The Kate Walker Project – Revisted
I conducted this interview last season in a five part mini series. I’ve had some requests to recompile it in one article for easier reading. It has been wildly popular for many reasons. For one, Kate Walker is a very interesting subject. She answers these questions honestly and candidly. Readers will be surprised by some of the answers and F1 journalist hopefuls get an inside look at what it really means and takes to cover Formula One around the globe.
Here is the original interview:
As Formula One fans, many of you have heard the name Kate Walker and most certainly have read her work. If you haven’t, I urge you to visit www.f1katewalker.com. Not just beauty and brains, this F1 journalist has a wealth of worldly experience already, as well as, the credentials that make her the total package. This pretty face can talk the talk and walk the walk.
I put together a series of interview questions that I plan to use for a few different F1 journalists. I did this in order to give us (the readers), a different perspective on some of the F1 journalists some F1 fans follow, admire and aspire to be. It will most certainly be interesting to see how different their paths have been to get to the same destination and what sets them apart from each other.
Some of what you are about to read; will open your eyes to what it takes to be an F1 journalist. Peeping through the keyhole of one of the most amazing occupations in the world of motorsports that offers the most wonderful experiences and intangible rewards. Strap on your safety harness and join me on this journey as I slip into the cockpit of the F1 fast lane.
Welcome to the Kate Walker Project
Who is Kate Walker?
Kate, it’s relatively safe to say that F1 has for decades been primarily a sport where women have not been drawn to professionally. Where did your interest in F1 stem from and what made you want to chase the circus around the globe?
My introduction to F1 came about thanks to an ex-boyfriend who was into the sport. When we first got together I used to slag him off for wasting his weekends watching cars go round in circles for hours on end, and he told me I couldn’t have an informed opinion until I’d sat down and watched a race. That was in 2007.
So he got me to watch a race (can’t remember which one…) and it was more interesting than I’d thought it would be. By 2008, the boyfriend was pulling the duvet over his head and begging for more sleep while I was trying to wake him up to watch free practice from Australia/Japan/China.
I was hooked, but figured that F1 would be out of reach for someone like me. Then, around Spa 2009, I discovered an old article that Joe Saward had written in which he outlined the backgrounds of a number of F1 PRs. Those mentioned all had backgrounds like mine – bilingual, international schools, a childhood spent travelling the world. So I figured I might be in with a shot. I decided to wait until the end of the season, and the minute the chequered flag fell in Abu Dhabi I emailed all of the teams with a copy of my CV for consideration as a trainee press officer.
Two teams sent me a ‘thanks but no thanks’ email, and the other ten failed to reply at all. So I decided to get in on my own. Because 2010 was going to be the FIA’s Year of Women in Motor Sport, I approached girlracer and offered to write for them for free if they could get me a press pass. I figured it was the best chance I had to get in, and it worked. (Yes, I am that conniving.)
Give us a brief history about who you are and where you’re from. What do you want your fans and followers to know about YOU?
Oh, god. I’m a bit of an odd one in background terms, because I grew up all over the place. My dad was a political correspondent, so we got sent to wherever the story was. So I was born in London, then moved to Moscow, Washington DC, and Brussels. Then when I left home I moved to Oxford, London, Brighton, back to DC, back to Oxford, and then to southwest France, before recently relocating back to London. I blame my travelling childhood for my desire to find a job that didn’t leave me stuck in one place all the time.
As for who I am? Ummm. I’m a writer, a show-off, a narcissist. I fancy myself to be an intellectual, but I love immature jokes. I’ve got a degree in politics and philosophy, and a professional background in news editing, traditional publishing, and online media. I am obsessed with music, of a host of different genres, and I’m one of those pretentious idiots who mostly likes bands no one else has heard of. Sometimes because no one else has heard of them
Welcome to the second part of the Kate Walker Project. In this chapter, we will dive into Kate’s story of how she ended up with a career in Formula One and the steps she took to get there which you will not believe. Kate takes us though an interesting and winding road that despite her best efforts to avoid a career in journalism, ended up landing her a dream job she now, simply cannot imagine not doing.
