With nine victories at the Circuit de la Sarthe, Tom Kristensen is undoubtedly one of the biggest names in motorsport history, let alone that of endurance racing.
The Great Dane has had a long and varied career which has seen him compete in various racing series.
Born on the 7th of July 1967, Tom Kristensen grew up in Hobro, Denmark, a small market and railway town, which today has a population of just under 12,000 people.
Naturally, Kristensen started out in karting, winning various titles before moving onto single seaters.
In 1991, he won the German Formula Three Championship before replicating this success in the All-Japan Formula Three Championship two years later in 1993, in addition to finishing as runner-up in the 1993 Macau Grand Prix behind Jӧrg Müller.
Kristensen also spent three years racing alongside the likes of Anthony Reid, Mika Salo and Keiichi Tsuchiya in the Japanese Touring Car Championship between 1992 and 1994.
1994 was the Dane’s most successful campaign, claiming five wins driving a Toyota Corolla T190 en route to second place in the standings; finishing just a single point shy of Drivers’ Champion Masanori Sekiya’s factory Toyota.
Kristensen returned his focus to single seaters in the Japanese Formula 3000 and Formula Nippon championships respectively, before joining the International Formula 3000 Championship in 1996.
The Dane spent two years racing against future Champ Car champions Juan Pablo Montoya and Cristiano da Matta, and despite his consistent performances, he only achieved one victory at Silverstone in 1997.
The same year, Kristensen made his debut in the race he is synonymous with; Le Mans.
With Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson as team-mates aboard a TWR Porsche WSC-95, the trio completed 361 laps and won the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans for Joest Racing.
At the end of the season, Kristensen tested for Minardi and Tyrrell – the latter of which had been bought by Craig Pollock ahead of the BAR takeover for the 1999 season.
Although he was offered a seat at Tyrrell to replace Ricardo Rossett midway through the 1998 season, Kristensen was unable to secure a driver due to a lack of sponsorship funds and instead settled for a role as Test Driver for the team’s swansong season.
Nevertheless, he continued to endeavour in endurance racing and signed for BMW’s Le Mans team, winning the 1999 12 Hours of Sebring – the first of six overall triumphs there – but also experienced why Le Mans is such a challenge, after team-mate JJ Lehto crashed out at the Porsche Curves due to a jammed throttle pedal, surrendering a four-lap lead in the process.
Kristensen also helped BMW test their Formula One car ahead of their return as an engine supplier for Williams in 2000.
However, in a 2010 interview with Motorsport Magazine, Kristensen would concede that his mind was focused elsewhere:
“I still had my heart set on Formula 1. I tested for BAR and Minardi – they offered me half a season if I could come up with some money, which I couldn’t, and so for 1998 I signed with BMW, who were developing their new Le Mans car with Williams.”
“I had a good relationship with Williams and got on very well with Patrick Head. I had hoped it might lead to something, and I tested the F1 car. But they had [Alessandro] Zanardi, Ralf Schumacher, suddenly there was [Juan Pablo] Montoya, [Jenson] Button, [Bruno] Junqueria, Jӧrg Müller, so it didn’t work out.”
At the turn of the new millennium, Kristensen joined Audi Sport in what was to prove to be a memorable partnership, winning both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 12 Hours of Sebring with the Audi R8 Race Car.
In fact, Kristensen would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans six years straight between 2000 and 2005. This included the 2003 victory with the Bentley Speed 8 – a car which shared many components with that of the Audi R8.
Speaking ahead of the 2012 race, ‘Mr Le Mans’ as he referred to, discussed the aura which surrounds the legendary race:
“It’s a great challenge. Every race at Le Mans is the hardest and greatest challenge and the new technology is motivating everyone. For us drivers it’s a different sensation, different feedback trying to optimise what we have between our hands.”
Outside of endurance racing, Kristensen also returned to Touring Cars, first competing for West Surrey Racing in a Honda Accord during the 2000 British Touring Car Championship.
The Great Dane’s three race wins saw him finish seventh in the Drivers’ Championship, and only six points behind team-mate Gabriele Tarquini.
Kristensen also recorded four wins in DTM for the Audi ABT Sportline across seven seasons, with two third place finishes in the 2005 and 2006 campaigns being the best he could manage.
Two more successes at Le Mans followed in 2008 and 2013 with the Audi R10 TDI and Audi R18 e-tron quattro respectively.
Sadly, the latter was overshadowed by the crash which claimed the life of Kristensen’s fellow countryman, Allan Simonsen.
After what would be his final victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe, an emotional Kristensen dedicated the win to Simonsen, as well as his late father, Carl Erik Kristensen:
“I went into this race wanting to race for my Dad, because he passed away earlier this year.”
“But if I just imagined myself sitting down, and having a little Danish beer with Allan and my Dad, then we would both agree to try and win this race with Audi for Allan.”
“This is what we did, so…you don’t call that a happy ending.”
Kristensen went on to win the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship that year alongside Allan McNish and Loïc Duval, before retiring at the end of the 2014 season.
He ended his illustrious career on the podium, finishing third in his final race at the 6 Hours of São Paulo.