The scene: the Glen Motor Inn, Watkins Glen. The date: September 1979. I am sitting at a table with a couple of colleagues, and studying the menu, unable to make up my mind. From across the room, another diner offers advice: “Nigel, don’t have the fish, I beg of you!”
In the days after Rob Walker’s death, all who knew him spent hours on the phone, simply reminiscing. It was impossible not to be touched by meeting Rob; at once you were in thrall to the blend of wide-eyed innocence and chuckling cynicism, the beautifully delivered anecdotes, the meticulously timed pause, the languid `old money’ drawl. And the great thing was that he reacted with such pleasure as his audience wiped away tears of laughter. “Did you like that story?” he’d ask “Oh, I’m so glad.”
Rob was the first ‘insider’ to befriend me when I began working as a journalist in Formula One 30 or so years ago, and coming to know him well has been one of the joys of my life. I loved the fact that, as the world turned sour, he did not; that his qualities civility, wit, compassion, style survived quite intact to the end of his life.
This is not to imply that Rob was in any way a bland character, far from it. God knows how long we spent on the phone over the years, but a large portion of it was given over to distinctly salty observations about certain people for whom he did not care, and they were somehow the more potent for being delivered in those honeyed tones.
These conversations were of a catholic nature, invariably touching on not only motor racing, but also golf, animals, France, the various shortcomings of Mr Blair and his alleged government, cricket, America, all manner of things. Rob simply loved to chat, and invariably came up with an unexpected anecdote.
“When I was invited to Talladega kw a NASCAR race,” he said one day, “it was a new environment for me, and I didn’t really know anyone. But after practice I got talking to this awfully nice chap, who invited me to his house for dinner.
“When we got there, he gave me a drink, and offered to show me a video of the previous year’s race and when it got to the end, and they were interviewing the winner, it turned out to be my host! That was Neil Bonnett, and although he’d introduced himself at the track, his name didn’t really register at the time. Awfully embarrassing, but he thought it was very funny. Delightful chap. I was very sad when he got killed at Daytona.” It pleased me that Rob’s study was a touch chaotic, not unlike my own. There were paintings and photographs of his favourite drivers and friends, and magazines all over the place, and on a top shelf two items of headgear, a helmet worn by the lamented Mike Hailwood, and a policeman’s helmet of some vintage.
Any devotee of PG Wodehouse will know that it was de rigueurin the 1920s and ’30s, on an occasion such as Boat Race night, for young blades to remove and steal a bobby’s helmet.
“We were down from Cambridge for Guy Fawkes Night in London,” said Rob. “A friend and I worked out a scheme: I knocked the policeman’s helmet off, which was caught by my friend, who ran as fast as he could, and then did a rugger pass to me with it. Although the policeman couldn’t keep up, someone else did a terrific tackle on me, which brought me down on the pavement I was unconscious briefly, but fortunately had managed to pass the helmet back to my friend.
“As a result, I was gated for weeks, which was rather a bore, but I suppose I was lucky not to have been sent down. And I’ve still got the helmet!”
Life, not surprisingly, seems to have been idyllic for the privileged young man. By the time he was 20, in 1937, Rob reckoned he had been through as many cars as he had years. He would speak with particular fondness of his Mercedes-Benz 300SL, but his real passion always lay with racing. “When people ask me about my life, I always say motor racing’s all I’ve ever done — that and the war.” He served as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm.
The problem with relating ‘Rob stories’, one after another, is that their cumulative effect is to give the impression of a complete dilettante, which was not the case, as Stirling Moss — or anyone else who ever drove for the RRC Walker Racing Team — will tell you. It is true that Rob spent a good deal of his own money on racing, but he was not a man to waste it, and went about the running of his team very conscientiously.
“There really was no-one quite like Stirling,” said Rob. “For me, he was the perfect racing driver. And the other great thing about having him was that in those days there was no FOCA to do a financial deal for all the entrants; we all made our own arrangements. There was very little prize money or starting money — appearance money, in effect, was what mattered. And the driver every organiser wanted far more than any other was Stirling. One was thus in a position of strength, and that was very enjoyable — particularly with the Germans.”
“I loved going racing with Rob,” Moss said. “A small team, very relaxed, yet very professional. It meant buying cars from another company, of course, but that really appealed to me — trying to beat the factories. And quite a few times we did.” True enough. Between 1958 and ’61, the Walker team’s cars won eight Grands Prix.
For 1962, the plan was for Stirling to race a Ferrari, prepared at the factory, but operated at the races by the Walker team, whose blue-and-white colours it would carry. It was an astonishing concession by Enzo Ferrari. But everything came to nought when Stirling crashed at Goodwood on Easter Monday.
“I was devastated, of course,” Rob remembered. “The team carried on, with Maurice Trintignant, but it was not the same. With Stirling, anything had been possible, because he was so much better than anyone else.”
Not until 1968 was a ninth, and final, GP win added, this by Jo Siffert at Brands Hatch: “Betty [Rob’s wife] and I adored `Seppi’, who joined us in 1965 as number two to Jo Bonnier, who’d been with me for two years. I don’t think Bonnier liked being beaten by his team mate, and at the end of the year he suggested I should revert to running only one driver in 1966. ‘I quite agree with you,’ I said, ‘and it’s Siffert’.
“Seppi was a wonderful man, with unbelievable courage and a great sense of humour. In 1968, I bought a new Lotus 49 for him, and at our first test he wrote it off. That was bad enough, but when the wreckage was taken back to the workshops in Dorking, a spark from one the mechanics’ drills ignited fuel vapour, and the whole lot went up. Host what remained of the Lotus, of course, but also my ex-Dick Seaman Delage, as well as scrapbooks and souvenirs collected from 30 years of racing. It was heartbreaking.
“Still, we carried on, with an ex-Tasman 49, and then a new one, which arrived just in time for the British Grand Prix. In fact, the night before practice, the mechanics stayed up to finish building it. And then Seppi won, after the most fantastic battle with Chris Amon’s Ferrari. I thought that race would never end.”
When Rob ceased to be a team owner, he continued to come to races as a journalist Having been around racing so long, he had seen everything, so any contemporary incident triggered a memory. Not a fan of Michael Schumacher, he was delighted when Michael was black-flagged in the 1994 British Grand Prix, not least because Damon Hill went on to win.
A few days later Rob called me: “Nigel, have I ever told my black flag story? It was at Casablanca in 1957.
“Jack Brabharn was in my Cooper, and it had something wrong with it. The Clerk of the Course was ‘foto’ Roche, a very fat man, who sometimes used to start races with his flag while standing in front of the grid. I saw him reaching for the black flag, and guessed it was for my car, so what I did, I engaged him in conversation every time Jack was due to come past on another lap. Roche was on the track, with his flag, and I was in the pits. Several times it worked perfectly: as he turned round to answer me, he’d have his back to the track — and Jack would go past
“Eventually, he realised what was going on. ‘I know what you’re doing, Rob,’ he said, ‘and next time round I’m going to give your driver the black flag.’ He really didn’t know what he was doing, though, and he waved it at the next driver through — which was Fangio!
“It was awfully bad luck on Fangio, but he was terribly nice about it afterwards. And it’s significant that, when he got the black flag, he obeyed it without question, even though he hadn’t a clue why they were giving it to him. Not like Schumacher.”
Life will be so much paler without Rob Walker.
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