What would Graham Hill be doing now if he were still with us? In this issue we explore what made him unique as a driver — his triple hit of Formula One championship, Indy 500 victory and Le Mans win — but who can guess which way he might have gone after his planned retirement in 1975? Business magnate and consultant like Sir Jackie Stewart? Entrepreneur and team boss like Niki Lauda? Or would he have simply left the Grand Prix world behind, as Tony Brooks did? Chances are we would still be seeing him on our screens talking about motor racing. By now, at 73, Graham would have retired again, but his deadpan wit in interviews and the string of one-liners he could churn out while commentating would keep him top of the list for that vital 20-second soundbite. Both Sir Jackie and Sir Stirling have remained sure-fire sources, though one hasn’t raced for 40 years, while younger champions have had their burst of fame without becoming a ‘voice of the sport’. But surely that Hill drawl would now be familiar to Fl fans who weren’t born when he retired.
The other member of this club is Murray Walker. By chance, Celebrity Ready Steady Cook popped up on my TV. Before I could hit the remote, I recognised the gleaming head of Mr Walker, backed by BBC2’s old Grand Prix theme. He was soon joined by F1 hopeful Jenson Button.
Now half an hour of popular TV may seem trivial. And is. But two things stuck with me. This is Murray’s first year of retirement and the sixth of ITV coverage, yet that thumping guitar made an instant connection — I could hear V10 engines and Murray warming up. This association is branded into the public’s cerebellum. Which means that even when he has been away from the track for years, producers will still be ringing Murray for comments, and using that tune. Only a few people carry their authority with them when they leave the sport, and along with Moss and Stewart, he is one.
What also stood out was Murray’s up-front passion. Jenson was personable, jokey, telling us he still goes to the pub like a normal bloke. Perfect PR behaviour for someone with his career before him. But Walker, while parrying the inane racing puns, threw in a serious moment, pointing at the young Button grating a lime and saying firmly “Some day, he is going to be world champion.” Cue applause from an audience surprised to hear an actual opinion among the banter.
It wasn’t the opinion, it was the commitment which was refreshing. We’re used to “We’ve made progress, but we have some work to do”, one-size-fits-all corporatespeak which not only tells us nothing, it tells us “I’m telling you nothing”.
Would Graham Hill still be one of motor racing’s voices, 26 years on? Yes. Would he be caught spouting the company line? I don’t think so.
Paul Fearnley is away