether spiffing company. We meet in the cramped ITV commentary-box at Hockenheim, an inappropriate place for all sorts of reasons for me to come out of the closet as a man with little knowledge of motor racing. Characteristically, Walker is neither offended nor fazed by this. A lifelong enthusiast he might be, blinkered petrol-head he ain't. Indeed, the celebrated aphorism of CLR James - "what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" - might almost have been coined by Walker about Formula One (instead, he helped to coin the slightly less philosophical "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play", but we'll come to his advertising career later, not to mention his adventures as a 19-year-old tank commander in the final straight of the Second World War).

It is the eve of the German Grand Prix (which will turn out to be one of the most eventful races of an eventful season) and, having left the track, we wind up in a restaurant in the handsome town of Speyer. There are three of us; the third is Andrew Chowns, ironically one of the ITV executives responsible for sounding what Walker thought would be his broadcasting death knell, by pinching the Formula One rights from under unsuspecting BBC noses four years ago.

Walker takes up the story. "I was driving home from doing a speech at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu. And at the top of the news was an item about the BBC losing the TV rights to Formula One. I thought: 'Bugger me!' After all, since 1978, when the BBC decided it would televise all the car grands prix, I had covered virtually every one. Also, I knew that Jonathan Martin, the BBC's head of sport and an F1 fanatic, had been in the final stages of negotiating a new five-year contract and was very close to Bernie Ecclestone. But that morning his telephone had rung. It was Bernie, who said: 'I've just called to tell you that you've lost the Formula One contract, and we'll making a public announcement in half an hour.' When Jonathan had picked himself up from the floor he said: 'You might have given us the opportunity to make a competitive bid'. And Bernie said: 'Unless you've been cheating me all these years, you can't afford to pay what they're paying, so there was no point.' Very, very brutal. But true. Anyway, I assumed that the new broom would sweep clean and I'd be swept out with the rest of the rubbish, so I was surprised and delighted to get a call from ITV." Since then, Walker has forged an award-winning partnership with the former driver Martin Brundle, which this weekend moves on to Malaysia for the last grand prix of the season. So as his 51st year as a privileged outsider draws to a close, I ask Walker what have been the most memorable races he has seen, and which the greatest drivers? First, the drivers (lovingly recalled, also, in Murray Walker's Formula One Heroes, published this month by Virgin at £20).

"My one-two-three are Fangio, Prost and Senna," he says. "Although I know it is very contentious to place Prost before Senna. Prost won more races, more world championships, but statistics can lie, and Senna took 65 pole positions, which I don't think will ever be equalled. As drivers you can't put a cigarette paper between them, but I never forgave Senna for deliberately driving Prost off the road in Japan to win the 1990 world championship. After Senna I would place Stirling Moss, who may not have won the world championship but kindled British enthusiasm in motor racing and was by any yardstick utterly outstanding.

"My current number five is Schumacher, although he will probably go on to be the greatest of all time. I carry a gigantic torch for Schumacher, and I get a lot of vilification for it. For many people in Britain he is an evil Kraut, and they won't hear any good about him. I won't say I will hear no ill of him, but on a speak-as-you-find basis I have always considered him courteous, helpful, gigantically authoritative, awesomely eloquent, scrupulously fair and devastatingly realistic. And of course a remarkable driver. Only Senna had his uncanny facility for motoring through traffic. It was a great pity that we never saw them racing at the height of their powers."

As for the most memorable races he has seen, Walker first harks back to the 1961 Monaco Grand Prix. "That race passed into folklore because Stirling Moss, driving an old Lotus because Colin Chapman wouldn't let him have the latest model, vanquished the entire Ferrari team averaging a faster speed than the speed with which he took pole position. Stirling was younger than me, but nevertheless one of my gods. These days my wife and I go on cruises with the Mosses, and I sometimes have to pinch myself that he and I talk as friends, not on a fan-and-hero basis.

