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Commentating with Murray Walker

Martin Brundle, an AWOL James Hunt, and their second careers

Martin Brundle winning Le Mans 24 Hours

He battled wheel-to-wheel with Senna and Schumacher, won the 24-hour races at Le Mans and Daytona, was crowned World Sportscar Champion, successfully switched careers from racing to broadcasting, and goes places at the controls of his own helicopter – yet no one’s feet are more firmly on the ground than Martin Brundle’s. As an F1 pundit and commentator, Martin combines the razor-sharp insights of a streetwise veteran with the manner of a regular guy down the pub. For this, his TV audiences are grateful – but perhaps the real thanks should go to James Hunt.

It was James who inadvertently gave Martin his career break. Or, rather, his second-career break. Martin was racing in F1 at the time and James was attending Grands Prix as Murray Walker’s co-star in the BBC commentary box. Except that, on the day of the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix, James wasn’t there, and nobody knew why. He was absent without leave – reason and whereabouts unknown.

James also performed mysterious disappearing tricks when collaborating regularly with this writer on a newspaper column. During the half-season before his fatal heart attack in summer 1993, James would phone me every Monday morning after a Grand Prix to spill-out his thoughts about the previous day’s race and how well (or otherwise) drivers and teams had performed. It was my job to turn his colourful comments into a publishable story. The next day, James’s pithy post-race analysis would appear in the newspaper, accompanied by an unnamed chevron-shaped logo which – cough, cough – subliminally promoted the cigarette brand paying for the column (and so much more in motor racing at that time). But for various reasons – forgetting, oversleeping, getting on the wrong train and seeing his kids and their minder pulling out of the station on another – James didn’t always make the call. Then I had to imitate what James might say and how he might say it.

F1 commentators Martin Brundle and Murray Walker

It was not so easy, however, for Murray Walker to pretend James Hunt had shown-up by imitating him. Which is why, Martin Brundle remembers, on the Sunday afternoon of that Belgian Grand Prix, ‘Anybody and everybody who had broken down, and who could speak English, was being asked to go and talk to Murray Walker. And I got up there and really enjoyed it.’

Martin Brundle interviewing Lewis Hamilton

What Martin is too modest to say, when remembering this event in the Martin Brundle Scrapbook, is that he also proved very good at talking alongside Murray. So good, in fact, that when he stopped racing regularly at the end of 1996 and ITV landed F1 broadcasting rights for 1997, Martin was invited to join Murray on the microphones at every race.

In Martin’s Scrapbook, Murray Walker also recalls that day in Belgium: ‘James was my co-commentator and didn’t turn up for the whole race, and we were frantically looking for anybody who could help us out. James subsequently said that he’d been in bed with a stomach complaint. The stomach complaint turned out to be two Belgian nurses!’

Veteran racers joke how those were the days when sex was safe and motor racing was dangerous, and in his Scrapbook, Martin agrees: ‘It was pretty brutal back in those days.’ He recalls how, when racing world championship sports cars, he ‘stood watching’ his Tyrrell F1 team-mate Stefan Bellof die in a Porsche 956 at Spa ‘just as I was about to get into the Jaguar.’ How he also witnessed the Porsche 956C of Manfred Winkelhock ‘going into the wall’ at Mosport Park with fatal consequences. And how, during the F1 turbo era, ‘You used to fight the cars. Your main job all afternoon was to stop the car from crashing! You are hanging on to it whilst maintaining as much forward speed as you can.’

Martin also tells how Ayrton Senna ‘not only took me off’ with an ‘outrageous move’ during a Formula 3 race at Oulton Park, ‘but landed on top of my car and nearly took my head off.’ Brundle’s engineer that day, Alastair Macqueen (later Chief Engineer for TWR on the Group C Jaguars), believes ‘that season was the making of Martin. From being a relatively quiet, timid person, Senna brought him out of his shell … He was a person honed in competition.’

Martin, however, looks further back, all the way to his days racing hot rods around oval tracks as a 15-year-old, to find the origins of his mental toughness: ‘When in later life Schumacher as my team-mate would shove me a wheel somewhere, it seemed like nothing compared to a guy in a Zodiac trying to kill me – he reversed round and wrote my car off as I was going round on the victory parade, then tried to come after me with a crowbar as soon as he got out of the car. Nothing really bothered me too much after that!’

Martin Brundle bookAll these stories, and many more, are there to entertain you in the 256-page Martin Brundle Scrapbook. This hugely enjoyable book contains more than 500 action photos, newspaper cuttings, and photographs of Martin’s personal memorabilia, accompanied by Martin’s comments and contributions from more than 50 motor racing personalities. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at what it really takes for an underfunded driver to work his way up the motor racing ladder to international stardom – informative, entertaining, and endearingly modest.  

By Phillip Bingham         

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