Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

| 7 Apr 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

At Le Mans in 1997, it finally looked as if the monkey was climbing down from Bob Wollek’s back.

In 27 starts, some for the all-conquering Porsche squad of the 1980s and in the defining car of Group C, one of history’s finest sports-car exponents had inexplicably still not won overall.

Then it all unravelled among the breakfast barbecue smoke drifting across the Porsche Curves: his signature bad luck had struck again.

Out of the race, out of the lead.

Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

Tom Kristensen’s early race success came in karts

When the sister car to Wollek’s 911 GT1 also retired hours later, to the front went a young charger named Tom Kristensen, who had encountered his own many doses of bad luck chasing a Formula One seat.

Just six weeks before Le Mans he had accepted a drive in a Tom Walkinshaw Racing-created, Porsche-and-Jaguar mongrel WSC-95, and so began the legend of the greatest sports-car racer yet.

Nought for 27 went Wollek; one for one went the youthful Dane. By 2001, the year Wollek was killed in a traffic accident aged just 57, it was nought for 31 against three for five.

Whichever way you look at it, Kristensen’s record is remarkable – with parallels to Jim Clark’s in F1.

If the old adage that ‘You don’t win Le Mans, Le Mans chooses its winner’ is true, for the best part of two decades the greatest motor race on Earth had a soft spot for the man known as TK.

Yet he is keen to pass the credit around. “I’m sitting back, having done 18 races at Le Mans,” he reflects, “and being on the podium every time we finished is something which I owe to my team and my teammates as well.”

His own copybook is near-unblotted; no major crashes, barely an error will spring to mind of even the hardiest of Le Mans anoraks.

“I had a lot of moments at Le Mans, every lap in a way, but you are constantly looking for it,” he says. “You’re passing seven to nine cars per lap, it’s a thin line.”

He blows out his cheeks, still in awe: “I respect the race, I want to go fast and I want to be consistent, but there’s sometimes a sense of, ‘Have you seen me, have you not?’”

Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

A fifth Le Mans win of nine came in 2003 with Bentley, while on secondment from Audi

“You go in with commitment in the LMP1 car,” he continues, “and it is fantastic when it’s there, but it is nail-biting – you get that ice down the spine.

“Sometimes it’s a case of waiting to overtake. Have I done that more often than others? I don’t think so. It’s not about winning the corner, it’s about doing the best lap times.

“So that of course is in the mindset, but I believe it’s in the mindset of Le Mans drivers, my teammates included.”

When Kristensen arrived at Le Mans in 1997 he was an unknown quantity, but not unknown.

A blossoming career in Japan had put him in the frame for F1 drives and even Group C outings with Toyota. But the sparkling live-wire had a grounded lead driver in his car in Michele Alboreto, a Grand Prix winner with Ferrari.

“He was a gent outside the car,” recalls Kristensen, whose affection for the late Italian remains undimmed.

“But when drivers like him jump into the car they are tough.

“The car was based around Michele, but in ’97, arriving at the circuit on the Monday before the race having never been there, if I hadn’t had Michele and Stefan [Johansson] I’m sure I would have made a brake error here or mistake there and delayed the car.”

Kristensen was given no time to acclimatise, and was expected to get in and go quickly, as he remembers with a laugh: “The way the mechanics looked at me before I jumped into the car… I did 17 timed laps in practice and a double stint early in the evening.

“It was getting better and better, and then one mechanic started to talk directly to me. Maybe even gave me a nod.”

Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

Tom’s final win came in 2013 aboard the Audi R18 e-tron quattro © Getty

“When I got in at night, the first stint was incredibly tough,” remembers TK. “But I managed to get through it because I knew I could not do this wrong.

“In the third stint I didn’t just get the calls of ‘Split…’, ‘Pitlane…’; I got the call ‘Schnellste runde’ [fastest lap].

“You could hear that the tone of voice had changed. That was a huge confidence boost for my first night stints and for getting the car through to the dawn.”

Races can be won or lost in the dark at Le Mans, as JJ Lehto proved for McLaren in 1995 and Fernando Alonso and Nick Tandy have done in more recent years.

Throughout his career, Kristensen was the fast and safe pair of hands to navigate the pitch black and the blinding lights.

“Over the years, when it was very dark and the lights were not as advanced, I sometimes entered the car kind of frightened,” he admits.

“But I knew I could never, ever, let anyone down during the night. It is the most challenging race because you have to respect it – night, day, rain, oil, teammates – and have the right mindset.”

His mental abilities were perhaps shown most impressively in 1999. That was the year in which the Mercedes-Benz CLRs suffered spectacular airborne accidents, the third and last of those with young Scot Peter Dumbreck.

“It was during the race, and the first time it had been caught by a TV camera, and Kristensen was due to take over from Lehto in the BMW V12 LMR.

“I’m in the pitlane and our car is approaching the Porsche corners when Dumbreck, a little further back, goes into the trees,” TK recalls.

“The only thing I see is the replay, because I hear the grandstands roar; I feel it. Even with my helmet on in a busy pitlane, all I hear is this loud ‘Wha!’.

