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Le Mans To Be Leena Gade’s Swansong At Audi

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 16 2016
Audi race engineer Leena Gade will be making her final appearance with the team this weekend in the Le Mans 24 Hour race.

Audi race engineer Leena Gade will be making her final appearance with the team this weekend in the Le Mans 24 Hour race.

Over the past several years, Leena Gade has made history as race engineer for powerhouse Audi Sport Team Joest in the World Endurance Championship, where she won the series championship and most of its biggest races – including the centerpiece 24 Hours of Le Mans.

bugqaThis weekend, Gade will make her final appearance for the Audi team as it has been announced that she will leave the team after the 2016 Le Mans race. It has been reported that she will join the Bentley team.

The complete story of Gade’s success goes beyond numbers and sites of victories. The way she has helped win races for her team is every bit as important as how many.

As race engineer, it is her job to make long-range plans but also split-second calls on race days. She has done that with impressive results. In 2014, for example, at the WEC race in Austin, Texas, her calls on which tires to use in a race that was plagued by rain showers, proved to be winning calls.

She has been described in the press as cool and calm and consumed by her job.

Gade joined Audi in 2007 and worked her way up to her current position of race engineer.

Prior to last year’s Le Mans race, Gade took some times to answer some questions in a phone interview with RacinToday.com. The following is a transcript of that interview, which originally ran on the ESPN.com website:

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

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 UK, we moved back across to India and 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 three years younger than me,

Audi dominated Le Mans and the WEC in recent years.

Audi dominated Le Mans and the WEC in recent years.

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 UK 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.

Question: What do you like most about your job?

Leena Gade: I think the team work. 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.

Question: 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?

Leena 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. But I was also guided by a number of other race engineers who had done the job prior to me and had handled it in different ways. That was definitely something that made me be able to handle those decisions. 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.

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

Leena 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. And one big noticeable difference year in and year out is from Spa (a track in Belgium where a 6-hour long race is held in May) to Le Mans, all the pre tests, the amount of work that needs to go into preparing the cars gets bigger and bigger. So you need to not only prepare yourself from what you have to do and you feel quite tired, but around you, all the mechanics for example, they work from 9 to 5 every day and they are at the bottom end of it when changes get made. They’re the last in the line to get the hard bits and you have to be there to support them and show them there is a reason why we’re doing it.

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

Audi drivers celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the Sebring 12-hour race in 2012. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Audi drivers celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the Sebring 12-hour race in 2012. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

prepared but 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.

Question: Do you have a favorite victory?

Leena 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 and 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 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.

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

Leena 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.

Question: Porsche is back racing LMP1 cars and, of course, will be at Le Mans. Is that a special competition or you and Audi?

Leena Gade: I guess it has been longer than just at Le Mans. It has been ever since Porsche announced they were coming to sports car racing with an LMP1 car. A lot of that, I guess, is because they are with us in the VW group (Porsche and Audi are owned by Volkswagen). It’s a straight out fight between the two of us. I guess, also, with motorsport being a small world, I know a number of the mechanics. They came from us. And a number of the engineers as well. It’s a healthy competition to have. That’s not to belittle the competition we have that’s given to us by Toyota because they, for sure, were a strong contender against us last year.

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

Leena 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. That way it’s structured or the way, I guess, the race engineers with their performance assistants operate. 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.

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

Leena Gade: It’s what you make of it, to be honest. I never thought about it too much because it’s a job I wanted to do. And that’s how I view it. It’s just a job and I could do it but a guy could do it as well and I hope that the best person is doing it within our organization whether it’s race engineer or mechanic or who’s building our body work or my chief mechanic or one of my support engineers. So I don’t think about it too much. 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. It’s security in numbers, actually. 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.

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

Leena 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.

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

Leena 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.

Question: If you weren’t an engineer, what would you be doing?

Leena 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.

Question: Do you feel accepted in the paddocks?

Leena 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.

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

Leena 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. Whether it’s Le Mans, whether it’s Silverstone, whether it’s racing in Austin (Texas) or Shanghai, where ever it might be, all of them can be so close between the competitors. 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.

Question: Thank you, Leena, and good luck at Le Mans and beyond.

Leena Gade: Thank you. It has been a pleasure.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Thursday, June 16 2016
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