Chatting with Kathy Shi Part I: To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

It is March 8th this Sunday, the International Women’s Day. For this special occasion, we are rolling out an exclusive interview with Kathy Shi (石一瑛), the first Chinese journalist to be accredited an F1 season pass, and currently an F1 and Formula E commentator for both China Central Television and Tencent Sport. We will be releasing the first part of this conversation today as our regularly scheduled weekly article, and the second part on International Women’s Day.

© All photos, including featured cover, provided by Kathy Shi

The live broadcast of Santiago E-Prix wrapped up at 4:30 am Beijing Time. After another long night shift, Kathy Shi, the commentator, went back to her hotel. It was her last business trip ahead of the national holidays of the Lunar New Year. The Lunar New Year came earlier this year, but Kathy’s holidays started later.

“I’m more used to finishing my work around November, where the F1 season ends. And I can make the most of the following two months to recharge. In this way, I get to relax. But last year I was busy through December with several parallel jobs. I don’t feel I’m at the top of my game. I must adapt and get used to it.”

This restless career was almost destined when she enrolled in the School of Journalism at Fudan University. In her extra-curriculum activities, she joined the debate club and developed the skills of hosting, debating, and lecturing. After graduation, she dedicated herself to sports news and became one of the few in her class who’s in this line of work up till now. “Journalism at Fudan University is the best choice any student in Shanghai can think of. I never thought of economies or business management or so. It was only when I started learning did I realize that our classes were more theoretical than practical. Our professors did encourage us to participate in social practice to get more hands-on experiences. Out of my interests, and perhaps with a little luck, I got this internship at an online sports media start-up. I was editing news for them, when 5-6k a month is a pretty good income for a student. Their platform closed later but one of the editors mentored me for a while on print media. It was a rewarding experience and had me stayed as a sports journalist.”

Her first job after university was at F1 Express, one of the most renowned printed publication within the Chinese motorsport circle at that time. She then became the first Chinese journalist to be accredited a season pass of Formula 1. After following the championship all over the world for two years, she turned to be a racing commentator because, she said and we quote, “I happened to know this sport.” Editor, reporter, commentator, host, she wrote her way out and never restrained herself with any of these titles. Whatever interests her, she tries.

“I feel more comfortable this way. I think no matter what job you do, in the end, it will bore you. But if you work on different things now and then, you’ll feel less annoyed. At least this is the case for me. If I do the repetitive thing every day, say, writing, I’ll break down. I may not be able to do it for a very long time. But if it is constantly changing and there are always new challenges, it will keep me active. Having been in the debate club, I’m confident of my speech and logical thinking. Live broadcasting is also new to me. Now as I look back, the skills I acquired from the debate club really are handy and helpful.” 

Cultural difference!

Driven by changes and challenges, she started her career in the Formula 1 Paddock. In 2011 she became the first Chinese journalist to be accredited a full season media pass in Formula 1, she attended at least 10 races per season in 2 successive years. There she encountered some of the most exciting challenges in her life. It was exhausting to travel from China to most of the circuits because of the long-distance, but every time she went back to the paddock, she felt happy and prepped up.  “In the paddock, everything’s new to me. I’ve never studied abroad, and being in a place full of foreign people, it forces me to learn fast. I got to know different cultures in different countries, and it’s like a small united nation in the paddock with all these nationalities. German journalists are closer to German drivers, and the drivers, mechanics, and engineers from Germany will surely tell them more than they can tell you. British journalists and drivers have a different dynamic. Back in 2012, the journalists were closer to Button than to Hamilton, you can just feel their attitudes. And there were the Italian journalists, they were like parents to the team. When the race results didn’t live up to the expectations, they’ll scold the drivers, like, ‘why did you race like this?’, ‘where’s your pace in the second stint?’. This looks interesting to me. I frequently witness things that I could never imagine. ”

“So my experience was enriched during those days. But at the end of 2012, I wanted to stop, because it was draining me physically and mentally. When I told my friends in the paddock, I was surprised by the support they had for me. Someone even offered to help find a place in Ferrari China. So it was a satisfying ending to my two years in the paddock, I may not have done the best, but I was satisfied with what I achieved.”

