Tom Kristensen – winner of the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans a record eight times, a winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring six times, and currently competing with Audi Sport in the World Endurance Championship – speaks with crankandpiston about his early career, his brief tenure with Formula One, the joy of racing at Le Mans, and the enormous crash in 2007 that gave him a splitting headache!
It’s not often you get to speak with a motorsport legend, and Tom Kristensen is most definitely one of them. Easily the most successful Danish racing driver in history, Kristensen has won more times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans than anybody, leapfrogging a record held by Jacky Ickx seldom thought would ever be broken.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, he has also won the prestigious 12 Hours of Sebring six times, won in every discipline he has ever raced in, and even succeeded a certain Michael Schumacher as Formula Three Champion. But for financial issues, he could have joined Eddie Jordan’s Formula One team in 1993 and gone on to become Denmark’s first Grand Prix winner.
Oh, and as crankandpiston finds out during our chat with the great Dane, he’s also a big fan of a good cup of coffee.
Tom, we’re very keen to hear about your Le Mans exploits, but let’s start at the beginning. How did your motorsport career begin?
“I’m home born, on a Shell gas station, so I was born with petrol in my blood! My dad was a racing driver too in touring cars, rally-cross, and he did the Paris-Dakar later on. So you could say that very early on I got the flair for motorsport. I started in go-karting when I was eight/nine years old. I used to drive around the gas station, and then some of the guys who worked there started taking me to different go-kart tracks. That’s how it all evolved.
“My go-kart career was long and successful, especially with the Italian CRG campaign. Plus there was a local dealer in Denmark who supported me, so I did a lot of travelling around at a young age.”
But like so many of motorsports greats, you soon moved into Formula Three…
“Yes. My big breakthrough came in 1991 when I won a seat just before the season started in German Formula 3. That was with Bertram Schäfer [who had noticed Tom’s potential during a three-race Formula 3 outing for Vienna Racing two years earlier], and this team was the official VW Motorsport outfit. I won the first race with him [at Zolder], and I went on to win the championship that same year.
Which made you the successor to seven-time Formula One Champion Michael Schumacher I believe, who had won the Formula Three Championship the year before. Not a bad feather in your cap…
“Those were some really competitive years in Germany. The year before I won, Schumacher won the championship. Before that was Karl Wendlinger [F1, 1991-95] and Joachim Winkelhock [former 24 Hours of Nurburgring winner and 1993 British Touring Car Champion], and in the years after there was Jos Verstappen, [F1, ‘94-98, ‘00-01, ‘03], Pedro Lamy [F1, ’93-96 and Le Mans 24 Hours class winner], and a really good breed of drivers. It was a great championship!”
You’ve developed a habit of winning first time out. You won your first German F3 race in 1991 and then Championship in the same year. You won the Le Mans 24 Hours at your first attempt in 1997, and the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1999. Didn’t you also win the Japanese Formula 3 Championship during your first year?
“Not quite. I moved to Japanese F3 in 1992 and won some races, and then won the championship the year after that. What I enjoyed most at that time was trying to be versatile, trying to drive different things, and explore the motorsport world.”
And of course get a seat in Formula One. You couldn’t quite get the money together for a seat at Jordan in 1993, but you did quite a lot testing with some of the sport’s most famous teams during the late 1990s and early-2000s including Minardi, Tyrrell, BMW-Williams…
“And Jaguar can be added to that. That was under the Michelin banner, and Jaguar was my last stint with the Michelin test in 2000. I’ve always been very loyal. I appreciated that when you are fighting for a seat for so many years, between my karting days and getting into German F3…in those years, I always felt I had to be loyal to the team who gave me the chance. In Denmark, I had never had any commercial backing, except for maybe my hotel costs or for maybe my travel a few times. But apart from that during my early career, I invested everything I had trying to be able to break into the sport.
A seat never arose though, even though you came close with Minardi in 1998 [the seat eventually going to perennial backmarker Ricardo Rosset].
“I had a chance with Minardi, yes, but by that point I had already signed contracts to run with BMW at Le Mans and Honda in the British Touring Car Championship. These contracts were signed when I got the offer from Minardi. Some journalists feel I should have accepted back then! Later there was no contract with Tyrrell…a season didn’t materialise. The last one when I did the Michelin testing was rejected by Dr Wolfgang Ullrich because I was already in with Audi.
“For me though, from that point, there is absolutely no regrets. My position with Audi has the most relevance to what the company will do in the future, and now I think with what we do now – we have the FIA World Endurance Championship, we have the Le Mans 24 Hours – and there’s the relevance with what’s going on in Audi’s sportscar division too. Now we’re heading into a great future. So I’m definitely in the right place. I made the right choice.”