If you’re reading this and your interested in one day being an F1 journalist, keep reading. Kate will now open the door to that keyhole you were looking through earlier into the world of Formula journalism. Chances are, if you have a question about a career in F1 journalism, about the money, advice etc…she answers it here:
Why did you decide to be a (sports/F1) journalist?
I never decided to be a journalist. In fact, I spent as much of my life as possible trying to avoid it! It’s a career that runs in the family, and I was desperate to avoid following in my parents’ footsteps. Now look at me…
What steps did you take to achieve your goal?
As much as I say I tried to avoid journalism, there were always signs. After uni, I started out working as a sub-editor for a wire service, and then got roped in to writing pieces when staff were on leave or off sick. That turned into regular writing duties. But before I became a real journalist I ran off to the internet, where I started managing a blog network. I started writing pieces to cover leave and absences, and it just snowballed from there. In terms of achieving my F1 goal, I decided I wanted to work in the sport, got rejected by all the teams when I applied for PR work, so figured that journalism was my only way in. So I started writing daily pieces for girlracer while still at my day job, we applied for (and eventually got) F1 accreditation, and I handed in my notice at work the day I got back from my first grand prix.
What are your most and least favourite things about your job?
For this question I’m going to have to copy and paste a reply I gave to @IlariaF1 when she interviewed me last year, as I don’t think I could put it any better than I did then.
There are so many amazing things about this job that it’s hard to know what to pick.
- I love the feeling I get every time I approach a circuit and see a sign saying ‘F1 media and personnel’ and realise that it applies to me!
- I love the fact that I can go to a team motorhome for breakfast or a cup of coffee and chat to senior personnel about their strategy for the weekend, or their fears about their car at ‘x’ circuit.
- I love working with F1 journalists whose writing I have long admired and having them treat me as an equal. Sometimes they even ask me for advice, which is an amazing feeling.
- I love waking up in a foreign country and not remembering where I am this week.
- I love sitting in an empty media centre early in the morning and feeling the floor start to rumble as the cars are fired up below me.
- I love walking into the paddock and smelling the combination of bacon, fresh rubber, and motor oil that means it’s a race weekend.
- I love the energy of the paddock, and how inspiring it is to be surrounded by hundreds of people who are the best in the world at what they do and love it with a passion.
Basically, I guess what it all boils down to is that I love the combination of adventure, hard work, intelligence, and passion that makes up a life in Formula 1, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
When it comes to what I like least, well… These things are as much a part of the job as the good bits, so I can’t hate them too much, but if I could get rid of long-haul flights in economy, 5am wake-up calls (especially when you’ve gone to bed at 3am), and the terrifyingly expensive cost of travelling to all the races, my life would be perfect.
For many F1 fans, you are living a dream. From the outside looking in, it would seem you have a pretty cool gig. Would you recommend this career to someone else, why or why not?
Absolutely. It’s the best job there is, no question. It’s not something everyone’s cut out to do – the travel takes it out of you, and you need to be able to rock up to the track after a night on the red-eye and settle straight down to a 12-hour day of work, so if sleep deprivation is an issue then stay away. Same if you want to have a work-life balance, or hobbies, or a social life. But if you’re willing to sacrifice a ‘normal’ life with things like weekends and lie-ins, then the benefits of F1 outweigh the negatives a million times over.
If you think that normal is boring, and you’re willing to work your socks off for huge personal reward with little financial gain, then this is the job for you. But forget about marriage and kids. They’re incompatible with a life that sees you on the road for a minimum of 100 nights a year.
What advice can you offer young (or old) wannabe Kate Walkers out there, looking to follow in your footsteps?
