• The Man That Gave F1 a Voice

Prolific commentator Murray Walker passed away at the age of 97

Legendary motorsports journalist and commentator Murray Walker has left us on Saturday, March 13 2021. As big a car enthusiast as you’ll ever come across, Murray was brought up in a family of bike racers and nurtured a lifelong dream of being behind the mic at snooker tournaments. With a career spanning five decades, he became as recognizable as any F1 world champion although he began in radio even before F1 as we know it today was a thing.

A life driven by the passion for motorsports

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"There’s been no one like him that I’ve seen on TV," said reigning Formula 1 World Drivers’ Champion Lews Hamilton, talking during a press conference at the F1’s pre-season testing sessions in Bahrain. "Even without watching the TV – if you’re out in the room and you hear him excited you actually want to run back in and see what’s happening." Given a different personality, one could’ve wondered if Hamilton, now a seven-time world champion, uttered too big a statement but, in Murray’s case, no praise is out of place.

Many are described as ’legendary’ and ’irreplaceable’ upon their passing but, in the case of Walker, all of the above is perfectly true and supported by facts. Born on October 10th, 1923, as Graeme Murray Walker, the Birmingham native grew up in a house of gearheads that he learned to respect and, eventually, tried to follow in their footsteps.

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His father, Graham Walker, was a despatch rider and works motorcyclist for the Norton Motorcycle Company claiming wins at the notorious Isle of Man TT race in sidecars. He, Murray recounts, would’ve been world champion in 1928 if there would’ve been a world championship set up at that stage. Following up on his 15-year career as a professional rider, Graham Walker became the voice of bike racing, his chops being heard by those tuning in to listen to the BBC’s bike racing coverage.

Murray, impressed by his father's exploits both as a pundit and a rider - and a sales executive to top it all off, tried to emulate him in the days after the end of WW2.

Putting his role of Sherman tank commander with the 4th Armoured Brigade, Captain Murray began racing motorcycles in national-level events. However, it didn’t take long for the truth to catch up to him as, by his own admission, he wasn’t ’good enough to satisfy his own ambitions’. That led Murray to quit racing and, instead, begin leading what he often referred to as a double life.

In the years prior to the M1’s inauguration (in 1959), he’d trek down Britain’s lonesome dual carriageways on the weekends to cover a myriad of motorsport events as a commentator while working full-time as an account executive in the advertising business. He had a knack for coming up with punchy taglines which saw him evolve into a pretty successful marketeer but the success he enjoyed in his 9-to-5 never once had him entertain the idea of quitting commentary.

That his schedule which, at one point, included no less than 30 race meetings per year, was tiring goes without saying but Murray felt none of the fatigue as this was his passion. He loved rallying, bike racing, rally-cross, single-seaters, and tin tops. He loved them all equally and, as the man behind the mic, tried to have those listening echo his feelings. In those days, there were no telecasts of the races, so just like his father’s tones, Murray’s often high-pitched ones would be heard by British fans on the radio.

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Talking about those early days, Murray is frank: "I don’t how I did it but the answer is, if in life you want to do something badly enough, you find a way to do it, don’t you?" And Murray wanted it badly enough. While he’s become renowned the world over as being the voice of F1, he’s lent his voice to all sorts of motorsports including, as mentioned, Grand Prix motorcycle racing, rally-cross, F2, F3, and even the British Touring Car Championship.

In the ’60s, live events broadcasted on the small screens were few and far between meaning Murray would voice the occasional highlights reels that the BBC would piece together although some races, like the famous 1969 Italian GP, were indeed shown live and that’s why we get to hear Murray’s unique reaction to what was, at that time, the closest ever finish in a Formula 1 Grand Prix event. Most other Grand Prixs at the time were covered by Raymond Baxter.

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Following James Hunt's successful bid on the championship in 1976, the BBC, which broadcasted that sultry and rain-soaked Japanese Grand Prix, began to work on ways to show all of the races on TV.

As James Hunt became World Drivers’ Champion upon Lauda’s retirement from the race held at the Fuji Speedway, the sport’s popularity in the British Isles was once again on the rise, Hunt being the first British champion since Sir Jackie Stewart in 1973.

All of the cogs were in place by 1978 when Murray was appointed commentator for "a Sunday evening program called Grand Prix - half an hour of highlights from that afternoon’s race, taking the pictures off Eurovision. By then Raymond Baxter had a major commitment to Tomorrow’s World, so they asked me to do the commentary. That’s where it all really began," recalled Murray in a 2011 interview. Two years down the road and the commentators’ booth had to accommodate for two egos as the BBC’s producer had decided to bring in a second voice on the program which ended up being the rather baritonal-sounding one of James Hunt himself.

"I was literally gobsmacked. To put it mildly. What did James Hunt know about broadcasting? He was a racing driver! And one I didn’t much like," recounted Murray some 30 plus years after the fact. "I was old enough to be his father, and we were out of two different molds. To me, he was a rude, arrogant Hooray Henry who drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney," added Murray whose initial image was proven to be bang on the money by Hunt as he arrived for their first gig together at the Monaco GP with a bottle of rose wine in one hand and a cast on his leg.

But, somehow, it all worked. "Our styles couldn’t have been more different, which was maybe why it did work," Murray believes. "I’d be bouncing around on the balls of my feet, a metaphorical bucket under each foot to collect the adrenaline that was literally pouring off me, to put it mildly, and James would be slumped in a sullen heap beside me," he added, mentioning that, in those days, the two of them had to share the mic as the BBC tried to avoid having the two speaking voices overlap during the broadcast.

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But it wasn’t just James. Walker also had the likes of Graham Hill, Barry Sheene, Jonathan Palmer, and Martin Brundle by his side and it is the latter that he rates the highest. "He knows what he’s talking about, knows just how to say it, and he’s got a great sense of humor," concluded Murray who retired as a full-time commentator at the end of the 2001 season. By then working for ITV, he’d expressed his wish to retire following a blunder he made during the 2000 season when he confused Schumacher’s out-of-control Ferrari with Barrichello’s identical red stallion.

That was, of course, not the first nor the last time that Murray got something wrong during his decades-long career but, by and large, in spite of what the British tabloid press would have had you believe in period, it was these so-called Murryaisms that made him endearing to the public even more. "I understood my job was also to entertain the viewer," Murray said in a taped interview, his mistakes being rooted in the pure excitement that drove him from one end to the other of a Grand Prix.

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"Very few of the ‘mistakes’ people accused me of were factual errors — because I worked extremely hard to get my facts right.," Murray pointed out many times over. "They were slips of the tongue, inversions of words, malapropisms, or simply my way of saying things," he would add although that won’t stop you from finding dozens of such compilations online if you care to look for them.

The current crop of F1 commentators and pundits are, perhaps, more capable of avoiding the odd gaffe but Murray’s enthusiasm hasn’t and, perhaps, will never be matched. His voice too is worlds apart from all others and it’s that complete package that made Murray such a star. A star that never once competed in a car race, let alone win one or a championship. But he was and will always be as famous as all of the big champions. And rightly so.

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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