Mr. Le Mans has traded in his racing suit for a typewriter.
While the typewriter metaphor might be a bit archaic, the context is very much the same. Since retiring from his immensely successful racing career at the end of 2014, nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen has had plenty of time to reflect on his three decades as a driver, which took him to the very top of the list of Le Mans success stories.
Those reflections have now been put together in his autobiography, fittingly titled Mr Le Mans. Written together with Danish journalist Dan Philipsen, the book already achieved acclaim when it was published in Kristensen’s native Denmark, where it was voted as ‘Sports Book of the Year’. Now it’s been translated to English, with additional contributions from English journalists Charles Bradley and Gary Watkins, and released this month
What compels a retired racer to put his racing life to paper? It’s a question I asked Kristensen as we sat down for a virtual interview to talk about his book and his motorsport career. As he puts it himself, the goal was to be able to open up on certain things that he couldn’t when he was still racing.
“You know, when you are there, racing, and you are trying to do the best for the team with the team-mates and company, you become a private man,” Kristensen explained. “You try to protect yourself, you protect your weaknesses, you even protect what you think is good, you’re not outspoken. But when you retire – hey, there’s no secrets anymore. It’s over, it’s done. And that is also part of Dan’s [initiative], he wanted access to people around me and that’s what I happily gave him.
“I gave him a lot of access, both in private life, but also he spoke to key people around the teams I drove for through the years. Some he didn’t speak to, I guess, but he spoke to a lot and I did not regret that at all.”
“Until he then came up with the questions, and there was a lot of things that surprised me. There was a lot of time he asked to digest, when I was speaking about corners, the camber at Brands Hatch, Paddock Hill bend. He was just sort of ‘it’s not about that, Tom.’ But he let me talk, and he let me speak about the passion of the racing, but he just took out the essentials of that, and that I think is maybe what makes the book different to many, let’s say, sports biographies. There’s differences in that sense, and that was his passion and if you have read some of it, you probably can feel or see that yourself, I’m sure.”
As the most successful driver to ever compete in the French endurance classic, Kristensen’s exploits at Le Mans are well documented. His debut win as a late entrant with Joest Racing in 1997, a heartbreaking loss with BMW in 1999 followed by a move to Audi that kickstarted a run of unprecedented dominance, with six consecutive victories between 2000 and 2005. The partnership with Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello and Allan McNish that sealed win number seven in 2008, followed by a record ninth victory in an emotional and turbulent year in 2013.
There is much more to Kristensen the racer than just Le Mans, however. While he may be synonymous with the race, he spent years attempting to make it to Formula One, but ultimately never raced there, today considered one of the greatest to never race in F1.
He was however, also a gifted touring car racer, winning races in DTM, the BTCC with Honda and the Japanese Touring Car Championship, the country in which he spent a significant amount of time early on his career. It’s all chronicled in the book, with both personal input from Kristensen, as well as outside perspective from Philipsen.
Of course, despite his versatility as a driver, it is Le Mans where the Dane ultimately forged his legacy. When asked which of his nine victories he rates highest, it turns out that Kristensen has a hard time choosing, likening it to choosing between your children.
“I don’t know how many children you have, but personally, we have three. And you know, it’s tough when they are sitting at the table and they are saying ‘which one do you prefer?’ The Le Mans races are so much bigger than other races, because in a way they take a year to get to, you have three drivers, the team knows it’s make or break for that year. If you win, it’s really, really important.”
“It’s very difficult, but without the first one, with the Porsche, with the private team Joest, with Michele [Alboreto] and Johansson and the way Michele treated me into the team, without that guidance, guiding me… That victory is very special.”
“2008, you can jump into what you, or many of your colleagues, have described as ‘best Le Mans ever’. When Allan, Dindo and myself overcame Peugeot when they were the clear favorites. They had killed our real pace at Sebring, we lost to them at Sebring but everyone simply stepped up.
“Not in terms of speed, but in terms of we never had to lose any speed, we kept the speed, we knew that there would be a bit of rain and then there came a little bit more rain.
