Murray Walker – the full interview

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MUrray Walker, 2007Last month I had the opportunity to interview Murray Walker for Auto Trader. I met the legendary commentator at his home in Hampshire and conducted an interview which ran on the Auto Trader website.

Here now is the full, unedited transcript of that interview with Murray’s answers quoted in their entirety.

The following interview was conducted before the start of the 2007 season.

How did you go from being a tank driver in the army to commentating on races in such a short space of time?

“I came out of the army in 1947, and went to work for Dunlop. Then in 1948 I was asked to do the public address at Shelsey Walsh hill climb – which I did, but as far as I was concerned I was only talking to one person which was the BBC producer.

“My father, who had had an illustrious career in motor cycle racing, was supposed to be doing the BBC commentary.

“I was very fond of my father – who was in my opinion he was a great man. I started racing motor cycles after the war, I suspect – if I look into my heart of hearts – because I wanted to be like my father. But I wasn’t good enough to satisfy myself, never mind do well.

“And that’s why I started talking about it, and got the Shelsey Walsh job. My father was supposed to be doing the BBC commentary that day but was unable to commentate. They said to my father ‘you got us into this mess – you get us out of it,’ and he replied, ‘why don’t you try the boy? Can’t do any harm.’

“It went well and I got an audition at Goodwood in ’48, and as a result of that they said they wanted me to do one of the two positions at the British Grand Prix in 1949.”

When did commentating become your profession?

“I retired from business in 1982 and as far I was concerned until then broadcasting was a hobby. It got me into the circuits free and meant that I could go and talk to anybody! It was great for me, but it was a secondary thing.

“I was the BBC’s motorcycle man with my father from 1949 until 1962, when he died. Then I continued without him, and the BBC also moved me onto things like rally cross, Formula Ford, Formula Three, Formula Two and the occasional Formula One event. Monday to Friday was the job, Saturday to Sunday was the hobby.”

Is it true you’ve always had a greater passion for motorbike racing?

“Motorcycle racing is my first love. I’ve done over 200 TT broadcast in the Isle of Man, about 50 Manx GP broadcasts, Ulster GP, umpteen short circuit races, and did them until 1993, as well as the cars and everything else..

“I was a bit miffed when I was at a motorcycle meeting at Thruxton one year and a bloke came up to me and said, “What are you doing here? You’re a car bloke!

Is commentating harder than it looks?

“I suspect commentating is one of those things that you can either do or not do and you can’t learn. You have to know what you’re talking about and you have to be able to communicate it. And thirdly – and this is where many of them fall down – you’ve got to be able to entertain. I believe that passionately.

“I always believed my remit was to inform and entertain. I am passionately enthusiastic about my sport and I want other people to like it, and I regard it as my job to try to make them as enthusiastic about it as I am and commentate in an entertaining why.

“That why I have the style I have – I get very excited, the adrenaline is coming out of me by the bucketful and as a result of that words don’t always come out in the right order. But fortunately for me it is something that seem to have endeared me to the British public rather than made them irritated with me.

“It is a lot harder than people think it is – any job that is done well appears easy – it’s when you try to do it yourself you realise it’s not as easy as you thought it was. You’re looking at one television screen – the same one that the viewers at home seen. Most people think you’re looking at a bank of televisions all over the track – you’re not!

“The head of BBC sport, which in my time was Jonathon Martin, used to say that the hardest sport of all to commentate on is motor sport. Formula One in particular, because almost any other sport is completely within the eye of the beholder – football, cricket whatever. In F1 they’re not, and then they all come into the pits and the order changes.

“If you’re not very knowledgeable about Formula One I suppose it must be very boring. But those who know the politics and personalities and history and all the rest of it enjoy it more.”

Could more be done to present the sport better?

“I think ITV do a superb job of the coverage – and I’m not biased, because with both the BBC and ITV I was a freelance contributor, not a paid employee. They try to inform the public bout what it’s all about so they can relate to what is happening.

“I think the Schumacher Ferrari factor has turned a lot of people of because, brilliant though he and Ferrari have been, people don’t want to see the same team winning all the time, and regard every Grand Prix as being a foregone conclusion.

