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Living life in the fast lane

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World’s first woman race engineer to win the Le Mans 24 hours, Leena Gade tells Anjana Parikh that the journey to the top wasn’t a cake walk. In the beginning, the British-born race engineer, worked for free, cleaned cars and helped mechanic build cars.

AL: What is it like to live life in the fast lane?

Leena: It’s very hectic with a crazy schedule meaning I spend very little time at home and a lot of time in hotels and airports but invariably at exciting places. My job is technically very challenging but one that gives me huge satisfaction. The Audi team is driven to winning and is like one big family.

AL: You are three sisters. Was all girls and no boys an issue in the family especially with your parents?

Leena: Never and it wasn’t as if it could be changed! My parents always encouraged the 3 of us to pursue typically female and male activities but without ascertaining a gender to them. They always believed and encouraged us that we could do anything that others could do and the only hindrance was ourselves. They also taught us that others may not like what we do or be jealous but that wasn’t our problem and we had to rise above it and be the best at whatever we chose to do.

AL: How has their upbringing helped you to fit into the ‘lads’ zone’?

Leena: It would be easy to think that being a girl means you aren’t as good as the boys doing the same job when there are so few females in engineering. But this is definitely not the case and believing you can do the same job as anyone else is the first step to getting respect from work colleagues. Boys will always be boys and there are times when you just have to fit in with the banter and be a bit of lad but that adds acceptance. I’m sure there are elements that are envious of my position but I try not to let that distract me. At the end of the day everyone on the team is here to win and any negativity detracts from the focus of working to the highest standards and pushing to win.

AL: When did you decide to become an engineer?

Leena: When I was 10 or 11. My sisters and I were born in England but my family had moved back to India when I was 9 to New Bombay. It was very different to London and a bit like an adventure for me and my sisters. We had to keep ourselves entertained a lot when the electricity was cut off during the day and without the TV or stereo, we would take things apart at home to see how they worked and then try to reassemble them. It helped that our parents encouraged us to look after our toys and if they were broken to then repair them. That also went for our bikes and skates that we always played on and had to look after to keep them working properly. That interest then became a career choice after meeting a family friend who was studying engineering – it was a perfect job to pursue with my interests.

AL: Tell us about your initial days when you were on a job-hunting spree?

Leena: Motorsport requires experience if you want to make a career in it and this meant that ever since I was 14 and trying to get work experience. I applied to every Formula 1 team every year as well as countless race teams in other race series, major automotive manufacturers and suppliers to the motorsport and automotive industries. Very few positive replies came back but I did get advice from organisations about what to follow and how to get experience. I kept every letter I got back as a reference for contacts and motivation to just keep trying, never giving up. The first interview I got for a motorsport position was when I was 22.

AL: How did you get into motor sport?

Leena: As I didn’t have motorsport experience when graduating from the university, this was a problem for me to find a full-time position. But I did have a lot of drive for motorsport that was all I wanted to do. I worked full time at Jaguar Cars Ltd for just over six years before moving to MIRA Ltd for 1.5 years. During these years, I contacted a lot of teams and then started to work on weekends for them. In the beginning, I worked for free, to get experience. I took part in everything from cleaning cars, making tea and coffee, helping mechanics build the cars and components to then doing data analysis from the sensors on the cars. Slowly being involved in the sport, I made contacts and a reputation that helped to apply or be recommended for jobs. From 2003 until September 2006, I held a full-time job and took part in Motorsport on my weekends or during my holidays. After these three years, I took the decision to contract in Motorsport and therefore left my full-time job. A couple of months after leaving MIRA, I was talking to Audi Sport about a position with them in the US and Europe on their Sportscar programme with the R10 TDI.

AL: Tell us about your upbringing in the UK?

Leena: I was born in Perivale near London and grew up there until I was 9 after which I moved with my parents and sisters to New Bombay in India. After three years we moved back to the UK when I was 12 and settled in Alperton in North London. I went to an all-girls high school as my parents wanted me to focus on education and as with my sisters had one stipulation – until we graduated from University, they let us enjoy ourselves but education came 1st. It was really important to them that we studied hard to then become independent and financially secure on our own once we left home and as all 3 of us understood how important this was to them, we all did as they said.

AL: Tells us in brief about your academic life?

Leena: I was a geek at school and studied pretty hard trying to be good at everything. Whilst in India, there was a big difference in the education standard to the UK so I struggled a little with Maths but the bigger problem was learning Hindi and Marathi as I not only had to speak the languages but also read and write them. I had grown up with my parents speaking in Marathi so I was one step ahead there but Hindi was totally new. After about a year, I was able to get by with speaking but reading and writing took a bit longer. Returning to England, I wanted to do well in all subjects so worked quite hard but still tried to have outside activities and learnt to play the guitar and clarinet. I took 4 A Levels in Maths, Chemistry, Physics and French knowing that I would probably work abroad some day and do engineering. I then completed Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering with Materials Science from the University of Manchester.

