For the best part of a decade, Lee McKenzie has been a familiar face in Formula 1, working for both the BBC and Channel 4. Now, Lee is planning for 2018 to be her final year covering F1 and she explains to Rob Watts how she’s managed to juggle F1 with other presenting commitments, and what she plans to do next.
“The past year has been relentless!”, says Lee. “Last year I did Six Nations Rugby and the Boat Race, and then Channel 4 actually took me off Silverstone to cover the Para Athletics, and then in amongst all that I was also doing the Women’s European Football Championships and Wimbledon.
“You can make it work,” she adds. “But if you can’t get into any kind of regular routine, that’s tricky; you know your own limits and I think I probably reached some limitations at the end of last year so I’m going to cut back a bit on F1.”
With Sky Sports set to broadcast F1 exclusively in the UK from 2019 onwards, Lee is expecting this year to be her final season in the pitlane, but as she explains, she’s already made plans for life after F1.
“I gave thought to what I’m going to do after F1 about five years ago,” says Lee. “I didn’t start in F1; I’m not an F1 journalist. I suppose I am an F1 journalist because that’s what takes up most of my time and it’s what people associate me with, but for me, it’s more important to have a variety of work.
“I love F1, but I also love the different things I work on and present. When F1 comes off terrestrial television at the end of this year, I want to have other things to do; I don’t just want to go somewhere to only do F1. That doesn’t interest me.”
“Journalism has changed, like it or not,” says Lee. “Fleet Street, the BBC, RTL etc had the clout and the power, but now a lot of people are online journalists, which isn’t a problem but now there’s social media and people are there filming on iPhones and you don’t know who is watching that.
“I think in some ways there’s less discipline collectively in journalism just now because you don’t necessarily have to have a trade. I do shorthand, and I did law for journalists, and I come from a journalistic family. I see it as a proper trade in that way but I don’t think everyone necessarily treats it as that anymore.”
After spending most of her career broadcasting to a terrestrial audience, Lee feels the loss of free-to-air F1 is a blow for fans and feels Channel 4 should be pleased with the job they’ve done since taking over from the BBC two years ago.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Rugby, Cricket, or whatever, we all know that it does not translate well to pay TV. That’s just the pattern of sports broadcasting,” she explains. “On several occasions, more people watched an FP3 programme [on Channel 4] that I presented than watched the race on Sky. That’s not a criticism of Sky’s programming; it’s just the way that people watch television.
“Channel 4 wanted to open it up to non-F1 fans. I think they have made it quite open, and there’s quite a fun element to it. It was always going to be different [to the BBC’s coverage], and I think it’s nice to have brought in people like Mark Webber and Susie Wolff to give it a different dynamic.”
Lee’s long-term sidekick, Eddie Jordan, moved with her to Channel 4 after the pair worked together on the BBC’s F1 coverage. As Lee explains, the ex-team boss may be eccentric but few have a better inside knowledge of F1 than Jordan.
“He’s exactly what you see; he’s not turning it on for the camera!”, Lee says with a smile. “It’s easy to think of him as a joker, but you have to remember what he achieved with Jordan [Grand Prix], and after that, he broke the story of Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren.
“It’s not like he’s trying to be different, he just knows things and he knows people. The number of times he has not just had an inside knowledge of something, he’ll actually be part of a deal moving a driver from one team to another. He knows everything that’s going on.”
When the time comes to move on, Lee says she’ll miss the “camaraderie” the most. “Some of the stories are only relevant if you were at the time,” she adds. “When you’re in a city, the paddock can all mix together and it’s fantastic. It’s those moments that break the monotony and the fact that you are away from home so much.”