Now we are 76...: Murray Walker
OCTOBER 18, 1999
BY JOE SAWARD
Murray Walker is the most popular television commentator in Grand Prix racing, his fame having spread from Britain to outposts all over the world thanks to other nations which receive the Formula 1 television coverage produced by ITV. At 76 years of age Murray has been a commentator for 51 years and he's seen some exciting moments in the history of Grand Prix racing.
"From 1949 to 1978 I did only the occasional races for the BBC," he remembers. "I did Jacky Ickx winning at the Nurburgring in 1969 and Clay Regazzoni when he won there in a Ferrari, whatever year that was but i really only did the odds and ends because BBC's regular motor racing commentator Raymond Baxter could not be there or whatever. So it was really not until 1978 - the year Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson dominated the World Championship for Lotus - that started doing all the commentaries. And we did not go to all the races. I remember doing the World Championship finale at Fuji in Japan in 1976. It was a very last-minute thing because they were not going to show it but because James Hunt was leading the World Championship and might win it they decided that they should do it and I had to go into Television Centre at White City in London at around four o'clock in the morning for the race. I was very glad I did because it was a tremendous occasion but it was a very confusing race - particularly when one was in London!
"I was talking with the pictures coming through from Japan and you can get a pretty good idea of what is going on and then we had someone in Japan acting as a spotter at the track. Nowadays - with modern technology - if you make the right arrangements you can get all the timesheets and everything."
If 1976 was a good showdown, what about 1999?
"It is by no means a precedent that the World Championship is going down to the wire. When you stop and think about it, it went to the last race last year and in 1997 - and in 1996 and in 1994. It is getting to be quite a usual thing although when you think about it the statistical chance of 22 chaps resolving something on the 16th occasion that they meet must be pretty remote.
"I think that 1996 was the most dramatic of all - for me. The 1994 race in Australia was an incredible race as we all knew that Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher could win the World Championship and they had that collision. For a while I thought that Schumacher was out and that Damon was going to win and then he came into the pits and you could see that the suspension was bent and that it was the end of his race and if you remember Schumacher was standing behind the wire looking all pensive and suddenly he got the message through. I have always been naive enough, or generous enough - whichever way you would like to describe it - to believe that Schumacher did not deliberately drive into Damon and I still think so. I have always thought it was an instinctive reaction to get back on the racing line. I don't think he realize that Damon was there until it was too late to do anything about it. That's my opinion.
"I would not say that about the crash with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997. I remember Martin Brundle (my fellow commentator) was marvellous. We could see Schumacher's wheel going zonk into the sidepod between Villeneuve's front and rear wheels and Martin said: "Wrong place, my friend. You've hit him in the wrong place. He'll get away with that." And he did. Martin is a bloke who really knows what it is all about."
But Murray also believes that this season will be remembered as a really dramatic year.
"I think we have had a absolutely fantastic season - with the exception of the races in Spain and Belgium. People talk patronisingly - particularly those who don't know very much about it - about it being dull racing. Now I am the first to admit that those two races were processional but if you had the privilege of knowing what was going on they were a hell of a long way from being dull.
"I am prepared to accept that when you don't know a lot about F1 and you are sitting at home and there is a decreasing number of cars going around in circles with no-one catching anyone, never mind passing them, it is not exactly a stimulating show. It is my job to try to bring out whatever there is in the race to interest and - ideally - excite people.
"Motor racing in general, and F1 in particular, is a dramatic, noisy, colorful, dangerous and unpredictable sport and if you deal with that in a sotto voce boring way you shouldn't bloody well be there.
"I am always conscious of the fact that I am extremely lucky. I am at the centre of everything. I can talk to everyone and I can go anywhere. There are millions and millions of people out there who would give anything to be where I am. One should not abuse that and one should work hard at trying to make them even more interested in the sport.
Has Murray always been a rabble-rouser?
"I'm a very quiet bloke away from the commentary box," he says. "Funnily enough the other day I listened to a recording of my first commentary which was at the 1949 British Grand Prix. I was with a commentator called Max Robertson who went on to be a famous tennis commentator and the presenter of a show about antiques called "Going for a Song". Max told me that he neither knew nor cared anything motor racing and didn't like it as a subject to talk about.
