Le Mans legend Kristensen on the iconic race
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Le Mans legend Kristensen on the iconic race

, Simon Strang

Faced with a choice between the DTM and Le Mans, Tom Kristensen instinctively knew which one he'd choose. Simon Strang talks to the eight-time Le Mans winner about his love of the legendary race

"I get goose pimples every time the cars go out on track for the first time," says Tom Kristensen as he describes his enduring love affair with the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Thirteen years after his first participation and debut victory in 1997, the 42-year-old continues to be moved by the firing of the engines, whatever their faith, and the carnival of prototypes, Porsches, Ferraris and Corvettes as they rumble up towards the Dunlop Chicane at four o'clock on Wednesday afternoon - signalling the beginning of another Le Mans weekend.

This year Kristensen was entrusted with the honour, as is surely his right, of taking the #7 Audi R15 Plus TDI out on to the 'green' asphalt as the Ingolstadt make began its campaign to regain La Sarthe's famous trophy.

"This year I was the one sitting in it and driving out," he says. "When you take to the track for the first time... you know the best love you ever have is the one that you respect the most."

The Dane admits to being a scholar of the French classic. Even had he not won the race a record eight times (twice more than Jacky Ickx, and thrice more than the combined tally of his Audi co-drivers Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello), and even if the last of those victories lies trapped in the fading memory of a thrilling 2008 event in which Audi snatched glory from the overwhelming pace of Peugeot, he says he would adore the race anyway.

"That idea to make a race on the shortest night of the year, and run it over 24 hours, in 1923, was a damn genius one," he tells AUTOSPORT on Thursday morning, just before the final pair of two-hour qualifying sessions for this year's race. "Even when I was young, although Formula 1 was my dream, I always had in mind that I wanted to drive at Le Mans one day."

Tom Kristensen in practice for Le Mans 2010 © LAT

That passion for Le Mans, indeed for sportscar racing, was the key motivating factor behind his decision to quit Audi's DTM squad at the end of 2009.

Faced with a career-defining choice and recognising that in this era, where it has become in his words "so important to specialise" on a genre if you want to be consistent at the front, Kristensen chose the discipline that gave him everything.

It was at Sebring in February 2009 that the Dane sat down with Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, and together they mapped out a future that would only include one of either the DTM or Le Mans. They concluded it was time to end his six-year dual programme and bring the sport's most successful prototype driver's focus solely on to the Audi R15 TDI programme full-time.

For Kristensen it had been a more difficult crossroad to pass than you might think. For him, 'versatility' is a vital concept, it's the tint with which he likes to colour his own view on a career that has spanned more than two decades, and it remains an important factor in his motivation as he moves into a new, more mature phase in his racing story.

"I really admire versatility," he says. "I really enjoyed trying different categories in my career. I am proud to say that I have won races in everything I have driven from front-wheel drive to four-wheel drive, in sportscars and single-seaters and even touring cars. Everything.

"I would love to have won a title in the DTM," he continues. "But you need to be fast, consistent, and, let's say, the chosen one at a certain stage in the season. I'm not saying I never had that, but I was unlucky at some points and I was probably not absolutely consistent at others.

"But in a way the thing I fought against when I made my decision after Sebring was that I am a fan of versatility in this world today. I am, though, at a time in my career where I have to focus on what I feel I do best and I have had the most success at, and what I enjoy the most - that, I have to say, is definitely sportscar racing.

"Dr Ullrich and I talked about it. He has younger drivers coming through, which is also important. We took the decision together. I didn't want to give up Le Mans and sportscars so that I could try and squeeze that tiny bit extra out of DTM to win a championship."

However complex it may have been psychologically, Kristensen knows he made the right choice.

Tom came closest to the DTM title in 2006 © LAT
"In that perspective it's an intelligent approach to go against what was always your ambition," he says. "I admire Mario Andretti and Jacky Ickx for their versatility. I like to see that Sebastien Loeb does different things, I like to see Kimi Raikkonen going rallying, I like it that Matthias Ekstrom now goes to NASCAR.

"That is something that I think deserves a lot of credit because they are already name brands and they go out and put it together in something else for the challenge. I am also a fan of Michael Schumacher coming back - that takes courage. I just hope when he comes to the Race of Champions he drives a few more cars..."

Kristensen admits that he will not miss everything about the DTM. The naturally politicised environment that comes with a series comprised of two manufacturers has led to a sporting approach that the Dane describes as similar to that of two Tour de France teams. Eventually it comes down to bands of drivers colluding to assist one individual's title aspirations.

