The magic of Le Mans, by the man who knows it best | CAR Magazine

The magic of Le Mans, by the man who knows it best

Published: 29 May 2023 Updated: 29 May 2023

► Nine-times winner Tom Kristensen interviewed
► Excited by prospect of Ferrari vs Audi clash in 2023
► New book details his career – at Le Mans and beyond

If some cosmic Tippex were to delete all Tom Kristensen’s Le Mans achievements from the record, you’d still be left with a pretty impressive CV, brimming with success in sports cars and touring cars, and leavened with a sprinkling of F1 testing. He’s also a phenomenally focused, formidably intelligent and ridiculously fit 53-year-old, damn him.

But it’s of course those nine Le Mans wins that have secured his place in history, and given his new autobiography its title, Mr Le Mans. That’s far more than anybody else – Jacky Ickx got six – and all the more impressive for taking place over such a long span, from 1997 to 2013, although six were consecutive, in 2000-20005, and most were with Audi.

And then, when he sensed his competitive edge slipping away, he quit. By anybody else’s standards he was still super-competitive and highly successful, but he knew it was time to stop. And, aside from the odd historic outing, he really has quit. He’s now an Audi Sport ambassador, an F1 steward and president of the FIA Drivers’ Commission.

It’s quite a contrast to another man who dominated his sport, Sebastien Loeb (six years Kristensen’s junior), nine-time World Rally Champion but also Pikes Peak record breaker and a competitor in touring cars, rallycross, GT racing and indeed Le Mans. And although his WRC involvement did eventually fizzle out to nothing, he still keeps hammering away at the Dakar, and he’s in Extreme E. 

When CAR asked Kristensen if he fancied facing up against Loeb and the rest at Dakar, which Audi has said it will enter in 2022, he couldn’t have been clearer: ‘It would be nice to have a go, but I’m happily retired. It was very difficult to make the decision to retire. I like what I’m doing. When I finally decided to stop, it was nice in terms of my kids and my family, and I still do a lot of things around motorsoprt. Do I miss it? Yes, Jesus Christ.’

So what is it about Le Mans? ‘Le Mans is so much bigger than the other races. In a way they take a year to get to. It’s a make or break for that year. If you win, it’s really important.’ 

For him, the variety has been much greater than a quick skim of the history books suggests. Even though many of his successes were in Audis, they changed form turbo to diesel to hybrid in quick succession. He had 16 different team-mates, and enjoyed success with both privateer and works teams.

‘I went from headlights at Le Mans when you ask sometimes in the dark is it on or off, and you go through the whole evolution of that ending up with being able to see around corners with laser lights.’ 

Despite his close identification with Audi Sport, some of Kristensen’s fondest memories of Le Mans come from his brief spell with Bentley in 2003, when Audi was having one of its occasional breaks from top-flight endurance racing. Although the engine was from Audi, the victorious Bentley Speed 8 was very much not a rebadged R8.

‘It’s completely a British-designed car. The car is 100 per cent an English car, developed at RTM. Of course it has an Audi engine, but it’s a 3.8 litre rather than 3.6 litre. It was definitely [designer] Peter Elleray’s car.

‘Driving for Bentley, as the first foreign manufacturer to drive at Le Mans, they were there in 1923, they did the fastest lap and won the year after, 1924. That’s big history in the biggest race. When I drove for Bentley, suddenly I was getting phone calls from Vietnam, they wanted to do an interview. But it was over before it had finished. We were on a high, celebrating at the Savoy hotel, like they did in the good old days, but the whisper was that it was the last race. Poof, it’s over.

‘Probably that is part of why I reflect so much on it. When I meet these guys, my team-mates, we have many good moments from that year. The Bentley Boys. We were trying to live up to what they did back then. We didn’t succeed, but it was more the way we tried, the way we failed. And we still won.’

And if he had his time over, would he do anything different? ‘I would enjoy it a bit more.’

Mr Le Mans – Tom Kristensen

By Tom Kristensen with Dan Philipsen

is published by Evro (evropublishing.com) in hardback at £40

By Colin Overland

CAR's managing editor: wordsmith, critic, purveyor of fine captions

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