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Former Formula One commentator Murray Walker dies aged 97

Legendary Formula One commentator Murray Walker has died aged 97, the British Racing Drivers’ Club announced today.  

Walker, whose broadcasting career spanned more than 50 years, worked for the BBC and ITV, before he retired from commentating in 2001. 

Walker will be remembered as the undisputed voice of Formula One. His unique, high-octane style – once described by Australian comic Clive James as ‘sounding like a man whose trousers are on fire’ – is forever ingrained in British sporting culture.

From James Hunt’s 1976 championship triumph over Niki Lauda at a rain-lashed Fuji, to Ayrton Senna’s intense rivalry with Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell’s 1992 title triumph, Walker called it all in a remarkable broadcasting career which spanned 52 years.

Former Formula One commentator Murray Walker (pictured in 2000) has died aged 97

Murray Walker (right) and Jackie Stewart after receiving a special award for his contribution to British Television at the British Academy Television Awards in 2002

Murray Walker (right) and Jackie Stewart after receiving a special award for his contribution to British Television at the British Academy Television Awards in 2002

When Damon Hill took the chequered flag at Suzuka to win the Japanese Grand Prix and become world champion in the early hours of an October morning in 1996, an emotional Walker cried: ‘I have got to stop because I have got a lump in my throat.’

It is those memorable words which will resonate among the motor racing community and generations of fans following his death at the age of 97.

The BRDC said in a statement today: ‘It’s with great sadness we share the news of the passing of BRDC Associate Member Murray Walker OBE.

‘A friend, a true motorsport legend, the nation’s favourite commentator and a contagious smile. We thank Murray for all he has done for our community. RIP our friend.’   

TV presenter Carol Vorderman kisses Murray Walker during the 2002 Grand Prix Party at the Royal Albert Hall in London

TV presenter Carol Vorderman kisses Murray Walker during the 2002 Grand Prix Party at the Royal Albert Hall in London

Walker poses beside Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone at Silverstone in 2001

Walker poses beside Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone at Silverstone in 2001

Martin Brundle, who commentated alongside Walker in the final years of his career, led the tributes on social media.

Writing on Twitter, Brundle said: ‘Rest In Peace, Murray Walker. Wonderful man in every respect. National treasure, communication genius, Formula One legend.’

F1 tweeted: ‘We are immensely sad to hear that Murray Walker has passed away.

‘His passion and love of the sport inspired millions of fans around the world. He will forever be a part of our history, and will be dearly missed.’

Graeme Murray Walker was born in Birmingham to father Graham and mother Elsie on October 10, 1923. 

Walker (pictured in 1998), whose broadcasting career spanned more than 50 years, worked for the BBC and ITV, before he retired from commentating in 2001

Walker (pictured in 1998), whose broadcasting career spanned more than 50 years, worked for the BBC and ITV, before he retired from commentating in 2001

Graham was a prominent figure in motorcycling and enjoyed a 15-year career which culminated in him winning the prestigious Isle of Man TT race.

‘You either loved what your father did or you loathed it,’ Murray explained. ‘But my father was a great man, I was very fond of him, and I wanted to be like him.’

But before Walker could attempt to emulate him, he was conscripted into the British army, aged 18. Walker soon graduated from Sandhurst’s Royal Military College and went on to command a Sherman tank in the Battle of the Reichswald in World War Two.

Walker reached the rank of captain but left the army in the years following the war and turned his attention back to two wheels.

Walker at the McLaren automotive showroom opening in London in 2011

Walker at the McLaren automotive showroom opening in London in 2011

Although he was a decent motorcyclist, Walker was not in the same league as his father, and it would be the advertising world where he would first make his name. Walker retained his passion for motor racing by commentating at the weekends.

But when Hunt beat Lauda to the 1976 title, Walker’s life changed. The BBC ramped up its coverage and a relatively unknown advertising executive was handed the commentating duties.

‘Britain suddenly became aware of Formula One because of the glamorous, playboy image that James had,’ explained Walker.

‘The BBC decided they were going to do every race and they asked me to do it.

‘I carried on doing both advertising and commentary jobs for four years until in 1982, when I was 60, I retired from the advertising business and then my broadcasting career started.’

Walker holding up his OBE during an investiture with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1996

Walker holding up his OBE during an investiture with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1996

As most would be winding down, Walker entered his seventh decade by beginning a second career which would see him become a household name.

Popular for his passion, Walker was the motor racing fan with a microphone.

When Mansell crashed out of the 1987 title decider in Australia, he yelled: ‘And colossally that’s Mansell.’

As Michael Schumacher rammed into the back of David Coulthard at a rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix in 1998, Walker shouted: ‘Oh, God!’

Walker (pictured in 1996) will be remembered as the undisputed voice of Formula One

Walker (pictured in 1996) will be remembered as the undisputed voice of Formula One

And when Frenchman Jean Alesi parked up at the side of the road after running out of fuel in Australia, Walker said: ‘You can see by the body language of the Benetton mechanics that they are ab-so-lute-ly furious. Oh Jean, you may well look a bit worried because you have got a major problem, sunshine.’

In quotes: Murray Walker’s best moments

  • ‘There’s nothing wrong with the car except that it’s on fire.’
  • ‘The lead car is unique except for the one behind it, which is identical.’
  • ‘And now, excuse me while I interrupt myself.’
  • ‘I should imagine that the conditions in the cockpit are totally unimaginable.’
  • ‘Even in five years time, he will still be four years younger than Damon Hill.’
  • ‘He can’t decide whether to leave his visor half open or half closed.’
  • ‘There are seven winners of the Monaco grand prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.’
  • ‘Now we have exactly the same situation as at the beginning of the race, only exactly opposite.’
  • ‘You might think, that’s not cricket, and it’s not, it’s motor racing.’
  • ‘If is a very long word in Formula One. In fact, if is F1 spelled backwards.’

But, bizarrely, it was his mistakes – later nicknamed ‘Murrayisms’ – which earned him his status as a national treasure.

‘There is nothing wrong with his car, except that it is on fire!’ he once proclaimed.

‘I’m ready to stop my startwatch,’ he said on another occasion, while ‘unless I am very much mistaken – I am very much mistaken’ later became the title of his autobiography.

At the BBC, Walker was partnered by Hunt for 13 years before his death in 1993. The clash of personalities – Walker a consummate professional compared to Hunt’s rather laid-back approach – won over the public.

‘James didn’t care what people thought,’ said Walker of their odd-couple relationship. ‘He was an extrovert, a showman, he drank too much, smoked too much and womanised like there was no tomorrow.

‘He could be the most arrogant, overbearing person you would ever meet in your life and he frequently was. But there was a nice person hiding inside and, when he retired from racing, the nice chap took over.’

When Hunt died and Formula One headed to ITV in 1997, Walker, who had been appointed an OBE the previous year for his services to broadcasting and motor racing, teamed up with Martin Brundle, whom he would work alongside for five seasons before his final race at the US Grand Prix in 2001. He was 77 when he stopped.

Following his retirement, Walker said he was ‘not going to be a pathetic old hanger-on in the paddock’, and he was true to his word with only fleeting appearances since.

Walker is survived by his wife Elizabeth.

How Murray Walker was heard drowning out the whine of Formula One engines for more than 50 years

By Alex Tyndall for MailOnline

Murray Walker described his commentary technique as ‘like my pants were on fire’.

In any other sport that might have been a disadvantage but describing Formula One it was the style that made Walker’s reputation. The commentator, who has died at the age of 97, could be heard drowning out the whine of Formula One engines for more than 50 years and was responsible for many of the sport’s most famous soundbites.

Motorsport fans will remember Walker for his ‘Murrayisms’, moments where his excitement got the better of him and he blurted out nonsense to the television audience. One of his best might be his observation at the Monaco grand prix: ‘There are seven winners of the Monaco grand prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.’

Murray Walker at the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix in October 2001

Murray Walker at the Formula One Japanese Grand Prix in October 2001 

Even before Walker’s broadcast career began he made a living creating snappy phrases. After leaving the Army at the end of the Second World War he worked at Masius advertising agency. He was responsible for slogans such as ‘Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water’. He left the job in 1982, by which time he was already a regular fixture on Formula One commentary.

Walker, born Graeme Murray Walker in Birmingham on October 10, 1923, went to school in Highgate, London. In the Second World War Walker joined the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in 1943. After graduating in 1944 he drove Sherman tanks with the Royal Scots Greys until the end of the war. In 1945 he met his father Graham, who at the time was a civilian and editor of Motor Cycle Magazine, on the battlefield as his regiment crossed the Rhine. ‘As a magazine editor he had used his contacts firstly to get accredited as a special correspondent and secondly, and I don’t know to this day how he did this, to find out where my regiment was and therefore where I was,’ Walker told Desert Island Discs in 2014, ‘I was very fond of my father and he was very fond of me and hopefully he was very keen to see me again.’

Walker’s father passed his love of motorsport to his son. Graham had been a talented motorcyclist in the 1920s, competing annually in the Isle of Man Time Trial and winning in the lightweight class in 1931. Walker’s start in commentating came about because his father couldn’t do a BBC broadcast of the Shelsey Walsh Hill Climb motorcycle race in 1948. After Walker stepped in to provide his comments on the public address system the BBC took him and his father on as a commentating pair. The duo continued together until 1962 when Graham Walker died.

Walker’s reputation was made between 1980 and 1993 when retired driver James Hunt joined him in the Formula One commentary box. Walker described them as ‘oil and water’: ‘We were as different temperamentally as you can imagine any two people to be.

‘I was this busy chap walking around the paddock earnestly talking to anybody and James would be sitting in the McLaren motor home entertaining his friends.’

A perfect double act was formed but it had teething problems. In the early days Hunt and Walker shared duties by passing the microphone between each other. Walker said: ‘On one occasion at Silverstone I was standing up giving it plenty and James thought the old boy’d been talking long enough.

‘He gave the microphone wire a terrific tug and the mic flew out of my hands and into his, and I actually had my fist back to give him a fourpenny one.’

Walker during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in Northamptonshire in 2011

Walker during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in Northamptonshire in 2011

After a BBC producer talked Walker and Hunt out of fighting in the commentary box they became a beloved fixture on television coverage of Formula One until Hunt’s death in 1993.

Walker’s television commentary was ever-present from 1978 until the U.S. grand prix in 2001.

He witnessed the careers of some of the sport’s most famous drivers including the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. When Damon Hill became Formula One world champion in 1996 Walker was so overcome with emotion that he told viewers: ‘I’ve got to stop now because I’ve got a lump in my throat.’

Walker lived for Formula One, sometimes to a fault. He married Elizabeth in 1959 but admitted that he had often been chained to the job: ‘If I hadn’t got a tolerant understanding wife I wouldn’t have been able to lead the life I led for so long because I was working non-stop from 1948 until 2001.

‘We didn’t have a conventional holiday for 20 years because I was on holiday all the time as far as I was concerned.’

After retiring from commentary on a high in 2001 Walker remained heavily involved in the life of motorsport and was still a much-loved figure in the Formula One paddock. In 2013 he had a brief fight with cancer but was declared well after just a few months. In summer 2016, he said that he was ‘too frail’ to attend the British grand prix at Silverstone. He hadn’t missed a single home race since 1949.

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