A winner of the prestigious Jim Clark Memorial Award for her work in motorsport journalism, BBC F1 pit reporter Lee McKenzie is among the sport’s most high-profile female journalists in a very male-dominated sport.
Motorsport journalism is notoriously difficult to get into at the best of times, but Lee has ignored the sceptics and risen through the ranks to become the sport’s first-ever female presenter in its 60-year-history, a feat she achieved at the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix.
The daughter of legendary journalist Bob McKenzie, Scottish-born Lee’s first foray into journalism was at the youthful age of 15, when she started covering the rugby matches for her local newspaper.
After qualifying in journalism, Lee moved into TV journalism as a trainee and was rapidly promoted to the role of anchoring the 6PM news for Border Television, covering a variety of topics including the high profile Lockerbie bombing trial.
It was from here that she moved into sports journalism, joining Sky Sports News and covering many major sports including tennis, horse racing and motorsport.
A role fronting the short-lived A1GP series beckoned, but it proved the platform to launch her into the role of the BBC’s pit lane reporter when it took over the British broadcasting rights from ITV at the start of 2008 – a role she has continued to this day.
Working alongside her team members such as Martin Brundle, David Coulthard and Ted Kravitz, Lee has stayed on and will continue the same role she has occupied with such success in the wake of the broadcaster’s recent reshuffle in the commentary box during the off-season.
It would be easy to presume the pitfalls she might encounter as a female journalist in Formula 1, and one of the biggest challenges the sports faces is how it often objectifies women. But Lee’s aim is different: she just wants to be the best motorsport journalist.
And it’s not an easy job by any means, but it is made all the easier for Lee because she simply loves her job. An avid racing fan – she is even a qualified rally co-driver, would you believe! – Lee kindly accepted an interview request with Richard’s F1 over the New Year break to discuss the highlights of her career to-date. We offer our sincerest thanks to Lee for her time and support in making this interview possible.
You moved to the Sky network and your role saw you covering a host of major sporting events, which in turn translated into fronting a new motorsport concept called the A1GP. How did the opportunity come about, and what were your initial impressions of the role and the series’ concept?
Before I joined A1GP to present all the coverage as the host broadcaster, I had already been presenting a show called Speed Sunday which covered lots of different categories of motor sport and also Formula 3000. The following year I presented GP2.
In fact during the second year of A1GP I was presenting British Super Bikes, GP2 and working in the WRC coverage so it was a busy old year! I also presented A1GP for Sky Sports as well as other sports. Because I had worked in GP2 and others, A1GP was not too different in terms of a one-make series but the personnel and drivers we had were from all sorts of backgrounds and it was fantastic to work with so many high profile people. In the first year we had four World Champions involved: Emerson Fittipaldi, Alan Jones, Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg, and not forgetting other champion drivers like Jan Lammers and John Watson. There were a lot of very knowledgeable motorsport people involved at that stage.
The BBC took over the broadcast rights to Formula 1 from ITV at the start of 2008. How did the opportunity to work as their pit-lane reporter come about?
I had left A1GP after its third season to concentrate on my new job with the BBC. Basically in the March of 2008 I had some meetings with BBC bosses and it took until September until I found out that I had got the job. It was a long nervous summer but I am so pleased to be part of such a great team. From the beginning we all had high hopes and a real desire to make it a great show.
What were your first impressions of the Formula 1 paddock and the weekend overall?
I had been coming to F1 races regularly since 2004 so it wasn’t new in that respect and I did know a lot of team personnel and drivers. I had also covered Lewis’ World Championship win in Brazil for BBC Radio 5 Live. There was though a real sense of anticipation about how we would all work together, from that point of view it was all very new. I think the people in F1 were more curious and suspicious than we were. The atmosphere was electric all weekend and it was great to get to Sunday night and all think we had done a good job.
The 2009 season was very much about the feel-good story of Brawn GP and Jenson Button’s rise from the ashes. What was it like to be a central figure in broadcasting that story, and do you have a particularly fond recollection of any event from that year?
I knew Jenson before I started in 2009 so to be part of a year when he was so dominating was fantastic, especially after all the dark times that he had experienced, when winning was just a dream. I think we realised we were in for a very special season, even by the Sunday in Melbourne. When he won the championship in Brazil, it was just a fantastic moment. He ran out and hugged me and said “World Champion, baby!” which all went out live on the BBC which was quite embarrassing but I did get the first interview and I was delighted about that.
No doubt you will also have come across some truly dynamite moments in your interviews with team personnel and drivers as well, where they may have beared their soul or given you an incredible insight into their make-up. Is there a particular example that stands out from the others for you?
One of the highlights of my year last year was borne of Rubens Barrichello’s frustration. I did the famous “blah-blah-blah” interview when Rubens described how he felt the team would react to his concerns about losing the German Grand Prix. At that time things were tough for him as he thought he should have won two more races than he had [having made similar concerns after the Spanish Grand Prix] – that could have changed the championship.
Aside from your skills behind the microphone, you’ve also dabbled in quite a bit of action behind the wheel as well. You were set the challenge of becoming a World Rally Championship co-driver when working for ITV. What was this experience like for you?
I loved my experience co-driving and if I had more time then I would definitely love to have another go. Rallying seems to be pretty fashionable in F1 at the moment. I have some good rally chats with Robert Kubica and still follow the WRC and IRC, where some of my friends compete.
Former ITV F1 presenter Beverley Turner often commented in her book The Pits (reviewed here on RF1) that the F1 paddock still harboured a particularly sexist attitude, and that she was at times not made to feel welcome, or considered as being credible, in certain sectors of the paddock. Would you contend that this may have been, at times, your experience in such a male-dominated industry?
I have never found there to be a problem and I think the respect you get and credibility you receive comes from the standard of work you do. It can be as simple as what you wear, how you conduct yourself and basically whether you are good at your job or not. It is the PR’s you need to get on with as much as drivers and team bosses.
You became the first woman to undertake a main anchor role in Formula 1 broadcasting during the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix. Did the moment carry any great significance for you, or was it a different kind of day in the office for you?
It was a huge weekend for me but more as I wanted to prove myself – not just as a female but as a credible presenter.
I was less concerned about knowing my stuff as I have been involved for so long, I am confident of that. It was more the presenting, the uncertainties that can be thrown at you in live TV, like no qualifying and two programmes on the same Sunday! This was nothing that anyone could have prepared for.
We’ve seen one of the most closely contested F1 seasons in years, and to have had five drivers still in contention as we entered the last two rounds of the championship has been unheard of for decades. Why has this season been so good, and can we hope for an equally high standard in future years?
To be part of this season has been magical. Five drivers battling it out – even a four way split heading to Abu Dhabi. The atmosphere was amazing on the Sunday and no one really had any idea how the day would play out. Red Bull Racing was a very strange environment and I spent quite a bit of time with the Webber family. It was so interesting and emotional to see what Mark’s family were going through. They were just as exhausted and probably more nervous than he was! I spent the Tuesday after the race at Red Bull and you could see what it had taken out of both Sebastian and Mark.
How we are going to better it next season, I really have no idea but I think we should all enjoy the 2010 F1 season whilst we can because I doubt we will see anything quite so gripping for a long time.