Tom Kristensen’s record-breaking ninth time standing on the top step of the podium at Le Mans was the result of lengthened consistency, but it represented a deeper and more personal journey for the Dane.

In 2013, Audi marked their 12th overall victory at the decorated 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in their Audi R18 e-tron quattro.

It was far from their last effort in prototype endurance racing, although it was for Tom ‘Mr. Le Mans’ Kristensen, who had been with the German manufacturer since their first Grand Prix D’Endurance in 2000.

The third round of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) took place just over 10 years ago on 27-28 June, marking Audi’s 100th Le Mans Prototype (LMP) victory. Alongside teammates Alan McNish and Loïc Duval, the trio won the LMP1 Drivers’ Championship by the end of the season.

Kristensen has a respectable and extensive motorsport career to his name with a particular dominance in the sportscar racing discipline as Audi proved the world about what their TDI developments could ultimately achieve in the petroleum-dominated field.

His ninth win at the 81st edition arrived during two significant events which caused him to reflect and push on: the deaths of his father and Danish touring car champion Carl Erik Kristensen and fellow compatriot and competitor Allan Simonsen during the 2013 Le Mans race.

LUCAS DI GRASSI, TOM KRISTENSEN, ALLAN MCNISH, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 e-tron quattro 13-16.03.2013. ALMS, Rd1, Twelve Hours of Sebring, Sebring, Florida, USA. – Image Credit : Copyright Bijlsma / XPB Images

His father’s death and the 12 Hours of Sebring

As revealed in his ‘Mr Le Mans’ autobiography (edited by Danish journalist Dan Philipsen), it was an emotional period of loss as his mother passed away in 2011 and before that, his cousin to cancer.

Following a ceremony at the Royal Opera House in London, Kristensen was welcomed into the coveted ‘Motor Sport Hall of Fame’ which was admitted for those greats who had asserted dominance and talent during their stint in motorsport; some of the names included the late Ayrton Senna and Sir Sterling Moss, in addition to Sir Jackie Stewart and Germany’s Michael Schumacher and many more.

Given his relationship with McNish and Dindo Capello as a trio since 2006, Kristensen noted a slight discomfort as those two dearest friends were not to enter the ‘Hall of Fame’ with him.

Kristensen, nevertheless, recalled his father’s pride upon seeing the round trophy from the occasion: “You deserve it, kid.”

Carl Erik had come to terms with dying amidst chemotherapy treatment, as Kristensen said in his book, but always enjoyed his son’s explanations about the Audi LMP1 and its relatively new e-tron hybrid machinery.

After passing on 8 March 2013, Kristensen senior’s funeral was attended by many friends who offered their condolences and honourably remembered the 70-year-old.

The 12 Hours of Sebring, then the opening round of the American Le Mans Series final season, on 16 March was the younger Kristensen’s first major racing commitment after the funeral. The Dane headed to the USA after a day of reflection on his beloved father’s departure.

McNish qualified their #2 Audi R18 e-tron quattro in second, with a time of 1:43.895 around the bumpy, demanding venue. 

In the race itself, Audi finished 1-2, Kristensen in the latter place with McNish and then-new Audi driver Lucas Di Grassi, after Capello’s retirement. It marked Kristensen’s 11th podium appearance since debuting and winning the challenge in BMW’s V12 LMR at the 1999 edition.

“Aside from our second place, I’m taking a lot of memories home with me from all the years and the fastest race lap on today’s farewell. It’s for a man who has given me the passion for motorsport.”

Kristensen after the 12 Hours of Sebring

The Le Mans dedication and hearing the news of Simonsen’s death

For Kristensen, three months after his father’s departure, the advance towards Le Mans brought a feeling of sadness and difficulty as this time around on his 17th attempt, ‘Dad’ was not there with him.

Courageously, Kristensen discounted the thoughts so as to not cause distraction during his commitments throughout the event.

For the #2 car that season, Capello was replaced by former (and current, as of 2023) Peugeot driver, 31-year old Loïc Duval.

At first, Dr. Ullrich’s (then Audi’s Director of Motorsport) choice for a new driver in a well-established line-up seemed to add an element of unknown.

McNish and Kristensen had more established careers as veterans, but Duval brought a spirit of enthusiasm and talent who wished to claim his maiden Le Mans win.

During the Test Day on 9 June, two weeks prior to the race, an unknown object hit the windscreen of the #2 Audi R18 e-tron Quattro with Duval behind the wheel. The Frenchman lost control in wet conditions, causing heavy damage to the car at Tertre Rouge, the corner leading onto the Mulsanne Straight.

It was an uneasy beginning for the mechanics as they were not able to utilise all-eight hours of the track time, albeit on a rain-stricken day.

“We’re going to win this year, Dad, I promise you.”

Mr. Le Mans, T. Kristensen and D. Philipsen

After smooth running during free practice, Duval hustled his way to pole position out from the first of three qualifying sessions, setting a best lap of 3:22.349; the sibling #1 and #3 Audi’s started behind.

The opening race stint in the #2 was strong as Duval held the lead with the challenge of light-rain solely in the first sector.

