Modern corporate Formula One is a million miles from the carefree days of racing that Rob Walker graced – but he still enjoyed and kept in touch with it. Andrew Frankel remembers an arch enthusiast who did his winning in style
The most telling thing about Robert Ramsay Campbell Walker, I always thought, was not his fine achievements as a private team owner but the fact that his occupation in his passport was given as ‘Gentleman’. For most people, such a statement would at best be a joke, at worst an excruciating affectation; for Rob Walker, it was simply the truth. Speak to those who knew him and that one word — gentleman — stands out in every conversation.
By now it will not be news to you that pneumonia took Rob from us on April 29 at the age of 84, and now it seems trite and obvious to say the world of motor racing is a poorer place without him. Though the famed blue-with-white stripes livery had not been seen at a contemporary Grand Prix since the early 1970s, the man behind it was more than a giant of his sport, he was truly the last of a line.
“Rob was a gentleman,” says Tony Brooks, who raced for him in Formula Two. “I never had a contract with him and never wanted one; with Rob, a shake of the hand was all there ever was, and all that was ever needed. And in all the years I knew him, I never once saw him get angry.”
Yet this old-fashioned gentleman possessed the professionalism, dedication and savvy to build a team that beat every works team in Formula One on average twice a season during 1958-61.
Life started for Rob Walker on August 14, 1917, and the bug bit early when his mother took him to the 1924 Boulogne Grand Prix. Captivated, he persuaded her to buy him a Bullnose Morris when he was just 11. Most children would have had little use for such a device, but born into a family made wealthy from the sale of whisky, Rob’s house came complete with a mile-long drive.
Educated at Sherbome and Cambridge, it was not long before Rob was hooked, owning a string of Austins, a Lea-Francis, a couple of Morgans, some Rolls-Royces, a supercharged Alvis, a Talbot, Tracta and a Lagonda before stumbling across a car that would change his life. Late in 1938, he discovered a 3.5-litre Delahaye Type 135S sports-racer, and he drove it at Le Mans in ’39. The race was a triumph for Rob, who drove the last 12 hours single-handed after a leaking exhaust gasket badly burned his co-driver’s feet. He finished eighth overall, third in class, against the likes of Wimille, Sommer, Bira and Chinetti.
Rob married Betty Duncan in 1940, and spent the war flying Swordfish, Hurricanes and innumerable other aircraft for the Fleet Air Arm, mainly in the Middle East. He survived being torpedoed and emerged unscathed, knowing what to do next.
He slipped easily into the role of team manager, having promised Betty he would not race again. Success came early with drivers such as Eric Thompson and Tony Rolt, the latter bringing him his first major victory, the Coronation Trophy at Crystal Palace in 1953, the same year that the team entered its first grand epreuve, the British at Silverstone, with Rolt at the wheel of Rob’s A-type Connaught. Impressively, he qualified on the third row and was lying fourth when he retired 10 laps from home.
But it was in 1956 that the acquisition of both a mid-engined F2 Cooper and ace mechanic Alf Francis that set Rob’s course. In Michael Cooper-Evans’ excellent 1993 biography of Rob (Hazleton Publishing, 140), Rob said they were “the most important decisions lever made in my racing career”. Years ahead of their time, engineered by Francis, and driven by the likes of Brooks in F2 and Brabham in F1, the Coopers promised much — but delivered little. It took Stirling Moss’ skills to put them, and RRC Walker Racing Team, truly on the map.
Driving Rob’s Cooper in the first GP of the 1958 season, Argentina, Stirling and Alf decided to do the unthinkable and run throughout without a tyre stop, something no other team considered. With tyres worn to the canvas, Stirling won. It was not just Rob’s first win, it was Cooper’s, too, the only sadness being that Rob was not there to see it.
He made no such mistake at the next race, in Monaco, where he saw Maurice Trintignant take the flag, proving that it was not just Moss’ genius that had brought victory in Argentina. There would be no more wins that season, but with Moss freed of his Vanwall commitments in 1959, he took Rob’s team to victory in Portugal and Italy.
The 1960 season saw Moss win at Monaco to provide Lotus’ first GP victory, a triumph he followed up with a win at Riverside later in the year. But it would be 1961, with two extraordinary victories at Monaco and the Niirburgring, that would make it Rob’s year of years. In both races, Moss’ talent and the agility of his Lotus allowed the tiny team to defeat Ferrari in the year when the Italian marque should have been invincible in Formula One.
“I still think Monaco was the greater of the two,” says Stirling today. “Every lap, there would be Rob with the timing board showing me how close it was I could see and feel the presence of the Ferraris. The Nurburgring was a tougher race but ultimately less memorable.” Rob could never quite bring himself to choose between the two.
So vast was Stirling’s admiration for Rob that, when he finally agreed to drive for Ferrari, in 1962 – 11 years after first being asked it was on condition that Rob ran the car in his own colours. Staggeringly, Ferrari agreed to this demand. Then, on Easter Monday, Stirling crashed. Rob had to wait another seven seasons before his last win, fittingly at the British GP, with Jo Siffert at the wheel of his Lotus 49B. Driving a car that was still being built during practice, Siffert fought off all corners, to win from Chris Amon’s Ferrari by 4.4sec. It was Seppi’s first championship win, Rob’s last
Rob continued to run Lotuses until 1970, switching to Surtees thereafter, but the wins never came again. Increasingly, he followed his other professional calling, that of a journalist writing for Road & Track and many other titles, including this one.
It is easy to see Rob Walker’s life as being charmed. Born with the means to indulge his passion, it’s not hard to conclude he got where he did because he had the financial backing to hire the likes of Moss and Francis and buy GP Lotus and Coopers. In fact, many others more monied than Rob died on their arses when faced with the full might of the factory teams. Rob made every shred of his success himself and he did it by being a man of total integrity. As a team principal, he commanded the loyalty of his employees not by striking fear into their heart but by earning their limitless, unquestioning respect.
The life of Rob Walker is inextricably linked with that of Moss who, as our greatest living racing driver, recalls the friend we have all lost and his recollection is so startlingly similar to that of Brooks there can be no doubting its accuracy: “I remember his voice, his smile and mannerisms. The last gentleman of motor racing. In all the years I raced with him, I never even had a letter of agreement from him, let alone a contract. It was not the way you did things with Rob. You’d decide on something and that was it My relationship with Rob was not like that of a team manager and a driver; he was so passionate about it all, got so involved, he felt to me more like a co-driver.”
Long before his ghastly accident, Stirling had decided that while Rob Walker went racing, he would never again race for anybody else.
I last saw Rob two years ago when I had lunch with him and Betty in their beautiful house near Frome. Sitting around his dining-room table, and later in his office, we talked motor racing not just about the Good Old Days but about the state of the sport today, too. Well into his 80s, his enthusiasm was total, the sparlde in his eyes undimmed. He showed me the trophies, too, not formally arranged in a cabinet, but comfortably littered around his home like old family friends.
It may seem an odd thing to say about the greatest privateer in the history of the sport, but this was not his greatest achievement The truly extraordinary thing about Rob Walker was he did it all without ever breaking his word, loosing his cool or doing the dirty on anyone. In short, he did it as the consummate gentleman he was.
It’s that word again. If you really want to know Rob, think only of that word and every positive aspect it engenders; then add limitless enthusiasm for life and the sport and you’ll have as good a picture as any.