Murray Walker, the inspirational voice of F1 — by Ben Edwards

Murray Walker was a true one-off. F1 commentator, fan and ambassador for motor racing, he was also a complete professional despite his ‘Murrayisms’. Fellow commentator Ben Edwards remembers the life of his friend and inspiration

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Monaco Grand Prix, 1995 and a key moment in my career as a commentator. Not only was it the first time that I walked the streets and absorbed the sheer complexity of the place, but it was also the first time I shared a commentary box with Murray Walker.

We weren’t actually working together; the open-plan style of the booths above the grandstand on the start/finish straight meant we were encapsulated in a large Portakabin with commentators from all over the world separated by short Perspex screens. Murray was teamed up with Jonathan Palmer for the BBC coverage overseen by producer Mark Wilkin while I was sharing the Eurosport TV space with John Watson. It felt so bizarre; to look across and see the man whose every word I had hung onto while falling in love with motor sport and to find myself shouting about the same dramas on track.

The passion for racing that Murray helped ignite in me began with his rants in rallycross. I grew up on a small farm, riding on tractors and occasionally being whizzed around in my brother’s grasstrack Ford Anglia. Watching Minis and Escorts battling through the mud at Lydden Hill on the BBC in the early 1970s captured me as each sprint race was wrapped up in Murray’s excitement and knowledge. His style was already well honed; he’d been commentating for a quarter of a century by the time I was 10 years old.

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Murray was with the BBC from 1978-96, then switched to ITV from 1997-2001

He had boosted spectator interest in scrambling and motocross over the previous two decades and now he was helping rallycross achieve a level of popularity on TV that gave him a sense of real pride. He mentioned it in his autobiography: “I like to think that I had a part in its success because, like motocross, my crash-bang-wallop commentary style fitted its all-action happenings perfectly.”

‘Murrayisms’ were also brewing, yet they often came from the challenge of getting information across in double-quick time. One of my all-time favourites, “The car in front is absolutely unique, except for the one behind it, which is identical” came from those rapid turnarounds. Four cars would prepare for each sprint while the next four would be lined up in preparation for the subsequent race. If a car dropped out of the first group before making it to the start line, it would be replaced by another from the one behind. As Murray called the start and glorified Norwegian racer Martin Schanche’s Ford Escort, he suddenly realised that John Welch had joined that grid at the last moment in another Schanche Ford. Hence the wordplay.

Murray had an endless ability to laugh at himself

His intricate knowledge always mattered more to me than the odd miscue. He communicated snippets of interesting information about cars and drivers that added huge depth to each event and so much of that knowledge came from his connection with people. I saw it in every F1 paddock; he would talk to mechanics, drivers, team bosses and journalists in exactly the same way, soaking up information. He was no different at a touring car event or when doing his research for the Formula Ford Festival.

Part of that ability to connect had come from military service. His loving family and close school friends provided an enjoyable bubble as he grew up but reporting for duty at the 30th Primary Training Wing at Bovington in 1942 gave him a different perspective on life and a real culture shock. He shared a room with an upmarket toff on one side and a streetwise welder on the other. The combination taught him how to connect across all social barriers.

Mark Wilkin, the producer who worked with Murray and later offered me the Formula 1 role with the BBC in 2012, witnessed that style of connection day after day.

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Silenced by the Williams team at Estoril in 1986

“That was the thing that always struck me about Murray,” Wilkin says. “When someone met him, and it didn’t matter who it was, they always left feeling a little bit richer from the meeting. That could be a taxi driver, a waiter, almost anybody. He appeared to care about you in a way which was incredibly clever.”

Murray was the same with me, despite the fact that I was a young ambitious commentator new to the F1 scene. That weekend in Monaco was the first time we saw each other in full flight, but we had already had dinner together as a BBC/Eurosport group at the season opener in Brazil. He was open and friendly, despite the fact that I could be seen as a distant rival. Eurosport’s audience numbers were minimal compared to those of the BBC, but the specialist channel had more airtime to play with and could attract some dedicated fans. His warm and welcoming nature was almost universal, except when it came to a certain James Hunt.

From the archive

My interest in F1 developed after James won the world championship in 1976. Two years later the BBC began broadcasting highlights of each race on a Sunday evening with Murray’s tones bringing the weekend to a climactic finale. When James joined the BBC team in 1980 his driver’s-eye view added a valuable perspective but I was completely oblivious to the fact that their relationship was tricky. Murray felt under threat; most commentaries then were done by a single announcer and he thought James was there to steal his slot. In fact it was the beginning of a new period in broadcasting where sports stars went on to become vital communicators and gradually the tension eased, although it never fully disappeared.

After a decade of working together things could still go wrong. For the grand prix in Adelaide in the early 1990s, James and Murray worked directly with Australian broadcaster Channel 9 on site as well as providing BBC commentary. Mark Wilkin was there to keep an eye on them but they had separate briefings from a feisty local producer who irritated James while Murray was happy to co-operate. One meeting went particularly badly; Mark was at the hotel when he got a call and had to hold the phone away from his ear:

“YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT JAMES DID IN THE MEETING!” Murray bellowed and continued to rant for 20 minutes.

“I told him I would sort it out and rang James,” remembers Wilkin, “and he said, ‘Well, you won’t believe what Murray did in the meeting,’ and off he went for 20 minutes. I said the only way we can sort this out is to have dinner together.”

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National treasure at Silverstone for the 2010 British Grand Prix

Always one to know the best venues in the area, Wilkin booked a restaurant nearby and prepared to play a diplomatic role.

