Murray Walker OBE 1923–2021

The Guild of Motoring writers was saddened to learn of the death of member and motorsport commentary legend Murray Walker on Saturday.

Graeme Murray Walker, was born in Birmingham in October 1923, and saw service in the Second World War as a tank commander after graduating from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and on leaving the army at the end of the war had achieved the rank of captain.

Motorsport was in his blood, with his father Graham having been competition manager for Sunbeam, and later sales and competition director for Rudge-Whitworth.

Murray competed in motorcycle racing and trials, and his first public racing commentary was in 1948 at the Shelsley Walsh Hillclimb, while a year later he commentated on the British Grand Prix for the BBC. Murray and Graham commentated together for the BBC on many motorsports events, and after the death of his father in 1962, Murray became the BBC’s lead motorcycle race commentator.

While he indulged his love of motorsports in commentary, he also carved out a successful career as an advertising executive. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that he became the BBC’s full-time Formula One commentator in a career that continued until his retirement in 2001, including F1’s switch from the BBC to ITV on UK television.

During his television career, he also became a memorable part of the BBC’s coverage of the British Touring Car Championship, and brought his immense professionalism and insight to the domestic series.

Murray joined the Guild of Motoring Writers in 1990, at the height of his success as one of the most recognisable voices in sports commentary, and with a following across the English-speaking world of motor racing enthusiasts.

Formula One writer and Guild member Maurice Hamilton leads our tributes to Murray.

“Murray Walker’s company at the races was like being with your favourite uncle. The paddock seemed to be complete when he appeared; a stocky figure who was welcome everywhere thanks to an easy-going manner and a natural desire to chat to one and all, be it mechanic, team principal or top driver. 

“Unfailingly polite and gentle, Murray did not conform to the thrusting image of the modern sports reporter; a characteristic that was seen by the motor racing majority as an asset rather than a failing. Having been commentating since 1948, Walker was ‘Old School’, and he saw no reason to change. In fact, he couldn’t, even if he had tried.

“Murray was driven by incredible enthusiasm, his deep love of the sport being instantly transmitted through a high-octane delivery informed by meticulous research and copious notes. If anything, he knew too much. A bursting desire to share all his thoughts with viewers led to tongue-tied moments for which, initially, he was criticised. Over time, however, classics such as “He’s in the pits and I’m stopping my start-watch” would form a list of ‘Murrayisms’ that generated increasing affection before his retirement as a full-time commentator in 2001.

“Despite his vast experience and global reputation (Walker had a huge fan club in Australia), Murray remained self-effacing and relentlessly professional. As a summariser on F1 for BBC Radio 5 Live in 2007, I was to discover this at first hand when Walker was persuaded to make a brief comeback as a stand-in when our lead commentator was forced to miss the German Grand Prix. 

“There were no airs or graces; no prepared excuses for being rusty or out of touch. Murray arrived early and insisted on being a part of our team at every turn, both business and social. He never came close to playing the ‘Well, in my experience….’ or, ‘I think we should do it this way’ cards you might expect. If anything, he was mildly apprehensive. But it didn’t take long for the adrenalin to kick in. In fact, he couldn’t wait to get going at the start of qualifying.

“The British Open was on at the same time and 5 Live Sport that Saturday afternoon was being presented by John Inverdale from Carnoustie. Inverdale began the hand-over to the Nürburgring with an effusive welcome for a broadcasting icon who was returning to his radio roots. 

“Meanwhile, the cars were leaving the pits and I could see, the longer this gushing introduction continued, the more agitated Walker was becoming. When the big moment finally arrived, rather than thank Inverdale for his very kind words and describe how much going back to BBC Radio genuinely meant to him, Murray, at peak revs, launched straight into: ‘Qualifying HAS BE-GUN!’ And we were off! 

“It was to be a truly memorable weekend and a privilege to sit alongside such a legend. Before the start, our producer resurrected ‘The Chain’. When the familiar beat hit the airwaves, the hairs on many a neck stood up. It was the prelude to hearing an equally evocative voice motor sport fans had taken to their hearts – and where it will forever remain.”

Guild of Motoring Writers president Nick Mason writes: “Murray Walker established himself as the definitive voice of Formula One for generations of enthusiasts, covering the sport for around half a century. Throughout he constantly remained an ardent fan, rather than a know-it-all.

“Clive James’s description of him as a broadcaster sounding as though ‘his trousers were on fire’ sums up both his style, but also indicates one of the many reasons he was held in such high regard and affection.

“He was of course a consummate team player, and his partnerships with James Hunt, and later Martin Brundle, provided perhaps the very best commentaries ever provided for any sporting contests.

“His motor sport enthusiasm extended well outside the Formula One circus, and his own experiences of motorcycle racing gave him a unique insight and sympathy for the less glamorous elements of the sport.

“Murray will be sorely missed not only by the Formula One paddock but a global audience of his fans.”

F1 writer and broadcaster Simon Taylor, also a Guild member, writes: “Murray Walker was a one-off. He brought a vast new audience to TV’s coverage of Formula One, an audience that adored him. He was a modest man, and he could never quite understand why, when he appeared in any English-language country that took his commentaries, he was mobbed more than most of the drivers.

“He was a wonderful communicator, because when he described a race his enthusiasm was completely genuine, and never simulated. He really was excited by what he was talking about, even after he had been describing motorsport of one sort or another for over 60 years. In his torrent of words there was drama, there was atmosphere, and there was humour, and underlying that was a huge amount of hard work. 