Write, write, write, then write some more. You need to get into the habit of writing whether or not you’re feeling inspired, and you need to develop the ability to write quick and accurate copy to deadline. After Shanghai I wrote sixteen pieces in four hours, as I needed to hit the airport for my flight, and they all ran unedited from their submitted form. You need to be able to deliver without crafting every phrase, and that’s something that comes from practice.
The other piece of advice is to save as much money as you can. If you want to break in like I did, you’ll need to be prepared to pay your own way at first, as the outlets that can afford to pay for your travel aren’t going to take a chance on an untested writer without any contacts. So you’ll need to find someone who can get you accreditation in exchange for you covering the travel costs, which means you need to have a whole lot of money saved up for flights, hotels, and food.
With so much competition in the journalism and media fields, it seems like it is an employer’s market. How’s the money? Without numbers, would you say F1 journalists make a substantial income or would you say one might struggle to raise a family on one income?
Hahahahahaha! Money. Ha. In order to attend all the races, you’re looking at a travel budget of at least £20,000 a year. So you need to earn that to do the job, then earn money for things like rent and bills, before you can think about any sort of ‘profit’ to spend on things like food, clothes, and having a social life. This is not a life that will make you rich, unless you win the lottery. But I’d rather have empty pockets and a head full of memories than the other way round.
Do you think you’ll ever get tired of doing what you do?
Apparently there’s a five-year threshold. If you make it past five years, odds are you’re in the sport for life. I’ve not hit the five-year mark yet, so I can’t tell you whether or not I’ll stumble at that particular hurdle, but I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I’d rather be a high-class hooker than go back to my old life of 9-5 behind a desk. At least there’s the chance of some travel…
Are all your expenses covered and how does one go about getting paid if working independently?
I’m a freelancer, so I cover all my expenses and hope that I sell enough stories to break even by the end of the season. I probably spend as much time coming up with ideas and trying to sell them to newspapers and magazines as I do actually writing. You just have to hustle for work, and hope that you’re providing your outlets with a good enough service that eventually they start coming to you with commissions. But it takes a long time to build up a reputation – I’ve been doing this for three years now, and I’m nowhere near that point.
Behind The Glitz And Glamour
What is the most interesting story you have ever written?
My favourite was one we decided not to run. I’d dug up an awful lot of background information on someone tangentially associated with F1, and none of it was flattering. A lot of it was criminal. But because the person in question had way better lawyers than I could ever afford, we decided it was safest to kill the piece.
Who was your favourite interview subject?
Heikki Kovalainen, partly because he was my first F1 interview, and partly because he’s an all-round lovely person to interview. There are some drivers who make it perfectly clear that they don’t want to be doing an interview they’ve agreed to, but Heikki is a consummate professional.
Keeping a reader interested in a story is difficult, especially in the internet age with so many ways to get information. You seem to be quite successful in capturing your audience’s attention, what’s your approach?
Thanks for the compliment! I guess I just try to write without taking it all too seriously. I mean, when it comes down to it, all we’re doing is writing about a bunch of rich guys playing around with expensive toys. And it’s easy to forget that when you’re in the middle of it. We’re not helping to overthrow oppressive regimes, or fighting for political freedoms – we’re having a blast while travelling the world. I also try and link stories to whatever randomness is burbling through my head at the time, which is why I’ve written F1 articles referring to Aristotle, Hamlet, and the plays of Noel Coward.
How long do you normally work on each of your stories? Do you have a general guideline you follow for length?
Ideally, I’d make all of my pieces 800 words. But sometimes pieces just don’t go on for that long – there’s always a point in the middle of writing when I know there’s nothing more that I can add without just writing in a pathetic attempt to up my word count. Unless I’m doing a feature, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than an hour writing a piece. Researching takes longer, of course.
Do you ever feel uninspired?
Constantly! And that’s when you’ll see two or three days go by without anything up on my site. Because while there’s always something to write about, I refuse to be one of those people who just rehashes press releases, or rewrites something Autosport have already covered. If I can’t find an original take on a story, I won’t bother covering it. Why waste my readers’ time with material they’ve already seen elsewhere?
