As far as dream interviews go, they don’t get much better than this. I’d previously interviewed Carlos Sainz, the darling of Spanish rallying whom I had followed on the television as a kid, but this was on another level altogether.
Denmark’s Tom Kristensen has won the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hour race a record eight times – six of which were consecutive – while driving for three different manufacturers. It is a phenomenal record which marks the 45-year old out as one of the all-time motorsport greats, worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Michael Schumacher, Jimmie Johnson and Sebastien Loeb.
It was therefore with a degree of apprehension that I sat down opposite the living legend, but I had no reason to worry. If Kristensen recognised me for the nervy reporter I was, he saw through it with a warm smile and answered my questions with an effortless panache.
An accomplished all-rounder and former champion in German and Japanese Formula 3, he is used to success in all forms of motorsport, from Le Mans prototypes to single-seaters. Kristensen is a race winner in touring cars and a three-time runner up in the season ending Race of Champions – defeated only by Lotus F1 driver Romain Grosjean back in December. The only item missing from Kristensen’s resume is an appearance in Formula One. But, as so often happens in motorsport, the right opportunity never quite arose and Kristensen ended up exploring an alternative career path, his immense success at Le Mans proving ultimately that Formula One certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all it is sometimes made out to be in professional motorsport.
“I love racing, that’s the long and the short of it. I just love to be competitive,” Kristensen said. “I’ve always followed Formula One and tried to push to get there, but at the same time as I was doing that, my career has gone better in sportscars, so when I look back over the years I don’t regret anything. You need to specialise nowadays; it’s so difficult to be versatile, even though I love the challenge of driving different cars. Being so many years with Audi and one year with Bentley, it has been very enjoyable.”
Respected motorsport journalist and present editor-in-chief of AUTOSPORT magazine Charles Bradley, identified Kristensen as the most talented racer never to start an F1 race, quite some accolade when considering that the likes of Dario Franchitti, Tony Stewart and the late Peter Brock also fit into that category. Did he ever see himself attaining so much success?
“You hope, there’s always that, but for sure you can never be confident of these things,” he said. “Coming from a small country like Denmark, I didn’t even have the money to finance a season in go-karts, so without all the help I got from the local importer of karts and the work I did for him, I would never have got anywhere. Being in Japan for four years also helped me mature in the business, so to be successful in racing I’ve had to rely on a lot of people’s help and friendliness and their belief in me.”
He is in danger of sounding overly modest here, for Kristensen has faced significant physical and mental obstacles in his career, not least a horrific impact in the 2007 DTM opener at Hockenheim, which could well have had the beating of a man less committed and professional.
Bad luck is part and parcel of motorsport, and had all gone to plan, Kristensen could quite conceivably be sitting on 11 Le Mans victories in 16 attempts rather than just the nine; a truly staggering statistic. In 1999 Kristensen’s BMW V12 LMR led by 4 laps when a stuck throttle denied him what would have been his second Le Mans victory, while another win went begging in 2007 when his Audi R10 shed a wheel at speed and crashed.
His fighting spirit is epitomised by a one-off appearance in a GT-spec Audi R8 at the Spa 24 Hours last July, alongside Andre Lotterer and Marcel Fassler. A mishap in the pits for Lotterer within the first hour required a 25 minute stop for repairs, effectively ending their prospects at the first hurdle, but undeterred, Kristensen and co. went for broke, managing to recover 3 laps back on the leaders and finish an eventual sixth.
“It was actually a fabulous weekend,” smiles the Dane. “What I was proud of was that we three drivers and our mechanics fixed the car and we never gave up. We wanted to be back on the first page, which everyone laughed at, including ourselves, because no-one believed we could do it. We were 11 or 12 laps down in P63 after the first hour, so to finish P6 and gain 3 laps back showed that we had done a good race. For sure it wasn’t close to any headlines, but it was very satisfying that some people within the team said that we were the secret winners. That’s just racing.”
Despite the challenges to Audi from Toyota, who returned to sportscar racing after over a decade away in 2012, and to the dominance of the all-star Kristensen/McNish line-up by their younger team-mates of Lotterer/Fassler/Benoit Treluyer, Kristensen is unfazed and as highly motivated as ever. Despite all his prior success, Kristensen is not content to sit back on his laurels and is still driven by that indescribable winning sensation.
“I don’t need to focus on anything like records. Of course that helps, and I’m very much aware of them, but you always want to be winning races,” he says. “Today, there are new technologies, new regulations, all things that are very interesting to explore. There’s always something you would like to push further. I really like to be in the environment of optimising cars, developing them into race cars and to work with competitive, clever people. That’s still very much the motivation.”
With the recent retirement of Italian Rinaldo Capello, Kristensen and Scotsman McNish will have a new partner in 2013, most likely Brazilian ex-F1 driver Lucas di Grassi, as they attempt to capture the 2013 World Endurance Championship title, and of course another Le Mans crown.
“Being with Allan and Dindo for so long, we have grown very close. Dindo is a great loss for sure, but this was something we know would come,” says Kristensen of the new era. “It’s not just from a driver perspective, but as a human being, he’s such a great guy. But he’s still around; we sent him a text in the driver briefing asking where the hell he was, so we’re still doing the usual jokes. Now Lucas is joining as well; he’s very welcome in our team and the first impression he gave was very nice, calm and collected and very good at feedback with the engineers, which is what we’re looking for.”
The World Endurance Championship commences with the 6 Hours of Silverstone on April 14.