Tom Kristensen’s retirement at the end of this season will close the career of one the greatest sports car drivers in history.
Initially, open-wheel racing was his forte, as he succeeded Michael Schumacher as German Formula 3 champion in 1991, and two years later nailed the All-Japan F3 title. However, the fact that Kristensen was at the same level for three seasons is significant: like many talented single-seater racers of the time, he was always struggling for a budget.
Similarly blessed/cursed drivers like Alain Menu and Rickard Rydell had taken the touring car option, but TK opted to stick it out a bit longer in open-wheel cars. In 1994, he graduated to Formula Nippon in Japan, and the following season, finished third in the championship. He was thus well prepared for his return to Europe for Formula 3000 in 1996, and over the following two years clocked a win and several podiums.
But it was during that second year that he made the biggest impression, and it wasn’t in a single-seater. It was driving a sports car in Europe’s most famous race…
BELOW: Winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans as a rookie in the Joest-run TWR Porsche WSC 95 he shared with veterans Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson.
BELOW: Two Le Mans campaigns with BMW in 1998 and ’99 promised much but delivered nothing. The cars were withdrawn in the first of these two years after a wheelbearing problem, but defeat in the ’99 race is one that Kristensen describes as “my biggest disappointment at Le Mans.” The Schnitzer BMW V12 LMR had won the 12 Hours of Sebring with TK, Jorg Muller and JJ Lehto sharing driving duties and it was leading Le Mans by almost four laps when the throttle stuck open at the Porsche Curves with Lehto at the wheel, and crashed out.
BELOW: Kristensen visited the CART paddock at Mid-Ohio in ’99, watching fellow Dane Jan Magnussen who was driving for Patrick Racing in the second half of that season.
(ABOVE) The Audi R8 in which Kristensen, along with Frank Biela and Emanuele Pirro, conquered both Le Mans and Sebring in 2000.
(BELOW) Displaying his versatility, TK also campaigned a Honda Accord in the British Touring Car Championship in 2000. By the end of the season he had three wins (BOTTOM) and four other podiums to his name, ending the year seventh in the BTCC points standings. Here he’s flanked by Anthony Reid and Jason Plato.
(ABOVE) North American sports car fans were able to see Tom in action several times a year at the start of this millennium, with Audi Sport ermbarking on an American Le Mans Series campaign. This is TK in action at Mosport in 2001 in Audi Sport North America colors, while (BELOW) in 2002 at Sonoma he’s seen in the Champion team car.
(BELOW) At the end of 2002, Dr. Don Panoz presented Kristensen and Dindo Capello with the American Le Mans Series championship title.
(ABOVE) The Volkswagen Group had no works Audis entered in the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hours, but it did have a pair of Bentleys, the EXP Speed 8 having come of age in its third year. They finished 1-2, with Kristensen in the lead car along with Capello and Guy Smith.
(BELOW) Kristensen started racing in DTM in 2004, driving an Abt Sportsline Audi A4. By mid-season he was a race winner…not long after he’d matched Jacky Ickx’s Le Mans record with his sixth victory (BOTTOM), this time driving a Team Goh Audi R8.
America’s ADT Champion squad ensured the by-now legendary R8 got a fitting send-off in 2005, with Kristensen, Lehto and Marco Werner clinching victory in both Sebring and Le Mans (ABOVE).
(BELOW) Third in the DTM championship in the Audi A4 in 2005. But if DTM wasn’t enough to demonstrate his versatility, Kristensen has long been one of the true aces at the Race of Champions (BOTTOM) each year. He’s finished runner-up three times and in ’05, he and Mattias Ekstrom took home the Nations Cup for Scandinavia.
(ABOVE) One hell of a race debut for the new R10 TDI (BELOW)! Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello didn’t conquer Le Mans in ’06, but 12 Hours around Sebring is no less grueling.
(BELOW) Top Audi driver in DTM in 2006, Tom [on right] was beaten only by Mercedes-Benz pilots Bernd Schneider and Bruno Spengler.
A monster shunt in DTM was the worst part of a relatively quiet year results-wise for Kristensen in 2007, but the Le Mans defeat – when his car lost a wheel while four laps in front – was the biggest disappointment. Yet TK, Capello and McNish were back to win the event in 2008 (ABOVE), and this same trio scored the new R15 TDI’s first victory on its debut at Sebring the following year (BELOW).
(BELOW) Tom’s sixth and final win in the Sebring 12 Hours in 2012 was also the new R18 TDI’s debut…
(ABOVE) The subdued atmosphere on the Le Mans podium in 2013 despite his amazing ninth victory was because Tom’s Danish compatriot Allan Simonsen had been killed in a big shunt in an Aston Martin at the start of the race. Co-drivers McNish and Loic Duval are similarly downcast, while Dr Wolfgang Ullrich’s face reflects the combination of pride/relief and the sorrow/compassion of a naturally empathetic character.
(BELOW) The FIA World Endurance Championship – here pictured on their way to second at Fuji – was something McNish and Kristensen were almost desperate for in 2013, Allan because he was retiring at season’s end, Tom because he wanted to be able to add the title “World Champion” to his list of achievements. They and young partner Duval succeeded in their quest, and headed for the FIA’s annual prize-giving ceremony in December (BOTTOM).
Whether he’s muscling a Ford Galaxie 500 (ABOVE) or curving neater lines in Jaguar E-type Lightweight (BELOW), Kristensen has become a very popular attendee of the Goodwood Revival. But he will always be most famous for matching and then surpassing the Le Mans record of the great Jacky Ickx (BOTTOM).
So from RACER, happy retirement to the great Dane, Tom Kristensen, a proper modern legend of auto racing. We’ll try to remain unbiased but secretly we want him to win one of his final two races…