Have you ever had to endure any dangerous situations? Are you hesitant for instance about going to Bahrain this season?
I was in a car behind Button when he got attacked in Brazil in 2010 – that was pretty scary. There have been loads of dangerous situations on the road, as the standard of driving internationally isn’t quite what I’m used to in Europe. With luck, the FIA’s Decade of Action for Road Safety will help change that.
Perversely, I like those nervous moments when you’re not quite sure whether you’ll make it out alive. Maybe it’s the thrill-seeker in me, but I always feel most alive after a near-death experience, whether or not it’s linked to F1.
As for Bahrain, I’m more concerned that our presence there will lead to violence for ordinary Bahrainis than I am worried about my personal safety. I expect the country to be on military lockdown, and I think we’ll probably be safer there than we are anywhere else. Because if anything goes wrong this weekend, FIA, FOM, and the Bahraini royal family are going to have a lot to answer for, and they know it.
Have you ever had issues with customs when traveling abroad to new and very foreign countries, say perhaps China?
The last thing you want, after a 30 hour plane journey, is to be interrogated by customs officials. But something about my exhausted appearance drew the attention of a Japanese border control officer, which is why I spent Wednesday evening draping my knickers and socks across Nagoya Airport.
Arriving in Japan was somewhat surreal. I had visited the country as a backpacker in my student days, and found the immigration procedure pretty unremarkable. But in the intervening years, security got a lot tighter.
The first thing I noticed, walking off the plane, was the giant thermo-meter (like a thermometer, but for full body scans) at the gate. Signs explained that they were taking our temperatures to make sure we weren’t bringing any infections with us into Japan. Naturally, as I walked through it, I sneezed. Oops. Nothing to see here, officer, just some sinuses run ragged by three flights and 30 hours in transit.
Queueing up at passport control, we were treated to a mini video explaining the new entry procedures. Much like the United States, Japan now demands that all incoming passengers have their fingerprints and photograph taken. Refusal means you’re sent back to your point of origin on the first available flight.
I began preparing myself for the inevitable interrogation, but was pleasantly surprised to discover the process was no more troublesome than flashing my passport at Heathrow. Making my way over to the baggage carousel with a completed customs declaration, I naively assumed I was home and dry.
Home and dry until it came to getting through customs, that is. Everyone in the queue ahead of me handed over their yellow forms and was waved straight through, so I was surprised to be asked to open my suitcase for inspection.
‘Why are you here?’ the customs man asked. ‘For the Grand Prix,’ I replied. He had no idea what I was talking about until I started making car noises while mimicking turning a steering wheel. ‘The Grand Prix? How much was your ticket?’ he asked. When I explained that I had a press pass, things got strange.
Rummaging through my suitcase, the customs official started going through the books I’d brought with me, reading the blurbs on the back. I don’t think that a selection of thrillers and crime novels constitutes contraband, so it was strange to see my choice of reading material undergo such a thorough inspection.
Next came my jeans. He went through all of the pockets, turning them inside out until he found a tiny fleck of tobacco inside one of the seams. God knows how it got there, or how long it had been there, but it was with this discovery that my interrogation began in earnest. The customs man brought out a laminated sheet of paper showing photographs of a variety of illegal drugs.
‘Do you know what these are?’ he asked. ‘Some drugs,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t got anything like that with me.’
Having already been through my suitcase, he knew that was the case and agreed with me. Nonetheless, it was time for a pop quiz. When I confessed that I couldn’t identify the random selection of white powders, but assumed that the tablets pictured were probably Ecstasy, he asked me if I’d ever smoked cannabis. When I admitted to some Amsterdam experimentation in my student days, he zipped up my suitcase, wished me a pleasant evening, and sent me on my way.
Where are your favourite places to visit on the F1 calendar? First for the circuit/race and second for visiting and just walking about?
