Murray Walker provided the sound track for several generations of motor racing fans, commentating with an infectious enthusiasm which won legions of followers across the English speaking world.
His passing, aged 97, has been greeted with tributes from across motor sport, underlining the popularity of a man who was a friend and colleague, a communicator universally respected by all for his talent and professionalism.
From FIA President Jean Todt through to World Champions Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell, Murray has been remembered with fondness and gratitude. There is no question that he made a significant contribution to making Formula 1 one of the most popular sports in the world, his commentaries being heard – for a time – across five continents.
It is appropriate that his passion for motor sport started with motor cycle racing for when his commentating career began in 1948 his two-stroke voice rose above the cut glass accents of the post-war BBC. The pitch and speed of his delivery encapsulated the excitement he felt from working in the sport he loved, and for over 50 years he brought the thrill of motor racing to our ears and hearts.
Although best remembered for his work in Formula 1, my first memories were of him commentating on motor cycle scrambling and rallycross, the latter a made-for-TV sport and an ideal vehicle for Murray’s enthusiastic description of wheel-to-wheel combat. Long before he was bringing Mansell, Hill and Schumacher into our living rooms it was Schanche, Button and Wurz who were the focus of Murray’s commentaries at a time when motor sport graced the main schedules of the UK’s major channels, BBC1 and ITV.
Born into a motor racing household, Murray’s father Graham was a successful motor cycle racer – driving for the Norton factory team – and events such as the Isle of Man TT held a special place in his heart as a result.
I well remember a retirement dinner in London when Murray joined former motor cycle World Champions John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini on stage, and inevitably ensured they became the focal point. Murray came from a generation of broadcaster who recognised that the story was never about them.
Conscripted during the Second World War, Murray graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, no less a figure than General Eisenhower presiding over his passing out parade. As a Sherman tank commander he took part in Operation Veritable in February and March 1945, his Royal Scots Greys regiment forming part of the 4th Armoured Brigade, one of the units deployed by General Bernard Montgomery in the hard-fought Battle of the Reichswald.
It was during a break in the fighting that Murray met his father, who had secured media accreditation and somehow made his way to the front line, a story which he shared in his 2014 recording of the BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Voice breaking, he admitted having a deep fondness for his father, Murray recalling that Graham had made his way to the front line simply ‘to see his little boy again’.
Between 1949 and 1962 Graham and Murray would form a unique father-son commentary team for the BBC, but it was in 1980 that the BBC’s voice of motor racing would form an unexpectedly successful partnership with 1976 Formula 1 World Champion James Hunt.
Then aged 56, with a successful career in advertising behind him, Murray found himself commentating alongside a 33 year old playboy whose bare feet, jeans and long hair struck entirely the wrong chord with the disciplined ex-British army officer. Far from jarring, their different styles worked in harmony, Murray commentating with rapid-fire, always supportive of the drivers and teams, James invariably throwing in a terse one-liner or devastating critique.
They worked together until 1993, when Hunt was taken far too early by a heart attack. Murray continued, of course, his full time commentating career coming to an end in 2001, working alongside Martin Brundle at ITV.
I well-recall his final races, for we knew an era was coming to an end. His last event was the 2001 United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis at which media, drivers, team principals and Formula 1’s CEO Bernie Ecclestone gathered to pay tribute.
By then he had been hard at work on his autobiography Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken which was published in 2002. The book was a huge success, not only at home in the UK but also in Australia.
On Desert Island Discs he admitted to being ‘besotted with Australia’, so alongside military marches and Glenn Miller big band numbers he chose Waltzing Matilda as a favoured track. His love of Australia was due, in part, to the rapturous welcome he always received from local fans, but also because from 1985 onwards the Grands Prix in Adelaide and Melbourne often provided either a dramatic climax or exciting start to the World Championship.
His commentary on Nigel Mansell’s exploding tyre in Adelaide during the 1986 Grand Prix remains one of the most memorable moments in Formula 1 broadcasting history.
Murray continued to make special guest appearances on broadcasts and interviews until 2019, when aged 95, his enthusiasm for the sport undiminished. Back in 2014 he admitted to the BBC’s Kirsty Young that he still watched ‘every second of every Grand Prix’.
This came as no surprise to any of us fortunate enough to have met and worked with him. Murray Walker may have been a famous commentator for over half a century but, first and foremost, he was a fan every day of his life.