Motorsport: 20 Years Later. Tom Kristensen On Audi’s First Le Mans Win

20 Years Later. Tom Kristensen On Audi’s First Le Mans Win

James Gent By James Gent
June 18, 2020
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On 17-18 June 2000, Audi began what would become a lengthy re-write of the history books at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

In sealing Audi’s first outright victory at the event, Joest Racing simultaneously followed in the heavily grooved tyre marks of Rothmans Porsche (1982) and Peugeot Talbot Sport (1993) as of one of the few works teams to lockout the overall podium in the event’s then-77-year history. On top of that, 2000 was the first of, to-date, 13 outright wins at Le Mans for Audi, the second most in history behind only Porsche (19). It was the first of a record-setting five wins for the same car – the R8 – and the first pole position of an eventual eight so far, the second most ever behind Porsche’s 19.

It was also, significantly, the second event win for Danish motorsport icon Tom Kristensen, and the first of an eventual six wins on the bounce at La Sarthe, a record no driver has even come close to equalling, let alone beating. A run the Danish motorsport icon, in wonderfully modest fashion, puts down to the team he worked with, and the machine at his disposal.

“The Audi R8 won four more Le Mans [after 2000], and I was part of the winning driving team each time,” Kristensen explained to Audi Sport recently. “You could win in that car at Mont-Tremblant in Canada, at Mid-Ohio, at Sebring and Laguna Seca in the US, at Donington in the UK, at Jarama in Spain and at Le Mans in France. You could win in the R8 at so many different tracks all over the world.

“The regulations were always restricting the performance of the R8. In 2005, when we won with it for the final time at Le Mans, before it was replaced by the R10 TDI, we were three-and-a-half seconds slower than the Pescarolo LMP1 around one lap of the circuit. This was mainly due to a smaller air intake, a weight increase of 50kg and a narrower rear wing. And yet we still won!

“Every time the car went into the garage after a race, it would always come back stronger, one way or another. That is how it was at Audi.  There was always a competition to see who could come up with ideas, and then we would use them to see how we could improve together. And every year, as drivers, we were so motivated to win, even before we went to the ceremony in Saint-Nicolas in the city of Le Mans and touched our own handprints in the bronze plaque celebrating the previous year’s victory.”

How different it all could have been though.

Rewind to 1997, and the future ‘Mr Le Mans’ was a European Formula 3000 single seater driver climbing the ladder to Formula 1. In his wake, the young man from Hobro in Denmark had already left Formula 3 championships in Germany and Japan in 1991 and 1993 respectively, two Japanese Touring Car Championships in 1992 and 1994, and, alongside various national karting champions, a Scandinavian Kart Championship in 1985 having bested a young Finn called Hakkinen in the process. Despite missing out on a potential IndyCar drive for 1997 with the late Tony Bettenhausen Jr. (tragically both the team owner and his wife were killed in a plane crash in 2000) and despite, like every young driver, being strapped for cash, Kristensen already had his maiden series win under his belt and the standings lead in his grasp after the opening three rounds.

Then came the first of two phone calls that would change the Dane’s life forever.

Nope, not Audi. That would have to wait until Fall 1999. On the other end of this particular line was Ralf Jüttner, long-time technical director of then-three-time Le Mans winner, Joest Racing (now 13x). Despite there being only one week to go before that year’s race, Jüttner enquired whether the young Dane would be interested in the final berth in his team’s Porsche WSC-95 prototype alongside former Grand Prix mainstays Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto. Loosely translated, “we’re a driver short, so get your arse on a plane, sharpish.”

Heading into his first 24-hour race, Kristensen had not so much as sat in the Tom Walkinshaw-built WSC-95, and bar 18 laps in Free Practice, had never driven a lap at La Sarthe. Incredibly though, on 15 June 1997, just a few weeks prior to his 30th birthday, Tom Kristensen became only the 21st driver (of only 25) since 1923 to take the outright win on his Le Mans debut, and, in a true mark of his speed, even set the race’s fastest lap during the night. Cue Formula 1 tests with BAR/Tyrrell, Minardi and even Williams.

Forced to park the V12 LM after just four hours in 1998, things were looking good for new-BMW works driver driver Kristensen at the 1999 race. Having taken his first win – of an eventual seven – at the Sebring 12 Hours earlier that year aboard the heavily revised V12 LMR, the Dane and teammates Jörg Müller and JJ Lehto were three laps ahead after 19 hours only for a damper to work itself loose, push against a rollbar, and, in turn, jam the throttle cable to one bank of cylinders. Lehto fortunately escaped uninjured from his high-speed smash, but the #17’s chances of victory were done. Moreover, the crash taught Kristsensen an important lesson, one he carried across his Audi tenure.

“In an LMP1 car [at La Sarthe] you are going at the speed of a small aircraft, and you are just trying to keep it nailed to the ground. You always have to be alert. The cars are very aggressive at the limit. If you are alone on the track, it’s fine. You can be calm. But in traffic, or in close fights with your rivals, you always have to look out for aerodynamic upset caused by the slipstream of other cars, which can buffet and bounce your car around. These things aren’t visible, but they can be pretty dramatic, and if you don’t expect them, you can be sure you will go off when they arrive.”

Still, come the chequered flag in 1999, Audi’s Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, had seen enough of the young Dane’s potential. 32-year-old Kristensen meanwhile, now running campaigns in the Super Tourenwagen Cup (a precursor to the DTM) and the British Touring Car Championship with Honda alongside Formula test call-ups with Tyrrell, Minardi, Jaguar, Michelin and even Williams, knew that his future lay with sports cars. A deal was quickly made.

“I was invited by Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, then Audi Head of Motorsport, to a meeting at Ingolstadt in autumn 1999. He introduced me to some of the Audi Sport engineers and mechanics, and showed me a drawing of the R8 race car.  On the spot, I said I would like to be part of the team. We shook hands, and that was the best decision I ever made in racing.”

Few could argue that point. Admittedly, with BMW and Toyota buggering off to Formula 1, Porsche clearing the way for its VAG sister brand, and Mercedes pulling the plug on its sports car program altogether after the CLR ‘flip’ debacle in 1999, that left Audi with precious little competition at the 2000 Le Mans, but the R8 nevertheless had to be on point. Built around a carbon-fibre chassis and carbon-fibre composite safety cage, the new R8 was a revolutionary development of the open top R8R that had sealed the first Le Mans podium for an Audi – the first of a record 18 in succession, just FYI – in 1999, albeit one with a gusty yet fuel-efficient 3.6-litre twin-turbo V8 (power is quoted at 620hp, though it’s been suggested power could have been hiked as high as 670hp). Drive was sent to the rear wheels via a pneumatically operated six-speed transmission.

Arguably the R8’s biggest strength though was its versatility: huge amounts of time was saved on pitroad as Joest Racing mechanics could change the entire rear end of the Spyder in less than five minutes as opposed to spending close to an hour expediting each individual component. A design ethos honed to near-perfection by Michael Pfadenhauer and Wolfgang Appel, and one that, alongside bullet-proof reliability, paid off handsomely in 2000.

“Some people would say Audi took a conservative approach with the R8, certainly compared with some of the more state-of-the-art and – shall we say – ‘bananas’ race cars that followed. The philosophy was, ‘if there is any problem, we need to be able to fix it,’ and that came all the way from board level down. The number-one priority was reliability. Without reliability, you cannot have 100 per cent trust in your equipment, and you cannot perform. It was the perfect approach for Le Mans.

“I tested the [R8] before the 12 Hours of Sebring in the US in March 2000. It was an interim car between the older R8R that Audi had raced in 1999 and the new R8. The front end was still the old car, while the rear was from the R8, but Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and I won Sebring in it, which was very important.

“The R8 was the first LMP1 Le Mans prototype I drove with power steering. I was used to heavy steering that took a real effort to turn into corners, which gave me a lot of confidence. It took me some time to get used to the lightness of the R8’s steering, whereas Frank Biela was very happy with it. He used to say, ‘it gives you quick hands, and you can control it faster.’ But it took a long time to get the set-up right for everyone because the input from the drivers was different. Eventually, it became smoother and more progressive, and in the end we were all happy with it.”

