I Learn Something New with Every New Project – Interview with Leena Gade

Extreme E Special Series

As early as June 2021, when Extreme E, the new all-electric off-road championship was only two rounds in, legendary motorsport brand McLaren announced that it would be joining the second season. Then in early November, McLaren confirmed Maltimatic as its vehicle dynamics partner in this new chapter, with 3-time Le Mans 24h winner Leena Gade as race engineer and former F1 and rally engineer Teena Gade as performance and systems engineer.

Before the double-header at Sardinia, we had the opportunity to talk to both Leena and Teena. Today we bring you the conversation with Leena, see what the 3-time Le Mans 24h winner shared about her successful career in motorsport and this new chapter in Extreme E.

© NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team

Since we are hearing from one of the most successful race engineers in the sport, it is quite surprising to know that Leena Gade, the 3-time Le Mans 24h winning race engineer, sometimes dubbed as ‘the First Lady of endurance racing’, had little to no aspirations to be a race engineer when she was a kid, even though she already set her mind on engineering in motorsport. “I didn’t really have any aspirations as a kid to be a race engineer. Even when we were watching Formula 1, if that title was ever used, it wasn’t something that was like ‘that’s what I wanna be!’. The commentators had experience in years and years of racing and they would motivate you to get interested in the sport. At the time we were watching, the internet was absolutely not a thing. We had to go off and buy a magazine to read about what was going on and find out about the different types of series. My interest in it was really just to be an engineer in motorsport.”

I just wanted to be involved in the sport. I thought it was fascinating.

The interest in the sport and being an engineer in the sport led Leena to take on side jobs on racing teams while she was still working at Jaguar. Step by step, Leena continued down the path and ended up on the fateful job as race engineer with Audi Sport. “When I first started out, I did a bit of mechanicing. And then that led to working on data engineering. Analyzing the data, being able to describe to a driver where they were fast and slow versus somebody else, or how to drive a car so that they can be quicker, was where I started. Slowly that led to being an assistant engineer. You are sort of like the backup to the race engineer. I worked closely with a very good race engineer and it was only after two and half years of doing that, that I was asked if I wanted to actually run a car at a test.”

I learned a lot about how you speak on the radio, how you don’t lose your head. You just kind of keep calm. The driver might be freaking out in the car and you just have to say ‘yeah all good’. Because you can’t let the atmosphere just go crazy, otherwise our team would fall apart.

Being the race engineer seems like the mastermind behind the race, but Leena doesn’t see that as her trait, certainly not as how she becomes a successful race engineer. “I don’t try to be the center of all knowledge. And if I don’t know something, I will say ‘I don’t know it’. I don’t see the point in flogging something or making it up as you go along. You have people around you with the experience, and they’re very talented engineers, mechanics, and drivers. They all got an input into what happens. It’s not just around one person. I find I learn from people all the time, even if it’s the smallest things.”

I didn’t set out to be a race engineer. I was given a toy to play with, and I just hope that anybody that’s given the chance as I had would make the best of it. I’ve probably put a fair amount of pressure on myself to do the job as well as I could. I didn’t want anybody to turn around and think they’ve made a mistake asking Leena to do that.

After a great run at Audi Sport, including winning Le Mans 24h three times as well as winning the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2012, Leena moved her career to North America. For her, each new chapter, including now coming into Extreme E, is about learning something new. “Every time you get involved in a race, or a new project, you learn something completely different. It could be something from a technical point of view, it could just be the type of racing that you’re involved in, or it could just be the team you get to meet. Every motorsport discipline is slightly different in how they approach the aspect of racing. My time in IndyCar was really short, but it was about learning about ovals and the theories and concepts that go with ovals. It’s very different to track racing. Cars are much more sensitive to changes that you make. Everything from the external ambient conditions to a small change and setup can really throw a car off. I wanted to do IndyCar because I wanted to learn a little bit about that. That’s also one of the reasons why I’ve got involved with Extreme E – I’ve never done any off-road racing, rallying, or anything like that.”

Extreme E certainly presents a very new race format and terrain for Leena, but the new thing she has to learn goes beyond these. “One big difference is the sheer number of people. There are two engineers on this car, Teena and myself. At the end of my career with Audi, aside from the race engineer, there was a huge organization of engineers, each with different aspects that they looked after, so where there was a control systems engineer, a battery engineer, two engine engineers, a data engineer, aerodynamics engineers, chassis engineers, fuel engineers, and a performance engineer with an entire performance engineering team of about 10 people.”

