Lee McKenzie is a name familiar to many readers of Motorsport Broadcasting, having covered motor sport for many years, as well as other forms of sport.
I sat down with her a couple of weeks ago at the W Series season finale in Brands Hatch, as we discussed a range of topics, from her upbringing and interview style, to giving advice to budding journalists coming through the ranks.
You’ve been around motor racing a lot since you were younger, through your Dad [Bob].
I was going to Formula 1 races when I was ten years old, I’ve known Bernie since I was a small child. My Dad was at Senna’s funeral, and wrote books on both Damon and Nigel. I’ve been surrounded by all this, in different sports, not just motor sport, all my life.
I started out as a rugby journalist and I started in equestrian, my two real passions. People just associate motor racing with me because that’s what they’ve been watching. I love doing the Paralympics, Para sport, Wimbledon, all that kind of thing. I’ve not done a full F1 season since 2012, it’s never been my only job, it’s never been my first job!
You go to other sports, and you think “actually F1 does this really well,” and then you go to other sports and meet other athletes, and think “yeah, we could learn from that.” There’s always a roundness to doing many other things, because it makes you more complete as a person.
I have been fortunate to have had that upbringing, but I wouldn’t have had a job had I not been good. I know that may sound arrogant, but if I was just somebody’s daughter, I wouldn’t have had a long career.
This year you have been presenting the new W Series. Has it been a different style of presenting for you, or do you tackle all sports similarly?
It doesn’t matter what sport I present; I present them all in a similar way. It takes an awful lot of prep, it’s not just the bit you see on camera. But I’ve thought the quality of racing has been fantastic.
It’s hard selling any television programme when the sport doesn’t do it justice, so the fact that the racing has been of such a high quality is great. It’s an easy sell from that point of view.
A lot of what you’re doing is reacting to the sport that’s been. Prepping for an Olympics or a Commonwealth Games is much, much harder. There are so many countries, sports, people. Here, I only need to know about 18 to 20 people, a few of whom I knew anyway.
We do a lot of filming in advance, so not everything we’re doing in that two hours. I’ve written all my scripts by the time I’ve got here; I’ve got the running order.
There’s a lot of blank sections that you fill in after qualifying, the whole of part two I can’t write a single word for yet, but that’s the excitement. And you obviously can’t write the ending of any television programme on sport, not a single thing, but I love that bit.
You’ve covered many different sporting events as you mentioned earlier, as well as non-sporting events before that. How do you get the best out of the different personalities involved?
I’m a journalist, I’m not a TV presenter. I’ve covered the Lockerbie trial, general elections, a lot of different sports. You prep, you can’t be a fan. You go in there as a professional, and if you make friends with people, that’s a bonus.
You have to get that level of respect, and I think that’s something you see in quite a lot of the F1 interviews, that level of respect you get from drivers. That’s something I’ve always tried to work hard on. I don’t need to be someone’s friend who I interview on television, but it helps sometimes.
You can be friendly with someone, but it’s how you conduct yourself in that high-pressure moment. It doesn’t matter who I was interviewing, I would never back down from asking a question should a question need to be asked, whether they were friends or not.
If we use Formula 1 as an example, I would ask the same question to every driver differently because you get to know their characters. You’ve got to be a little bit clever with it. If I was trying to ask a question to Lewis [Hamilton] and ask a question to Sebastian [Vettel], it would be the same question but phrased differently.
Is there an F1 interview you’ve done that stands out from the rest, or was a highlight for you?
There’s ones that stand out for different reasons. The Lewis interview in 2011 was a big moment at Monaco, it didn’t necessarily feel good but it felt journalistic.
A lot of interviews with Seb, they always go slightly wrong, but all good fun. I did a hard-hitting sit-down piece with Fernando a few years ago, I was very pleased about that one. You get a good feel for when you’ve done a good interview, and a lot of that comes down to knowing the person and a bit of respect.
Lewis is great to sit down with as well when he’s very open, and touches upon a lot of different things.
Michael Schumacher’s probably one I would single out as, doing interviews with that I really liked. I loved working with Michael, I had a great relationship with him, we did some lovely interviews together.
I took the horse over to his yard and competed. Any time I could spend with Michael at that moment felt special, and not just because of the situation now. I went to Kerpen kart track with him and Seb where they both started out, and that was a lovely piece. Interviews like that stand out for me.
Lewis and Sebastian are the veterans of the F1 paddock now, but do you notice a different interview style for those coming through the ranks, such as Lando and George?
It’s easy to be unguarded and open when you first start out, you measure it on what happens in ten years’ time.
Max has been the same. I spent two days with him and his family in Belgium a few years ago, that was a lovely piece. Of course, you wouldn’t get the opportunity to do that now but I don’t think he’s changed as a person. He was hard-hitting as it was.
I think him and Charles are very open, but again it’s what happens in five years’ time when people’s careers progress that makes them have to shut down a little bit and that to me is understandable.
If you were to give advice to budding journalists coming through the ranks, what would you say?
I would say: prep. There’s no doubt that media in the past 15 to 20 years has changed. But don’t copy and paste. Own the content that you make, and do it with pride.
There’s a lot of people that come to me and say “I want to be a motor sport journalist, can you give me any tips” and I would look at their Twitter feed, and it’s like a crazed fan.
You’ve got to conduct yourself in a way that conveys respect. You’ve got to be a journalist; you can’t be a motor sport journalist I would suggest. I would say that the best journalists in sport come from that news background because it’s a very well-grounded thing, and then follow your passion, and immerse yourself in it.
Bringing it back round to the W Series, the series is not only aiding their on-track skills, but also their media behaviour as well in interviews.
Sometimes it feels like that [coaching], not just the Brits but a lot of European based drivers have known me, or have been watching me on TV.
We do sit down a little bit sometimes and talk things through. They want know how to come to a Grand Prix, they want to know how to do more media stuff, and how they should be conducting themselves.
I will never volunteer that, but if someone wants advice, then absolutely, I’m happy to give that advice.
My thanks go to Lee McKenzie for spending the time with me on the above piece.