“And that was what we could see as hope, because in the rain we were a little bit faster than them and then the rain swung forwards and backwards. So 2008 is from the outside, many people looking at that.”
“And the last one, 2013, was the year when I lost my dad and very early in the race, we lost a young, charging Dane, Allan Simonsen in the Aston Martin crash. So that was mentally a very, very tough year. But winning that, and winning the world championship there, that year was of course also fantastic.”
Aside from those three victories, Kristensen also points to two of his wins that tend to be overlooked: 2004 with Team Goh and 2005 with Champion Racing.
“Because some of the Audi’s, even with the R8, which I won with the works team, three times with Biela and Pirro, but then I was two times with private teams when there was also a lot of Audis there and that was Team Goh and Champion [Racing].”
“And the one there, with Goh, is also many people saying that that must be the best victory because we were one lap down after a very short time, with Dindo having issues with the brakes. But then the way we fought back, and the way we won that year, I think that is described by Gary [Watkins], as probably one of the peaks there.”
It’s clear that Kristensen has a difficult time picking between his many Le Mans triumphs. But with eighteen starts under his belt, there were also bound to be some setbacks. In 1998 and 1999, he joined BMW’s ambitious prototype program, resulting in two DNFs.
In 2007, a seemingly secure victory went up in smoke when Capello crashed at Indianapolis when a wheel parted company with the car and in 2010, Kristensen himself saw a win fall away when he crashed to avoid a slow BMW. His second Audi retirement, in 2011, occurred before he even had the chance to drive.
But while picking a standout win proves difficult, Kristensen is unequivocal about his biggest defeat: 1999, when a four-lap lead for the Dane, JJ Lehto and Jörg Muller ended in tears when a stuck throttle sent Lehto into a violent crash at the Porsche curves.
“The one which hurts the most is with BMW, the biggest lead we ever had was in 1999 with BMW, that sound machine was fantastic, and that is also described in the book, this is the biggest and hardest setback or disappointment I had in my entire career, that was 1999. When I wanted to prove that you don’t win Le Mans just by being there the first time by luck, even though that I had a new lap record.”
Kristensen does not shy away from describing loss, tragedy and defeat in the book, both on and off the track. He goes in depth on the loss of his parents, as well as the highly emotional 2013 edition of the race, which would produce his ninth and final win but also saw the death of compatriot Allan Simonsen.
One particular example comes when talking about the tragic death of Michele Alboreto. Alboreto had partnered with the Dane for his first Le Mans win and the pair were still team-mates at Audi when the Italian tragically lost his life in a testing crash at the Lausitzring in April of 2001. Kristensen clearly still holds Alboreto in extremely high regard, because when he is asked which of his team-mates he rates highest, he is quick to point to his 1997 co-driver.
“If I have to say one person, it was Michele Alboreto,” Kristensen explains. “Because the way he took me on board, he could have easily walked around, see what I did, explain what I should do and kind of be nervous, to have a rather young… In a way, I was not young, it was 29, 30 years old, but I was signed just four days before that event in 1997. Of course I had experience, but I had not the preparation to go into Le Mans.
“But he was there, always calm, and he said ‘hey, I am really happy that you are joining us, Tom. We need exactly a guy like you.’ And I go a little bit ‘oh oh, is it the Candid Camera?’ I mean, when you get a driver in that late, you know. But the way he matured me into it, by giving me confidence.”
“And then I asked him, can we go around the track? And we took a scooter because there was no data. I didn’t even have telemetry from the car. And we were going around the track, and I was asking the questions. It was not him telling me ‘make sure you go second here, make sure you take this line’ No, he gave me a lot of faith in the way that he was as a person.”
“And he was a fantastic gentleman, a really great Italian and in a car, he was top notch, I tell you. I know how badly he wanted to win that and he even mentioned something like yeah, with Ferrari he only came second and he kept going in Formula One, as you know with teams which were not capable of going to the front.”