One aspect of Extreme E also brings experience from Leena’s earlier career. As the Odyssey-21 car does not have much telemetry feeding back to the command center, it reminded Leena of her days back in club racing cars. “It is really stressful. When the car is going around, we don’t have any telemetry from the car. I’m so used to seeing the traces, knowing what the car is doing. When I can’t see it, it’s a bit like ‘is it still actually out there?’ It’s like going back towards the very start of my racing career when there wasn’t any telemetry on the cars. You just waited for them to come around and you had a stopwatch in your hand. So you knew that they were carrying on. I think you get used to it because you’ve still got a driver that can radio you. There are warnings that they get and things that we need to know about.”

The biggest difference Extreme E presents also lies in its name, it pushes things to the absolute extreme. “In almost all the endurance racing I’ve done, you’re trying to stay ahead of everybody or trying to stop having the number of pit stops that everybody else has, you may not necessarily be driving to the ultimate pace of the vehicle. You always drive under the maximum limit to manage it so that you get more increase in power when you needed it. This is different. You just flat out everywhere. There’s no holding back. Let’s just drive a car to the limit. See what it can do. Set it up, make an improvement, make it better, make it more drivable for the next session.”

As two sisters both working as engineers in the sport, Leena and Teena actually never had any chances before to work together long-term. This time in Extreme E, they finally get to work on the car together at least for five races. “I got the chance to work with Teena here in Extreme E. We actually only ever worked once together years and years ago. It was on a single-make series, which I think we only did one race. Working in this kind of relationship as a performance engineer and a race engineer on one car, that’s something we’ve never done. She comes from a very different background to mine, whereas I am always being hands-on at the track, Teena did a lot more theoretical stuff. I want to learn from her.”

You have to rely on your team to do things that you need them to do. If you’ve got somebody doing their jobs, you gotta trust that they do them properly. So you give them the tools and the capability to do that.

At the Desert X Prix, McLaren entered the Final on their first race weekend, which is quite an incredible achievement for a new team. “We had not practiced anything apart from having had one test for everybody to know what they were doing. I think everyone was really focused on what the objective was. That stands us in a really good position, because it means that when we go to the further events, we’re not trying to still build the basic bricks to have a platform from which we can go racing.”

© NEOM McLaren Extreme E Team

After the first X Prix, Leena and the team, mostly new to Extreme E, have learned all the basic tricks of a race weekend at Extreme E. “The terrain is the thing that you really need to pay attention to, because there isn’t one set path that the car goes on it. There’s like an area that’s massive as long as they make it through the gate. We were surprised to some extent by the average speed of the track. There were some incredibly high-speed sections. The behavior of the car at those speeds was something that the drivers had to get used to. We also had to learn while the car behaves this way, what we need to do to make it more driveable and more comfortable so that the drivers have the confidence to drive it. We also learned what to expect from a race weekend. It’s not really like anything else that I’ve ever experienced before.”

As always, before we ended the conversation, we asked Leena to give some advice to young people who dream to be part of motorsport: “If you’re part of the active race teams, you’re always on the road. NASCAR and F1 are probably the biggest examples of how you can always be away from home. Because of that, you tend to miss things like weddings and birthdays. You need to be prepared to make those sacrifices and it’s quite a selfish thing to do to some extent. So that’s the first thing I say, volunteer to go and work with a team, even if it’s just doing something like cleaning the cars or making tea, just see how a team functions and see if that’s something you like to do. But that’s not all there is to racing. There are people that are based at the factory. The clever stuff is what happens when you’re back at a factory and you’re having to make the changes and do the development work. That’s where ingenuity can sometimes lie in the concepts and things that are going on. There are so many roles in motorsport that unless you’re part of a team, or you see what’s going on firsthand, you probably don’t know what you’d like to do.”

At the Island X Prix double-header, NEOM McLaren Extreme E team’s races didn’t go as well as planned. But Copper X Prix is just ahead of us at the end of September. Let’s wish Leena, Teena and the team all the best of luck the rest of the season!

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