Last month’s 24 Hours of Le Mans offered a lesson in sporting heartbreak as Toyota saw its hopes of a first overall victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe be dashed in the dying moments of the race.
A turbo failure on the No. 5 TS050 Hybrid car on the final lap allowed Porsche to score a second successive Le Mans victory, its No. 2 crew picking up the pieces late on.
However, another story was playing out further behind. After nine years with Audi, race engineer Leena Gade was embarking on her final Le Mans with the No. 7 crew of Marcel Fassler, Benoit Treluyer and Andre Lotterer.
Gade had helped the trio to three Le Mans victories and the FIA World Endurance Championship title in 2012, becoming the first female engineer to win the accolades in the process. She was even named the WEC’s ‘Man of the Year’ in 2012 for her efforts with Audi.
Ahead of the start of the WEC season, Audi announced that Gade would be leaving after Le Mans, bound for a role at Bentley. Her swansong race went far from smoothly, problem after problem leaving the R18 drivers to settle for fourth place overall, 17 laps down on the leaders.
Following her final race for Audi, Gade sat down with NBC Sports to discuss Le Mans, her time with Audi and her plans for the future.
You’ve just had your final race with Audi. After so long with the brand, how are you feeling about leaving? Was it emotional?
Leena Gade: Yeah it was. I’d had my little wobble about a month before Le Mans when I suddenly realized what was about to happen, that I wasn’t going back to this phenomenal circuit which has played such a huge part in my career for the last six years as a race engineer and nine years with Audi. Actually, I think during race week I had two episodes where I had to go and be on my own when I realized what I was leaving behind. It’s always difficult in any job to change. In this perspective, I’ve always been so close to all my mechanics, my three drivers – I still call them mine, they’re not technically mine anymore, I’ve given them away… The team, it’s a family. It’s a big upheaval I think for everybody concerned.
On Sunday itself after the race, we had a meeting in the hospitality of the entire team where Dr. Ullrich [Audi’s head of motorsport] gave a speech for after the race. That will stay confidential. I wasn’t really paying too much attention, it had been a particularly tough race for us on car seven. I’ve never known anything like that where we’ve had every problem under the sun being thrown our way. So it was kind of a relief that it was over but on the other side, then what happened to Toyota put it into perspective, that really it can be much, much more disappointing than you think. There was a small presentation afterwards from the team for me. I’ve never been speechless before but I was on this occasion. It was only the day after that the emotions hit and I suddenly thought, I’m not coming back here again under this guise of being a race engineer, looking after a car, looking after a team, guiding them as much as you can and all that kind of thing.
You can’t look back. You’ve always got to look forward. I made a decision for a reason. It was to stop being a race engineer, it was to do something different or to experience something new, to learn some new skills, to take my experience somewhere else, do something else with my career and with my future I guess. Never say never, maybe I’ll go back someday, maybe I won’t go back, I don’t know. Yeah, a little bit different.
What’s your next move? Bentley has been mentioned, is that official?
LG: I’m staying within the VW group. I am going to one of the other partners who has got a motorsport project… Yeah…
You mentioned about getting new skills, new challenges. What kind of things are you looking to add to your repertoire?
LG: For a long time I’ve always been either a data engineer, a system engineer or a race engineer. That’s pretty much been the crux of my career both with Audi and then with the other teams that I worked with prior to Audi. What I’m going on to do now is taking on much more of a directional role, so looking at the technical development of the car but from the perspective of being part of the works team that then has to transfer that information to customer teams, which is a totally different challenge to the way I’ve done it. But also in a completely different series and completely different environment. It just so happens I’ll be going back to Germany a lot more again. That’s with a particular team I’m going to be working with.
So it’s a step up in terms of a relative position to where you are?
After so long with Audi, you’ve been synonymous with the success of Ben, Andre and Marcel. It doesn’t seem right that they’re not going to have you on the other side of the radio. How does it feel that you’re not going to be working with them?
LG: Actually the question of being a race engineer had been on my mind for some years. You have your tick boxes of what you want to do. When I got asked to do the job, it was kind of asked in about 2009 after the Le Mans disaster we had then. It never came to fruition until the year after. I had done a couple of tests and run a car. They kind of went: “Yeah she can do it, so let’s let her off, she can go.” We had three races in 2010 and then in 2011 I still only had three races. I went to Sebring, Spa and I was doing Le Mans. And at that point, the trauma of Le Mans started in January, which was mainly kind of self-pressure I guess of you’ve got to go there, you’ve got to perform, you’ve got to get your car to the finish. You don’t have anybody else you can turn to, you’ve got to do it all on your own.
