"Somewhere, probably in this room, is the folder of rejection letters," says Leena Gade, gesturing around her study. She smiles, recalling the replies to requests for work experience at Formula One teams sent as a motorsport-obsessed teen. Well she might. Last year Gade became the first female race engineer to win the world's greatest sports car race, the Le Mans 24 Hours.
She did so for the Audi Sport Factory team and this year she will race engineer one of the manufacturer's new hybrid cars at both the 24 and all of the World Endurance Championship (WEC), the second round of which takes place at Spa next Saturday. It is an extraordinary achievement in an industry dominated by men. From knockbacks as a teen Gade is now at 36 one of the most senior women at the sharp end of motor racing in the world.
It is a fiercely competitive end, too. The Le Mans prototype cars she engineers are, in performance and complexity, closely equivalent to those of F1 and her role as race engineer is comparable to that of Christian Horner or Martin Whitmarsh. She is on the pit wall and calls the strategy, manages the drivers, the fuel and tyres, as well as monitoring all the technical information coming out of the car. Except, where in F1 this role lasts but an hour and a half, Gade runs the show for races that cover six, 12 and 24 hours.
These are classic meetings, such as the six hours of Spa and Silverstone; the 12 Hours of Sebring (which hosted the opening round of the WEC in March where Audi took a one-two victory) and Le Mans. They are the pinnacles of long-distance endurance racing and it has been a long journey for Gade to reach them.
Of Indian descent, she grew up in England but became interested in engineering when the family briefly returned to live in India. "We used to pull stuff apart when we were kids," she says. "When they would turn the electricity off, you couldn't have the fans and stuff on, so we would pull the radio apart and put it back together." The seed had been sown.
She and sister Teena, also a succesful race engineer in rallying, took to motorsport in a big way on their return to England. "We got into it properly through 1990 and 1991. We watched Senna win, watched Mansell do his thing in '92. It was basically Murray Walker and James Hunt's commentary that got us hooked. Anyone watching F1 at that time would have been taken in by them," she says. But it was not the popular trappings of F1 that seduced the girls. "The glamour was never there," she explains. "It was purely what the machines could do. We thought: 'Well actually there must be something clever under there.'"
From then on there was little time for anything else. "It was obsessive, probably a bit like a religion," she says. "We never missed a single race." A degree in aerospace engineering followed and the family were hugely supportive but her experience was instructive as to why there are so few women in the sport.
"I nearly quit in the first week of my degree because I went from a girls school to being in a class full of men," she says. "I learned that I had to be one of the boys, I had to have the same level of banter, of crudeness, you had to mess around like they did purely to break down the barrier of them seeing you as a girl." There were only five girls among the 95 students on her course, and only two by the end.
Gaining experience afterwards also proved difficult, one F3 team manager telling her: "The thing is you're not going to make it as a mechanic if you're a girl." But she persevered, learning hands-on, often unpaid at races, and it worked. Time with Formula BMW, A1GP, GT racing and Le Mans with the Chamberlain Synergy team helped build her reputation, until she was offered the chance to join Audi in 2007.
That year, alongside Howden Haynes, the team's No1 engineer, she helped take Britain's Allan McNish to the American Le Mans Series championship title. It was a vindication of all the hard work and convinced Gade that endurance racing was the future for her: "A test of the people as much as the machines," she says.
While she went on to become a head engineer in her own right, entering the sport remains as difficult as ever. "I think it's tough to get into," she says. "You have to have a personality to go through all of that." A steely determination was on display at Sebring, bringing her car home despite mechanical problems, but was perhaps most evident at Le Mans last year.
After two sister Audis crashed out of the race – the second, for a short period of time as the race continued around it, for unknown reasons – Gade, in charge of the final car, was in the eye of the storm. Her role was one beyond making decisions; crucially she was presenting them. The whole team look to her and they do not see a woman, they see the boss. "Those two hours in that race were tough," she recalls. "You have to keep it together for the driver in the car who is thinking: 'Was it a failure? Is it going to happen to me?'''
It was not and they went on to win. "The next thing that went through my head was: 'I hope I'm not a one-hit wonder,'" she admits. "I've got to go back and have another two or three wins and add a world championship title to our crew's name."
Source :- Leena Gade's long road to success as a female motorsport engineer | Sport | The Observer