The ultimate gentleman racer? Rob Walker and motorsport
A gentleman’s word is his bond, a firm handshake its seal – and Robert Ramsay Campbell Walker was most definitely a gentleman. It said so in his passport. That, however, was insufficient to secure the services of the world’s best racing driver.
No, though it helped that the “self-unemployed” Walker was everything Enzo Ferrari was not, Stirling Moss ‘signed’ for – there never was a written contract between them – and stayed with the RRC Walker Racing Team because it was the antidote to his peaking stress levels, being cravat relaxed and fabulous fun, yet ferociously focused and crew cut efficient when necessary. Always Corinthian, never casual.
Their original agreement was for Formula 2 in 1958 when Moss’s Grand Prix and sportscar programmes with Vanwall and Aston Martin allowed. But it grow’d like Topsy from the moment in January when they bit Formula 1 in its pants.
Walker had competed before the war – he finished eighth in a Delahaye at Le Mans 1939 – but at the behest of indefatigable wife Betty had since restricted his activities to sprints and hillclimbs. To fill the gap he formed an eponymous team and ran it from his delightfully named Pippbrook Garage in Dorking, Surrey. Success came quickly with Eric Thompson and Tony Rolt scoring a slew of national victories during 1953 in its blue Connaught with white noseband. (Whisky heir Walker was a Scot born in England.) Though the wins dried to a trickle thereafter, despite the excellence and efforts of Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks, Walker laid down important foundation stones during this period.
His decisions in 1956 to use Coopers and have them prepared by Alf Francis were crucial: perspicacious and pragmatic. Walker was an early convert to the potential of these ugly bug cars at the highest level, while Francis was the stern-looking Pole – his was the crew cut, usually hidden under a woolly hat – who had been the younger Moss’s mechanical guide, strategic sounding board and back-up if matters threatened to get tasty. The clinching part of the winning equation was a no-brainer: much to Walker’s surprise, it was Moss who approached him. This small team now packed a big punch and it landed with a huge swing in the opening round.
Walker had underwritten the stretching of Coventry Climax’s FPF ‘four’ to 1960cc in 1957 and Moss asked if he could use it in the Argentine GP after Vanwall declared itself unready for 1958’s mandatory use of Av-gas fuel. Walker’s laissez faire response ‘If Alf can do it…’ was met in the affirmative and history was made when Moss, despite wearing a patch over an injured eye and patches of canvas showing through his Continental tyres, upstaged Ferrari to score the first world championship GP victory for a car with its engine behind the driver.
Over the next four-and-a-bit seasons Moss and Walker would win almost half of their 100 starts across F1, F2, the Intercontinental Formula, Tasman and GT races. Among them were: the maiden GP wins for Cooper (as per previous paragraph) and Lotus; the only F1 win for a four-wheel drive car – Ferguson’s P99 at the 1961 Oulton Park Gold Cup; consecutive RAC TT wins at Goodwood; victories by an entire lap; victories in F2 for Porsche; Moss’s final victory; and his self-proclaimed finest. How they won and whom they beat, however, were as important to these overachieving underdogs.
Walker was swift to dip into his pocket to ensure that Moss had the best at his disposal, but privateer status and clashing fuel affiliations – they were with BP whereas Lotus boss Colin Chapman was with Esso – meant that theirs was not always the best of the best. That, though, suited Moss’s battling mindset and his defeat of a shoal of ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris at Monaco in 1961 in a year-old Lotus with a deficit of power was the summit of his powers. Two months later, modifications to his Lotus more cosmetic than fundamental, he had the identifying marks of Dunlop’s ‘green spot’ wet painted out before beating the circling Ferraris in a wet-dry-wet German GP at the Nürburgring. This after conning Enzo’s men that he planned to make a pit stop during the 1959 Italian GP at Monza – Moss had had ‘knock-off’ wire wheels fitted to the rear of his Cooper – before running non-stop to victory.
And the insouciant Moss kept abreast of his own serene progress in the 1960 RAC TT by listening to BBC’s commentary – as well as musical interludes – on the radio fitted in the Ferrari 250 GT SWB Berlinetta run by Walker for Dick Wilkins. There were bumps in this gilded road, of course: badly cut gears cost Moss the 1959 world title; a wheel fell off his Lotus during practice at Spa in 1960 and cost him a bust nose, legs and back plus two months’ recuperation and another possible title; and a rare spat over preparation that was forgotten within hours and followed the next day by victory in the 1960 United States GP at Riverside.
Throughout, the punctilious Walker led with an elegantly light touch. He intervened only when sure that he could make a positive difference. He inspired loyalty through courteousness, thoughtfulness and thoroughness. He kept his cool. He kept impeccable track via three shiny stopwatches – all noted by the fastidious Betty. And he selflessly took the flak of blame whenever Moss didn’t win. In this way he coaxed the best from the best. What he could not do was replace the best after Moss’s career crumpled with sickening suddenness against a Goodwood earthwork on Easter Monday, 1962.
Some perhaps had the speed to do so but, after the deaths of Ricardo Rodríguez and motorbike world champion Gary Hocking in his Lotus 24 within the space of a few horrid weeks at the end of 1962, Walker relied on the steadying Swedish calm of Jo Bonnier. The latter was a like-for-like replacement for suave French veteran Maurice Trintignant, the winner for Walker of the 1958 Monaco GP: the exclamation mark of the writing on the wall for the front-engined GP car. Things finally picked up with the arrival of Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert towards the close of 1964, the Swiss late-braker finishing third at Watkins Glen’s United States GP.
Rob and Betty doted on him but not until the arrival of a Lotus 49B, completed on the eve of the 1968 British GP at Brands Hatch, was Siffert able to give the team its ninth and final – and Walker’s favourite – world championship GP victory. By which time the category was moving increasingly swiftly beyond the reach of wealthy privateers.
Though Walker obtained sponsorship from Brooke Bond Oxo to replace the support given by London stockbroker Jack Durlacher, he used it to join forces with Team Surtees in 1971, where he got on better with its laidback driver Mike Hailwood than he did with its tightly wound boss. After three seasons of disappointment ‘leavened’ by the occasional near miss, he helped ‘Mike the Bike’ secure the third works McLaren of 1974. Sadly this, too, ended in the barriers.
Though he also helped future world champion Alan Jones take his first steps in F1 in Harry Stiller’s Hesketh in 1975, and graciously disseminated hard-won knowhow among the likes of Embassy-Hill, Hesketh, Penske and Wolf, Walker’s continuing and long link to F1 would be provided by his reportage for America’s Road & Track magazine. This gentleman’s words were engaging, enlightening and entertaining. One could never have imagined them to be anything other.