WhichCar
Powered by
  • WheelsWheels
  • MOTORMOTOR
  • 4X4 Australia4X4 Australia
  • Street MachineStreet Machine
  • Trade Unique CarsTrade Unique Cars

Tom Kristensen interview

By Scott Newman, 23 Mar 2019 Features

Tom Kristensen MOTOR interview feature

We hitch a ride with the big dog of Le Mans, nine-time winner Tom Kristensen, one of the greatest racing drivers the world has ever seen

Tom Kristensen immediately spots the two eager faces poking beyond the pit wall catch fencing, left arms extended, smart phones poised to capture the sight and sound of an Audi R8 V10 Plus blasting past at full noise.

The Bend Motorsport Park’s long, long main straight gives the endurance racing legend ample time to line up his approach; from the passenger seat I can see just how little room exists between the pit wall and the R8’s left mirror as we ‘buzz the tower’ like a land-based Maverick and Goose. Mischief managed. Cue Kenny Loggins.

Kristensen is hooning around Australia’s newest racetrack thanks to his role as an Audi ambassador. Audi Australia has hired the track for Audi Sport Week, to cycle punters through its performance models and ‘Mr Le Mans’ is on hand to tell stories, shake hands and give hot laps to customers. MOTOR, in typical style, has jumped the queue.

To call Tom Kristensen the greatest Danish racing driver of all time sells him short. Kristensen’s resume puts him in an elite category occupied only by those with historical achievements, drivers like Michael Schumacher and Sebastien Loeb. He is inarguably the greatest endurance racer of all time, his record of nine wins at the Le Mans 24 Hour almost certain never to be matched.

From 18 starts at the French classic he scored 15 podiums, while his six wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring is also a record. Other highlights include the 2013 World Endurance Championship and the 2001 American Le Mans Series title, but to pigeonhole the 51-year-old Dane as a long-distance specialist is misleading. Kristensen has won races in a wide variety of machinery all over the world, but his first major success came as the 1985 Nordic Karting champion, beating a certain Mika Hakkinen.

Picture: Kristensen celebrates his final Le Mans win with his co-drivers and their R18 e-tron quattro hybrid racer in 2013

After graduating to German F3 and winning the 1991 title, like so many up and coming drivers of the time Kristensen departed for Japan to continue his racing apprenticeship, winning the 1993 Japanese F3 championship and finishing a narrow second in the Japanese Touring Car Championship in 1992 and 1994.

It was early in this far-east excursion that Kristensen received his first taste of sportscars, joining future F1 front runners Eddie Irvine and Jacques Villeneuve in Toyota’s TS010 Group C machine for 1992.

Races were few and far between, but Kristensen clocked up thousands of test miles in what was essentially a closed-roof F1 car.

Picture: Kristensen won five Le Mans in six years piloting Audi's all-conquering R8 Le Mans racer

“That car was incredibly physical,” he remembers. “Very, very stiff. It was so fast, I was getting up to way past 350km/h. That car had a lot of aero but a very, very powerful engine. Everything was very physical; the gearbox was stiff, no servo brakes. That car prepared me for anything, because everything I drove after that, even F1 testing, it’s easy.”

Kristensen tested the 1998 Williams, by which time he had already won on his Le Mans debut. With less than a week until the 1997 race, Kristensen was drafted in to replace the injured Davy Jones and partner Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto in the Porsche-powered TWR prototype.

Despite just 18 laps of practice, the rookie recorded the race’s fastest lap during the night and completed a quadruple-stint – almost 3.5 hours behind the wheel with no power steering and a manual gearbox with no synchros.

Picture: The Audi R10 changed the game during the diesel wars of 2007-10

Two relatively fruitless years driving the BMW V12 LM – ever the professional, TK refers to it as simply “another manufacturer with three letters” – he signed with Audi after being shown early sketches of the R8 racecar, a machine that would utterly dominate sports car racing, often with the Dane at the wheel. Together, they would win five of the next six Le Mans 24 Hours, Kristensen filling the gap with victory in 2003 with Bentley, in the process supplanting Jacky Ickx as Mr Le Mans.

The R8 V10 Plus we’re currently sitting in shares nothing but a name with that racecar. Instead of a 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8, rear-wheel drive open-top prototype we have a 5.2-litre V10, all-wheel drive supercar.

Nonetheless, if you’re going to have a taxi ride with one of the world’s best drivers, it’s hard to imagine a better vehicle. Kristensen’s experience of The Bend is a couple of slow familiarisation laps, which plays on my mind as we barrel into the heavily cambered uphill Turn 13. Does Tom know the corner tightens over a blind exit with a wall on the outside?

I let out an involuntary squeak as a dab of brakes tightens our line and we emerge unscathed. Of course we do – this is a man who has driven at 350km/h in the dark and pouring rain for hours at a time.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but what’s remarkable about Kristensen’s driving is his ability to have the R8 teetering on the very limit of adhesion, minute adjustments with his feet and hands keeping the car in a perpetual slide without sacrificing forward movement. I can only sit and marvel through the long triple-apex right-hander as Kristensen dances the R8 between understeer and oversteer at 150km/h, his feet subtly manipulating the pedals like a concert pianist.

Kristensen’s career coincided with huge leaps in technology, each new set of regulations forcing drivers to adapt and learn, sometimes from scratch. There was the old-school, manual-everything TWR WSC-95 of 1997, the conventionally modern Audi R8 and Bentley Speed 8, the overpowered R10 V12 TDi sledgehammer (“brutal to drive”) and, finally, Kristensen’s favourite, the high-tech, all-wheel drive, hybrid R18 TDi e-tron quattro, each requiring its own unique approach.

“When you have the passion you always have to learn,” explains Kristensen. “Let’s say, left-foot braking. [In the R10] you have go into right-foot braking, otherwise you cannot control the V12 engine in the back – there’s a little bit more feeling and power in your right foot. Go the other way and you go back in the e-tron car, braking left foot again.”

Racing drivers are an inherently selfish breed, yet endurance racing forces compromise on everything from seating position to set-up and Kristensen intimates that the key to a long-term career with Audi was the ability to work well in a team. “It’s just common sense, and [being] respectful with human beings. You are suddenly in a group of people where it absolutely makes sense to give the right feedback. With Audi under Dr. Ullrich’s leadership you suddenly feel that you can help your colleagues – we matured as a group.”

Kristensen retired from full-time racing at the end of 2014 but continues to test Audi’s latest motorsport machinery, including its new Formula E racer, but whets his competitive appetite at the Goodwood Revival each year, driving everything from a diminutive Austin A30 to a wildly oversteering Ford Galaxie.

“The more oversteer, the more you smile,” he grins. “I can’t live without it completely, but I don’t want to test. You try to do your best, but I want to jump in the car and try to have fun. It’s sort of extended my career, I can still drive cars from before I was born.” And drive them quicker than just about anyone, to boot.