“The car doesn’t know the difference.”
It’s a phrase first coined by IMSA driver Katherine Legge in response to media questions about what it’s like to be a female race car driver.
It’s a phrase that pays for accomplished race engineer Leena Gade as well as she and the world celebrate International Women’s Day today.
“I don’t even think about it, and I don’t think anyone I work with thinks about it either,” says Gade, who is in her first season as race engineer for the No. 77 Mazda Team Joest DPi car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. “I say that because, in all the time I’ve done it, I don’t believe there’s ever been a single time where anyone has ever referred to that as being an issue, a good thing or a bad thing.
“There’s never been that there. I think what they said is absolutely correct. The car is inert to you, but pretty much, you are to the team as well. It works both ways.”
What matters is results on the racetrack, not gender, and Gade’s résumé is full of those. The UK native did become the first female race engineer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011, which she achieved with Audi Sport Team Joest and drivers Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler. A year later, she received — ironically — the ‘Man of the Year’ award from the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Gade’s association with Audi Sport Team Joest lasted from 2007 through 2016. Since then, she’d worked with Bentley Motorsport and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports IndyCar program. Over the winter, Gade rejoined many of her former colleagues with Mazda Team Joest.
“I’m the race engineer on the No. 77 car with — for the full season — Olly Jarvis and Tristan Nunez, but for the longer races, Timo Bernhard — and Rene Rast was with us at Daytona,” Gade explains. “Really, my responsibility is making sure the car is prepared before the event, we’ve got all the plans in place for things we want to try during the race week or during testing, and then allocating the time that’s relevant for the drivers so that they get the time on track.
“In the race, really, it’s kind of managing and coordinating the car and crew for the No. 77 so that we’ve got everything working together performance-wise, but also strategy and race-wise to make sure that we’re in a position to be competitive.”
The No. 77 was certainly competitive at Daytona, especially in qualifying, where Jarvis took the Motul Pole Award and broke a 26-year-old track record in the process. Gade was proud of the achievement, although she’s generally much more interested in race performance than qualifying.
“I think the impact of it was mainly on the team, rather than one single person,” she says. “I say that because there was a lot of hard work put in across the winter to get the team to a position to where they could be fighting for that place on the grid and fighting for a really convincing and strong qualifying position.
“Maybe this sounds a bit arrogant but qualifying hasn’t always been something that I’ve been that bothered about, especially in endurance racing. It’s primarily because, on a 24-hour race, if you start at the front, it doesn’t mean you’re going to finish there. There are instances where you can have not such a great qualifying session and be starting elsewhere.
“The most time that you spend during race week in the practice sessions is preparing the car for the race. It’s not actually for that one lap, but on the opposite side, just seeing the elation in the team from all the parties that are involved in this project was really quite nice to see. It was kind of satisfying to see that we’d actually managed to make it and do it – and do it really convincingly.”
It was the latest chapter for Gade, whose sister, Teena, also is an engineer. Both are racing enthusiasts from way back.
“It actually started when I was quite young, when I was probably around 13 or 14, and it’s the same for my sister,” Leena said. “We just watched the coverage for Formula 1 on the TV, and that’s how we got interested in it. I had spent time in the automotive industry and just felt I wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.
“Yes, there were some things that were quite challenging in terms of technical development, but the pace wasn’t there, the teamwork wasn’t there that you get on a race weekend, or when you’ve got three sessions to get a car sorted out before you go racing, and maybe that camaraderie of how a race team works, or how a car crew works, where everyone is just focused on the one thing, which is the best performance possible to get a win.
“When I first experienced it, that’s what I thought, ‘Well, I want to still be a part of that and keep doing that.’ Even when it’s going badly, there’s still a lot to be learned. It’s that, I guess, that keeps you interested.”
Gade is most gratified when she encounters young people – male or female – who are interested in following in her footsteps, although maybe not exactly the same path.
“A lot of kids that do come up and speak to me aren’t necessarily talking about coming into motorsport, but they’re maybe talking about going into engineering,” she explains. “That’s actually much more gratifying, because what we do is quite unique and it’s quite specialized. There’s not really that much – I don’t want to say ‘need’ for it – but there’s not so many teams that you can go into.
“But the broader spectrum of engineering, which needs a lot more people coming into it and a lot more kids getting interested into it so that we can fill up those positions – engineering’s got a shortfall. Depending on which country, it can be quite large, but worldwide, I think we don’t have enough. That’s more gratifying, to know that people are starting to think of engineering as an opportunity, whether they’re male or female.”
Gade acknowledges that she’s encountering more and more women working in the racing industry each year. That’s a positive message every day, but most especially on this International Women’s Day.
“I’ve certainly noticed over the last couple of years that there’s more women coming into the ranks in the motorsport field, and that’s a great thing,” she said. “Because for a long time, it’s always been known as a man’s sport. That’s not really true.
“I think there were women there before me, and they were certainly doing a lot to, kind of, pave the way or show that it was possible for women to come in and be in the sport, whether it’s in a technical position or as a mechanic, or as a driver, in team management, all the little aspects that make up the sport. There had been people who were doing it before I got there.
“I think, perhaps, as things have moved on over the last few years, and it’s become more apparent that there are people more accepting of the situation and more women coming in, it’s made it a little bit easier for others to kind of come through the door and then find a position where they feel comfortable and they can do a good job.”