Audi Sport's Leena Gade is one of the few female engineers who work at the highest level of motorsport. She spoke to Darshan Chokhani about the challenges involved in her role.
Since 2003, UK-born Gade, who is of Indian descent, has worked in various forms of motor racing, progressing up the ranks from data engineer to assistant race engineer before becoming Audi Sport's No.1 race engineer in 2011.
Under her guidance, Audi won the 2011, 2012 and 2014 Le Mans 24 Hours, along with the 2012 and 2013 World Endurance Championship titles.
In an exclusive interview with Motorsport.com, Gade talks about her career, the adjustment into a male-dominated sport, and the highs and lows she's experienced.
How did you first get into engineering?
From a young age along with my sisters, I was encouraged to learn how things worked. We used to fix our toys whenever we broke them, pull apart most electronic items in the house to see how they worked, played with chemistry kits and just generally took an interest in how stuff functioned.
There was never a question about another career once I decided to pursue engineering and wanted to work in motorsport.
It’s not true that motorsport PR and hospitality are easy to get into for women, because you have to love motorsport to want to do it and understand the business and what is needed.
It also doesn’t make a difference if you are male or female, it’s about your attitude and you either want to do it or not.
How was it adjusting to a male-dominated sport?
It wasn’t difficult, because this is the field I wanted to work in and if you aren’t any good at it, you won’t make it. If there were any doubts about being a female in this business they came from me, not from anyone here.
Again, it’s about attitude – you will find it hard if you don’t enjoy it or want to be doing it and that goes from being male or female.
What have been the highs and lows of your career?
The high points have included the building up of a successful car crew with engineers, mechanics and drivers that has led to some great racing, a die-hard attitude and some race wins.
There are always low points every year and they weren’t just at the start of my career – life isn’t always perfect! A low point is always when we as a team do not perform to our best, because in such a competitive field it leads to race losses.
However, you have to turn low points into learning and improvement, and that is something I always strive to do.
What are the differences between working in single-seaters and sportscars?
The basic difference is that with sportscars, it’s about a whole team and every individual contributing and succeeding, whereas with single seaters a lot of focus is put on just the driver. There are complexities in both, different approaches to racing, different goals even.
My preference is sportscars at the moment, because I have a huge amount of experience in this field and for me there is something very satisfying about a team working at its optimum.
But as I haven’t experienced single-seaters, I can’t say whether I wouldn’t enjoy it – it’s different and maybe in there is a challenge that could be enjoyed.
Is there any chance you could work in F1 in future?
I don’t know where my career will end but F1 is a very different field to the WEC. The LMP1 cars we race are much more complex than an F1 car due to the open regulations and that presents a different challenge.
F1 is in everyone’s sight because of the TV coverage that makes it seem like it is the place to be, but just take a look at some of the races in the WEC [in 2015] and you will see that the open regulations, the people and the cars have made it much more interesting that F1.
So, if I wanted to I could look into F1, but that is not where my challenge lies. I’m sure F1 fans will disagree with me and although I do watch F1 races sometimes, I have to say I usually take a nap when they are on!
What more is there left for you to achieve?
If I’d achieved everything I wanted to, I wouldn’t still be doing this. There are many more motor racing challenges ahead as a race engineer, in technical roles and in other fields. I want to be able to encourage kids into science and engineering as well as encouraging their peers to see what opportunities that brings in every field.
Motor racing is seen as the cool part of engineering, but that is not the only engineering field that exists – if anything, regulations in motorsport can sometimes curtail creativity. Society needs enthusiastic scientists and engineers to help fix the problems we have either created for future generations or that we find along the way in our evolution.
If I can help people to see the importance of that, I think I will have put a little something back into a field that has given me a lot of pleasure over the last 17 years.
What's your message to budding motorsport engineers, especially female ones?
If you want to do it, you have to make it happen on your own. I have so many people asking me if they can come and work for Audi Sport but my question to them is, what can you offer us? If you can’t answer that question, that means you need to go out and get experience at club level racing and find out what types of racing you like.
A 24-hour race is not easy from a mental and physical point of view for everyone involved. That means some people won’t like it, and perhaps they would be happier at, for example, a single-seater or touring car race.
Unless you know what is involved, you won’t know if you can do it or will like it. You need to be confident you can make it in this game and that means jumping in and helping at every level when it’s needed – I’ve cleaned cars and tyres, built up dampers, helped replace gearboxes and made the tea!
I never treated any task as beneath me or as a chore, it was something I had to do and each time I made sure I came away learning something. If you believe you know it all, I can guarantee you will fall flat on your face.
Experience as much as you can, because the motorsport business is a wide-ranging and competitive one with places for people of all backgrounds and interests.