“On the replay I just see a Merc going into the trees, and more or less simultaneously I get that push on my shoulder to say the car’s in the pitlane, and then I’m jumping in.”

Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

Goodwood remains an annual treat for Tom – here driving a Ford Fairlane in 2015 – with treasured memories of racing there with his father © Audi AG

“I go on the radio: ‘Who was it? Who was it?’ When I was told it’s Dumbreck, of course I’m sad and completely struggling with the mindset until Andreas, the engineer, comes on and says he is okay,” says TK.

“You take that as the biggest bull in the paddock, and I don’t accept it.

“It’s sprinkling a little bit with water, not quite raining; the darkness is coming in and we’ve passed the site a few times, so everything is depressed in the car.

“A few minutes later they say: ‘Tom, seriously; they have seen him.’ Then Charly Lamm comes on the radio, the team manager, and says: ‘Tom, it will open up. They don’t have to rebuild the barrier because he flew over it, but the race will get going pretty soon.’

“Something like 20, maybe 30 minutes later, the rain stops and I get going. That confirmation, from thinking the worst to getting the trust and belief that the guy’s okay, clears the mind. I am leading and just going for it again.”

And, incredibly, almost instantly he set a new lap record.

Come Sunday afternoon the sister car claimed victory after Lehto had crashed with a stuck throttle that morning, taking with it a four-lap lead and Kristensen’s chances of his second win in three years.

Joining Audi for 2000 set in motion six wins in six years, including a secondment to Racing Technology Norfolk and the Bentley Speed 8 in 2003, and nine overall wins put paid to Jacky Ickx’s once-unmatchable record.

Only twice in a 14-year career with the Four Rings would he fail to finish: 2007, when Dindo Capello crashed out of another four-lap lead, and 2011 when early leader Allan McNish had a terrifying collision that scattered bits of Audi all over France.

The 2007 near miss came just months after Kristensen’s DTM crash that nearly ended his career. Tapped into a spin at Hockenheim, every driver’s nightmare scenario came true: stopped on track, shrouded in smoke, he was struck square-on.

He called on all his mental fortitude to get back into the cockpit, which at least gave him a first chapter to his award-winning book.

Classic & Sports Car – Tom Kristensen: the making of Mr Le Mans

Tom’s father, Carl-Erik, was a talented competitor in a variety of disciplines

The conclusion to his professional career came in sadder circumstances.

“I only did one full season after my dad died,” Kristensen says, “the drive was not there any more. I wanted to focus on family.”

His father, Carl-Erik, had also been a racer, with the family garage paying for outings: “What I remember him for most is Ford Escorts; he was in love with them.

“He drove Ford Anglias in England, but normally it was an Escort Mk1 in the [Hot Rod] World Championship at Ipswich and Wimbledon.”

On the spine of TK’s book, the rear quarters of one of his dad’s Escorts can be seen among the Audi prototypes: “If you need somebody to speak highly about my dad, ask Barry Lee, because my dad had passed him a few times where he didn’t feel it was sensible!

“He even did the Paris-Dakar with Toleman driving a truck, so he was versatile. Being born in a gas station, it was destiny that I would become a driver.”

One of his final memories of racing with his dad is of Goodwood, where TK has become one of the draws not just for what he’s done in his career, but for what he might do around the rapid Sussex track at the Revival and Members’ Meeting.

“The best race weekend I’ve had with my dad was when he joined me there in 2012,” says Kristensen.

“I think I drove a Cortina with Prince Joachim from Denmark and I was with Kenny Bräck in the AC Cobra. But the Revival is important for the whole heritage of our sport.

“Motorsport is always advancing, but it’s also challenged. It will change from how we know it, but it has changed all the time: in the ’60s there were hardly any sponsors; in many ways, back then was the most beautiful time of the sport.

“With the Members’ Meeting they are able to bring in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and it becomes more of a heritage event where you simply celebrate being part of our great sport.

“It’s fun to be retired but still doing new things with cars that were before my time. I don’t do the testing and practice, I am really just blessed that I can come and join different cars and they are always good – sometimes they have their problems, but that is in their nature.

“I can tell you, my wife doesn’t fancy seeing me in the Cobra again…”

Goodwood and a local event in Denmark are the only chances to see his talents behind the wheel today, and his time at the top table is now spent behind the microphone or in the stewards’ room.

But, in his more reasoned moments at least, he doesn’t miss it.

“It’s normally around the key points when I realise that I do – race starts, or when it’s very intense with three cars on the track,” he admits.

“I think, ‘What would I have done? Which car am I in?’ Then you think, ‘Ah shut up,’ and have a coffee.”

Kristensen is rare as a racer to have no regrets, despite those F1 chances that never came but for testing duties. Unlike some, and despite being perhaps the greatest driver never to get a crack at F1, not reaching that level doesn’t define him.

Nor does his freakish success at Le Mans. Just as Bob Wollek is more than the man who never won Le Mans, Kristensen is more than the most successful Le Mans racer ever.

Images: Getty/Audi AG

Thanks to: Evro, publisher of Mr Le Mans (£40, ISBN 9788797260302)

Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here


20 sports cars that rocked Le Mans

Porsche 917: flat-out flat-12

Classic shrine: 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum