After more than three decades of success, including achieving a record nine victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen will be hanging up his helmet following today’s FIA WEC Six Hours of Sao Paulo.
For the 47-year-old Dane, it marks an end of an era, not only in his illustrious driving career, but also for the sports car racing world, which has seen “Mr. Le Mans” achieve legendary status as arguably one of the greatest drivers of this period.
“I never thought about stopping until a few months back,” Kristensen said Saturday during a roundtable interview at Interlagos. “It started during the long [summer] break because it was the longest break I think I had in racing, these three months which would never happen in any series in the future.
“I did a lot of things as well. Then, going to Japan and Shanghai, at this point on these travels, I started to think more about other things you can do in life. I’ve obviously felt very privileged and happy about what I’m doing. It made sense.”
Kristensen said he consulted with his son before going to longtime Audi Sport boss Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich for advice, where he initially discussed the idea of scaling back his driving commitments.
Ultimately, the conversations transitioned into him calling time on his career altogether, with Kristensen having made his final decision just over two weeks ago, prior to the Six Hours of Bahrain.
“For me, personally, when I took the decision, it was important that I didn’t go around with that knowledge that this would be my last race and everyone didn’t know,” he said. “It was important for me to let people know when I took the decision.
“It’s a perfect time for me to stop.”
Just as fellow former Audi teammates Dindo Capello and Allan McNish, Kristensen has gone out on the top of his career.
He heads into today’s season-ending race still as the reigning World Champion, having enjoyed a storybook 2013 season that included Kristensen’s record-extending ninth overall win at Le Mans.
Along with a record six wins at the Twelve Hours of Sebring, the 2002 American Le Mans Series championship and countless victories on all corners of the globe, Kristensen has remarkably won 33 percent of all major sports car races he had started.
“I think if you look back, in terms of prestige and winning, last year to win both Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship, to win that year and to drive car No. 1 this year, is probably my triumph of my career in that sense,” he said.
But if it wasn’t for a phone call from Joest Racing’s Ralf Juttner in 1997, just days before the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Kristensen admits that he may have never been in the position he is in today.
“It was a phone call,” he said. I had to be in Le Mans three days later. I did 17 laps before the start. But convincing me was very easy. [Ralf] asked me if I was interested and I said, ‘Yeah, there’s a chance!'”
In his Le Mans debut, Kristensen went on to claim victory alongside Stefan Johansson and Michele Alboreto in Joest’s TWR Porsche WSC-95, in what not only kickstarted his sports car career, but also ultimately helped him land his tenure with Audi.
“Without the phone call, I might not have been able to sit here today,” Kristensen said. “That’s for sure. But you have a lot of things in your career like that.”
Kristensen won in his debut with Audi Sport Team Joest in 2000, giving the German manufacturer its first-ever major sports car victory with top honors at Sebring before beginning a six-year win streak at Le Mans.
From the R8 to the R10 TDI, R15 and multiple generations of the R18, Kristensen saw his career blossom with Audi, having achieved success with numerous co-drivers through his 15 years of competition.
However, with a new generation of young guns having come in to replace the likes of Capello, Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner, Kristensen had been the lone remaining driver from Audi’s old guard following McNish’s retirement last year.
“Of course the people you’re sharing a car with, you get more intimate about many things,” Kristensen said. “What’s healthy about sports car racing is that you need to be open and have an open book, both on the good and the bad.
“For sure, it’s helped motivate me for a long career, to have the younger drivers coming in, as I remember Michele [Alboreto] and [Stefan] Johansson looked into my eyes when I came in 1997.
“I think the camaraderie we’ve had [today], even though they call me Uncle Tom, and there’s a few jokes and some kind of music I don’t really like as they do, we get on.”
Kristensen will share the No. 1 Audi R18 e-tron quattro with two of Audi’s most promising rising stars, Loic Duval and Lucas di Grassi, as the great Dane closes out his storied career as one of sports car racing’s greats.
While he’ll continue his relationship with Audi as brand ambassador, for many, the sport won’t be the same, although Kristensen has no regrets.
“I’m absolutely happy,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute since my dad gave me a go-kart on a summer evening when I was nine years old in Denmark until now.
“I would not change anything. Everything, whether it’s been good or bad, I’ve learned from it and it has made me into being at Audi for such a long time.”