Mr Le Mans: meeting nine-time winner Tom Kristensen

The title of his new autobiography says it all: Mr Le Mans, Tom Kristensen. Except it doesn’t, because for all his record-breaking exploits at the Le Mans 24 Hours, a race that he won a remarkable nine times in 18 attempts, six of them consecutively, there has always been much more to the great Dane than the Big One in France. The best racing driver never to start a grand prix? Probably. But who cares if he never lined up in a Minardi, a Tyrrell or even a decent Williams? That was Formula 1’s loss. Instead, Kristensen chose his own path and built a wonderful career driving a selection of great racing cars in all sorts of fascinating corners of the world. And nearly every time he did so, he was blindingly fast.

The book, written in collaboration with sports journalist Dan Philipsen, was first published in Denmark in 2018 and has now been made available in English. To mark this publication, Autocar caught up with Kristensen to capture a snapshot of his remarkable career.

Turning Japanese

In the mid-1990s, Kristensen joined the throng of European talent heading east to seek their racing fortunes. For Eddie Irvine, Jacques Villeneuve, Mika Salo and many more, the Japanese scene was a catapult to success in F1 and beyond. Kristensen spent four years there, driving everything from Formula 3 and Formula 3000 single-seaters to Group A saloons and late-era Group C sports cars.

“I went to Japan as German F3 champion, so there was a lot of expectation, and it was tough,” says Kristensen. “I didn’t fly home to Europe between races, I stayed, and that meant I drove a lot of different cars. After a couple of weeks, my F3 team, Tom’s, suggested a drive in Group A touring cars, in a right-hand-drive R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R on Toyo tyres. You needed a staircase to get into that car: it was four-wheel drive and very heavy, a complete contrast to my small, light F3 car – and I loved it. It’s a cult car.

“I also did one race in the Tony Southgate-designed Toyota TS010 Group C car [at Mine, sharing with Irvine and Villeneuve]. That was the most aggressive car that I drove out there. It was very fast and incredibly stiff, with a lovely sounding F1-style 3.5-litre V10 engine.”

Plans to join Toyota at Le Mans were scuppered, delaying his debut at the race by four years. “It wasn’t an endurance car for 24 hours,” he says. “Everything was screaming to the extreme. I can see why they hit some issues at Le Mans.”

Do you remember the first time?

On his return to Europe, Kristensen shone in International F3000, before receiving a fateful call from Ralf Juttner at Joest Racing just a matter of days before the 1997 Le Mans 24 Hours. Joining Ferrari F1 veterans Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson, he put in a stunning performance to claim a debut victory. At Goodwood Speedweek last year, he was reunited with the Porsche-powered TWR WSC95 for the first time since.

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“The year I joined Audi was the same year I was in the BTCC, and I was just a third driver for Sebring and Le Mans. But having won both those races with Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro, I then joined Dindo, who was Allan’s team-mate in the US, and Allan joined Toyota in F1. So the link for the three of us was already there through Dindo.”

Going around the bend

An F3 champion in both Germany and Japan, conqueror of the terrific American Le Mans Series in 2001 and World Endurance Championship winner (in 2013, in partnership with McNish and Loïc Duval), Kristensen is a motorsport colossus. You only need to experience the reverence of a Goodwood crowd when he’s twirling a historic saloon or GT in his post-retirement glow to be reminded of that.

Final subject: we ask him to name his favourite corners. He has thought about this lots and reels off a list: “I’d go for combinations: the S-curves into Dunlop at Suzuka; the long, 180deg Carousel at Road America, where the faster you go, the more challenging you find the kink that follows it; the same at Eau Rouge and Raidillon at SpaFrancorchamps; the first part of Pouhon at Spa, too, where you can take it fast but still have to get through the second part; Paddock Hill Bend at Brands Hatch, which you treat like a couple of corners; the Roller Coaster into Hog Pen at Virginia International Speedway, which most haven’t heard of but, trust me, it’s great; Sebring Turns 3 to 5 – kind of slow, but you can really energise the car through there; the Porsche Curves down to Maison Blanche at Le Mans, of course; Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel at Silverstone; Jerez Turns 4 to 5; the triple-left at Oschersleben; and the final corner at Sugo, which is very long and uphill. I always struggled there against the Japanese drivers who carried less weight. Then there’s Oulton Park, with Druids and Cascades… There are karting circuits too, but that’s enough!”

No, honestly, Tom, it’s not. But if you want more, you should read his book. Mr Le Mans? That’s really only the half of it.