mr. le mans
tom kristensen will always be hailed as the conqueror of sarthe
out of 18 entries at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen won nine times, failed to finish on four occasions, and took either second or third in his other runs. And yet, asked by Autoweek in a 2016 interview if he feels like the “best, greatest” racer to compete in the event, he replied: “No, no, no. I’m a part of a great tradition, great teams, and great co-drivers.”
Endurance racing, after all, is very much a team sport. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve achieved elsewhere; if you want to succeed here, it’s the team game you have to play. Kristensen went on to relate his first Le Mans experience in 1997, as a last-minute replacement for the injured racer Davy Jones at Joest Racing: “I joined two experienced drivers with considerable success in Formula 1. When I showed up, Michele Alboreto took me aside, and I was expecting him to tell me, ‘You must do this, and this.’”
His teammate’s next words surprised him: “Instead, he said, ‘We’re experienced, we think we can win this year, but with you joining us we’re even better. We think you are going to help us win.’ And I thought, ‘Are you really talking to me?’ But it gave me the right foundation, and it built my selfconfidence.”
One week later, the Dane took his first Le Mans title. It only served to strengthen his spirit. Shrugging off two fruitless entries with BMW, he joined Audi in 2000 and went on to triumph at the Circuit de la Sarthe for a record six consecutive years. Five of the wins were with Audi, but in 2003 it was with Bentley, which is also under the VW Group. During this period, he also clinched the American Le Mans Series championship, and amassed half of what would be a record six 12 Hours of Sebring wins.
Kristensen experienced a scare in 2007, when a big crash at the Hockenheimring threatened to prevent him from competing at Le Mans. He said the accident led him to have an “even bigger focus on physical training.” While his Audi team failed to finish at Le Mans that year, he was back on top in 2008, extending his tally to eight wins. His ninth and final victory came in 2013, along with the World Endurance Championship title.
Still competitive in 2014 and finishing second that year at Le Mans, Kristensen nevertheless decided to retire. “I am proud of my career, what I have achieved, and for the memories that I will have forever,” he said. “I feel privileged to have worked with so many inspiring and talented people. I have driven with the best co-drivers on the best teams in the world. If I could do it all again, I would not change a single decision in my career.”