Audi's No. 1 Race Engineer In The WEC Is An Indian Woman

Audi's No. 1 Race Engineer In The WEC Is An Indian Woman

If you are a car racing enthusiast, you know what it means to be a race engineer. They are the crew chiefs who stand in the pits, acting as coaches, guiding the mechanics and the drivers. They are just as pumped with adrenaline as the racers, making split second decisions, ultimately giving the boost the driver needs so that he stands a chance to win. It is a largely male-dominated world, and one woman, that too an Indian, has managed to make her way through, right to the top— Leena Gade.

Gade is the proud owner of one of the most impressive resumes in the field of professional sports car racing. As a race engineer for the Audi Sport Team Joest in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), she has won most of the races, and has emerged winner of the series championship. In 2011, she became the first female race engineer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which is considered to be one of the most important races in the sports car racing arena.

Image source:

The race to the top
Her story tells us what we all know—the climb to the top isn’t easy, but if you try hard, you will eventually make it. UK born Gade, who is of Indian origin, was always encouraged by her parents to learn how things worked. “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.”  For her, a career in motorsport was the most natural option. As a teenager, she began sending requests to Formula One teams, hoping to gain work experience, but she was rejected each time.

Her sister Teena is also a successful race engineer. As children, they both dreamt of a life where they would make a mark as an engineer. “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 popularity of F1 that attracted 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.’”

Racing became somewhat of a religion for them. She went on to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering and armed with the support of her family, she set out to make her dream come true. However, trying to make it big in a male-dominated world has never been easy and Gade struggled in this equation, as well. “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.” When she started out, there only five girls among the 95 students on her course, and by the end, only two remained.

It is a fiercely competitive world, but that never shook her. Getting a degree proved to have been a much easier exercise than gaining the experience she needed. She was constantly pushed back by members of the fraternity who told her that her gender would never allow her to make it big in this world. But, she had a dream and she was hell-bent on achieving it. Working at races often gained her no money, but she stayed satisfied with the hands-on-learning. She spent her time with several companies such as Formula BMW, A1GP, GT racing and Le Mans with the Chamberlain Synergy team that helped her build her resume to what it is today. In 2007, she joined Audi. Being able to take Britain’s Allan McNish to the American Le Mans Series  Championship title, with the help of Howden Haynes, is one of of the biggest success in her career’s timeline. Today, Gade has emerged to be one of the most senior women and an asset to the world of of motor racing.

Image source:

Being a female engineer in male-dominated sport
A question that she has been asked time and again, but her answer always remains the same—I am not any different. “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. 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,” she said in an interview with ESPN.

For the longest time, the role of women in car racing remained to that of a mere sex symbol. But the foray on women such as Susie Wolff, the British racer, Danica Patrick of NASCAR, Monisha Kaltenborn, the chief executive of the Sauber team, show us that there can be key female personalities in this sphere.

India has been trying to enter the world of Motorsport for a while now. While it may be a possibility in the future, at present, we lack the infrastructure for it. But, the success of Gade teaches us two things. One, that maybe, what we need is to focus on producing engineers that can make a difference, because we clearly have the much-needed know-how. Second, people like Bernie Ecclestone, who think that the world will never take a female racer seriously, couldn’t be more wrong.

Related Stories

No stories found.