4 reasons this is the greatest F1 privateer of them all
Traffic stopped on Dorking high street on Sunday as centenary tributes were paid to a man who built a special motor racing legacy from his modest premises in the Surrey town during the 1950s and ’60s. Following on from Goodwood's own awesome celebration of one of motorsport's greatest independents.
Today, Rob Walker is hardly a household name even to modern fans of Formula 1. But to those with a wider perspective, the gentleman team entrant remains a much-loved and hugely significant figure – thanks largely to his fruitful partnership with his dear friend Stirling Moss.
Walker, a privileged member of the Johnnie Walker whisky family, spent his life fascinated by motor racing. Having raced at Brooklands and Le Mans before the war, he established his own privately run racing team while maintaining his Pippbrook Garage business in Dorking during the ’50s. Rob Walker Racing Team’s subsequent string of successes, always in a classic livery of Scottish blue with a white nose stripe, wrote important chapters of history not only in F1 but in GT endurance racing too.
That Dorking should remember Walker’s contribution does the town great credit. A wonderful collection of racing cars were paraded through its streets on Sunday morning, the line-up including both of Walker’s Goodwood Tourist Trophy-winning Ferrari 250 SWBs, grand prix-winning Coopers, an ex-Moss Lotus 18, the unique Ferguson four-wheel-drive F1 car and the Surtees TS14B that was the last to carry his famous colours. The parade made for an unforgettable sight – and sound – for the thousands who turned out to witness it.
Our selection of famous victories below offer a glimpse of why Walker is so deserving of such an honour, as the greatest F1 privateer in motor sport history.
1. Argentina 1958: first back to front victory
Cooper’s place in the record books is enshrined thanks to its little game-changing rear-engined F1 cars. The breakthrough victory, however, did not come via the works team, but rather from Walker’s privately entered 2-litre T43 and that man Moss in a sweltering and exotic grand prix in Buenos Aires.
Stirling was left without a drive for the season-opening Argentine GP of 1958 after Vanwall chose not to travel. Moss thus convinced his friend to enter his Cooper for the distant ‘flyaway’ race, and Rob obliged – but chose not to make the trip himself. He’d always regret that decision.
Just 10 cars made the journey (imagine that today!), the grid featuring three factory Ferraris, six Maseratis and the lone Cooper. But that didn’t stop a classic race developing, and one that would mark a turning point in history.
Racing with an eye patch following a mishap with his wife (!), Moss was on the backfoot early on when the Cooper became stuck in second gear on lap four. He lost about 15 seconds before it freed itself. But the race came back to him thanks to a strategy call any modern F1 technical director would be proud of.
In sweltering conditions, Moss and his faithful mechanic Alf Francis chose not to make a pitstop and carefully conserved their tyres. The tread was down to the canvas by the flag, but Moss just made it home, completely drained, 2.7 seconds ahead of Luigi Musso’s charging Ferrari. History had been made.
2. Monaco 1961: faster than the sharks
Moss wrote more history with Walker at Monaco in 1960, when he scored a first GP win for Lotus – again beating a factory team to maiden glory. But it’s his second consecutive win in the Principality in a blue Lotus 18 that is remembered as truly special.
The 1961 season – the first of the new 1.5-litre F1 regulations – was mostly dominated by Ferrari’s ‘Sharknose’ 156. But around the tight streets of Monaco, Maranello’s power advantage counted for less, and Moss’s virtuosity came fully into play.
He never thought he’d convert his pole position into victory, but for 100 laps he didn’t put a wheel wrong. Lapping as much as three seconds below his pole time, he left Ferrari’s Richie Ginther – himself driving the race of his life – dumbfounded.
Walker himself felt Moss’s win at the Nürburgring later in the season, again vanquishing the Ferraris, was a better drive. But Monaco is the one that’s remembered most.
3. Oulton Park 1961: Ferguson to the four
Against the might of Ferrari, it’s no wonder Moss and Walker sought that old motor racing edge: the ‘unfair advantage’.
Walker’s friendship with Tony Rolt, who had a stake in the research company run by the inventive Harry Ferguson, led to him taking on the oddity that was the P99 four-wheel-drive F1 car. Stirling wasn’t entirely convinced, but late in the summer, he and the team recognised a gilt-edged opportunity to capitalise on the car’s traction strengths at a wet Oulton Park Gold Cup.
Moss’s dominant victory in the non-championship event marked the first – and only – F1 victory for a four-wheel-drive car, and also marked the final win in motor racing’s top echelon for a front-engined chassis. More history, and another example of a patron and driver partnership in perfect harmony.
4. Brands Hatch 1968: Siffert’s Lotus flowers
That partnership and Moss’s wonderful career came to an abrupt halt against the St Mary’s bank at Goodwood on Easter Monday 1962, when Stirling was badly injured in a BRP-run Lotus.
Walker persevered thereafter, but without The Boy Wonder it was understandably never quite the same. Then a full seven years after those momentous days of 1961 came an unforgettable British GP.
Swiss hero Jo Siffert had driven for Walker since 1964 with little to show for it. But at Brands, during a bleak season that had already claimed the great Jim Clark, Mike Spence and Jo Schlesser, ‘Seppi’ delivered a feel-good victory to bring much-needed cheer.
Early that season, Walker’s Dorking team premises had been gutted by a devastating fire that claimed, among many irreplaceable items, his new Lotus 49 F1 car. Now, with a new chassis, here was Siffert winning the team’s home grand prix. Even Moss hadn’t managed that.
It was the last hurrah for Rob Walker Racing, that would eventually disband in the 1970s. The patron continued to attend grands prix in his capacity as a talented journalist. He died from pneumonia in 2002, his dry wit and gentlemanly manner a huge, irreplaceable loss.
To those who knew him, Walker will always be F1’s greatest privateer entrant – but also so much more.
Words by Damien Smith, Moss image courtesy of Motorsport Images.