24h Le Mans

The Natural: Tom Kristensen

The Natural: Tom Kristensen

24h Le Mans Centenary: 2003-2012 | Written by Richard Kelley

Tom Kristensen began his racing career following the usual European path of winning in karts and formula cars. He eventually worked up to Group C, Japanese F3000 and F1 test driver for Tyrrell.

Nevertheless, his true destiny remained hidden until he was nearly 30. It was revealed on an eight-mile stretch of celebrated tarmac known as Le Mans.

The moment he climbed into the Joest TWR Porsche WSC-95 as a last-minute replacement for the injured Davey Jones at La Sarthe, Kristensen proved to be an endurance natural. Twenty-four hours later, the Joest team of Kristensen, Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson lifted the team’s victory trophy.

Significantly, Kristensen delivered a forceful quadruple stint in the evening and set the new lap record, having never seen the circuit before.

Tom Kristensen at the wheel of the Joest TWR Porsche WSC-95 at the 1997 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

From that breakthrough moment to securing his final victory in 2013, Tom Kristensen’s stellar career spanned 18 Le Mans tests over three separate decades, with nine wins and five podiums against four DNFs. Every time the Dane’s car finished at Le Mans, he was always on the podium.

His remarkable nine victories still account for roughly 10 percent of the Le Mans 24s ever held— a stunning achievement considering the French endurance classic celebrates its centenary on June 10-11, and the maths favoured Kristensen even more generously before he retired eight years ago in 2014.

While he also secured multiple career victories in WEC, DTM, and JGTC, including a record six wins at the Sebring 12 Hours, Tom Kristensen remains Mr. Le Mans, the greatest driver to ever hurtle down the Mulsanne.

Tom Kristensen, Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro celebrate on the podium after winning the 2002 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

Following his 1997 Le Mans breakthrough, Kristensen was the driver of the moment. Instead of two offers, he had four or five requests for 1998. He chose BMW and their ambitious Le Mans prototype program.

By 1999 his team was ready. The new BMW V12 LMR won Sebring and then stormed Le Mans. Kristensen, JJ Lehto and Jörg Müller led by four laps until a broken suspension piece caused the throttle to open, sending poor Lehto into a violent crash at the Porsche Curves.

So strong was the V12 LMR race pace that they technically remained in the lead for another 17 minutes after the accident—an eternity and a lesson. It was Kristensen’s most profound disappointment in his career.

The BMW team, including Tom Kristensen, prior to the 1999 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

Kristensen’s move to Audi’s Sport Team Joest squad for 2000 restored his spirits and reunited Kristensen with his great friend Michele Alboretto. The Dane’s speed and leadership heralded unprecedented victories with works R8s in 2000-02, a factory Bentley in 2003 and privateer R8s in 2004-05.

Teamed with Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro, Kristensen won the 2000 classic by one lap for his second career Le Mans victory in Audi’s 1-2-3 team romp.

During Audi’s run-up to the 2001 Le Mans classic, Michele Alboreto won the Sebring 12 Hours but then perished weeks later while testing the R8 at the Lausitzring. As 1999 teammates at Joest, Alboreto had taken Kristensen under his wing during the Dane’s first Le Mans victory, and they shared a unique friendship.

Kristensen still holds Alboreto in extremely high regard because when asked which of his teammates he rates highest, he quickly points to his 1997 co-driver. The entire Audi team mourned his loss.

Tom Kristensen shakes the hand of team mate Michele Alboreto after winning the 1997 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

Audi’s Rinaldo Capello would take the 2001 Le Mans pole. During the race in heavy rain, Kristensen lost fourth gear with less than four hours to go. Joest changed the gearbox, giving Kristensen victory by one lap for his third overall Le Mans win.

During the 2002 race, Kristensen’s R8 had a right front tire puncture going into the Porsche Curves. There was a massive explosion, taking out much of the front bodywork. Kristensen managed to get to the pits on three wheels.

The mechanics descended on the car and, in three minutes, had the Dane back out on the circuit. Kristensen, Pirro and Biela still managed to win by a lap. It was Kristensen’s fourth career victory, and the third consecutive win for the Audi trio, the first time in Le Mans history for a team line-up to do so.

Tom Kristensen during a pit stop at the 2002 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

Kristensen would win with the factory Bentley Speed 8 in 2003, alongside Rinaldo Capello and Guy Smith, setting the fastest lap to win over the second factory Bentley. He also won in privateer Audi R8s in 2004-05.

A wheel falling off the Audi R10 TDI he shared with Rinaldo Capello and Allan McNish cancelled victory in 2007. Still, the trio pulled off one of the most significant Le Mans wins against the faster Peugeot 908s the following year.

Kristensen's team was 3.7 seconds slower per lap than the Peugeots in the dry, but with the forecast of rain, they would not accept defeat. As promised, there was rain through the night, and Capello, McNish, and Kristensen passed the Peugeots for the victory, saying later he had never felt so proud and so happy.

Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Rinaldo Capello celebrate on the podium after winning the 2002 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

There would be three more Le Mans podiums before his record ninth victory in 2013 laid the foundations for Kristensen, McNish and Loic Duval to be crowned World Endurance champions in their R18 e-tron quattro. Second place in Le Mans one year later meant Kristensen claimed a stunning 14 podium finishes in his 18 starts. And then, he knew it was time to stop.

Today, Tom enjoys serving as an Audi Sport ambassador, an F1 steward and president of the FIA Drivers’ Commission.

Tom Kristensen (middle) with Guido Stahlmann (left) and Gregor Messer (right) at the DTM Assen 2019. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.

Follow the link below to read more stories from the 100 years of 24h Le Mans and discover our celebratory poster collection in cooperation with the Automobile Club de l'Ouest.

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