MOTORSPORT royalty doesn’t brook too much by way of argument. MotoGP has Valentino Rossi, Formula 1 has Michael Schumacher, WRC has Sebastian Loeb. For the most prestigious single event in circuit racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there’s Tom Kristensen. With a total of nine outright victories to his name, the Danish driver has three more wins than his nearest rival, Jacky Ickx, making him comfortably the most dominant driver in the event’s 95 year history.
Le Mans is a race which is renowned as one of the toughest on a driver’s mental ability, but the man who has won more than any other is dismissive when asked about the mental task of preparing for the assault on La Sarthe. Kristensen was called up to race just four days before his debut in 1997 – which he won alongside Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson.
“I didn’t really have a chance to prepare,” he says. “When you’re young, and the youngest in the team, it helps. You have different expectations.” When Kristensen retired from racing at the end of 2014, he did it cold turkey. There were no wildcard entries, or a slow step away. One year he was winning races and competing full-time with the nickname ‘Le Man’, the next, he was done. While Audi had become a defacto family for Kristensen during his years as a factory driver, it was his own family, and an unexpected reminder of his mortality following the death of his countryman Allan Simonsen, that prompted the shock decision to retire. “It was a very difficult decision to make to hang up my helmet,” he explains. “I lost my parents in 2011 and 2013, while 2013 was my last [Le Mans] victory with Audi, and it was also a year that we lost a great talent in Allan.” It was then that the seed was planted in Kristensen’s mind, but one last attempt at winning a 10th trophy laid ahead.
“We were leading until lunchtime on Sunday when we had to change the turbo, and we dropped to third, but recovered to second,” Kristensen recalls. “I had my very dirty hands on the trophy for a little bit, for some time had the feeling of winning my 10th Le Mans. But it didn’t materialise, and in the moment knew was coming back in ’15 – was determined.
“But over the break realised had tried. It’s not about winning alone, necessarily. That made me realise that perhaps it was my time to hang up the helmet. Also, I’m the oldest member of my family, have my kids, and realised in my mature age that it was time.” Kristensen admits that his racing itch could be scratched by a return to motorsport, not as a racer but as a team principal, much like his Le Mans teammate Allan McNish, who heads Audi’s Formula E team. However, for now, he’s enjoying driving Audi’s hottest road cars at customer and media events.
“I have the privilege of doing a little bit of many things, and that, in a way, fits me better,” he says with a smile.
Drifting Audi R8s around some of the best racetracks in the world would be ample recompense for most of us. For Le Mans royalty, it’s merely life’s cool-down lap.
For Kristensen, there is one year which tested his mental fortitude more than any other – 2007. It all started going awry at the opening round of that year’s DTM series at Hockenheim. A crash put Kristensen in hospital, ruining his preparations for that year’s Le Mans, and he was only given the all-clear by doctors a handful of days before the start of competition. However, a fairy tale ending was within Kristensen’s grasp come Sunday morning, with his car leading the race by four laps. But, as the 18th hour approached, with teammate Rinaldo Capello in the seat, the R10 lost a wheel and hit the barriers, ending their bid for victory. “That year was without a doubt the hardest of my racing career,” Kristensen says.
Yes, of course Kristensen is an Audi man to the core, but not all his Le Mans victories have come via the four rings. Apart from his first, in the Porsche WSC-95, there was the 2003 win (his fifth) in the mighty Bentley Speed 8, achieved with teammates Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith
With nine victories to choose from, picking the cars he loved most is no easy task for Kristensen. But not all top-step podiums are created equal – these are the winners that the great Dane looks back on most fondly from his racing career
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