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Vroom at the top: F1 presenter Lee McKenzie on her trackside career with sport’s superstars

© Ian DerrySports presenter Lee McKenzie
Sports presenter Lee McKenzie

She has rubbed shoulders with legends and brought some of this century’s most memorable sporting achievements to our screens but Lee McKenzie’s favourite moment took place far from the world’s most famous arenas.

It was 2010 and the sports broadcaster was in Switzerland, standing on a podium with racing great Michael Schumacher, both dressed head to toe like extras from an old western movie.

“Michael had seen me hobbling around one day and I explained it was a riding injury – I’ve always ridden horses,” said McKenzie, who has presented Formula One coverage for ITV, BBC and Channel 4. “I prefer to do interviews away from the track, so we came up with this plan. He invited me to take part in a riding competition being held at his family ranch in Switzerland. This was reining, a form of western riding.

“I arrogantly thought I could learn the style in a couple of hours. By the time I got there, having brought a horse over from the UK, all I wanted to do was make sure I didn’t fall off. There was a crowd of 3,000 people watching on and Michael was so competitive. He came up to me and said he was going to win.

“We ended up tying for points, so we shared the podium, wearing Stetsons and chaps. Growing up watching Formula One, Michael was it for me and here I was at his house standing on a podium with him. It’s my favourite moment from everything I’ve done.”

Three years later, Schumacher suffered a life-changing head injury while skiing but McKenzie still has ties to the family, via his son and former manager. “Mick, his son, is in F1 and he’s a lovely person. I catch up with Mick’s manager – who used to be Michael’s manager – Sabine, at every race. We have such a bond.”

© Shutterstock
Seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher in 2000

As well as Formula One, 44-year-old McKenzie regularly fronts coverage of horse racing, rugby, tennis and superbikes, not to mention the Olympics, Paralympics and Commonwealth Games.

“I love the variety. Wimbledon I’ve done for several years but since I began appearing on court to do the interviews – due to Covid – more people are noticing me but it’s the same role,” she said. “There was a week during the summer where I did four sports for four broadcasters. I did Goodwood for ITV, Wimbledon for the BBC, Silverstone on Friday for Channel 4, motor sports for Sky on Saturday, then back to Channel 4 on Sunday for Formula One, and then Monday back at Wimbledon.

“It’s stressful enough, but I write all my material. When you’re at Wimbledon you’re preparing for the Olympics and when you’re at the Olympics you’re preparing for the Paralympics. You work late into the night to make sure you know what you’re talking about. It can be tiring. It’s not just me – Gabby Logan had an incredible summer, bouncing from football to world athletics to the Commonwealth Games and now she is heading off to the World Cup.”

McKenzie’s authoritative Scottish accent has become one of the most familiar on TV. “I’m not someone who focuses on what it’s like to be a female in a man’s world or anything. I’m quite pragmatic,” she said. “But it’s always a talking point when you travel the world and people ask if you’re from Scotland. People seem to love it.”

McKenzie was immersed in sports journalism from an early age. Her father, Bob, is a respected sports reporter and was sent to cover the Mexico Grand Prix in 1991 when the usual F1 journalist was off sick. McKenzie tuned in on TV and was immediately hooked. She began attending sports events with her dad during the school holidays, accessing areas usually off limits to the public and quickly knew she wanted to follow in his footsteps. At 15, she was writing reports for her local paper, the Ayrshire Post.

“It was a great grounding,” she said. “I’d go to whatever sport was on – usually rugby – on a Saturday and I’d get the Monday morning off school to go to the office and write up the rugby report and an equestrian column. I didn’t consider doing anything else.

“Sitting alongside greats like Bill McLaren and Murray Walker is incredible to look back on. They were very kind, generous, lovely people, imparting advice and giving me time. I have lifelong friends from that era.”

Lee McKenzie interviewing driver Sebastian Vettel at Japanese Grand Prix in 2009 © Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Lee McKenzie interviewing driver Sebastian Vettel at Japanese Grand Prix in 2009

McKenzie worked for sports agencies while studying journalism at Napier University in Edinburgh and afterwards she worked in news at ITV Border but it’s her career in motor racing for which she is best known. Like the drivers, she had worked her way up through the lower ranks of the sport before graduating to Formula One.

She has written about her experiences interviewing some of the sport’s recent big names in a new book, Inside F1. “I’d been asked to write an article about a driver and as I started going through old interviews, I began to remember things that had happened. The more vivid the memories became, the more I wondered if I could do it for a number of drivers,” she said.

“I had been asked to write a book about myself and I didn’t want to do that, but I thought I could use my experiences and personal insights and interviews to elaborate on the drivers. I wanted to share some of these stories and interviews and keep them as the stars of the book.”

McKenzie has built up good relationships with many of the drivers, as well as those in roles away from the track, and she says it’s a fine line that is required to be walked every day. “They know when it comes down to it, regardless of friendship, I will ask the question that needs to be asked,” said McKenzie. “I’m not paid to be someone’s friend, but when you become friendly it’s a bonus. I have a trust with the drivers and they do let me into parts of their lives, which is fantastic.

“We’re seeing each other 24 times a year and sharing chartered flights and visiting the same restaurants and places, so there is much more of a crossover compared to other sports. If you upset a driver on day one of the season, it’s a long old year until December.”

One memorable interview came at the conclusion of the Monaco GP in 2011, when she found herself among the headlines for an interview she did with Lewis Hamilton. When she asked him why he was such a magnet for the stewards, having received two penalties during the race, he replied: “Maybe it’s ’cause I’m black. That’s what Ali G says.” That reply made headlines around the world. McKenzie received a barrage of messages and emails, including death threats from Hamilton fans, who accused her of being calculating and of causing him to receive bad press.

“A lot of people were thrown by the incident, including myself. There was no intent from me. It was a bit stressful but as long as you have trust in what you have done and stand by it, you can’t do any more than that. Lewis knew there was no intent from me.”

As women’s sport continues to grow in profile and popularity, F1 recently announced plans to create an all-female series for younger drivers aged between 16 and 22, which would run alongside the all-female W series and would be part of the F2 and F3 feeder pyramid. It has been 30 years since the last female Formula One driver.

“We have some very talented Scottish racing drivers – Chloe Grant, Logan Hannah – it’s great to see. It’s about opening up the grassroots to all and trying to keep them. We can’t just parachute someone in to Formula One; they have to go through the same pathways. Maybe it’s a longer-term project but it’s a good project to have. I want to see people who are good – that’s what it comes down to. I want to see it in terms of engineers, pit wall, team bosses, strategists, across the board. There is no reason why females can’t be in these positions, and in fact they are in these positions – there are loads of incredibly talented females already there.”

Having covered the last couple of grands prix, McKenzie is sitting out today’s final race of the season at Abu Dhabi but is already looking ahead to a busy 2023 – which she hopes might see her tick off the final ambition on her wish list.

“I would love to do the Rugby World Cup,” she added. “I’ve been to five but not worked at one properly on TV. I’ve been presenting all the autumn internationals, the Six Nations and the Champions Cup, so it would be nice to get to do that.”

Inside F1 by Lee McKenzie is out now from Black & White