“It was the most uncomfortable, most unpleasant dinner I’ve ever had. Both of them refused to back down. Murray absolutely adored Australia and it oozed out of every pore of his commentary what a fabulous place it was. But James hated it, claiming there was no culture.”

They still had some aspects in common as both decided to order the same chicken dish. Tension was hanging in the air but before long the waiter appeared, carrying two very generous plates.

“SEE, THAT’S WHAT’S SO MARVELLOUS ABOUT THIS COUNTRY, LOOK AT THIS CHICKEN HANGING OFF BOTH SIDES!” enthused Murray.

“It’s typical of this country they’ve got to have it bigger and better,” moaned the moody Hunt. “Isn’t that an example of how awful this place is?”

Thankfully the benefits of good food and drink did calm the situation and Mark’s plan allowed the weekend to go ahead as normal. “Eventually we got round to discussing it and saying it’s okay to have different opinions and they became friends again.”

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Murray and James Hunt in 1983; at times, this was a spiky pairing

It was clearly a complicated relationship throughout its duration, one that so sadly came to a premature end in 1993 when James died at the age of 45, but the combination will always be remembered for delivering a fantastic mix. Ironically, my early F1 partner John Watson influenced Murray on one occasion without even knowing it. The commentary booths at Spa in the 1990s were not much bigger than phone boxes. Two people could squeeze in, but Mark’s role as commentary producer had to be operated from a separate booth. It was a year or two before John and I worked together and he wasn’t commentating that weekend. He asked Mark if he could watch the race from his cabin and he was duly set up with some headphones then focused on the action.

It proved an entertaining time. With Murray’s commentary in one ear, John Watson’s voice was filling his box with observations. “Oh Murray, what a bloody idiot, that’s Prost not Mansell,” shouted Wattie, and then a few moments later, “He’s going to have to come into the pits now.”

Within a breath, Murray was calling, ‘OH, HE’S GOING TO HAVE TO COME INTO THE PITS NOW!’ and Mark presumed they had both been inspired by similar thoughts as the pattern kept repeating.

The truth was slightly different. For some reason, the normal ‘press to talk’ button had remained open: “Unknown to me, Wattie had been audible the whole time into Murray’s ear,” says Mark, “but he hadn’t thought to tell me at some stage that he could hear this strange voice.”

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Murray looked a bit baffled but quite happy when he caught up with Mark after the race. “I could hear this voice all the way through the commentary,” he mentioned. “It would say things like, ‘Oh you’re a bloody idiot Murray, what are you talking about?’ and it was really helpful, he told me loads of things.”

Murray was able to compartmentalise anything, make use of it if necessary or simply ignore it while focusing on the action. He also had an endless ability to laugh at himself, especially when surrounded by people. In Australia he would regularly hold a breakfast gathering for fans, respond to questions and comments and have everybody in stitches, with jokes at his own expense. He was an entertainer as well as a commentator but his focus was always razor sharp.

In my first year with the BBC he joined me in the booth at Silverstone for free practice, and this time we really did work together. He was 88 years old and yet he was totally up to speed with the latest stories and momentum in the sport, making accurate observations while telling stories that made us laugh.

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Murray took the Inspiration Award at our 2017 Hall of Fame evening

Murray had so many elements that lifted him into the highest echelon of sports commentators. His focus, his connection with people and his sheer professionalism came from an energy level that was truly impressive. He would spend seven hours working through notes on BTCC highlights before delivering his 30-minute commentary, and often travel straight off to a grand prix that night or the next day. Listening to him carry the excitement of Steve Soper smacking into John Cleland at Silverstone or dealing with the tragedy of Ayrton Senna’s accident at Imola, every moment that he covered was handled with genuine emotion and that struck a chord with me. He was both an inspiration and the standard bearer for all motor sport commentators in his wake. But ultimately for me, the key to his brilliance was his enthusiasm. It was genuine and heartfelt, unblemished by the political sandpits that Formula 1 is often drawn into. His sheer passion for motor sport and for living life to the full generated a long and remarkable career. And it wasn’t just engines that provided that energy.

From the archive

“At one time in the Formula 1 paddock Honda provided the finest hospitality,” recalls Wilkin. “An invitation to lunch came once a year and was well worth it.”

They were at Spa and took their seats along with other guests while a fantastic Japanese chef conjured up superb cuisine. Murray got up to help himself but as soon as he tried to put some classic Japanese rice on his plate, his voice resounded through the room.

“Where’s the chef, where’s the chef?” Murray called out.

“This chap is brought out,” says Mark, “and Murray in a typical Englishman-talking-to-a-foreigner voice goes, “I CAN TELL YOU… I CAN TELL YOU HOW TO MAKE RICE THAT DOESN’T STICK TOGETHER. UNCLE BEN’S. WHAT YOU NEED IS UNCLE BEN’S NON-STICK-TOGETHER RICE. I CAN GET SOME RICE FOR YOU,” and everybody’s cringing and mumbling, ‘Murray, Murray,’ but he gets all the way through to the end of it. Brilliant. It was just him being enthusiastic.”

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Ben Edwards was lead commentator for F1 coverage first for the BBC and then Channel 4 before stepping down at the end of the 2020 season. He was inspired by Walker’s energetic BBC commentary in the 1970s

Walter Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation just two years after Murray was born in the early 1920s. In addition to creating a hugely successful car company, Walter also delivered wise words: “The real secret of success is enthusiasm,” he once said. “Yes, more than enthusiasm, I would say excitement. I like to see men get excited. When they get excited they make a success of their lives.’

Enthusiasm and excitement defined Murray Walker and carried him through what would ultimately be a wonderfully successful life.