It frustrated him that this avenue of the sport was not so much about the teams and the people within it, but, inevitably about whether Audi or Mercedes had won on a particular weekend.

"I don't want to be too negative because now we know BMW is coming in - that is the best thing that can happen for the DTM. The series has a great fanbase, they have a good TV package, great drivers and teams.

"But the difficulty was that it became about Audi and Mercedes winning and not the teams. It wasn't about Phoenix beating Mucke Motorsport. These teams don't really come to your mind. For me it would be easier if it was just open, but I understand the importance for Audi, and I support that.

"I enjoyed my years in the DTM. I came close a couple of times. I had success. But I also had my big crash."

So now Kristensen is back in the place where he belongs most, a discipline in which he will be remembered as one of the greatest, and certainly for now the most successful. And he is adamant in his focus and determination to bring Audi and himself back to a position of pre-eminence in prototype competition.

And while the aura of 'Mr Le Mans' remains, and his competitors and rivals still behold him with a respect that is sometimes visible as he moves through the paddock, it's been more than 12 months since Audi can claim to have beaten arch-rivals Peugeot. The evidence is that there is much work to do before the R15 Plus TDI can claim to be the equal of the French diesel.

And Kristensen sees this as his own opportunity for a 'comeback' like Schumacher's - a chance to be part of a new Audi era.

"I want to be a part of winning the trophy back for Ingolstadt," he says. "Sportscars was always my first love, and now it is my focus again. I love the science of it. I enjoy discovering the difference in the car's nature when you change things by degree. The evolution of the car fascinates me."

The evolution of the car is something that Kristensen now feels a more integral part after years where his attentions have been divided. Particularly given that his co-drivers McNish and Capello have been not only been solely attuned to Audi's turbo-diesel prototype philosophy since its inception in 2005, they have also been its leading lights - all the while Kristensen was dipping in and out.

"I don't feel like it is my car again but I would say we all have an equal input in it now," he says. "I'm definitely fully in it again.

"The dynamic is the same as always between us. I have been part of a winning crew a few times, so it would have been easy for me to have demanded a bit more, in a way, but I don't think I have. I think this comes down to what I know, and have learned over the years - that you need all three drivers to be happy. The team needs to be happy and things need to work in harmony to make it good. I think this has gelled really well with us.

Kristensen celebrates his first win at Le Mans in 1997 © LAT
"It's true that after my injury, I just started to come back shortly before Spa, I was in the car again. I did the test before Spa and I did the last test before here as well, so I am obviously fully integrated and I throw in my ideas a little bit harder now. But you are one of three in the car so I always tend to live with what others are emphasising. We need that, but on the other hand if I am not entirely sure about something then I was also emphasise this as well. That is the nature of our work.

"We hardly ever have unsettled things. We have discussions, sure, but we always end up agreeing on what we do. It's quite easy."

Kristensen's re-integration, if you like, was hit by a setback at the beginning of the year by his Achilles Tendon, which popped on January 15, much the same way as "your football player David Beckham's" did. The Dane describes the injury as being like 'a monkey' - it's what separates us from them, he says.

In fact his whole approach to the injury and recuperation has been one of humour. He describes comically his embarrassment at being in a swimming pool while rehabilitating in Dubai, trying to look cool while wading along with a weight band around his waist as beautiful women walked by. "But it was easy to deal with compared with the one I had a few years ago." He refers, of course, to the head injury he sustained in a massive accident in a DTM race at Hockenheim in 2008.

Now Tom's fully fit, the testing has been done, and it's time to take on Peugeot for a fourth time. And now, as opposed to Kristensen's glory years, the cars with the chrome four-ringed badge are the hunters instead of the dominant force. It's a situation that in some ways Tom prefers.

"Racing against other manufacturers is much better for the press and the race," he explains. "But for us as drivers it's actually a bit nicer, easier. When you have just five Audis on the grid it makes things more complicated. Now we can just focus on the fight with Peugeot."

Last year Audi lost that fight with its then-new R15 TDI as TK, McNish and Capello finished a distant third. But Kristensen doesn't see it that way: "We were quite happy with third - it was a victory for us. It was challenging and we had a lot of issues during it. We turned down the engine because of overheating and we had a lot of understeer to start with. But we still finished on the podium.