“Hopefully this season will be different because we’ve got different winners, different cars, hopefully a much closer competition. I don’t know what other reasons there could be – it’s not as if other sports like football and cricket have become more interesting!”

Although you clearly admire Michael Schumacher he’s not perceived very well in Britain. Why do you think that is?

“Schumacher has a big fan base here but a lot of people didn’t like Schumacher because, quite wrongly, they thought that because he was German he was automatically arrogant. I had a chap come up to me in Ringwood and he said, ‘Murray, tell me what that arrogant bastard Michael Schumacher’s really like.’

“I said, ‘have you met him?’

“He said ‘No, why?’

“And I said, ‘Well, why do you say he’s arrogant?’ He said, ‘Well, because he’s German isn’t he?’

“I said, ‘Yes he is, but because he’s German doesn’t mean to say he’s arrogant, in fact he’s a very nice bloke.’

“I fought the Germans and if anybody’s got a right not to like them it’s me. There’s good and bad in every nation and Schumacher’s a very nice bloke.

“Michael Schumacher is first of all the complete professional. He applies himself wholeheartedly to every aspect of his craft. Which is not just sitting in the car and turning the wheel – it’s working with the mechanics, being on top of the political side – he is the most complete package there has ever been.

“When he’s at a race meeting he’s not just carrying Ferrari on his back – he’s carrying the whole of Italy. He’s totally focussed and doesn’t want to be interrupted.

“I can sympathise with that because when I go to a Grand Prix – not being big-headed – but a lot of people want autographs and all the rest of it and although it’s not irritating – it’s very flattering – if it happens to me, it must happen to Schumacher a hundred times more.

“A problem that all people who are in the public eye get is that, when one person gets an autograph, suddenly there are ten or twenty more asking for a signature. So where do you stop? The first person whose signature you refuse will say ‘just one more, Murray’ or ‘oh, am I not good enough for you?’ And of course it’s nothing like that but you are there to do a job.

Since retiring you’ve continued doing some broadcasting work – what are you doing this year?

“I’m still doing a bit – I didn’t stop because I wanted to, I stopped because age withers and I’m literally an old man. I wanted to stop, with dignity, when I felt I was nearer the top than the bottom. I thought better to stop too soon than too late – it’s what Jackie Stewart did, it’s what Michael Schumacher’s done. It’s what Damon Hill should have done – and his father, Graham!

“I do the Australian Grand Prix for Channel Ten, I do the Grand Prix Masters series – but there’s only a few races. Doing 18 or 19 races a year with lots of long haul ones would just wear me out.

“Honda asked me if I would be their ambassador for Formula One, as Jackie Stewart is for Williams. So I’m a member of the team! I put the uniform on and talk to their Paddock Club guests and interviewing Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello. As a member of the team I can go to all kinds of places I couldn’t have gone to before – even the drivers’ briefings.”

What are your expectations of the new season?

“I genuinely expect it to be a riveting, interesting, exciting and unpredictable year. Ferrari have lost Schumacher, Ross Brawn, Paolo Martinelli and various others. They’ve lost the man who was the glue who held it all together – Schumacher.

“How is Kimi Raikkonen going to go? He’s a very different character to Michael Schumacher and I think Ferrari are going to suffer because of it.

“Renault have lost arguably the best driver at the moment – Fernando Alonso. I don’t think Giancarlo Fisichella is up to it and everyone says Heikki Kovalainen is the second coming but he hasn’t even driven in a Formula 1 race yet.”

“McLaren look very strong indeed, with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton who’s going to be a superstar – no doubt about that.

“Honda have got two damn good drivers in Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello but we don’t know whether the car is going to be good enough – it hasn’t been good enough in testing.

“BMW should be right up there, which they weren’t quite in their first year.

“I’m not really expecting anything from Toyota. They haven’t done anything yet and, if they were going to, they would have done it by now.

“Toro Rosso ought to do a lot better with a decent car – and so should Red Bull.

“Spyker will go better but they’re not going to be winning any races.

“I don’t make predictions but if I had to put any money on anybody now I would put it on Alonso without a moment’s hesitation.”

What do you make of the two British drivers starting their first full seasons?

“Lewis Hamilton has won championships at every level from karts right up through Formula Ford, Formula 3, GP2. He’s been developed by McLaren and is a sensible, decent bloke who lives for his motor racing. I think he’s going to be a superstar. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he’ll win a race this year.”

“Anthony Davidson is a very nice person – I spent last season with him because he was the Honda test driver. People lose sight of the fact that he was racing karts against Jenson Button and doing just as well. We all know his quick – look at his performances as Honda tester.

“What he hasn’t got is F1 race experience and that matters a great deal. But I’m expecting him to blow his team mate Sato away. If the Super Aguri is, as alleged, a Honda with a different paint job, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him doing very well indeed in the points.”

Williams have fallen on hard times – can they get back to the top, and what do you make of the chassis sharing row?

“Williams have got it in them to recover but it all comes down to budget. How can any independent team do as well as a major manufacturer as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Toyota, Honda, when they haven’t got a fraction of their financial and other resources? It’s going to be extremely tough for Williams.

“There’s two ways you can look at this. You can either say if manufacturers are liable to drop out of the sport any time they like, you’ve got to have independents and so something must be done to enable Williams and Spyker to continue in the sport.

“On the other hand, look at F1 as it was in the ’60s and ’70s when, if you had a bit of money, you could get a Ford DFV engine, weld some tubes together and you had an F1 car. And the sport was bloody good in those days too.

“What will happen, will happen – that’s a cowardly way out of it. I would be extremely sad and unhappy to see Williams go – I wouldn’t care too much if Spyker went, but I don’t meant that unkindly. But Cooper, Lotus, Alfa Romeo and the like all disappeared, and the sport still went on.”

The sport is looking towards radical change in the future to introduce environmentally-friendly technologies. Is this the right direction for F1?

“I get so sick of people talking about the bloody environment. I tend to go against the common belief about the environment. Everyone is saying that mankind is responsible for the deterioration in the environment. But my attitude is, we’ve had ice ages, heat ages and all that sort of thing and I’m not totally convinced that the world is going to die if we don’t ‘do something’ about it.

“As far as Formula One – and road cars – is concerned I get extremely irritated with people wittering on about it. A full season of Formula One and testing consumes less fuel than one Boeing 747 flying across the Atlantic. So, alright, let’s stop F1 – provided we also stop flying aeroplanes. Do you need to go to Dubai for a holiday and consume, say, 64 gallons of petrol yourself in the aeroplane? No, you don’t.

“If they stopped F1, it wouldn’t make any difference at all to the state of the environment. Even transport itself only accounts for 14% of CO2 emissions. I’m not saying that transport shouldn’t contribute to the solution, but what I am saying is that it gets disproportionate attention because it’s a convenient target.

Juan Pablo Montoya defected to NASCAR last year and has been very criticial of F1. What do you make of NASCAR?

“I’ve never seen a NASCAR race. But anybody I speak to, like Nigel Roebuck, they say as entertainment it’s absolutely fantastic.

“But I think to get the most out of it you need to know about the cars, the drivers and all the rest of it. What suits some people doesn’t suit others and most Americans don’t see what we see in Formula One, and vice-versa for NASCAR.”

I’m sure you are often asked to pick the most memorable moments from your long commentating career. Which ones would you choose?

“Damon Hill winning the Japanese Grand Prix in 1996. ‘I’ve got to stop now because I’ve got a lump in my throat.’ Is what I said – and it’s true. It’s not something I’d written down in advance. I’d known Damon since he was a child and commentated on his father.

I was very conscious of all the hard times Damon had gone through to get where he got to, and 1996 was a very exciting season because it was Damon vs Jacques Villeneuve in the same team and it went down to the last race. There was an enormous amount of tension and naturally, as an Englishman, I wanted Damon to win!

“For altogether different reasons, commentating live on the death of Ayrton Senna was one of the worst things that had ever happened in the history of motor racing.

“No-one has ever been worshipped – ‘worshipped’ is the right word – as much as he was. And he was killed live, in vision, in front of millions of people world wide. Having to commentate on it was an extremely unpleasant experience.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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