Why Leena Gade Is One Of The Most Accomplished Women In Motorsports

Courtesy of Audi

In what's considered the most important event in the world of sports car racing, Leena Gade and Audi Sport Team Joest have been golden.

Hours from now, Leena Gade will attempt to add to her auto racing résumé that already ranks as one of the most impressive in the field of professional sports car racing.

As a race engineer for the powerhouse Audi Sport Team Joest in the World Endurance Championship, Gade has won the series championship and most of its biggest races, including the centerpiece 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In 2011, she became the first female race engineer to win the around-the-clock race that is recognized as the most important in the world of sports car racing. She has won it twice since then, and now, she and her team will try to earn victory No. 4 beginning Saturday in France.

The story of Gade's success goes beyond the number of victories. The way she has helped win races for her team is every bit as important.

Darrell Ingham/Getty Images

In 2011, Leena Gade became the first female race engineer to win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Sitting on top of the in-the-pits team viewing stands, the race engineers -- NASCAR's equivalent of crew chiefs -- are the head coaches, telling the mechanics what to fix and the drivers how to drive.

They make the split-second decisions and the long-term plans. They face crushing pressure virtually every waking hour as they also direct team operations away from the tracks in race shops, practice tracks and laboratories.

Gade has been described as cool, calm and consumed by her job. She joined Audi in 2007 and worked her way up to her current position. As she and her team prepared for the 2015 race at Le Mans, she took time to answer some questions for espnW.

espnW: How did you get interested in engineering and motorsports?

Leena Gade: My interest in engineering came first, and it started when I was quite young. My parents are from India and having been born in the U.K., we moved back across to India. To kill time, my sister and I would pull things in the house apart and put them back together again. Just kind of out of boredom, I guess. Myself and my sister (Teena), who is 3 years younger than me, we became interested in how things were put together, how they functioned, and having met some friends of the family who studied engineering, we realized that was a field you could go into where you could learn a bit more about it.

We moved back to the U.K., and that's where my sister got hooked on Formula One. And through her, having watched it on the TV, I got interested, and I guess the next thing that happened was we realized you could have a career in engineering in motorsport based around just what was going on on TV. The commentators gave a lot of information on how a Formula One team runs, what kind of engineers they have, where the technology is applied. That's really how it came about.

espnW: What do you like most about your job?

Gade: I think the teamwork, when you're working closely with a group of people who have the same goal in mind. In our case, it's preparing the car so that our drivers have the best tools possible to be able to go racing. You develop a bond between people. I have to deal with different groups of people from varying backgrounds. We're a German company, but we have drivers from all over the world. Our engineers also come from outside of Germany, so there's a wide variety of people that you have to learn to work with. And that in itself is quite a challenge that I don't think necessarily comes across when you watch what we do. I think sometimes it looks like it's a really slick organization. That's part of the challenge and the part of motorsport that I really enjoy.

espnW: You've made some really big race-day calls over the years. Can you describe the feeling of making these decisions as the races are coming down to the finish?

Gade: I think one thing you have to remove from the job is the pressure. I'm not sure that anybody could do it. I'm not sure that I'm the best at it, either. I think you have to put things into perspective of looking at where you are in the race, what your options are and what the best option is for your race car and your team. It's not an easy task. It's very easy to make the wrong call when you panic, and that's one thing you really have to learn to control, and I learned that the hard way after a couple of races.

It's not an easy task. It's very easy to make the wrong call when you panic, and that's one thing you really have to learn to control.
Leena Gade

I try not to think about how big the consequences are of getting it wrong. You know what they are, and it can only go one way if it goes wrong, which is that you end up losing a race. On the other side, you do have to be pragmatic. Sometimes you have to admit you don't know stuff and you have to ask around you for advice of people in quite a highly pressurized situation. I hope I don't panic too much. Sometimes panic is going on in my head, and I hope that doesn't come across to my team.

espnW: You've got the 24-hour race at Le Mans coming up. How do you physically and mentally prepare for that?

Gade: Physically, it's actually quite tiring, even in the run-up to the race. We have a hectic schedule of racing and testing, which happen sort of side by side, and quite a few of us are involved in both.