“So he was a true racer, and that victory with Stefan Johansson and with myself is something which… I would put him on top, because it was a kind of father figure. But in a good way. Not a father who tells you what to do, but a father who supports you and he was that for many, not only myself. If you ask Dindo Capello, his favorite driver, it’s certainly not me. It will also be Michele.”
Outside of his prototype career, Kristensen’s time at Audi also saw him spend six full seasons racing in DTM. While he took to tin-top racing well, a title always eluded him, coming closest in 2006. It was during the opening round of the following season in 2007 where he was involved in a crash that very easily could have ended his racing career.
While racing at Hockenheim, he was pushed onto the kerb by team-mate Martin Tomcyzk and in an attempt to avoid the barriers, spun back across the track in a cloud of smoke, right in front of the charging pack. What followed was a monster shunt involving Alexandre Premat and Susie Wolff that annihilated his Audi A4 DTM, forced the race to be stopped and rendered Kristensen unconscious. He ultimately recovered and went on to race for another seven years, but it could have ended very differently.
When asked if it was a difficult process to relive such a violent crash for the book, he quickly points out that he does not remember much from it.
“No, because actually, I passed out. So I have seen it, I have seen it on tv, I have no problem actually watching it and no problems kind of analyzing it, that it’s pretty damn unfortunate to park in front of a field of DTM drivers at the very first round of a year, because they are all not lifting at all. And they go into the smoke… and yes, I passed out. I remember vaguely that I was hit by the A-pillar by Alex Premat, and later by Susie [Wolff] and I was gone.”
“So I’m very fortunate, I’m lucky. It’s described in the book that I had this moment with my team-mate, but at least the decision of me trying to keep the car out of the armco barrier when I realized the car was going that way, that’s maybe something I would reconsider because that created that smoke screen, which eventually contributed to me being hit by, I think it was 196 kilometres an hour or something like that. At least the car took 63gs. This is very much a number I am aware of is not healthy.”
Kristensen missed the next three rounds of the series, but returned later that year and would race there until 2009, with one more one-off appearance in 2010.
All in all, Kristensen’s book provides a fascinating glimpse into the career of Le Mans’s all time greats, including his time in Japan where an oft-forgotten chapter saw him share a Toyota TS010 Group C car in a round of the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship with future F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve and Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine.
It also shines a light on some of the things that one normally would not think of when it comes to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For example, Kristensen describes multiple instances of what can be described as ‘Le Mans superstition’.
The most notable example is when Kazumichi Goh, owner of Team Goh, shows the poster for the 2004 edition of the race with their car front and center, only for Kristensen and Capello to point out that ‘the winning car never features on the poster’.
“Yeah, I think it is,” Kristensen replies when I ask him if Le Mans superstition is really that much of a thing “Maybe I am, let’s say extreme, but you manage to get the others on the team and we were sitting there, Dindo and me, going ‘oh oh…’ Then I think there was another gentleman in that room at that time who was more superstitious than us, because as far as I know, he lost 100.000 euros by giving the space to another car on the poster.”
“So generally, it is. I mean, in Japan at one stage I got into a little bit of a rhythm and then I realized that I had used the same Nomex underwear for the race. And I did that obviously a couple of times until, of course, it burst and I had a terrible weekend. You have these moments. I never jump into a car, when I was in formula, I always jump in right side even though it makes sense with the gear lever that you jump in from the left but that was always the case.
“And at Le Mans, many times you could say, it was also, my first year, I jumped in from the right. But with Audi, with BMW as well, but then with Audi, the steering wheel was on the left and that caused me ‘how can I jump in from the right?’ Of course, it’s not possible. And I always go into a racecar, which I still do, fully equipped. So I don’t go into a car, sit there nicely, and put on my gloves in the car. If I take my helmet off and my gloves off, if there is a red flag or you wait on the grid, I go out, take it all on, and then jump back in.”
One could state that it is these little things that helped to build the mythos of the greatest driver in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After all, there is only one Mr. Le Mans…
MR LE MANS TOM KRISTENSEN By Tom Kristensen with Dan Philipsen is published by Evro and out now in hardback, priced £40 www.evropublishing.com