“At every Grand Prix he would walk the track, carefully annotating his own circuit diagram. He would talk to everyone in the paddock, and because he was such an amiable, courteous man everyone – from the world champions and the team bosses down to the mechanics – was happy to talk to him. His friendships with the likes of Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill were well-known, but there was a barely a driver in the paddock who didn’t greet him simply as ‘Murray’.

“It’s a shame, but no surprise, that many of the avalanche of obituaries in the general media have majored on his much-repeated, and often very funny, ‘Murrayisms’. But those were very rarely errors of fact. Usually they were mistakes of expression in the excited torrent of words as he rushed to describe what he saw. After all, it would be strange if, in 60 years and probably billions of words, there wasn’t the odd blooper. And Murray took it all in good part – which is why he called his autobiography Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken.

“Prodigious energy, careful research, an unbreakable work ethic and a style that was entirely unique: all that made Murray a very great commentator. And friendliness, honesty, good manners and a feet-on-the-ground  common sense: all that made Murray a delightful human being.”

Guild member David Tremayne, of Grand Prix+, writes: “Everyone thought they could do a better job of commentary when Murray Walker made one of his famed Murrayisms, which became part of racing’s rich lexicon.

“Who could forget pearls such as: ‘Unless I’m very much mistaken – which I am!’ ‘This would have been Senna’s third win a row, if he’d won the two before.’ Or ‘Mansell can see him in his earphone.’?

“They made people laugh, but they also endeared him to his audience. And such gaffes were not the product of ignorance, but his adrenaline-fuelled excitement. And behind them, few ever prepared so carefully and professionally for their job, nor had such an encyclopaedic knowledge of their sport.

“His ‘pants on fire’ style gave everyone a sense of the true thrill of Formula 1, and generated excitement even when there was none. And he was instrumental in helping the sport’s tremendous growth from the late Seventies right through to the turn of the century.

“He genuinely loved it, and saw his role as being to convey that love to viewers while filling them on what was happening on track and behind the scenes.

“He was an innately kind man, and could laugh at himself. And he was a toughie. At the age of 89 in 2013 he recovered from a fractured pelvis after a tumble, and saw off lymphatic cancer.

“In ‘resting’ mode he was super-friendly, wholly approachable, someone I was very proud to call a friend. A wonderful character, and a genuine legend, he probably hadn’t the slightest idea that he was also one of those rarest of men, whose passionate love for the sport was reciprocated thoroughly by everyone within it.”

Honorary Guild member the Duke of Richmond and Gordon writes: “Murray Walker was a dear friend of Goodwood, who played an important part in our events over the years, including in the early days of the Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival.

“Murray’s final Goodwood commentary was on the inaugural Settrington Cup at the 2012 Revival, when he brought all his trademark enthusiasm, professionalism and meticulous preparation to bear, despite the fact it was ‘only’ a pedal car race. 

“His love of the sport never wavered, and his ability to convey that unbridled joy to an audience meant he did more than perhaps anyone else to promote motor racing globally. We will miss him terribly, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”

He added that Murray also umpired the Goodwood Revival cricket match – a fond memory for the Duke and his family.

From the Royal Automobile Club members’ section:

“When all the tributes have been paid and the anecdotes and Murraryisms lovingly shared, members of the Club will be delighted to know that, uniquely, they are able to reflect on the life and times of friend and fellow Club member Murray Walker in a wonderfully appropriate place: The Murray Walker Television Room.

“Located in Pall Mall and opened by Murray in 2019, the room is only the second place in Pall Mall to bear the name of a racing personality, the other being the Segrave Room. The significance of this was not lost on Murray who said, “I find it very hard to put into words just what it means to me. I was, and remain, completely bowled over.”

“His delight was captured in a video interview presented by Simon Arron of Motorsport magazine, assisted by racing commentator Alan Hyde, recorded when the Television Room was opened. Its occasion marked what was almost Murray’s 60th anniversary as a member of the Club, a membership which, as he explains in the film, was very dear to him since his father, Graham Walker, was also once a member.

“During this fascinating and enjoyable film, Murray interrupts his recollections of life at the microphone to discuss the memorabilia arranged around the Television Room. Personal highlights include the rear wing given to him on his visit to McLaren and signed by the staff and team, and an original brick from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, presented to him in 2001.

“Reflecting on his career towards the end of the film, Murray says, in characteristically modest fashion: ‘Those who can, do and those who can’t, talk about it.’ As we remember Murray Walker’s hugely compelling and enjoyable contribution to racing, we can only be thankful that his huge talent found its outlet in speech.”

It’s possible to hear an interview with Murray by Tom Clarkson in the following podcast:

REVISITED: Murray Walker – An incredible life, in his own words
F1: Beyond The Grid

To millions of F1 fans around the world, Murray Walker was much more than an F1 commentator. He was the man that brought their passion to life, with his unmistakable voice sound-tracking – and enhancing – some of the greatest moments in the sport’s history. As the world mourns his sad passing, at the age of 97, we bring you Tom’s conversation with Murray from early 2019, as he looked back on his incredible life story, from the battlefields of World War Two to F1 commentary boxes across the globe.

Listen here on Apple Podcasts.

We will be including further tributes when we receive them.