Kristensen’s first 24 Heures du Mans finished victorious. A startling result considering that his appearance at the race had been confirmed less than one week ahead of the event. Before the 3pm Saturday start, he had completed a mere 17 laps of the 13.605km (now 13.629km) circuit, barely knew the TWR Porsche WSC-95 or his fellow drivers. Ominously, in the days leading up to the race, he drove his hire car into a gravel trap while familiarizing himself with the track.
Despite this lack of Le Mans experience, he took to the race immediately and unnervingly, breaking the course lap record and helping his one-car team win by an impressive 25-lap margin. A close duel with the works’ Porsche had characterized the first 20 hours of the race. Feeling at ease in his new surroundings and with his new teammates helped. “They never gave me any advice. They made it clear they respected me and gave me a lot of confidence, saying they had seen me do well in the Formula 3000 and during my career in Japan.”
The welcome from the team’s engineers was more scholarly. “After signing the contract to take part in the event, I sat in the monocoque they used in the pre-test. It was [co-driver] Michele’s [Alboreto] seat from last year. I sat inside and desperately trying to impress, I say the seat is really, really perfect, but feeling I should be professional, I give the feedback that maybe the brake pedal could be just a fraction closer. Jürgen Hördt, one of the leading mechanics, whispers to me ‘Der Schnellste bestimmt – the fastest will decide!’ It put the pretender in his place.”
Kristensen admits to finding his first race both exhausting and exhilarating. An emotional adrenalin rush marked the occasion, best conveyed in what the Dane describes as “some ridiculous live interviews, where I spoke ten times faster than normal!”
He is also quick to acknowledge the part played by that initial experience in future races: “To win in my first race and come out with a lap record has become the foundation for my time at Le Mans.”
Kristensen was to learn the harsher realities of Le Mans in 1998 and particularly in 1999, failing to finish the race on both occasions. “My biggest disappointment at Le Mans to date is 1999 when we were leading by almost four laps. We were going well, we had won in Sebring [at the 12-hour race in March], and then [co-driver] JJ Lehto broke down with less than four hours to go.”
Kristensen returned, refocused, for 2000. In late 1999, he had made a decision that would define his career. “I was invited to Dr [Wolfgang] Ullrich’s office [to meet with Audi] and we immediately had a good feeling, good eye contact and the chemistry was straight away there. I felt at home from day one. Teamwork is a process that never stops. You always have to work at it and optimize things, but joining in with some people I knew from 1997, combined with Audi’s hunger to go into sports car racing, which for them was completely new, was my best ever decision in motor sport.”
A choice immediately vindicated with victory in the 2000 race, marking the start of a period of domination for both the German manufacturer and the Danish driver.
“To win in my first race and come out with a lap record has become the foundation for my time at Le Mans.” Kristensen admits to finding the race exhausting and exhilarating. An emotional adrenalin rush marked the occasion, best conveyed in what the Dane describes as ‘some ridiculous live interviews, where I spoke ten times faster than normal!’
The 2001 Le Mans was both emotionally charged and physically draining. Kristensen lost his good friend and 1997 teammate Michele Alboreto in an accident six weeks before Le Mans. The race itself was gruelling. Six-time race winner Jacky Ickx commented he had never ever seen so much rain during a 24 Heures du Mans weekend.
“We were in monsoon conditions on rain tyres for 19 out of the 24 hours!” says Kristensen. “Mentally it was incredibly hard due to visibility, aquaplaning and the rain, which was horrendous. In terms of drivability, it was the most difficult race I have ever done at Le Mans, until 2013. It was localized rain, so you were never on the right tyres.
“The whole track was soaking. You had no friction coming out of the corners. In third or fourth gear, you were aquaplaning and then, if you went a little bit faster, you couldn’t see anything, sometimes a GT car was parked ahead. Following the safety car was like sitting in a bath tub – there was so much rain, it filled the monocoque!”
Victory was a true team affair. The critical decision to change a malfunctioning gearbox was made and then rapidly executed in a little over five minutes. It proved the difference between success and failure. “The whole team means a lot at Le Mans.”
Six years into his Le Mans career, Kristensen was on first-name terms with the twists and turns of the track. “For me, the hardest part is the combination of [turns] in the Porsche corner. We always say they are ‘real man’s corners’. They are blind, they are fast, they are undulating and they are narrow. Performance through the Porsche corner greatly determines the lap time.”
It was in the Porsche corner that the defining moment of the 2002 race occurred. Close to midnight, Kristensen suffered a front right tyre explosion. It risked compromising the entire race. Pieces of tyre went everywhere, shattering parts of the carbon fibre body. Travelling back to the pits on three wheels, he feared the worst. Once again, the pit crew worked their magic. The car was returned to the track in minutes and went on to win the race.
Only on the day after the race, when completing his traditional tour of the pit, did Kristensen realise the extent of the damage and the crucial decision his mechanics had made to keep his car in the race. “I view the right side of the car and close to one and a half metres was missing behind the front right wheel. I call for the engineer and asked: ‘How could you let us drive with that?’ He replied immediately: ‘It was not missing so much at midnight’.”
Kristensen, together with co-drivers Biela and Pirro, made history, becoming the first driver line-up to ever win the 24 Heures du Mans three times in a row.