"Anyway, I was at Stowe Corner and he was up at the main grandstand and I was saying things like: "Baron de Graffenreid has just left me now Max and I can see him driving up towards Abbey Curve. His car is sounding absolutely superb. He should be just entering your vision now. Over to you Max Robertson." And he would say: "Thank you very much Murray and here he is." The whole thing was like that."
"Later on Raymond Baxter was always very cultured and deliberate and he never really raised his voice, no matter how exciting the situation and he was always very informative but - and this is not a criticism it is just a statement of fact - it really didn't grab the viewers by the balls. I am different. Don't forget that I cut my commentary teeth in motorcycle racing which, by and large, is a bloody sight more exciting than motor racing. It involves a lot more passing. You can see the whole of the riders, putting their knees on the ground, and overlapping and passing and repassing. You have to be very crash, bang, wallop to even keep up with that. I also did an awful lot of motocross commentary and that is all action as well - so you are bound to develop an all-action style."
What about Murray's famous mistakes. How does he feel about being famous for getting things wrong? Doesn't it hurt a little bit?
"I get very excited," he admits, "and sometimes the words come out in the wrong order and there are malapropisms and things. What I always say to people is that if I made mistakes as a result of not knowing the facts I would be very worried because it would demonstrate that I had not done my research properly or that I did not know enough about the subject and in neither of those cases should I be doing the job.
"What people call mistakes are usually incorrect descriptions. You can name the wrong driver - a verbal slip - and I am not ashamed of that. We all make mistakes in life. We are all human beings. The difference is that when a journalist makes a mistake it will probably be picked up by a proof reader or a sub-editor. There is a long process between the mistake and the reader seeing it. When I make a mistake the viewers hear it instantly whether they are in Australia, India or New zealand. I may not have realized that I said Mika Hakkinen instead of David Coulthard and the viewers say: "Why don't they get someone who knows what they are talking about because he doesn't even know the difference between Hakkinen and Coulthard. All I am saying is that most of the things that I do are understandable. Maybe they are not excusable but they are understandable. I am a human being, I make mistakes.
"It would distress me that people thought I was so much of a prat that I never get it right. I like to think - rightly or wrongly - that most people think of it in an endearing way and say: "Poor old Murray's put his foot in it again". I don't mind that. I am the way I am and there is not much I can do about it."
But Murray has become a British institution. A national treasure.
"It is very difficult for me to accept that I am a British institution - and that is not false modesty," he says. "If that is the case it is gigantically flattering that people think enough of you to want to talk to you, to want your photo, your opinion or your autograph. It is enormously satisfying. We are all human beings. We all have insecurities and if you are bolstered in your insecure state by an apparent love, respect and regard of the people you are talking to, then it is a very happy situation to be in. And I love it. I was in a supermarket in Cape Town, South Africa, last year and this bloke came up to me and said: "Hello Murray" and engaged me in a conversation about the price of South African peaches. It really is amazing sometimes.
"The only difficulty it creates is the nicest kind of difficulty. There are times when doing my job properly is more difficult because people are constantly coming up - with the nicest motives - and so I cannot get the job done. People have even opened the door of the commentary box and pushed things at me to sign when I am limbering up for a broadcast!"
Watching Murray getting ready for a show is fascinating because he really does limber up.
"I didn't even realise I was doing it until I saw some film of me doing it," he says. "It is true. I jump up and down a bit, flex my shoulders and wave my arms about. I am sure it is an adrenalin-generating thing - but it is subconscious."
The big question that people ask now is how long is Murray going to go on being a commentator.
"I don't know," he says. "I really don't know. I am 76 and so I am obviously nearer the end of my career than the beginning because I have been doing it for 51 years . That is a hell of a long time. I am not going to stop because of a lack of enthusiasm or a lack of interest because I am as interested and as enthusiastic as I ever was so it will either be because of a physical or mental ability to cope with the demands of the job, all the travelling, swinging the bags about and jumping in and out of cars. There is a lot of physical stress that everyone in F1 has. I am a lot older than everybody else. I try to keep fit because I want to keep on doing it but sooner or later the passage of time will get me if the mental stress does not. I think I will stop for physical reasons rather than mental ones.
"I am always wondering how long it is going to be before the public says: "Blimey, we don't a 76-year old bloke telling us what is happening in motor racing. There must be somebody younger who can do that..."
"I try to keep ahead of the people who are younger... by stamping on their fingers when I see them!"