At that point, I was 35, and I thought it would be great if I got my first win within five years. Five years later, I’m 40, I sit here with three wins to my name. So I ticked that box. Then I ticked the box the year after of getting the world championship, and honestly, for me, it was kind of like “hmm, what comes next?” And there was still a motivation to go. It wasn’t to win it multiple times. I never had that as a goal as such and it’s great to have it. But I had other little goals like winning at Fuji, which I still never managed to do. Winning at Nürburgring last year, didn’t manage that. Then Mexico got added this year, would have been great to have gone again. But how often can you keep going back and doing the same thing?
A little bit of me was thinking I needed to have my own new challenges, not that I find it easy, but a lot of it kind of always falls into place as a routine you get into. I think you get lazy. I think you get very comfortable doing that all the time. I know I can still go to the pit wall on race day and I still would be able to deliver what I had to deliver, and I have the background knowledge and the experience to know how to get us out of different situations.
But I think for Andre, Ben and Marcel, they also need a change. Eric [Schuivens] who’s coming in to replace me, he’s coming in with a very different perspective and a very different background. We knew each other in 2006 when we were both doing A1 GP together. So our paths crossed 10 years ago. We’ve come back again into the same sort of fold. His experience is F1-based, it’s A1 GP-based, he was at BMW with DTM, he went to Porsche with the LMP. He’s come in with a different perspective, and I think that’s great, not just for Andre, Ben and Marcel, but for the project as a whole, because sometimes you can get quite stagnated. It’s good for them.
Audi seems to be going through a weird phase at the moment where Porsche has pulled ahead, and Audi no longer seems to have that edge it once had. Are you leaving Audi in good shape? Is there anything you think could be better?
LG: Without getting into too much detail, I think there’s always room for improvement at every team. Yes you’re right, there are some gaps I would say in what needs to be perhaps sorted out, perhaps developed, perhaps improved upon. I think it’s great that Porsche and Toyota came to the WEC. I think it shook up Audi a little bit, because I wouldn’t say that we became complacent, I wouldn’t say that they didn’t have the competition, because actually when you win a race, there’s some competition somewhere and you’ve got to still beat it.
I think what it has done is help many, many people at Audi realize there is perhaps a different way of doing things. You can become incredibly stuck, stagnated in what you do and how you handle it. So I think it’s been good. Only time will tell how quickly they improve. And they have to improve. I think it’s obvious from Sunday what was going on that it needs to change. On the other side, I do think that you need new blood sometimes, because you do have people within any organization who want to push and improve, but what you don’t have after that is perhaps the impetus for it to carry on. Sometimes you need new people to come in who are not afraid to turn around and say “what are you talking about? This is how I’ve done it somewhere and it works, so hey.”
I think, certainly the department I’m leaving, the track engineering side of things, is in good shape. With the three race engineers they have there now, the two that will be racing and the one that will be testing, they’re younger for a start, but they’re very driven and they’re incredibly intelligent people with great inter-personal skills which is quite important for that particular area. They’re going to be pushing it on. It won’t be revolutionary and it won’t happen overnight, but when does it in motorsport? Have you ever known any Formula 1 team that has started off having a bad season and then suddenly revolutionized it halfway through? It doesn’t happen like that. It takes time. I think they’re in a good position to keep moving forward.
The WEC is five years old this year. You spoke about how you’d only done three races in a season before, but now the series has gone to being a nine-race calendar. How has the WEC revolutionized endurance racing?
LG: It’s actually become a bit more like a sprint race for six hours or 24 hours! We all went into Le Mans believing that there were going to be competitors certainly in the LMP1 field that were going to be stopping for repairs. Honestly, I did think that Toyota and Porsche would have a few more problems. As it turned out, we seemed to attract the whole lot into our two pits. I think actually what it has done is push a lot of the limits that we thought existed in the technology and forced the manufacturers to think outside of the box.
