There were few commentary positions better than this one at Hockenheim. Having gained access to the lofty perch thanks to keeping a lap chart for BBC Radio, I had the opportunity to catch the BBC TV team preparing for the 1986 German Grand Prix.
James Hunt takes in the panoramic view of the stadium while Murray Walker refers to his copious notes and sets the scene. Murray may have always had a preference for a lip mike, but it was essential here.
As can be seen, the mezzanine floor for broadcasters was slung beneath the roof of the massive grandstand. Commentators found themselves at the top of a cacophonous echo chamber filled with the roar of the crowd beneath and cars blasting past the pits. It brought new meaning to the term ‘atmospheric’, particularly when spectators could react to either the sight of a new leader emerging into the stadium or as often happened, a piece of demon out-braking into the Sachs Kurve that followed. When Michael Schumacher appeared six years later, school was out. On every lap, it seemed.
Walker would have been hitting the rev-limiter while describing even the most routine scene; a style of commentary that raised criticism more often than not. It was a subject that Hunt was keen to address a few days later when I spent an afternoon at his home in Wimbledon.
The purpose was to discuss the 10 years since he had won the championship. You only had to look around to see the change. Emerging from an aviary in the back garden, James was cheerfully waving a spatula used to attack the droppings from 120 noisy budgies being bred for show. In the front drive, his Mercedes was raised on bricks. Parked alongside the disabled 450 SEL, an Austin A35 van. “Paid £900 for it,” he enthused. “Nineteen fifty-seven; 29,000 miles; immaculate; original tyres. It doesn’t half slide around! Unfortunately, it’s stuck in first gear at the moment. I have to sort that out as soon as we finish this.”
As always, our chat was forthright and illuminating. Once onto the subject of broadcasting, James came straight to the point. “Let me say this about Murray,” he said. “People criticise him for getting things wrong. It’s bloody difficult to get it right. I get confused from time to time. If they know the driver is Prost and not Piquet, then why write in about it if they know in the first place? So what? All he ever hears is criticism. He’s a tremendous enthusiast and does a hell of a lot for the image of the sport.”
This was in the days before the instant and sometimes spiteful self-gratification of social media. But the essential point remains. As Walker, now 97 and living in happy retirement, is rightly viewed as a national treasure, it’s perhaps useful for the best of today’s maligned broadcasters to remember that wasn’t always the case.