The potential of both the new R8 and Audi’s nine-strong driver line-up was clear from the get-go when relative newboy Audi Team Sport Joest secured the top three spots on the grid, the pole-sitting #9 entry – further details of which we go into HERE – lapping the 13.6km La Sarthe circuit more than three seconds faster than the nearest non-Audi R8, Panoz Motorsport’s #11 LMP-1 Roadster-S. Particularly biting, given that the entry also boasted a certain Mario Andretti on its driver line-up.

Victory for the four rings proved a cakewalk, as Kristensen, Biela and Pirro completed 368 laps in blistering heat to take the chequered flag, one lap ahead of teammates Stéphane Ortelli (winner in ’98), Laurent Aïello (also a winner in ’98, and 22nd on the ‘25’ list behind Kristensen), and future three-time event winner and 2013 FIA World Endurnace Champion, Allan McNish. In the #7 entry meanwhile two laps further back, ’97 winner Michele Alboreto partnered Christian Abt and future three-time Le Mans victor Rinaldo Capello. Unbelievably, in 24 hours, the third Audi had still pulled 21 laps and 283km ahead of 4th-placed Pescarolo Sport.

And yet, still, the run had not been flawless. Two punctures curtailed the race-winning #8’s charge in the early going, while an errant spin and another puncture led to precautionary pit stops for the #9 and the #7 respectively, both of which had their rear sections in their entirity replaced. In less than five minutes. The twin-turbo V8? Formidable on the famous Mulsanne back straight as a 3m 37.359s fastest lap and 337kph through the speed trap, but a ballistic weapon that still took some getting used to…

“We had a bit of an issue with the brakes – we had to change discs and pads. The car was very fast, but in that first year the twin-turbocharged V8 engine had a lot of turbo lag, followed by a very aggressive response. It was like a delayed time bomb: nothing, nothing, and then BOOM! That improved a lot the following year when Audi introduced the FSI system, which injected petrol directly into the combustion chambers. That was very helpful for the drivability of the engine, and it was also a lot more efficient and an excellent development for road cars.

“The first R8 had a lot of understeer, too. So, you had a car with a wild engine response that was set up to feel settled and more consistent as the tyres wore, but as a result felt quite nervous and twitchy on fresh tyres.

“We were holding the lead towards the end of the 2000 race. Frank Biela was cool as ever – as long as you gave him time to have his cigarette. He was fit, he was strong, he was calm. Emanuele was always Italian – always emotional, you know? Ready to celebrate the victory before the end, which was something I hated. Maybe you would say my approach was pessimistic, but I didn’t want anything – no handshakes – before the chequered flag.

“About 30 minutes before the end, Dr Ullrich froze the race order, and we were able to cross the line 1-2-3. And the colours of the cars were red, yellow and black, as in the colours of the German flag.”

This as we know was just the beginning. In 2001 and 2002, the unchanged driver line-up of Kristensen, Biela and Pirro repeated their ’00 win, again aboard the Audi R8, adding their names to a then-three-way record for most consecutive wins at Le Mans with the same driver line-up alongside Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill (’58, ’61 and ’62), and Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell (’75, ’81 and ’82). 2011 and 2012 winners Marcel Fässler, André Lotterer and Benoît Tréluyer would later join the trio with their third win together in 2014.

As for Kristensen, his legacy was just beginning of course. When he hung up his helmet for good at the end of 2014, the Dane had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans an incredible nine times, eclipsing Jacky Ickx’s 23-year record in the process. Even more remarkable, of the 18 races at La Sarthe he contested, Kristensen finished 14 of them, all on the podium, and bar an outlying win with Bentley in 2003, all with Joest Racing. It’s an accomplishment that makes his jubilant words uttered that day on 18 June 2000 all the more poignant:

“The car is unbelievably fast and reliable. We had no problems apart from the punctures but this is Le Mans. I have done three races so far for Joest and won three times: Le Mans 1997, Sebring 2000 and Le Mans 2000. There must be something magic about his team!”

20 years later, the history books would certainly agree.

*Images courtesy of Audi, Porsche, BMW Motorsport (Pierrick Chazeaud), and  Motorsport Images

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