The Audi factory team didn’t compete in the 2003 race and Kristensen joined the British contingent at Bentley. A new relationship was to start, the first of eight 24 Heures du Mans with Italian Rinaldo ‘Dindo’ Capello. “You need to have a very good working relationship with your fellow drivers. You are sharing a very fast race car and it’s a compromise from the pedals, from the steering to the seat, from the ergonomics to the set-up which has to keep in mind the circuit, the weather, the competition. The working relationship with your teammates, your engineers, your mechanics, has to be very open, very determined and motivating.”
The 2003 Le Mans proved one of Kristensen’s more straightforward races. An impressive, almost mind-blowing, lap in pre-test set the scene. The car spent a mere 28 minutes in the pits during the race. “That year the car gelled with me. I was really motivated and on top of my game.”
With Audi Sport Japan a year later, the 2004 race was a battle against adversity. Kristensen found himself a lap down early in the race. “Dindo went off, we had some problems with the brakes within the first hour on the Dunlop chicane. What I take from that year is that Le Mans is really a race where you never give up. With three hours gone, nobody was thinking it was finished. It is a long race, even when you know there’s [just] four hours to go, which is still two Formula 1® races, you know how much can happen there. You go in disciplined to never give up, wherever you are.
“Le Mans is never the same and you can’t transfer last year’s momentum to the next year. Expect the unexpected is the mantra. Be alert.” The team’s experience, combined with the rapid extinguishing of a pit lane fire, made the difference. The margin of victory was a mere 41 seconds. A fifth successive win ensued for Kristensen.
The year 2005 was always going to be a unique, pressured year, providing Kristensen with a first opportunity to better his childhood hero Ickx’s long-standing record of six 24 Heures du Mans victories. Despite “Le Mans being the race which motivates me the most”, Kristensen insists he has never put extra pressure on himself over breaking records. “When I’m in the environment, I don’t think about records. Of course, I am aware of it from the outside, as the press ask me more about that.”
Instead of concentrating on records, he focuses on transmitting positive energy to the team, ensuring his teammates share the moments in the limelight, such as starting or finishing the race. “When you are in the process of working with a team, it is very important to motivate other people.”
“2005 is the year that I remember Jacky Ickx calling me a few minutes before the end of the race and leaving a message on my answering machine which I heard only hours later, maybe a day later. He told me that he was sitting, opening a bottle of champagne and toasting me. He was one of my childhood heroes. To have him call me is the greatest respect I believe a driver can ever receive. I was in tears when I called him back.”
Kristensen’s winning streak at Le Mans ended in 2006. A year later, in 2007, defeat was even harder to swallow. “I would say the times we had the biggest lead at Le Mans were in 1999 and 2007, and neither of these races we won. I have a lot of respect for the race itself.”
In 2008, a resurgent Peugeot started as favourite for the crown. “We were underdogs, we could not win, they could only lose. It was the feeling everyone had before the race, we didn’t want to accept that and we knew we had to push the maximum from the beginning to the end.”
In the early dry conditions, the gap between Audi and Peugeot increasingly widened. The signs for Kristensen were not good. Then Mother Nature intervened. By nightfall and with the arrival of the rain, the playing field changed. Peugeot made mistakes; Audi constantly took calculated risks, especially in terms of tyres.
“For me, this is the best Le Mans, because we were really the underdogs. We could not have won this race under normal circumstances and I am sure Peugeot would accept that. That’s really when you think you are part of the best team in the world.” On crossing the line, Kristensen immediately radioed engineer Howden Haynes, thanking him for some inspired tyre choices. “That race, as a team, as mechanics, as drivers, as a whole group of people, and as Dindo remarked ‘we can say it was the year when the humans beat the machines’.”
The years 2009 to 2012 marked Kristensen’s longest 24 Heures du Mans drought. While Audi continued to dominate, misfortune characterized the Dane’s performances.
The 2013 race was to prove his most emotionally difficult. Having lost his mother in 2011 and his father earlier in 2013, “my biggest inspiration, critic, motivation ever since I was born at his gas station in Denmark”, the race itself was to reserve tragedy as well.
Kristensen’s fellow Dane, Allan Simonsen, a familiar and friendly face in the paddock, lost his life early in the race. Kristensen was warming up for his stint at the time. The shock was brutal, equalled only by the determination which followed “to focus and to do what I needed to do. It not only had to be won for my Dad, but it certainly had to be won for Allan. There was no way back.”
Persistent, local rain dominated the race. Toyota were strong and adept at playing the mighty underdog. “You lost a lot of temperature when you were on the wet parts and when you came back on the dry, you had cold tyres again. You needed to be aggressive and smooth on the wet and it was constantly a mental game throughout the whole race.
“On the podium, I had so many feelings. It was a waterfall of emotions from everywhere: sad, proud, relieved, thankful - there is a lot of things when you go into a race like that.”
On the year of his 18th event appearance – his fifth as a testimonee for Rolex, the Official Timepiece of the race since 2001 – Kristensen is aiming to seal a tenth victory. Despite his considerable success, he knows no driver can ever “conquer” the 24 Heures du Mans. His experiences at the race have taught him that nothing can be taken for granted. To succeed personally, a driver needs to give everything, during every minute of the race. To win the race, so much more needs to be right: from the car to the strategy, from the physical to the mental. The whole team needs to execute the race masterfully and collectively.