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Q&A with Mr. Le Mans, Tom Kristensen

24 Hours of Le Mans' winningest driver reflects on Audi's 15-year domination of the iconic endurance race

Jun 16, 2015
Photographer: Audi

I was lucky enough to get a few minutes with Audi ambassador, Mr. Le Mans, Tom Kristensen. The recently retired racer has the record for most wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, nine, along with most consecutive wins, six.

When asked if he has second thoughts about retiring, Tom didn't hesitate. "Not at all. I made the right decision at the right time. I've definitely stopped. I'm ready for the next part of my life."

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Kristensen's string of successes on the Circuit de la Sarthe began with Joest Racing in 1997; he signed on late with the team and wasn't even at Le Mans for scrutineering. He went on to win that race in the team's Porsche WSC-95. When Joest partnered with Audi in 1998, he became a part of the biggest and probably fastest escalation of technology motorsports has ever seen. The first R8 racecar was revolutionary in its serviceability and reliability. Then the diesel advancement happened, which then jumped to hybrids. But as we watched from the sidelines, he experienced everything from the driver's seat.

"The first R8s were incredibly neutral and great cars to drive. Then the diesels were just so powerful. From the very first time I drove the car at the presentation, I knew it was something new. But those cars weren't so well balanced. It was get it turned, then put the power down."

He brought in the hybrid era, even though we are still seeing big advances. He says there are "so many more variables now. Adjusting the energy recovery, the differential, everything."

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Before hybrids, things were different. "The driver focused on driving. They used the radio, maybe adjusted brake bias."

Even with Audi's amazing record, it never relaxed. It always pushed the technology forward as fast or faster than anyone else. I asked if he ever had doubts, did he ever think an evolution would have been better than a revolution?

"I had never thought about retiring in my life. Then one day, I heard they were going to prep a 12-cylinder diesel engine for dyno testing to eventually be used in the car. I didn't believe it was the best idea." Obviously Kristensen's reservations were unfounded as the TDIs were a huge success.

When asked if he had an inside track on who the favorite was going into the 2015 race, Kristensen was conservative with his answer. "So much depends on the rain. Anyone in front has the potential to win." By "in front" we assume he means basically anyone but Nissan.

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So does he have a favorite amongst the three Audis? "We at Audi don't think in terms of individual cars. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses but it's all the team."

Kristensen's current role is head of driver fitness and brand ambassador. He says, "I no longer give interviews, I have conversations."

He still seems focused on goals as much as ever, but with a more relaxed demeanor. "I stood at pit exit as the cars were going out on track for the first time this year. I was excited but didn't have the adrenaline I had as a driver." Without even a hint of regret, "I now try to enjoy all the moments more."

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Michael Febbo
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