Mentally, you have to be in a good mindset. You have to be incredibly prepared for Le Mans as a race. Not just on race day but the buildup from the pre-tests onward. Knowing what you have to do to build up the cars. We work the cars when we're there at race week, making sure you've got plans together for exactly what you want to run in which sessions, how you want to do it. All of that takes a bit of experience, remembering what you did in previous years but also, I guess, being mentally prepared. It may not all go as smoothly as you expect and how we react to that, how we pick up the pieces if it goes wrong -- it could be anything. It could rain and test plans go out the window. Well, we can't change that. It's the same for everybody else in the paddock, so you just have to make the best of it.

espnW: Do you have a favorite victory?

Gade: I don't know. They've all been special ones. Every single one has had something special about them. I guess the Le Mans win (in 2011), definitely the first one always sticks in my mind. With WEC (World Endurance Championship) races, I've been very fortunate to have won with the same drivers at Silverstone (a track in Great Britain) and at Spa (a track in Belgium) twice, and I have to say both times at Spa has been pretty good. An unexpected win, put it that way, but I guess they're always the good ones.

espnW: On the other side, is there a loss that hurt worse than the rest?

Gade: Yes, there are a few, but I won't name them. They all have something in them in which either we made a mistake in a decision we had from the pit wall or there was a problem on a car or we had bad luck with accidents. Those are the ones that are just a bit more annoying because you think about what could have been, but you can't really change it after the event.

espnW: At Le Mans, do you sleep during the race or are you awake for the whole 24 hours straight?

Gade: We're up for the full race. It's not the kind of job that you can hand over to the next person, unfortunately. You have to be constantly aware of how your car is developing through a race, how the track is changing, how the weather conditions alter. It's not something where you can hand over after a given amount of time to another shift.

What I struggle to understand most of the time is the fuss that's around me because I'm just another one of the team. I'm not more special than anybody else. I just happen to be female.
Leena Gade

espnW: What's it like to be a female engineer in a sport that's been so dominated by men?

Gade: I only realized, I guess, after the first win in 2011 how much of a big deal it was to the outside world. And I guess that's because the stereotypes that exist in motorsport mean that most people would wonder why you would want to do this anyway, which I can partially understand. What I struggle to understand most of the time is the fuss that's around me because I'm just another one of the team. I'm not more special than anybody else. I just happen to be female.

At the same time, I can also understand that with the sport itself being male-dominated, it's difficult for any woman to break into it, whether it's in engineering, being a mechanic, being a driver, even being on the operational side of it, being team managers, technical directors, anything really. If you can come into a sport like this, into an atmosphere like this, people stick together a little bit and you have to come in and merge into their circle and that sometimes can be a bit tough, but nothing I find daunting.

espnW: Do you consider yourself a role model in any way?

Gade: The answer is no. I can sort of see it. I hope it's because the engineering is what sticks out as something to be a role model for. Not being a female role model because for me, that's the wrong reason to be seen as being successful. For me it's about doing the job properly.

espnW: The drivers get all the glory. Did you ever want to be a driver?

Gade: I never had any desire to drive. I tried a bit of go-karting once or twice. I never really felt it was something I was going to be good at no matter how hard I tried. And I much prefer the engineering, to be honest. That's where my strengths lay, so that's what I stuck to.

espnW: If you weren't an engineer, what would you be doing?

Gade: Probably running a chocolate shop. I always wanted a chocolate shop when I was younger. I worked in one on my Saturdays and during my school holidays to pay for my driving license. Yes, I would do that.

espnW: Do you feel accepted in the paddocks?

Gade: Yes, I guess so. But I'm not sure what other people think. I guess I don't know if it annoys guys that there is a girl beating them, and secretly I think that's quite funny because they wrote the rules. On the other side, I use that as a positive thing.

espnW: Is getting to Formula One still the ultimate goal?

Gade: I have to stay that when I was younger, I wanted to go to Formula One. I didn't have the experience right at the beginning when I wanted to begin my motorsport career to just walk into that job. So I sort of fell into sports cars a little bit. On the other side, the way the WEC is expanding at the moment, how it's blossoming, the challenge itself is massive. ... Plus, the technology that we are developing as a company, which is pulling us along but is also forcing the other competitors and vice versa, that in itself is a reason not to go to Formula One.

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