Japan is my favourite country, and was long before F1 came into my life. So I love the fact that I now get to go every year. Singapore has become one of my favourite cities in the last couple of years – I love the food, the city itself, and the people I’ve met there. I didn’t get to spend enough time in Shanghai this year, but I could tell from the short amount of time I was in town that it’s a place I could fall in love with very easily. I’m looking forward to going back in 2013 and discovering it properly. As for visiting for the circuit, you can’t beat Spa. I remember the first time I went there, walking out of the media car park, turning my head, and seeing Eau Rouge disappearing up into the mist. I got shivers down my spine, and still do every time I think of it.
Where do you encounter the most enthusiastic fans? Where is there the most F1 energy?
There are so many places! The Japanese fans are crazy-passionate, to the extent that I’ve been asked for my autograph leaving the paddock, just because I’m part of the circus. The tifosi in Monza are something else entirely. Spanish fans go mental whenever Alonso’s around, while Britain, Canada, and Australia all have really passionate fans.
Part 4 of this mini series dives into two areas peripheral to the sport and the job. Both however, have a huge impact on work itself and can make life as an F1 journalist on the road easy OR hell in perpetual motion. As you have read thus far in this feature, it’s not all peaches and cream out there. Journalism is a cut throat business, stories are difficult to come by and harder to sell given the fierce competitive nature of the beast. I ask Kate about her co-workers who happen to be her immediate competition. Some of the answers may surprise you. The second area of questions revolves around the tools used to make it possible to get the job done, see what technology this pro uses to capture the story.
You work around difficult conditions with so many competitive journalists trying to get the same information and story. Do you have colleagues that you share information with?
I was surprised to discover how friendly the press room is, to be honest – we all share information, scoops, and stories, although it’s understood that the person who found it gets to use the information first.
Who are some of your favourite people to work with?
Couldn’t possibly say. I respect and admire too many people in the press room to be able to list them all, and they’ve all got different skills and virtues. The thing about F1 is that you have to be good at what you do to get in – you don’t get time-wasters. So the press room is filled with a couple of hundred talented, intelligent, and passionate people, and it’s a privilege to consider myself one of their colleagues.
Who (people or team) are the most willing to give you their time?
That depends on how well they’re doing at the time. When a team is winning, they’ve got loads of demands from the media, so it’s harder to get their attention. Same thing if it’s a team’s home grand prix – they have to focus their efforts on the local media, rather than on the F1 press corps.
As we mentioned before, there are not many women in the sport, how tight are you with the other females in F1 media and do you all get along well together?
There’s not really a male v female split in F1. I mean, there aren’t many women, and so we do look out for each other, but everyone in the press room looks after everyone else. Away from the press room I hang out with a mostly male group, but that’s not because I don’t get on with the women. The BBC crew stay in hotels together and tend to hang out together, the Sky lot do the same. Fleet Street journos make up one group, and the freelancers make up another. So we split down employment lines, not gender lines. That being said, the women I know in F1 are absolutely lovely. In UK media, both Jennie Gow and Natalie Pinkham are great to chat to. I’ve not met Georgie Thompson yet, as the broadcast journalists are kept in a separate part of the paddock from the print and radio types.
Do you work with any photographers at all to uncover stories? How does it work if you need photos to use for your articles? Permissions, royalties?
I tend not to use photos for my pieces, mainly because I can’t afford to.
Would you consider yourself a techie/geek? Do you embrace technology or still use the trusted notepad and pen approach?
Total geek. Always have been, always will be. But that doesn’t mean I ignore paper and pen – I always have a notebook on me, and use it to make notes of time-cues in recordings that I might want to transcribe for a piece.
What sort of technology do you like to use most? Laptop? iPad? Digital Voice recorder? etc..
