Rosanna Tennant: “The pendulum has swung” for women in F1

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“I was in the Williamson building at St Mary’s. I remember looking out onto this little patch of grass outside my room and [BBC newsreader] Sophie Raworth rang me and was like ‘Oh, I’ll help you decide whether to go to City or Cardiff ’ … I always have a real memory of that little bit of Durham, in my room at Williamson talking to Sophie Raworth”, Rosanna Tennant reflects fondly on her time as a Durham undergrad. We discussed her journey from Durham to today in the run up to July’s Hungarian Grand Prix, albeit over Zoom in a typically Covid-19 era fashion.

Tennant studied French and Spanish at St Mary’s College from 2006-2010, before going on to study Broadcast Journalism at City University of London, which she described as “basically like pretending to be on TV and radio every week, we would do a radio show one week, a TV show one week”.

She now presents and commentates for Formula 1 and works at the annual Wimbledon championships. She’d always wanted to be a newsreader as a child and read the news for Purple Radio whilst at Durham, which gave her a first real taste of broadcast journalism.

She credits work experience with Sky for her current career path, saying “while I was on the sports desk, they said ‘oh, would you like to go with Jon Desborough (one of the presenters at the time) to do a little filming day, he’s going to be interviewing Jenson Button and Sir Stirling Moss at … the Hilton on Park Lane … so I went along, watched Jon during his interview and presenting and I was like ‘that looks like exactly what I’d like to do’”.

Everything’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry and even if you don’t get asked to do something or accepted onto a course, or given a job you wanted, don’t worry.

But her journey into presenting was not that straightforward. After graduating from City, she worked in sponsorship sales for nine months, before moving on to work for shoe shop Oliver Sweeney in PR, Marketing and Communications.

This wasn’t where she thought she was heading. “I remember when I took the job at the shoe shop back in 2012, I remember thinking ‘oh, this is taking me off my path of being a broadcast journalist, being a presenter.’ But actually, it kind of sounds a bit arrogant now, but you know I kind of made it work. I was like wait; how can I make the best of the situation?”. Her solution was to create a series in which she interviewed friends of the brand and produced video content.

When asked how she would advise her younger self, she circled back on these experiences, with an almost philosophical yet relatable response: “everything’s gonna be okay. Don’t worry and even if you don’t get asked to do something, or accepted onto a course, or given a job that you wanted, don’t worry because, even if that doesn’t come off, more often than not it’s not the right thing … it sounds a bit cliched but something else will fill that gap … I think Steve Jobs always says, ‘the dots all join up looking backwards’”.

Everything came together for Tennant when she entered the motorsport world presenting for YouTube channel Pole Position, alongside sports agency work on the Rolex and Mercedes F1 team accounts. She created all the teams’ video content, which “slowly shifted to me actually presenting their content in 2015” and hosting their hospitality suites.

This eventually led to working for Formula 1 themselves. “At the end of 2016 I realised that doing the hospitality hosting with Mercedes probably wasn’t going to be another option again, so I got in touch with F1 and in 2017 started working directly for F1 as well as still doing stuff with the agency and Mercedes and Rolex.”

Since her break into the motorsport world, Tennant has worked in the Formula 1 paddock. Jokingly comparing the relationships built in the “busy” environment to Durham she said, “what’s strange about it is we kind of call it the circus, because it’s all the same people just going around to all the different races, so you know everyone, which is kind of weird to have colleagues that aren’t colleagues but are kind of colleagues. Because you know I don’t work necessarily for Alpine or Ferrari, but yet you’re all in the same place the whole time … you can’t walk for like even a meter – it’s a bit like being in Durham – without seeing someone that you know”.

You’re never at the top of the ladder

In 2020, she also became a commentator for F1TV. “It was an opportunity that came up purely because my lovely friend Alex Jacques got an opportunity at Channel 4, which left a big gaping hole in our commentary set up at F1, on something we call the pit lane channel. F1 asked me if I would like to take on that role, and I said yes, because … why not try something new”.

Despite having worked previous events such as Henley Regatta, (where Tennant was able to draw upon her experience of rowing at Durham) she described commentating as a new challenge. Her first race in the commentary box, the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix, certainly wasn’t the easiest start. A race now infamous for one of the worst crashes in recent history, with Romain Grosjean’s car catching fire in an opening lap incident.

Later, Tennant led the first all-female F1 commentary team and remains one of the few female voices currently present in F1 commentary. This is perhaps unsurprising given the sport’s male-dominated image.

However, Tennant and I both agreed that things are beginning to shift. Formula 1 is becoming more diverse – “I do feel like the pendulum has swung”. She noted the strong female presence in the paddock in 2021, “I lead the commentary for F1, we’ve got a female hosting paddock club stuff, we’ve got a female who’s hosting track TV” and spoke about her own experiences positively “I’ve never ever experienced anything … I’ve never ever felt intimidated or worried”.

We moved on with a hopeful outlook for the future, which can be backed up through initiatives such as W Series, The Hamilton Commission and the FIA’s and Motorsport UK’s Girls on Track initiative, which Tennant works with to coach young girls.

She said that coaching was one of the areas of her job most affected by Covid-19, alongside the bizarreness of working from home, which for Tennant included interviewing drivers such as seven-time world-champion Lewis Hamilton: “suddenly firing up a Zoom and it saying, ‘Lewis Hamilton joining Zoom’… it was quite weird because he would see where I was”.

As we talked about her now decade-long career journey, a deep appreciation for those who had helped her was evident, alongside a visible love for her job.

Reflecting on some of her favourite moments to date, she mentioned “I was really lucky to host the 2022 Formula 1 car launch, which was mega” and “one year, I had a lap of Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia with Lewis Hamilton. He drove me around the circuit, and it was my job to interview him, while we’re going around… I’ve been really spoiled over the years”.

Tennant displayed an admirable attitude throughout the interview, which made it clear how she got to where she is today. “It’s been hard graft, but I still feel like I’m hard grafting to still keep going. It’s not like oh brilliant, I work for them I’m sort of done… And I’d imagine that that goes on forever for everyone, you’re never at the top of the ladder”.

Image: Rosanna Tennant/Mario Renzi

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