Monsieur Le Mans

Recently in Austalia for Audi Sport Week, Audi Magazine caught up with Mr Le Mans, Tom Kristensen.

Motor racing legend and Audi motorsport ambassador, Tom Kristensen was in Australia to take part in Audi Sport Week 2018. Audi Magazine caught up with the nine-time Le Man winner at Australia's newest race track, The Bend in South Australia.

Peter McKay

Chris Benny and Audi AG archive

8 October, 2018

Tom Kristensen may well vie with Hans Christian Andersen, Jørn Utzon, Princess Mary, and Caroline Wozniacki, as Denmark’s most prominent citizen of all time.
Nearly four years into his retirement from racing, Tom Kristensen is enjoying a post-racing life as a very involved ambassador for Audi, Formula One grand prix race steward, occasional television commentator, public speaker, active campaigner in the fight against cancer, and more family time with partner Hanne, sons Oswald and Oliver and daughter Carla. 
He’s not quite racking up 250 travel days a year as he did during his hectic professional race driving career, but he is still seeing the insides of countless airports and hotel rooms. Retired from big-time racing he may be but there is still a family involvement in a new Danish race touring car team, and Tom also slips in sporadic historic race outings in power-sliding 1960s touring cars, which he admits he adores.
The decision to retire was difficult at the time he was making it. But once made, it was not so hard to live with, he reflects. Going cold turkey could have been tough for the most successful race driver in sports car history but he insists the timing was perfect. There was not a lot more he could do other than adding to his stunning CV, the crowning glory being  his record in the bruising 24 Hours of Le Mans; nine times he won, six of which were consecutive and seven times with Audi. He is also the only six-time winner of the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring and a former FIA World Endurance Champion. As a teenager, he won the Scandinavian karting championship. He was German Formula 3 champion in 1991, Japanese Formula 3 champion in 1993, and runner-up in the Japanese Touring Car Championship (JTCC) in 1992 and 1994. 
By 1997 he was a serious Formula 3000 driver, leading the European championship and moving close to his dream of Formula One. Then, with just a few days notice, the young star was called up to race at Le Mans for the first time. Though he’d never sat in the car before, the Dane set a record fastest lap during the night and won the classic. His racing destiny was in play.
An offer to join Audi’s sports car squad followed in 2000, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans successes kept flowing - 2000-2005, 2008 and 2013.
His versatility is further underscored by successful winning stints in DTM between 2004 and 2011, always in Audis.

The decision to retire was difficult at the time he was making it. But once made, it was not so hard to live with

Though he raced all over the globe, primarily in sports cars, Kristensen never made the start-line in Australia

After a second in his farewell Le Mans in 2014 and a third in his final World Endurance Championship race in Brazil in November, of that year, he walked away, more than fulfilled. "I have been told that you know when it's time to stop,” he said at the time.  
“I have not had that feeling until now. I have reached the finish line. I have grown up. There are other things to enjoy than trying to be first into the corner and fastest out,” he smiled.
So why was the timing of his exit so ideal?  Kristensen lists several reasons. A new generation of younger drivers was emerging. He could pass the baton. More importantly, he had lost both his parents between 2011 and 2013, leaving him as the new tribal head.   There was also the pain of the death of fellow Dane Allan Simonsen tragically killed at Le Mans in 2014. 
“I miss racing sometimes, but I have family responsibilities. Still, I can have a cup of coffee and eat what I like.”  Or maybe not.  Now 51, Kristensen looks as trim and as fit as ever.  He is a hotel gym habitué, mountain biker and runner. Visiting Sydney for the first time on his recent Audi visit, he tossed his bags in his room at his harbourside hotel, slipped into casual wear and headed out to catch up with his older son, who is studying at Sydney University.  A competitive 10km run around The Rocks followed with just one pause to admire the creative endeavours of another prominent Dane, Jørn Utzon…
Though he raced all over the globe, primarily in sports cars, Kristensen never made the start-line in Australia. He went close on one occasion when sounded out for a drive in Supercars at Surfers Paradise.  
Since his retirement he has visited Down Under several times though, each time with Audi at customer and media events.  So he gets the chance to sample our better racing circuits like Philip Island and, most recently,  Australia’s  spectacular new $110 million international facility, The Bend, near Adelaide.
He was at The Bend to sprinkle stardust over the guests, and to take a few lucky ones for lively hot laps in an R8 supercar.
Not unsurprisingly for a man who has been around motorsport all his life (his father Carl Erik was a racer), Kristensen has measured opinions and shrewd observations, customarily presented firmly though rarely bluntly.
We green-light the conversation with his description of the challenges of racing at Le Mans, which in distance terms is roughly five times the length of a Bathurst 1000, and covering nearly as many kilometres in 24 hours as a Formula One does in a season.
The pressure and pace are relentless. Flat out, day and night. Crucial to success is an unselfish team credo.  Egos are left at home.  “Le Mans is such a great race because you have to work as a team member. And being a team member makes you a better person.”
Kristensen says the trick at Le Mans is to get the car 'in the window’. A narrow window. “Everything is critical including tyre pressures and brake temperatures, and that means you have to push the car a lot to get it into the window – it's about getting everything to work right and getting the car to flow through the corners.”
He details the technique of drivers coaxing more energy from hybrid prototypes by coasting at key moments to bank a few seconds of welcome boost.  
“Coasting goes against instinct because you’re in cut-and-thrust dicing in constant traffic, passing seven to nine cars every lap.” 
A mistake like locking a wheel/tyre can have a huge impact on your race at Le Mans, where some team strategies call for rubber to be preserved for three or four “sometimes five” stints.
Kristensen volunteers that something he remains very proud of today is the technology connection between Audi’s Le Man’s prototypes and the Audi Sport high-performance R8 and RS road cars.  He also suggests that clients of Audi Sport’s highly successful customer racing programme have become terrific brand ambassadors.

Kristensen says the trick at Le Mans is to get the car 'in the window’. A narrow window