Picture this — a little girl staring at the television screen, transfixed, as Formula 1 cars charge across a racetrack. There’s a home hero to cheer for too (or as near a home hero as one can get if one is an Indian growing up in the United Kingdom) in the form of Nigel Mansell. She watches as Mansell crosses the chequered flag first, taking the win in the race, and she is, quite simply, hooked to motorsport.
Years later, it’s that very same girl, not so little any more, sitting at the pit wall at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. She’s not just cheering for the silver car that screeches down the main straight past her. No, it’s far beyond that. Leena Gade is the race engineer for the No 1 Audi R18 TDI. She’s the one calling all the shots for this car at this race.
So, just how did the motorsport connect begin for Gade? Well, it goes further back than just rooting for Nigel Mansell. She recalls moving back to India when she was nine years old and meeting a family friend who was studying engineering; the tales he narrated of gears, sprockets, wires and more sparked an interest in her. “It was probably at that time that my sister and I started taking things apart to see how they worked,” she laughs.
Add to that an interest in motorsport that was fuelled by watching Formula 1 races, enthusiastically commentated upon by former F1 world champion James Hunt and legendary motorsport caster Murray Walker, and the racing bug had well and truly bitten Leena. There simply was no escaping it after that!
Gade started out by writing to Formula 1 teams while she was still in school, asking if they had room for an intern interested in gaining some work experience. In return, of course, she got standard replies thanking her for her interest and assuring her that they would keep her CV in their records. Not one to just sit around and wait for things to happen, she started approaching teams in other types of racing formulae, learning the ropes on the job. “I waited a bit until I had left university and I started working at Jaguar cars, and on weekends I started supporting racing teams,” she says of her initial forays into motorsport.
There were plenty of single seater races that she worked on and three or four endurance races too, but her big break came when she was part of the race crew of the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a privateer team in 2006. The switch to hardcore endurance racing was a whole new experience for her. The learning curve might have been steep back then, but it got steeper still when she moved to the Audi team as an assistant race engineer, the second in command to the race engineer and the person largely in charge of data analysis. “Audi obviously has a lot more resources,” she says. “It’s very important to get the basics right and you have a bigger back up with a bigger team.”
Since then, though, Gade’s role within the team has changed. She is now the race engineer of the No 1 Audi piloted by Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fasseler. She looks after the crew, the data, the organisation, race strategy and more. So, the final outcome of a 24-hour endurance race rests on her shoulders solely. It really is her head on the block if something goes wrong, a fact that she’s cheerfully accepted as she laughingly says “Yeah, pretty much, yeah.”
But, perhaps this acceptance stems from a certain level of confidence. After all, she became the first ever female race engineer to lead her team to victory at the epic 24 Hour race in 2011. And it doesn’t just stop there. In June this year, Gade led her team to a second consecutive victory at Le Mans. She’s now the only female race engineer to have won Le Mans — twice!
Of course, motorsport is the type of business where you simply cannot afford to pause for a breather. This means Gade and her crew started working on the 2012 car exactly three days after winning the race in 2011. “We got back from Le Mans on Monday and we started building the test car on Wednesday afternoon,” she says.
It’s evident that it’s Gade’s enthusiasm and passion for motorsport that keeps her going. After all, staying alert all night and calling the shots at one of the top racing teams in the world needs some amount of resilience. But she’s quick to point out that it’s not the stress or the coffee that keeps her going. “I think it’s the adrenaline of what’s going on that keeps you awake,” she states calmly, also adding that she doesn’t ever drink coffee during a 24-hour race because of the ups and downs caffeine can inflict on the body. Point noted!
However, as it is with all top levels of motorsport, there certainly must be an intense amount of pressure. “I don’t remember feeling that much pressure,” she says. “It was just ‘we have to get to the end of the race and we have to win it no matter what’.” A pretty solid philosophy to have if one is to survive in the business of making frighteningly fast cars go even faster... for 24 hours straight!
It’s interesting to watch Gade at work. She’s usually busy, her head buried in the laptop, analysing data, deciding how long a stint each driver needs to complete, when they need to come in for pit stops and more. Of course, she hasn’t the time to notice the peripherals at the racetrack. But the odd bystander might notice the admiring glances she gets from little boys and girls who are at the track, gradually being inspired into motorsport in much the same way that Gade herself was, many years ago.