It probably won’t have escaped your attention that the legendary Formula 1 commentator Murray Walker has been featured in a number of video interviews this week on mclaren.com/formula1, which is the website that you’re currently logged on to as you read these words.
Murray – or Muzza (which nickname he likes) or Muddly Talker (which nickname he doesn’t) – is the daddy of all Formula 1 broadcasters, having first commentated on a Grand Prix in 1949 (the British Grand Prix, won by Emmanuel de Graffenried in a Maserati 4CLT) and having delivered his last Grand Prix commentary at Indianapolis 52 years later, in 2001, which race was won by Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren MP4-16.
Murray remains as sharp and as energetic as ever, as his aforementioned mclaren.com/formula1 video interviews reveal all too clearly, and it’s therefore rather difficult to accept that he’s due to celebrate his 90th birthday later this year.
Murray’s prime assets have always been threefold, in my view. He’s always been incredibly well informed, retaining even now an encyclopaedic memory for facts and stats despite his advancing years; he’s always wielded the scalpel of criticism with a delicate and sensitive touch, ensuring that he’s seldom found himself off-side with any important driver or team grandee; and his voice has always been and remains a metallic rasp that suits perfectly the sport it’s devoted half its lifetime to describing, and once caused the acerbic Australian TV presenter/pundit Clive James to observe, “In full flow, Murray Walker sounds as though his trousers are on fire.” (Is that why Muzza was wearing flame-red trousers for his recent mclaren.com/formula1 video interviews then? – ed.)
Murray’s father Graham was an accomplished motorcycle competitor and commentator, taking his son to race meetings throughout the UK and Europe in the years immediately following the Second World War (in which conflict Murray had served with distinction with the Royal Scots Greys, incidentally).
Murray’s predecessor as the BBC’s motor racing commentator of choice was the rather more patrician Raymond Baxter, a Spitfire pilot in World War Two who had in ‘civvy street’ gone on to deliver the BBC’s radio commentaries for events of such national significance as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the funerals of King George VI, Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Mountbatten of Burma, and the first flight of Concorde.
But, despite having performed with chummy verve in his immediate post-Baxter years, during which period Murray had always been commentating solo, it was once James Hunt had retired from Formula 1 racing – flouncing away from his sluggish and unreliable Wolf-Ford after a lap-five transmission failure at Monaco, never to return to its cockpit despite the fact that we were only seven Grands Prix into a 15-race season – that Murray found the ying to his yang, the ‘Saint’ to his ‘Greavsie’, the laconic complementary foil that allowed him to give full vent to what soon became known in motorsport circles simply as ‘the Voice’. (Google ‘Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves’ if you’re under 30 and have never heard of ITV’s once-much-loved footballing double act. – ed).
If Murray had a tactful turn of phrase, then Hunt was a man who, despite a Surrey stockbroker-belt accent that had been refined further on the playing fields of Wellington College in Crowthorne, Berkshire, always called a spade a bloody shovel. (James usually used a rather stronger adjective than ‘bloody’, actually. – ed.)
James had little time for Riccardo Patrese, for instance, whom he’d always held responsible for the death of the great Ronnie ‘Super-Swede’ Peterson, whose Lotus 78 had come off worst in the multi-car start-line shunt at Monza in 1978.
Years later, in 1991 and 1992, when Riccardo was a Williams-Renault driver alongside Nigel Mansell, it was all too clear that James still hadn’t forgiven the elegant Italian veteran – who, despite being on the cusp of his 40th birthday, could usually still be relied on to put in a solid and successful performance in the team’s all-conquering FW14 (1991) or FW14B (1992).
Nigel won the World Championship in 1992, but Riccardo came second, and, impressively in my view, he reeled with James’s many punches and chose to ignore the BBC man’s ungracious comments about his in-cockpit efforts.
But James was a great commentator, it must be said, and it was the very fact that he was so incorrigibly irascible that made him so compulsively listenable. He was still commentating very entertainingly right up to the occasion of his sudden death, from a heart attack, at just 45 years old, in June 1993.
Those of you who have viewed the recently issued online trailer of ‘Rush’, the soon-to-be-released movie that celebrates James’s 1976 triumph over Niki Lauda – and, axiomatically, McLaren’s 1976 triumph over Ferrari – doubtless now feel as we old Formula 1 journalists have done ever since that sad summer’s day nearly 20 years ago. We still miss James, and I bet you do now, too.
The last Formula 1 commentator I want to tell you about is one with whom you may perhaps be rather less familiar. His name is Wilson Fittipaldi Snr, and he died last month, at the age of 92.
He was the father of my fellow mclaren.com/formula1 blogger, Emerson ‘Emmo’ Fittipaldi, and I remember him as a lovely man when I first met him in 1969, fussing attentively as he was around Emmo’s Formula Ford Merlyn at bleak and chilly racetracks such as Snetterton.
Wilson Snr (as opposed to Wilson Jnr, Emerson’s brother, who also drove in Formula 1 in the 1970s) first commentated on a motor race in 1949 – coincidentally the same year as Murray first commentated on a motor race. The event was the Bari Grand Prix, a Formula 2 race that was won by Alberto Ascari in a Ferrari 166, but very little is now known about that race other than what's contained in the sentence you're now reading, so I won't let it sidetrack me here.
Besides, it’s for a rare and momentous familial accomplishment that Wilson Snr will always be remembered in motorsport lore. On September 10th 1972, most of Brazil’s fast-growing body of Formula 1 fans were sitting in their homes in front of their TV screens in the fervent hope that, more than six thousand miles away, at Monza, Italy, their young countryman Emerson Fittipaldi would that afternoon become the first Brazilian World Champion in Formula 1 history.
The commentator whose words accompanied the flickering black-and-white images of Emmo’s shimmering black-and-gold car, as he won both race and Championship, was, yes, you’ve guessed it, his father.
Forty-one years later, just a month ago, Emerson was at his father’s bedside, at the Copa D’Or hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as they said their last goodbyes.
God bless them both.