Rob Walker: far from a 'bland' character
What are your memories of Rob Walker? I grew up and still live in Indianapolis, and it was Walker, through Road & Track magazine, who fuelled my love of Grand Prix Racing way back in the late 1960s.
Rob Walker was the first ‘insider’ to befriend me when I began working as a journalist in F1 30-odd years ago, and coming to know him well was 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 goodly 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 languid mahogany tones.
These conversations were of a catholic nature, invariably touching on not only motor racing, but also golf, animals, France, the shortcomings of our alleged government, cricket, America, all manner of things. Rob simply loved to chat, and invariably came up with an unexpected anecdote.
It always pleased me that his study was a touch chaotic, not unlike my own. There were paintings and photographs of favourite drivers and friends, and magazines all over the place, and on a top shelf a helmet worn by the lamented Mike Hailwood.
To the end of his days Rob’s passion for racing never abated: “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 He served as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, although this entailed the return of a flying licence which had been withdrawn.
“I’d taken a Tiger Moth to a horse race meeting, and during the lunch interval everyone got frightfully bored, so I got back in the aeroplane, and started jumping all the fences. Unfortunately, a policeman gave my number to the Air Ministry.”
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’s 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 like Stirling,” he said. “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, and starting money – appearance money, in effect – was what mattered. And of course 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 1961, the Walker team’s cars won eight Grands Prix, including two – at Monaco and the Nürburgring in ’61 – which were perhaps Moss’s greatest victories, and have gone into legend.
For 1962, the plan was for Stirling to race a Ferrari, prepared at the factory, but operated at the races by the Walker team, and in the traditional livery of dark blue with white nose band. It was an astonishing concession by Enzo Ferrari, but such was his obsession with having Moss in one of his cars that he acquiesced. Everything came to nought when Stirling crashed a Lotus at Goodwood on Easter Monday. He was never to race at the top level again.
“I was devastated, of course,” Rob remembered. “The team carried on, with Maurice Trintignant, but it wasn’t 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, win added, this by Jo Siffert at Brands Hatch. “My wife Betty and I adored ‘Seppi’, who joined us in ’65, 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 ’68 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. I lost what remained of the Lotus, of course, but also my ex-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, writing for magazines such as Road & Track. Having been around racing so long, he had seen everything, so any contemporary incident triggered a memory. No fan of Schumacher’s, 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 he called me. “Nigel, have I ever told my black flag story?
“It was at Casablanca in ’57. Jack Brabham was in my Cooper, and it had something wrong with it. The Clerk of the Course was ‘Toto’ 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. 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 simply obeyed it without question, even though he hadn’t a clue why they were giving it to him. Not like bloody Schumacher…”