- Maurice Hamilton's blog
The welcome sound of changeMaurice Hamilton March 24, 2014
Ron Walker is to step down as chairman of the Australian Grand Prix. That's a relief in many respects. The former Lord Mayor of Melbourne may have made millions as a highly successful businessman, been voted Victoria's Man of the Year in 1975 and earned a reputation as an event organiser on a grand scale, but there have been moments when his pronouncements have damaged the sport he was allegedly promoting.
It's one thing to strut the F1 paddock when the sun is shining and all is well and quite another to deal with the catastrophes that sometimes attend a motor race. The most wretched example of Walker's sometimes unfortunate demeanour occurred in 2001.
On lap five of the Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve's BAR-Honda launched itself off the back of Ralf Schumacher's car, spun backwards into the debris fence atop a concrete retaining wall. The fence did its job by keeping the wayward car trackside but luck, which so far had played a positive role, was about to switch sides.
A second impact with the fence took place precisely at one of the narrow waist-high openings in the fence that allow marshals track access. The right-rear wheel on the BAR was 38cm wide; the opening was 40cm high. You couldn't have got the wheel through there if a couple of strong blokes had tried to do it manually. But the force of the impact against a steel support post plucked the wheel from the car and somehow catapulted it through the gap. Graham Beveridge, a 51-year-old family man from Queensland, took full force of the wheel while standing in his appointed position.
Despite the presence of medics at the scene, we knew nothing of the tragedy. It was not until the winner, Michael Schumacher, mentioned it in the post-race unilateral that we took on board the devastating news that a volunteer marshal had been killed.
Having kept journalists and broadcasters in the dark throughout the race, Walker, as chairman of the organisers, chose to preface his remarks by announcing a record attendance figure. The next paragraph referred to the poor marshal, almost as an afterthought; as if the crowd figures were more important. The brief press release noted the chairman as 'Mr Ronald Walker, AO, CBE', the pompous honorifics seeming completely inappropriate and perhaps creating a misleading impression of the man.
Make no mistake: Ron Walker has been the driving force behind prizing - some say 'stealing' - the Grand Prix away from Adelaide and generally raising Victoria's profile on the world stage and changing the image of a 'rust bucket state'. He has worked tirelessly for the Albert Park event and dealt with the initial outcry from the inevitable protestors. Which makes his latest outburst seem singularly inappropriate for a man in his position.
Walker has been making a loud noise about the quiet world of F1. A claim that the excitement has been removed with the advent of the V6 turbo would find traction in certain sections of the audience judging by debates on F1 websites.
But for Walker to say that F1 is in breach of contract by no longer providing entertainment is a curious remark from a representative of a company that has to assuage many members of the Melbourne community who do not list F1 as their favourite pastime. To underline this disregard for a sensitive issue, Walker presumably thought it reasonable to have Paul Stoddart's two-seater V10 take to the track at 7.30 in the morning and blast the locals out of their beds.
Mr. Walker has the advantage of me in that he has heard both generations of F1 engine. Even from a distance, I prefer the interesting variation in engine note with the V6. For me, a single V8 was fine for a couple of laps. Add several more cars and it became nothing more than unpleasant white noise. A bit like Ron Walker in full flow about the V8s. Despite a distinguished past, the time has come for both to go.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.