These days Johnnie Walker is the Official Whisky of Formula One, hoping to use the sport to increase its sales around the world. You can often see Johnnie Walker signage around the tracks.
The brand is owned by Diageo plc, the world’s largest producer of spirits. Johnnie Walker is still a partner of McLaren but this season expands to Force India, replacing Smirnoff – the vodka brand being another Diageo product.
But Johnnie Walker’s links with actually F1 go back 100 years – to the day Robert Ramsay Campbell Walker was born.
Rob Walker was the great-grandson of Johnnie Walker, the Scottish grocer who began selling his own brand of blended whisky in the family shop. It was Johnnie Walker’s son Alexander who really built the business, expanding production and marketing the whisky all over the British Empire. Alexander had a string of children, the oldest being John Walker (born in 1863 and named after Alexander’s father). John moved to Australia in his twenties, married a local girl called Colina Campbell and in 1889 they had a son they called James. Seven years later, at the age of 33, John Walker died suddenly. His widow died in 1905, when James was 16 and he decided to move to England. He settled in Farnham, married and had two sons, John (in 1914) and Rob (in 1917). Early in 1921 James died at the age of 32, leaving his wife with two small boys, aged six and three. He left a fortune of £300,000 in his will in addition to impressive annual revenues.
When Rob was seven and on holiday in France, he was taken to watch the Grand Prix de Boulogne, a combined voiturette and cyclecar race. He was sitting next to the wife of Bunny Marshall, the driver who won the race in a Brescia Bugatti, who explained to him everything that was happening. He became an instant racing fanatic. Two years later, in 1926, his mother married a man nearly twice her age. Rob’s step-father, Sir Francis Lacey, was secretary of Marylebone Cricket Club – and the first person ever to be knighted for services to sport. Three years later Lady Lacey bought a large estate in Wiltshire. Rob was sent off to school and soon had a Morgan sports car hidden away in a local garage. His mother was so alarmed that she offered to buy him any non-racing car he wanted. He chose a Rolls Royce.
As soon as he was old enough, however, he went racing, starting out with a Lea-Francis at the Lewes Speed Trial. He then bought an ex-Prince Bira Delahaye which he raced at Brooklands and at Le Mans, finishing eighth overall with Ian Connell. He had already been banned from flying by this point, having run into trouble by buzzing a local horse race. However, when the war came, Britain needed all the pilots it could find and Robert joined the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot. In 1940 he married Betty Duncan and agreed to stop racing, if he would be allowed to take part in hillclimbs and speed trials once the war was over. He was posted to Malta and survived his ship being torpedoed en route. He would later be grounded because of poor night vision.
As soon as he was demobbed, he went back to racing, winning a series of minor events before establishing the Pippbrook Garage in Dorking, initially preparing sports cars for Tony Rolt before being convinced by Rolt to buy a 1927 Delage that had been revamped for Dick Seaman in the 1930s by Giulio Ramponi. This was still very competitive, although Walker would later fit an ERA engine to give it more horsepower. He moved on to buying Connaughts and entered Formula 1 as a private team in 1957. The team would operate for the next 11 seasons and would win a total of nine Grands Prix, mainly with Stirling Moss, notably an historic victory in Argentina in a Cooper in 1958, the first victory for a rear-engined F1 car. Two years later at Monaco, Moss became the first man to win a Grand Prix in a Lotus.
Rob tried to build his own Walker F2 car but this was not a great success and so he remained a privateer, buying the equipment he required. Among the projects, Walker helped to develop the four-wheel-drive Ferguson F1 car, which Rolt had built. In April 1962 Moss was seriously injured racing for another team at Goodwood and Walker hired Maurice Trintignant but there would be tragedy for the team at the end of the year when he rented a car to Ricardo Rodriguez in Mexico and the youngster was killed. Six weeks later Gary Hocking crashed one of Walker’s cars in South Africa and also died. Walker would go on running F1 cars until 1968, giving Jochen Rindt his F1 debut and running Jo Bonnier and Jo Siffert. Graham Hill joined him for a while, which enabled Walker to sign a sponsorship deal with Brooke Bond Oxo, but when Hill departed he decided to take the money to Surtees to run Mike Hailwood. When Hailwood retired in1974, Walker decided it was a good moment to stop and he began working instead as an F1 journalist with the US magazine Road & Track. The team was briefly revived in 1975 to run Alan Jones in a Hesketh but after that Walker remained a chronicler of F1 until the 1990s, when his advancing years made travel increasingly difficult.
Walker is still the only private team owner to win Formula 1 World Championship races.