9-Time Le Mans Winner Tom Kristensen On His Path To Endurance Royalty
To call someone a “Living Legend” is a little cringeworthy when you say it out loud to their face. It’s a cliché, and it’s a lazy way of describing someone’s struggle to get where they are today. That said, I’ll be damned if Tom Kristensen doesn’t live up to every inch of the term. I mean the guy literally rocked up to Le Mans his first time and won. And then he won another 9 times.
To say I was excited to meet the man at Goodwood the other day is a massive understatement.
Ted Gushue: What was the first car you remember driving?
Tom Kristensen: An Austin Marina. It was right-hand drive, which was quite unusual to have in Denmark. It was at my Dad’s gas station. It didn’t go well. I actually smacked it right into one of the Shell petrol posts. The car was a total write-off. My Dad was less than impressed.
I jumped into it when I was eleven years old, when my Dad and Mom had gone away for the weekend I think, and I still regret that today. I was born and raised at the gas station, in Hobro, Denmark. My Dad was a racing driver when he wasn’t working, so I was always being dragged along to various racing circuits in Denmark, gravel circuits, dirt, and of course asphalt. I have a younger brother who ended up in racing as well.
TG: Sounds like it’s almost the Kristensen destiny, no?
TK: It certainly helps when you have that familial interest in cars or motorsport from the beginning. I wouldn’t say it was predestined though. Being from the countryside in Denmark, we come from pretty humble backgrounds, so have to work a lot to progress. During my carting years I developed decently well, and my class of drivers on the Scandinavian and European carting circuit was incredibly talented. Hakkinen, Rydell, Salo, all of those guys were in my generation.
TG: So often you hear stories of talented cart racers that aren’t able to make the jump to Formula or sports cars, and they end up dropping out to to budgetary restrictions or lack of sponsorship. How were you able to make the jump to Formula 3?
TK: I made it out but it wasn’t seamless. I spent three of my best young racing years without a ride or a sponsor. Those three years I had to work as a bank clerk to be able to afford to drive to race tracks just to watch my friends compete. But I kept turning up, kept calling team bosses, all over Europe. Every once in a while I would get seat time, but rarely a race during that period.
But, I’d done enough to get the attention of the Volkswagen Motorsport Team for German F3 in 1991, and I was called a few weeks before the first race to join his team as a second driver. I won my first race out with that team, which was a big deal because just a year prior Schumacher had graduated out of F3. I was up against really talented guys: Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Karl Wendlinger, Marco Werner, Wolfgang Kaufmann, Peter Cook, Jörg Müller, Sascha Maassen, all these guys were in this generation and that was very cool. Since then, I have always been a professional driver.
TG: At which point do you make the decision to pursue sports cars and not Formula 1 like Schumacher?
TK: We all grow up and want to be in Formula 1 because it’s so commercialized and publicized. Young drivers all want to be Formula 1 drivers, but they don’t realize what a healthy and sustainable life they can have in sports cars. On top of that, the people you compete with in sports cars are much more honest and typically more passionate about their motivation to be in racing. I don’t mean that as a negative to Formula 1, but the people you go to Le Mans with are like family. You’re together for a 24-hour race—it’s just such a different dynamic. You are all so emotionally invested.
With the team I had at my first Le Mans with Team Joest—Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson, along with the great mechanics—we were setting lap records before we won.
With a Le Mans victory under your belt, you can probably still make the jump to Formula 1 at age 30. I ended up testing for quite a few Formula 1 teams, but frankly after a couple of years with BMW at Le Mans, I then signed the deal with Audi in the autumn of 1999 and I haven’t looked back. Apart from Bentley and the private teams I’ve driven for over the years, I’ve been with Audi ever since, and that’s the best decision I’ve ever made in racing.
I didn’t practice enough in Formula 1 to know if I would have been successful if I’d taken that path, but I have no regrets because all that motivation and help I’ve gotten from really great people put me into sports cars and I love that.
TG: What was the first endurance race that you entered?
TK: The first real race was Le Mans in ’97, but I did a little endurance racing in Japan before that. It was 500 kilometers with a Nissan Skyline, two drivers, so you could call that endurance I suppose. But, of course, before you have done Le Mans, you have not done anything. In those days there was no floodlight at Le Mans; the track was still pretty old school. Old grooves, old track rods from the straights, no run-offs, it was pretty cruel. And the lights on the cars were not so developed as they are now. Now we have laser beams!
TG: Our friend Derek Bell always describes himself as the team member on an endurance racing team that returns the car in one piece. He’s not necessarily the fastest, but he’s the most consistent. How would you describe yourself, as a driver?
TK: I’m a pusher. I’m always trying to be the fastest, but of course I want to be clean. Nobody wants to hand a teammate a broken car. It’s difficult to describe yourself and it’s not my job to do that. But, I want to be fast and I’m always striving.
At a race like Le Mans you have to. You have to push, for 24 hours straight, otherwise you don’t win. At least that’s been the case for the last two decades that I’ve been competing there. Perhaps that was different when Derek was racing as maybe the cars were more fragile, but even then you had to push if you wanted to win because there was always another car that was going to finish too of course.
This year, to-date, it’s 20 years ago since I made my debut at Le Mans and I’ve done 17 additional races since then, won 9 of them, 14 podiums, and with Audi I’ve been on 12 podiums. I think that speaks for great cars, great teammates, and great preparation.
I simply love the race, but I respect it, big time, too.
TG: Of any of the cars that you’ve driven at Le Mans, which would you choose to drive today, here at Goodwood?
TK: Do you have children, Ted?
TG: Not that I know of…
TK: You don’t choose between children. All of the cars I’ve driven at Le Mans are important to me. In 2000, the very first Audi R8 that we won with, I drove it the other day, and within 50 meters I was back in the groove. I love that car.
Then of course you have the first car I won at Le Mans with, the Porsche. Also the super low-drag BMW V12LM, then the V12LMR, with a fantastic engine, which we did the following year, in ’99.
We won Sebring in the V12LMR in ’99, but we didn’t win the race we would have loved to. And then began my love affair with Audi, which has taken me to the most victories out of any other car. I’ve been lucky to drive every one of the cars that Audi enters in most races, and they’re all terrific.
The Bentley was very special to me too though, it was probably most elegant race car I’ve ever driven. I was just reunited with it at Race Retro a couple of weeks ago here in the UK. It’s a fantastic car.
TG: Do you spend time in any vintage stuff?
TK: I used to have an NSU TT, rear-engined car, very strange car. I sold it after I ripped the drivetrain for the third time; it went to a home where it would be driven more appropriately!
It’s a great honor to be able to drive vintage cars at events like Goodwood though. I’m Ambassador of the Copenhagen Historic Grand Prix as well, so at least a few times a year there or at Goodwood I’m able to drive something I haven’t had the chance to before, and I take so much pleasure in it. To try to be smooth in something I’ve never had experience with is such a cool challenge. It’s just such a privilege to be able to do that.