In our weekly series, Yahoo Sport’s Nick Metcalfe features a famous voice of sport. This week, the legendary motor racing commentator Murray Walker goes under the spotlight.
‘Go go go’
For a certain generation of British sports fans, one voice will forever take us back to Sundays watching action from Silverstone, Spa and Suzuka. To Prost and Senna, Mansell and Piquet. The one, the only, Murray Walker. Still totally deserving of the tagline “the voice of Formula One”.
Walker commentated on motor sport for well over half a century. It was his father Graham, a motorcyle rider and broadcaster, that gave him an early introduction. And Walker’s first Grand Prix as a commentator was at Silverstone in 1949, a year before Formula One officially began.
He worked on radio coverage of the Isle of Man TT in his early days as a broadcaster, initially alongside his father. Walker also covered motocross and rally cross, and occasionally described motor cycling and rallying. Truly, he was Mr Motorsport.
But it was in Formula One where Walker would really make his mark. When the BBC started to cover the sport more regularly in the 1970s, he quickly became a familiar voice to viewers, as he guided them through the fast and furious action taking place in all corners of the world.
In time, as more live races were shown, Walker became synonymous with the sport. The great dramas and moments kept coming - the battle between Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the emergence of Ayrton Senna, a delirious British crowd pouring onto the track to celebrate with Nigel Mansell - and the same voice described them all. Walker became the man for all Formula One seasons.
Clive James famously remarked in a newspaper television column that Walker sounded “like a man whose trousers are on fire”. There have been some other fine and notable F1 commentators, but nobody has come near to Walker for sheer excitement.
“Go go go” he would cry at the start of a Grand Prix. Every race felt like an occasion when he was in the commentary hot seat.
The one thing you never doubted with Walker - not for a single second - was his deep love for the sport. It came over with every syllable he uttered. That’s probably what most endeared him to viewers.
My personal favourite Walker commentary moment came from the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, and a piece of Formula One theatre I’ll never forget waking up in the very early hours of an autumn Sunday morning in Britain to watch. Britain’s Nigel Mansell only needed to finish third to clinch the world title when, with 19 laps remaining, one of his rear tyres suddenly exploded on the main straight.
“And look at that. And colossally that’s Mansell, that is Nigel Mansell. The car absolutely shattered, he’s fighting for control and you can see what’s happened. Mansell is out of the race. Now this could change, and will change the world championship.”
When the sport hit its most dramatic highs, Walker was in his element. When Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna twice clashed dramatically, and decisively, on the track at Suzuka - in 1989 and 1990 - Walker had to quickly make sense of the unfolding story. On the second of those occasions, he was in particularly animated form.
“Senna is trying to go through on the inside. And it’s happened immediately. This is amazing. Senna goes off at the first corner. But what has happened to Prost? He has gone off too. Well that is amazing but, I fear, absolutely predictable.”
You always had the feeling Walker wasn’t just a commentator, but something of a fan too. Someone that deeply cared about the sport and the people involved with it. When Britain’s Damon Hill, son of the great champion of the past Graham, crossed the line in Japan to clinch the 1996 world drivers’ title, Walker wasn’t shy of admitting to viewers how much he was being affected.
“This is going to be a mighty emotional occasion for a lot of people, not the least of whom is myself… Damon Hill exits the chicane and wins the Japanese Grand Prix. And I’ve got to stop because I’ve got a lump in my throat.”
From 1980 until 1993, he formed a fine partnership with the 1976 world champion James Hunt. The two complemented each other perfectly. Hunt was everything Walker wasn’t in many ways. A drinker, a smoker, a party animal. Walker later admitted the atmosphere could be fraught, particularly to begin with. He disapproved of some of the behaviour displayed by the younger man.
But a calmer and more mature man emerged as the years went on, and Hunt proved to be a shrewd summariser alongside Walker. Sadly, he died at the age of only 45. There’s never been a double act to come near it since.
Another point to make about Walker is that he was far from a completely polished operator. You never knew quite when he would next get his words muddled up. But it has to be said, we liked him all the more for it.
He once told viewers: “I’m going to stop the start-watch”. Another time he assured us that “the boot is on the other Schumacher”. And then there was the blindingly obvious, dressed up as something more profound: “With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go.” Walker had his own favourites, among them “there’s nothing wrong with the car except it’s on fire”.
And how could we ever forget his famous interview with Mansell – repeated at least a million times on television in the 1980s – when Walker asked the Englishman to show us all a bump on his head and promptly prodded him in the affected area. “Oh I’m sorry,” Walker said suddently, in rather wonderful fashion.
But that was Walker. It was all part of the charm. Sport is after all a show, an entertaining diversion in our lives. And boy, was Walker entertaining.
When ITV took Formula One rights away from the BBC in the 1990s, they were almost left with no choice but to poach Walker. He just had such an deep relationship with the sport on TV for British viewers. It almost didn’t work as a spectacle without him.
He eventually retired from commentating in 2001, his final race being the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis. It was an emotional occasion, one of the first major sporting events to be held in America after the terrorist atrocities of 9/11.
That was far from the end of Walker’s involvement with TV coverage of the sport though. He presented special features for the BBC when they won back F1 rights. He even commentated on a race for Radio 5 Live in the 2007 season.
His voice can still be heard on Channel 4 in this current season, as the channel covers F1 for the first time, with Walker conducting interviews and providing continuity announcements during race coverage. He turns 93 in October, but Walker remains indomitable.
There have been many distinctive and memorable voices of sport over the decades, and we’ve loved so many of them. I think it’s fair to say Walker is unique. There’s never really been anyone like him, and I’ll be surprised if there ever is in the future. Now that’s not a bad selling point, is it?