AL: How did you get to participate in Le Mans?

Leena: In 2006, I was working with a LMP1 team as a data engineer and my first event with them was the Le Mans Pre Test which is held two weeks before the race weekend. I had heard of Le Mans and had some idea of what the race entailed but until I actually did the full race week and weekend, I had no idea what was really involved. It was such a challenge and after the race, I came back with more zeal and enthusiasm to do it again. Ironically, this was also the first year I was exposed to Audi Sport who had come to Le Mans with the R10 TDI. From outside, the set up looked incredible; especially as I was used to working for small teams and had no experience with works teams. I did think at that time that it was something to aspire for, and in the next 10 months, I was racing with them in the US.

AL: When you started your career as a race engineer, did you face any difficulties?

Leena: I first joined Audi Sport as an assistant race engineer and that was a big step as I hadn’t done anything at this level so had to learn quickly. I did that job for 3.5 years before officially being given my own car for the remaining three races for that year. Those three races and the next two at the beginning of 2011 were a huge learning curve. Up to this point, I’d been a race engineer with a touring car team and looked after a few of our test cars but I didn’t really have anywhere near the race experience that was required.

It was a huge gamble for Audi Sport and me.

The 2 races in 2011 before Le Mans were a disaster and required a huge rethinking of how I would handled myself and my team. The engineers, mechanics and drivers were all new so it needed a big reshuffle and re-planning before approaching Le Mans. In hindsight, despite how difficult it was, I learnt a lot about my team and myself which really helped me to approach 2012 with a different mentality. In 2011, despite the rough start, the car I was leading won Le Mans for the first time.

AL: As a woman, how do you handle pressure especially when you are in the field?

Leena: Motorsport is always pressurised whether you are male or female so I don’t think it makes any difference that I am a woman. The team has to perform and it can only do this if everyone is capable of doing their job efficiently. When it’s pressurised there are certainly sensitive moments but I hope that as a leader of a team I bring some stability to help everyone meet their goals.

AL: You’re the first female engineer to win the Le Mans-24 hour endurance race. What were the challenges?

Leena: My challenges were no different to those for anyone else: steep learning curves, the expectations that being a team you will always win, trying to stay calm, always making the right decision, getting the best out of everybody and being prepared for every eventuality. In 2011, the biggest challenge was that we only had one car left at the end of the race and four cars from our opposition. There was absolutely no room for mistakes and I was conscious of always making the right decision. In 2012, we were using hybrid technology for the first time, so there was a lot to learn technically and then to use that to win the race against our sister cars. This year was different again – we weren’t the fastest car and with the new complex regulations that could land you with stiff penalties, there was a lot more to manage to get the win.

AL: What do you cherish about that moment?

Leena: The 2011 win will always be special because it was my first as a race engineer and leader of a car crew on the world’s stage. Second to that was winning against the odds – so many people had written to us after the previous two races that we had a point to prove. We were there on merit and to win. I think just seeing the emotion on the faces of my mechanics, what it meant to my three drivers and to everyone at Audi Sport Team Joest after the two huge crashes we had with the sister cars, was something I will never forget.

AL: As it’s not an easy job, do you think that you need to have a thick skin in order to survive in this type of job especially if you’re a woman?

Leena: Anyone involved in Motorsport has to have a thick skin because of the pressure and the lifestyle. We spend a lot of time away from home, long hours preparing and building cars and spending time with people we work with, which means, there are times when it is stressful and at times, we all let our hair down. We have a lot of team banter, which to the outside world may seem excessive but it helps to break the tension. Obviously, there is time and place for it but we all have one goal and that is to win; we all work together to make our own lives and each other’s easier.

AL: You’ve been associated with Audi Sport since 2012. What has changed?

Leena: I’ve actually been with Audi Sport Team Joest since 2007, and during these periods, I’ve seen five different car models, rapid changes in technology and systems, new rules and regulations and a big increase in the size of our team. The LMP1 cars now contains technology on par, and in some respect, to a greater level to what you find in F1 Grand Prix racing which is always considered the pinnacle of motorsport technology. Up until now, we haven’t been overly restricted with what technology can be used which means the creativity in development has also increased rapidly.

AL: Last but not the least; what does Leena do apart from racing?

Leena: I don’t get much time to pursue my hobbies intensely but I own two bikes: one mountain bike and the other one is a road bike. I probably jump on the road bike more as it is easy to take it out and go for rides whenever I want to. I also enjoy cooking during weekends, something I learnt from my mum, it helps me to switch off (especially when baking cakes). I live in Germany away from my best friend and sisters so when I do come home to London, I do try and see them as much as possible. I like visiting exhibitions and museums with my youngest sister and we tend to have girly evenings together whenever we can. I really wanted to get more involved in schools in England to promote science and engineering which is something I am trying to fit into my schedule. Moreover, after helping a friend at a charity event, I would like to put some of my time forward to do more there. I hope to do this in the remaining few months of this year.

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