I’ve got an HTC Sensation that I love like it’s my baby. I use it for photos, social media, and as a Dictaphone. Then I’ve got my big laptop (an old Toshiba that will need to be replaced pretty soon) and a Linux netbook. I don’t take both computers to races – the big laptop comes on flyaways when I can take a carry-on bag on the plane in addition to my suitcase, while the netbook is for European races when all of my stuff has to get squeezed into the carry-on. I will *not* pay to take a suitcase on a budget airline. I refuse to use Apple products; I’m passionate about open-source technology and hate the way they operate as a company.
Things Get PERSONAL
Living out of a suitcase for many months out of the year must be difficult. What do you miss most about being on the road the most aside from your bed?
Mostly it’s my bed. When I’m not travelling, I’ll get up in the morning, put some clothes on, and then get back into bed to do my work for the day. I try not to move when I’m not on the road, to the extent that I text my flatmates and ask them to bring me cups of coffee. If it’s not my bed, then the thing I miss most is my kitchen. I find cooking really soothing, and last year I went from Monaco to Interlagos without cooking a single meal. (In terms of the season, I mean. I didn’t hop on a plane from Nice to Sao Paulo.)
How does Kate achieve Work-Life balance? Or does that even exist for someone who covers Formula One?
Yeah, that doesn’t exist. At least, not for me. Some people might have figured out a way, but I haven’t.
How difficult are relationships?
They don’t happen. I was in a relationship when I started in F1, but had to end it because I never saw him. When we were in the same country, I was glued to my laptop, to the extent that he used to joke that he associated my presence with the sound of keys clacking.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? How do you clear your head and keep fit?
There isn’t really any time when I’m not working. I usually work from the moment I wake up to around midnight, seven days a week, and that’s when I’m at home. The hours are much longer when you’re at the track – I often work till 2/3am and then have the alarm set for 6am so I can get back to the circuit.
When I do have time off – I have to force myself so I don’t burn out – then I do a lot of cooking (especially baking). I like watching cartoons like South Park, Family Guy, and American Dad, and I’m a voracious reader. It’s one of the things I like about the travel – I can burn through a couple of books on a flight, and it’s the main time ‘off’ that I get.
Keeping fit is something other people do. I walk a lot and live on strong coffee, which is why I’m not fat. Given the amount of crap I eat on the road I should be the size of a house. Fortunately, I can’t afford to eat much, crap or otherwise.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? What happens after F1?
After F1? There is no after F1! I can’t imagine myself doing anything different. If, for some reason, F1 stopped as a sport, then I’d do my best to get involved in either MotoGP or WRC. I like travelling the world listening to engines and smelling motor oil.
As for in ten years, I’d love to be an F1 commentator. Not that I’m on the right career path, as I’m not involved in TV or radio, but it’s a fantasy of mine. Plus I don’t know if TV viewers could handle my style of potty-mouthed commentating… If I can’t do commentary, then I’d just like to be doing what I’m doing now, but with more respect and more money (both of which are earned in time).
Ultimately, what would make Kate Walker happy/happier/happiest?
I’m pretty satisfied with my lot as it is, really. I mean, if I found a bag with several million dollars in unmarked, non-sequential bills by the side of the road, it would be great to know that all of my travel expenses were covered for the rest of my life, but there’s nothing better than doing what I do.
I get to travel the world doing something I’m passionate about, hanging out with a group of passionate and inspiring people who are the best in the world at what they do. Life doesn’t get any better. Because while I work an insane number of hours for very little money, it doesn’t feel like working. At least, not in the way that my previously secure but very boring decently-paid job did. I often have to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t the world’s most complicated dream – how on earth did I wind up getting to spend my life doing something this amazing?
Thank you all for following me through this incredible journey. I have always had much respect for F1 journalists that sacrifice so much to bring us the stories about our beloved sport, and now have much more. Thank you to Kate for taking the time out to answer my questions.
Kate, you are an inspiration to many of us. Keep up the great work! I for one, wish you much success and happiness in life and F1.
Authors: Ernie Black & Kate Walker
TWITTER: @TheF1Poet, @F1Kate