"I'm wandering away from your question. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1971, when four-hundredths of a second covered the first four home, that was remarkable. Senna winning the Brazilian Grand Prix stuck in sixth gear; Jim Clark in a Lotus, rejoining the race a lap down and retaking the lead; Jackie Stewart at the old Nürburgring, winning in appalling conditions by four minutes, with his hand in a plaster cast; Mansell in a Ferrari in 1990, passing Gerhard Berger in Mexico, on a corner where going round flat out, one at a time, was regarded as the ultimate in courage. If I hadn't seen it I wouldn't have believed it." Mansell, adds Walker, remains the most exciting driver he has ever seen. "It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that I have had more thrills, more talking points, more drama, from one man, than all the rest put together, and that man was Mansell. Things happened to him that didn't happen to anyone else. And in 1989, I think it was, he caught and passed Senna in the most breathtakingly audacious circumstances I have ever seen. There is that famous vignette of them driving at 200mph down the long straight in Barcelona, approaching a corner with sparks literally pouring out of the bottom of the cars. Somebody had to blink and it wasn't Nigel." There is something in Walker's delivery that make these reminiscences enthralling even to an F1 ignoramus like me. Perhaps it is his staccato phrasing - one should, after all, never hurry a Murray - or his capacity to find the mot juste, or perhaps it has more to do with us moving on to a second bottle of German wine. Whatever, it is turning into a memorable evening. And I like the way his reminiscences, as enthusiastic as they are, aretempered by realism.

"I am not a look-backer. I have been back to my old school (Highgate, also the alma mater, he observes unnecessarily, of The Joy of Sex author Alex Comfort) only once, to give a talk, and to my regimental association never.

"People tend to look backwards through rose-coloured glasses, wrongly implying that Formula One used to be an exciting battle between cars passing and re-passing. I do think that the 1980s were a golden period, with Mansell, Piquet, Senna, Prost and Schumacher, and that by comparison there are very fewsuperstars now, just one or perhaps two.

"But in the first Formula One race, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, which was won by Nino Farina in an Alfa Romeo, there was a fellow staggering around in a pre-war Riley. People say it was charming that drivers then tended to be wealthy amateurs having a good time rather than dedicated professionals, but I think it is infinitely better now than it was then. One regret, though, is that the great old circuits have been replaced by much more hygienic circuits. They don't have the charisma but you can get 100,000 people in and charge them through the nose. I suppose the same applies to a lot of sports, such as football and rugby. But I think it's a shame. The old Nürburgring - where my father twice won the German motorcycle grand prix, incidentally - was an awesome place." Walker Snr, as well as being a mean racer, was also competitions manager for Sunbeams Motorbikes. So I don't suppose anyone was terribly shocked that young Murray grew up with a passion for racing. Or that he was able to describe it, for his father, too, was a BBC commentator, indeed from 1949 they commentatedtogether on motorcycle racing, until 1962, when his father died.

By then Walker had also forged a successful career in advertising, and oddly enough was responsible for increasing Britain's budgerigar population. This feather in his cap, as it were, needs a brief explanation. His agency represented Trill, the budgie seed manufacturers, who controlled 90 per cent of the market. Had they bought Spratts, who controlled the remaining 10 per cent, Trill would have fallen foul of the Monopolies Commission. So the only way of increasing turnover was to increase the number of budgies, to which end Walker came up with a successful advertising slogan which tugged at the heartstrings of budgie owners everywhere, namely "An only budgie is a lonely budgie!" I'm aware that this has bugger all to do with sport, but I think it's important for Walker's detractors to know that he has done more with his life than drop clangers in the commentary box. And I have hardly referred to his heroic military career, which reached a crescendo when his tank division smashed through German defences to meet up with the advancing Russians (he then spent several weeks trying to prevent said Russians, whose vodka supplies had run out, from breaking into a rocket fuel dump in the Baltic port of Wismar, in order to drink the contents).

For a man with so much to look back on, it is uplifting to find that Walker so enjoys looking forward. I ask, probably naïvely, whether Formula One cars will keep getting faster and faster?

"Yes, they will," he enthuses. "And next year one single thing will make them two seconds a lap quicker, which is that Michelin are coming back and Bridgestone no longer have a monopoly. So Bridgestone will have to make tyres to beat Michelin, not just to satisfy requirements. And you can get an enhanced performance from a Formula One car more quickly by bolting on a superior tyre than by spending millions on the engine. It is the black art of the sport. Because, ultimately, the performance of a racing car depends on the grip of the tyre on the road. But it is all gigantically technical, and the problem motor racing has is to communicate these technicalities to the public without boring the arse off them. On the other hand, I truly believe that it has a gladiatorial element that does not exist in other sports. People used to go to the Colosseum; this is now the nearest we've got."

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