Endurance racing is very unique because you have to just keep going. It’s funny in any race you have to do that, but in Formula 1 for example, if you come in with a broken suspension, it’s game over. In endurance racing, you still have a chance, you still have a hope of finishing on the podium. That happened at the weekend. Despite the suspension being replaced on the No. 8 car, they came back out and they finished in third. Those points are vital. And when you’ve got nine races in a year and one of them has double points, you do everything you can. I think what the WEC really has done, apart from putting it onto the TV for people to see. I know that a lot of the publicity that existed, it was great to have a female race engineer and all of that, it’s actually put onto the mark what Le Mans really means. It’s a historic race. It’s a phenomenal race.
Do you think it has allowed the ACO to take what Le Mans is all about, the spirit of that 24-hour race all over the world, and take it to new markets?
LG: Yeah, it’s been good. Obviously that has an expense associated with it which is unfortunate, but nothing in life is free.
Well, on cost – do you think that’s one of the biggest challenges the WEC now faces, manufacturers pouring all this money in and the cost going up and up?
LG: Yes. There’s been a lot of talk about how the privateers in LMP1 can come to Le Mans, come to the WEC without having huge budgets and still be competitive. There’s not too many LMP1 privateer teams. If you look at it in statistics, more than there has been but less than there ever had been in the past. Definitely the money has to be addressed, because there isn’t infinite sums of it everywhere. Certainly in this day and age with some of the things going on with the emissions, let’s say, manufacturers do have to think about where they are spending their money. LMP racing for at least Audi Sport is a huge, huge part of their technological budget.
You then have Saturday-Sunday go on [at Le Mans], you’ll be wondering to yourself why you’re spending that kind of cash, so it does have to be brought a bit more into control. How you do that is a different matter because I think everyone will disagree on what needs to be done. Limiting personnel is one way of doing it. Limiting testing time is another way of doing it. Limiting where you can spend your money, where you can spend your technology. But the whole point of racing is someone writes a rule, you find your way around it.
How much of an impact did not having the third car at Le Mans have on Audi this year?
LG: Statistically, it makes it a little bit worse.
Two-thirds of the data, I guess?
LG: Well we still generate a lot of data from two cars anyway. I think Porsche are in the same position, Toyota have been in that position with two cars. If something happens to one car, you bank on the other one, which isn’t great because when we had three, if something happened to one car you had two cars to fall back on. I don’t think it has hindered anything in the way of looking at the data. The problems we had at the weekend were going to happen whether we had two, three or even one car. That’s just law of averages I would say. Does it make it cheaper? Does it make it less expensive? Honestly, I don’t know. I think the car in itself, with the costs that are associated with making the parts, making the spares, building it, personnel – they’ll always exist irrespective of the number. Made the garage a lot smaller, perhaps a bit more cramped.
I don’t think it made a huge difference to be fair in the end. Would we have had a car that wouldn’t have had any problems? Probably not. I think Porsche and Toyota would probably be in the same position. It was nice having three cars, apart from the garage feeling a bit bigger. There was a bit of security in that, feeling there was always a chance for your team to have a shot at winning. I think psychologically that automatically goes if you think you’ve only got two cars. But on the opposite side, I can understand exactly why it was done. There’s method in the madness, let’s say.
Were you surprised by Toyota’s sudden push forward? Last year they seemed to be nowhere; this year they squeezed two years worth of development into one and made a huge step forward.
LG: I think it’s a bit harsh to say they weren’t anywhere last year. The difference is that Audi and Porsche made a bigger step to what Toyota did. They were clever enough last year to admit that they needed to make something revolutionary. Were they going to close the gap to the other two competitors in 2015, they didn’t feel they would. They still kept on racing because you can’t pull out, you keep going. They put they eggs into the basket for developing for this year. They obviously had their fair share of issues at Silverstone and Spa, and it was only when I spoke to John Hindhaugh in race week, probably on the Monday or Tuesday I bumped into him, and he said what he was impressed by, and it only occurred to me when he said it, was how quiet Toyota had been. They had slowly got through pre-test and they had done what they needed to do. And it wasn’t that they had an air of confidence about them, just an air of “we came here, we want to win this one, and we’re going to do what they have to” – and that’s exactly what they did, until five minutes until the end of the race.
There was a headline saying ‘Toyota wins the 23 Hours and 59 Minutes of Le Mans’!
LG: And they certainly won the hearts. There wasn’t a single person on the pit wall who didn’t want them to win it. I say that without any disrespect to Porsche, because they were fighting too and they were there at the end when it counted. But I think it was just heartbreaking to watch how it happened and also because it was their year to get it, and they didn’t. My heart goes out to them it really does.