I like the paddock because of the people who were kind to me. Of course, some other people were hostile or mean. Some of the more senior reporters, they would look down on you as if I was this Chinese girl who didn’t know anything about motorsport. Last summer when Inter Milan was visiting China, Steven Zhang, the Chairman of the club mentioned that he was often challenged in the clubs meeting in Europe. The Chairmen from other clubs talked to him like he knew nothing about football, just because he’s young and he’s from China. Therefore he decided to change the way they think of Chinese people of our age. Livio (Oricchio) once said to me, ‘you gave me a new perspective on the Chinese young generation’. Foreigners indeed don’t know so much about us. I feel quite moved when he told me this. I think I must have done the things right.”

To boldly go where no one has gone before!

When she first entered F1, Kathy was a stranger in a sport that has over 60 years of history in Europe. She was not sophisticated enough in this area. Predecessors mentioned to her the difficulties for Chinese to mingle in the paddock. “I think to most Chinese, the paddock is new and undiscovered before. A journalist I know, who is capable of great things, warned me that this is a place where Chinese don’t belong. To some extent, I agree with this. I think without the backing of a Chinese team or driver, a Chinese journalist can never be the best in this line. Not that you’re to be isolated, but there’s always the barrier. I was young back then, so I’d go and try everything with no fears. I told myself I would try and see what I can achieve. I was pretty open-minded. The two full seasons in F1 turned out to be inspiring.”

“Lots of European journalists were here for at least 20 years, I’m afraid that only this kind of experience can make you truly belong to such a place. They witness the mechanics or engineers come and go, it is when the journalists who are the most experienced then they can say they’re the master of the house. I won’t say I can reach this level. However, when the teams like Ferrari and Sauber invite you to their media gala, it’s an affirmation of your efforts.

“I was surprised upon arrival to my first race overseas, Massa’s mother was greeting me. I also met people I knew from previous China Grand Prix. They took good care of me. I’ve never completely mingled in. I wasn’t close to the mechanics or engineers, drivers were more familiar with me through the interviews. ”

“Occasionally I chose the interviewees out of my curiosity. For example, I’m curious enough about Sabine (Kehm). I think there must be something special in a woman who started as a press officer and ended up as a driver’s manager. I wanted to know how she made it. So I’d ask for interviews like this, where I can also learn from it. I was privileged that I was the first Chinese journalist who followed a full season in F1. I think they were also curious about me at their ends. Plus, I attended the events frequently and regularly, and I don’t break the rules, so they’d know I’m trustworthy. There were journalists at the early editions of the Chinese Grand Prix who were chasing the drivers for autographs. They left a bad first impression that Chinese journalists don’t know about F1. Professionalism matters.”

Icebreaking!

Since we’ve all been rejected for interviews at some point in our career, we asked Kathy about dealing with uncooperative interviewees. To our surprise, it never bothered her much. In F1, smaller teams are more cooperative. It is the big teams like Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren that may not be as open. “At that time, Silvia (Hoffer) was hired from Williams to McLaren to save McLaren’s drowning relationship with the media. Even the British journalists were complaining about how unfriendly McLaren was to the media. So Silvia was there to turn the table. She’s very professional and organized. She distributes info pack to each media representative, and every season at the opening round, she’d go to the media center and introduce herself to the newcomers, check if they need to be added in her mailing list.” 

Silvia Hoffer

So McLaren was not so difficult to deal with because of Silvia. And Red Bull was only the beginning of their dominating years. The team with the red car was the hardest to breakthrough. “I tried to approach the drivers, not the team. Massa and Alonso were nicer than the team. Ferrari usually hosts two group interviews, one in English and one in Italian. Massa was like a sitting duck at the English interview, either nobody showed up, or hostile journalists showed up with harsh questions. I don’t understand Italian but I speak English, I know how the questions sounded like. So the press officer always let me raise my questions first at the English interview. I was helping Massa in some way, then the team was grateful for saving them from awkwardness.”

Respect the Track Limit!

Where there are people, there are factions. Journalists are divided by nationality, sense of identity or benefits. It depends on who they work for and what they work on. “With so many people gathered in the media centre, it is like a small United Nations, so it will expose its problems more thoroughly.”

Moreover, there’s this balance between integrity and profit. How do you write objective and neutral reports when all your cost is covered by one manufacturer? “F1 Express provided great opportunity because it’s a profitable publication, it sells advertisement. So it can afford to send reporters to the events. When more and more manufacturers invest in racing series in exchange of exposure, the bottom line is not to be bribed by one to assault the others.

In part 1, we mainly focused on Kathy’s career in the F1 paddock as a journalist for print media. In part 2, we will dive into her time on broadcast TV as a commentator.

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