On the verge of a new F1 season and farewell to a legend.

A new Formula One season beckons.

The new Formula One season is nearly upon us with pre-season testing set to start tomorrow at the Bahrain International Circuit, where the opening race will also take place on the 28th of March. This is very much a transitional season with the effects of the COVID pandemic still being felt by all the teams. Because of that, there are a lot of B-spec cars which F1 has not seen for quite a while. Before testing, we had the period of the teams revealing their cars or “challengers” as they seemed insistent on calling them. And even though the presentations were not quite as extravagant as they have been in the past (McLaren once had the Spice Girls perform at a car launch in the 1990s), the idea to me is still kind of ridiculous. I get that each team wants to get their fans excited for the season to come and all that, but the flashy media events just don’t seem necessary. I mean, what are we expecting the teams to announce, a new team branded vacuum cleaner? We know they’ve built a car, its what they do. When teams unveil their new car, fans are interested in one thing; does it look nice. We don’t care about what McLaren have had to do to fit the Mercedes engine in their car, or what changes the rest of the grid has made; mostly because we don’t understand any of it. We don’t all have engineering degrees or qualifications in aerodynamics. We can’t tell the difference. Really, all the car reveal does is show us who paid the most to have their logos displayed most prominently and whether they’ve changed up the livery at all. And we saw some of that in this year’s reveal. One team was unveiling a whole new identity for itself as Racing Point finally showed its new Aston Martin colours, while Alfa Romeo, Haas, Williams and Alpha Tauri all made changes to their livery. Red Bull meanwhile seemed to literally take some sponsors names off and put other ones in their place. The average fan is just interested in what the cars are going to look like for the new season.

In a way it’s the same thing in testing. While it gives the teams a good chance to find out where their car may be lacking in areas of reliability, power, aerodynamic performance etc, mostly the fans are happy to see the cars out on track for the first time. The time sheets don’t really give any indication about where the teams are at and where they are going to be qualifying and finishing races. Mercedes have often not had the smoothest runs at testing and yet when the season comes around, they streak away into the distance. And that may well happen this time around as well. But it is definitely a time to be getting excited if you are a Formula One fan. The new season is right around the corner, we have the busiest calendar ever seen for a F1 season (there is probably an argument to had about whether that is a good thing) and we are just one season out from the biggest regulations shake-up since the introduction of the V6 hybrid engines. There are a lot of questions to be answered. Will Mercedes and Hamilton continue their domination? Will Bottas finally be able to step out of his illustrious teammate’s shadow? Can Red Bull finally get back to being genuine title contenders after eight years of being also-rans? Will Ferrari be able to pick themselves up after a truly abysmal 2020 season? How will Vettel get on at Aston Martin? Will McLaren and Aston build on the progress they made last season? Every team has its goals and questions surrounding it. We’re not far off finding out the answers.

A legendary voice falls silent.

It’s funny what influence a commentator can have on sports. More specifically your memory of sporting events. I thought about this yesterday evening after reading the sad news that Murray Walker had passed away at the age of 97. Commentators can often shape how sports fans remember their favourite moments. I can’t think of Drogba’s penalty in the Champions League final without hearing Martin Tyler exclaim “He’s done it!!” It’s the same with Michael Kasprowicz getting put in the 2nd Ashes Test in 2005 at Edgbaston. I think of that moment and I hear Richie Benaud, “Jones! Bowden! Kasprowicz the man to go and Harmison has done it, despair on the faces of the batsmen and joy for every England player on the field!” Ask any F1 fan to give you a Murray Walker quote and they would probably be able to rattle ten off for you. Some commentators are really not liked at all, others are liked much more. But I don’t think you will find anyone who disliked Murray Walker as a commentator. Even when he made a gaffe, he was so earnest about it, so self-effacing that the audience and the interviewee let it slide and even found either amusing or endearing.

For me the real strength of Murray Walker and of any great commentator was a great and obvious love for the sport he was commentating. It was a love that matched the viewers who heard him every Sunday. That love of F1 and all things motorsport motivated Murray Walker to do extensive research for every race and even keep an eye on the junior formulas to see the up-and-comers that might be in F1 in a few years. His enthusiasm also translated into how he commentated; he was excited by everything about the sport and it could be heard in his delivery. Frequent were the exclamations of “Fantastic!” or “This is amazing!” from Murray Walker. And like all commentators, Murray Walker was always able to find the right turn of phrase for the moment, be it a thrilling title-decider or one of the many tragic moments that he was there to witness. Probably not surprising when you learn that before becoming a full-time commentator, he had a successful career in advertising. Despite his gaffes, he definitely had a way with words. Or maybe it was simply that he got so excited that his mouth worked slightly faster than his brain. Either way, he was the perfect man at the helm for so many years in F1. He never presumed to know more than the analysts alongside him in the booth, but was widely respected for his insight into the sport, honed by decades upon decades of watching the greats of so many eras of F1. From Fangio to Schumacher, it was Murray Walker describing the action to us.

When we talk about F1 greats, we tend to talk about drivers. Very occasionally about technical personnel and maybe team owners and principles. But mainly drivers. Murray Walker was absolutely an F1 great. He was the fan who got to do what fans love to do. Talk about the sport they loved. He mirrored the excitement of fans around the world. He lent his distinctive, often imitated but utterly inimitable voice to so many of the legendary moments in F1 history, conveyed fans excitement back to them in droves. He was the voice of Formula One.

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