After eight minutes and three laps, the #95 Aston Martin GTE-Am car, driven by an all-Danish driver line-up, crashed at Tertre Rouge, going into the armco barrier. The driver behind the wheel was Allan Simonsen.

Radio silence for three hours made Kristensen anxious and worried, sending texts to both Simonsen and Jac Nellemann, the latter a former racing driver behind the running of the #95 effort. 

Half an hour before his first stint in the car, during his preparations with an exercise bike, he was told of Simonsen’s death.

Kristensen was impacted by the news, feeling most for Simonsen’s girlfriend Carina and young daughter. As a race driver, he analysed and attempted to think about the cause of the accident.

At the same time, imagining his late father and Simonsen sitting by him as he was on his exercise bike, he controlled his thoughts and had an imaginary conversation with them in which he discussed what he should do. ‘Dad’ told him to go and drive for him, and that Simonsen also encouraged him to win.

It was a sad atmosphere once the news had been known across the paddock, yet Kristensen just had his motive strengthened considerably by the grief of two close losses.

A sentimental ninth Le Mans victory

Regarding the race itself, the rain had continued as local showers meant puddles of standing water were littered all over. There was a contrast between the dry patches, and the darker, wet patches on the circuit.

The ideal tyre was a strategic choice made on the terms of safety, competitiveness, and lap times. Across the field, the challenging conditions pushed drivers resulting in mistakes and spins.

Kristensen did his utmost to analyse what was an unpredictable situation. Excluding a puncture, the trio ran a near-perfect race to take Kristensen’s ninth, and final Le Mans win, McNish’s third, and Duval’s first.

Previous memories of losing the lead plagued Kristensen’s memories, but he would not let them surface, as his refined focus and abilities brought the car to victory at the chequered flag.

For Audi and their rivals, it was a battle between several technical concepts, plus many Equivalence of Technology adjustments. These affected engine power, fuel tank capacity and duration of the pit stops, to bring their main competitors Toyota into more of a fighting chance, compared to the previous year’s race.

“These decisions by the endurance racing commission came as a surprise to us,” said Chris Reinke, who was Head of LMP at Audi Sport. 

“The restrictions imposed on Audi’s TDI power-plant were tough. 

Audi R18 e-tron quattro #1 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Marcel Fässler/André Lotterer/Benoît Tréluyer; Audi R18 e-tron quattro #2 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Loïc Duval/Tom Kristensen/Allan McNish; Audi R18 e-tron quattro #3 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Marc Gené/Lucas di Grassi/Oliver Jarvis – Image Credit: Copyright Ferdi Kräling Motorsport-Bild GmbH

“Factually, they led to the reversal of an experience everyday drivers are familiar with, as the range of our TDI race cars was suddenly lower than those of our opponents using gasoline engines.“

The winning Audi pitted 34 times as the second-placed #8 Toyota TS040 did 30 refuelling stops.

Besides this, Kristensen had got his ninth win as the motorsport community mourned Simonsen’s death and the Danish flag was set at half-mast on the podium.

Kristensen said after the race: “For me, Le Mans was filled with very personal emotions this time. I’m proud to drive for the world’s best team. 

“This applies to all team-mates, all employees in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm and for Audi Sport Team Joest. They make it possible for us to realise a dream. 

“Now this dream has come true again – winning the fastest and toughest race under the direction of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich. 

“Unfortunately, we lost someone yesterday (Allan Simonsen) who had the same dream. He was a very modest and nice person. 

“That’s why I’m experiencing highs and lows this time. With respect to my ninth victory: I’m driving with determination and the ambition my father inspired in me. He died in March.

“Before his death, he told me that I’d win Le Mans this year with my team-mates.

“I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to celebrate another victory with Loïc and Allan that I can dedicate to my father, because this Le Mans success I’m dedicating to Allan Simonsen.”

Audi R18 e-tron quattro #2 (Audi Sport Team Joest), Loïc Duval (F), Tom Kristensen (DK), Allan McNish (GB) – Image Credit: Copyright AUDI AG

Mental strength as a characteristic of greatness

There are various parameters in which a motorsport ‘great’ can be named by, including statistics and notable career achievements, as well as their personality.

Understandably, grief is difficult to speak of as only those in close partnership or relationship with the deceased are truly able to share how it feels and naturally, Kristensen’s ‘Mr. Le Mans’ book explores a plethora of career points with a personal insight.

Kristensen’s ninth Le Mans victory, and WEC championship later that year, closed off a highly commendable chapter in which he, a fit, hard-working athlete who showed unrivalled commitment to Audi, demonstrated consistency and ability during over a decade in the discipline.

As challenging it is to speak of grief, he undoubtedly — and internally — pushed on and processed his feelings into both motive and determination, to win one of the world’s most prestigious motor races ,as a proud Dane. 

Overcoming grief is an achievement of greatness within us all of us. He experienced it suddenly, like some of us have within our own lives, and channeled it towards a ninth time on the top podium spot at Le Mans.

His distinguished status not only derives from his impressive career statistics or his established partnership with Audi, but from showcasing great mental strength to overcome a shadow of profound grief which ultimately strummed the strings of his heart.

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