"Of course we come here to win, we always will, but there are challenges to deal with. It was nowhere near the frustrations we had in 2007, or for me personally in '99 with the BMW, for example.
The BMW got within hours of a dominant win in 1999, before crashing © LAT

"On those two occasions I was part of the biggest lead of my Le Mans history. We were three laps ahead with the BMW when JJ Lehto crashed in the Porsche Curves when a damper shaft unscrewed. And then when Dindo lost a rear wheel in 2007 we had a lead of four laps. That's frustration, and that hurt. It hurt a lot. There were only four hours to go in both of the races, but you go through a lot of things to get 20 hours in to the race."

Kristensen knows he's up against it this year. The ACO's current regulations require just two tyre-changers per car and that makes for slower pitstops. This has taken away the single biggest advantage Audi's open-top car had against the Peugeot coupe, which enjoys a superior drag co-efficient - gold currency at such a high velocity venue as Le Mans. Nevertheless TK, in a typically 'Audi' way, just uses this as another motivator.

"We know that the open-top cars over one lap are not the fastest," he says. "I think we just want to prove that we can win with an open-top car by making something better.

"In hindsight, on the evidence of yesterday [where the Peugeots dominated first practice], it is a tough way to go that Audi has chosen. That is why we are trying to achieve it.

"For me the best looking car was the 2003 #7 Bentley, which was a closed car. I understand why they are loved by the fans, they look more aggressive. But I like it as a driver to be in an open cockpit - you have more of a relationship with the car. You have more visibility, more energy from the airflow. When it's raining you know it sooner, feel it more."

The diverse nature of the fascinating battle for supremacy between Audi and Peugeot has driven sportscar racing back towards the top of the international motorsport agenda. After years of dominance by the metronomic, innovative German marque finally there is genuinely fierce competition. A golden era for the discipline, one might even argue. And as one of its principal superstars, Kristensen is keen to see sportscar racing fully exploit its time in the sunshine.

Tom sees sportscar racing as that with the closest relationship to the development of road car technology, whether that be performance or environmental. As far as he is concerned nothing has more value, or is more important, to the evolution of motorsport.

"With the rules around sportscar racing, Le Mans, LMS and the ALMS, and now this Intercontinental Cup, you have a chance of developing into what the road market is doing," he explains. "We are talking about eventually having hybrid cars - and some are even going extreme and talking about electric - though please God I hope I'm too old to still be racing when they come about!

"But think about it: a few years ago we were surprised by how quickly diesel technology moved to the fore. The challenge of having a very heavy engine, heavy differential, driveshaft and all these things made for a very different weight distribution. But we were able to compensate with aerodynamics and still deliver.
Tom Kristensen's favourite car is the 2003 Bentley © LAT

"Whatever the technology, the same challenge will apply to all the manufacturers in a way."

Kristensen hopes that this potential will entice more manufacturers back towards prototypes, and away from the endless (and frequently fruitless) spend of Formula 1.

"Last year I thought Toyota would be here - having committed to this for the future - and I still hope they will come. I thought more manufacturers would come in, and with Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo doing the start last year, and F1 being downscaled, I thought a lot of them would have a look. But for now it looks like the personnel and the money doesn't seem to be so free anyway."

Regardless of the manufacturer interest, Kristensen is adamant that sportscar racing has never been stronger, and that as a racing spectacle nothing comes close to the excitement of multi-class racing and its blend of performance differentials and technology.

"At Le Mans you see and hear the excitement of the spectators, and they see constant overtaking, to the left and to the right of other cars. You see, all the time, the greatest overtaking spectacle in motorsport today.

"Okay, you can tell me that it is four classes - but they are all driving on merit, on the limit. They all need to get through the corner, they all need to get around, as fast as possible all the time. It's a great challenge for GT drivers to pass and stay quick while being passed. It's a great challenge for us with the speed differential to make it not too unsafe. It creates drama, and we shouldn't forget that is what people want to see.

"That's why Le Mans is probably the greatest invention of motorsport and I still really believe that."

And that's why Kristensen feels ready for the fight again. Ready to rise once more to bring Audi back to the top of the pile. There are no thoughts of resting on what is already the most convincing record in Le Mans history.

Indeed it prompts one to wonder whether he would ever want to live without Le Mans.

"Yes," he replies unequivocally.

But then he adds: "One thing I can promise is that one day I will definitely come here and have a glass of champagne or a glass of wine, and relax and enjoy it. Because Le Mans comes at a very emotional time of year.

"The summer is coming and the racing is... well, it will always give me goose bumps."
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