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Murray Walker OBE: 10/10/1923 - 13/03/2021

Sunday, March 14 2021

The fact that Murray Walker's name is not just remembered, but still triggers instant recognition by so much of the population, over 20 years since he stopped commentating on F1, demonstrates what a true legend he was. And to reinforce that, he was universally remembered so fondly too, and that is an incredible achievement.  But part of Murray's charm was that I'm sure he didn't actually set out to achieve that fame - he just did what he enjoyed, and because of his natural aptitude and totally uncontrived delivery, he did it bloody well. 

Naturally the first Murray I knew was the one thousands of others did too, the television commentator on BBC for Formula 1. Throughout my years as a part time medical student and rather more than part time club racer, the target of my motor racing ambitions was promoted by Murray more than anyone - because that was his role. He wasn't just the voice of motor racing, and more specifically F1, for he was really a supremely talented vocal artist. Murray's wonderfully distinctive voice, one that importantly transcended class, added huge colour to F1 whilst he also inspired respect, adulation, and when required, sympathy, with viewers for all the players on the F1 stage.

When I became an F1 driver in 1984, along with Martin Brundle, we were the new kids on the grid (and sometimes not!) amidst the established British stars, Nigel Mansell and Derek Warwick. Despite me being in the hopelessly uncompetitive RAM, at each Grand Prix Murray would always have a chat as he wandered round the paddock, be genuinely interested in how I was getting on and see the positives in my situation, as he did with pretty much everyone. You just knew that he wouldn't try to trip you up to extract information with which he could knock you in his race commentary, for his public's titillation. He was a kind commentator - but then of course he had James Hunt alongside to tell it how it was! But even then, James knew what it was like to be in a bad car and sympathised with that. It was mainly just crass driving that would get the sharp end of James' tongue!

At the end of my six year F1 career in 1991, I was eager to see if I could use my experience to contribute to the BBC Grand Prix programme and approached the producer offering my services in what was then a new role - pit lane reporter. Thankfully Murray and James were both supportive of this new addition to the BBC Grand Prix commentary team and we all got on well. The added information that could come from someone who knew the sport and the people in the pit lane was a valuable addition to the broadcasts, as were the technical focus spots that I used to do.

Then in June 1993 things suddenly changed when James died, and I was thrust into the invidious position of replacing James Hunt as co-commentator to Murray, which I did over four F1 seasons. My respect for Murray now escalated hugely as I could truly understand the challenges and pressures of live sport commentary - it really is not easy. The concentration required to not just follow everything that is going, but to continually and pertinently comment on it, is enormous. And on top of that is the true talent of commentating eloquently too, which Murray not only naturally excelled at, but he had the added gift of such a distinctive, easy to listen to voice and delivery.

The skill that I admired most of all though was his ability to not just read, but amplify the right mood.  His excitement and unadulterated delight at great success, particularly such as Nigel Mansell or Damon Hill winning a Grand Prix, let alone a World Championship, was legendary, and stirred the soul. But equally importantly and far harder to do, was Murray's extraordinary ability to suddenly completely transform at times of very serious accidents, when his usual excitement would be instantly replaced by measured, sombre tones, as Murray would calmly explain what was going on throughout the inevitably drawn out process of the F1 safety crews dealing with a potentially fatal accident. He had the skill to sincerely deliver the gravitas the situation demanded. Never was I more profoundly aware of this than when Murray and I were commentating live at Imola in 1994 when Ayrton Senna died.

I always felt that Murray's wonderful, sometimes even naïve, ability to be so positive about so many in F1, particularly drivers, was because he had never been a racing driver himself and was almost in awe of even the most modestly talented driver, which is a rather nice perspective! Having worked so closely with Murray in the very close confines of the commentary box, in a high pressure, stressful environment, one certainly learns more about true character, and there is no doubt Murray's generous commentary style was not completely mirrored in the working environment, where he was a pretty tough operator, bordering on the selfish. In those days the producer Mark Wilkin was rightfully paranoid about commentators not talking over each other, so had a policy of having just one microphone that had to be shared, so one commentator had to pass to the other when he had something to say. Whilst we generally got on fine, Murray could be very possessive, and I had to physically wrestle with him to grab the microphone on more than one occasion, as I suspect Martin will testify too!

It was an immense privilege to have worked alongside such a master for so long, and the world will miss him. But Murray Walker certainly will never be forgotten - just hearing a few words of his voice makes him immediately recognisable, with glowing memories.  And I really don't think I'm very much mistaken…

Jonathan Palmer
Former BBC co-commentator to Murray Walker, and MSV Chief Executive

JP & Murray Comms Box