1997 Tom Kristensen made his debut at Le Mans in 1997, racing alongside Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson in the Joest TWR Porsche WSC-95, which had won the previous edition in 1996. Reinhold Joest had taken on the programme from Porsche when the rule changed in IMSA for 1995 during development of the WSC-95. Joest would therefore run the car against the factory entered Porsche 911 GT1 entrants at Le Mans for 1997. The factory Porsche team would dominate for most of the race, with the Joest entry running third for most of the race.
Unfortunately for the Porsche Factory team, the dynamic of the 1997 Le Mans changed. Firstly with Porsche’s lead car, driven by Bob Wollek, having a light accident, which removed the lead car from the race. The second factory entry, would hit problems too, on the famed Mulsanne straight. The car, driven by Ralph Kelleners at the time, developed an issue, and by the time, it made it to the end of the straight, flames began exiting the car, with Ralph Kelleners evacuating his car with haste, making a highly frustrating moment for both Ralph and Porsche, coming so close to victory. This left the WSC-95, with a one-lap advantage, over the Gulf Mclaren F1 GTR to come home for victory at Le Mans.
Following this initial victory, Tom Kristensen would spend the next two years, racing for BMW on the V12LM/LMR Le Mans project, unfortunately with little luck, a mechanical retirement ended the attempt in 1998, whilst in 1999 contact for JJ Letho due to a stuck throttle ended BMW’s attempts with Kristensen at Le Mans.
2000 Back with Joest racing, Who by now had started running the factory Audi Sport Programme. The new Audi R8 would dominate the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans from practice through the race. The race didn’t go off without issue but overall Audi had stamped it’s claim on Le Mans by dominating the race top three, with the lead car driven by Frank Biela, Tom Kristensen and Emanuele Pirro, in Audi’s second year at Le Mans, following the R8R/R8C project of 1999.
2001 Kristensen would stay with Biela and Pirro for 2001. The race was run in poor weather conditions, with heavy rain, causing issues for many entries. However despite a gearbox issue and tough opposition from Bentley at times during the race, the three would once again come home first.
2002 The world would once again, see Biela, Pirro and Kristensen unbeatable at Le Mans, taking on the challenging Courage entries, and Bentley as well as internal competition from within Audi Sport’s entries. The R8 continuing to show it’s incredible competitiveness, at the hands of the pilots.
2003 Audi decided not to enter the 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans, The manufacturer taking a hiatus from the event with Joest support being used on the Bentley Le Mans programme, which had run against Audi for the past two editions. Bentley would bring a two car effort, the first car driven by Rinaldo “Dindo” Capello, Tom Kristensen and Britain’s Guy Smith. With the sister Bentley, being piloted by Mark Blundell, Johnny Herbert and David Brabham. It would be a dominant race by Bentley from start to finish. Despite some opposition from privateer run Audi R8’s. Capello, Kristensen and Guy Smith would finish two laps ahead of the sister car.
2004 Le Mans would see no factory prototype representation for 2004, in the top class, following the Bentley victory and therefore completion of the programme. Four Audi R8’s would battle for the win, One entered by Japan Team Goh, Driven By Seiji Ara, Dindo Capello and Tom Kristensen. Two Audi Sport UK Team Veloqx entry, and the American Champion Racing entry. Veloqx #8 entry, driven by Allan Mcnish and the Champion Racing entry, driven by Lehto, would make contact, resulting in Mcnish being sidelined by doctors orders for the remainder of the race. Both entries would make it back into the race. The #2 entry finishing third, whilst the #8 would come back to finish Fifth. Meanwhile Team Goh would go on to claim victory.
2005 The 2005 race would see Henri Pescarolo challenge Audi with the Pescarolo C60 Hybrid entered by his eponymous team against the highly restricted aging Audi R8’s still running without factory backing. The race would begin with the Pescarolo’s leading the way, after dominating qualifying. Soheil Ayari in the lead Pescarolo had contact with a Panoz, damaging the Pescarolo challenge. Followed later in the race, by Le Mans rookie Sebastian Loeb making a slight mistake, before Ayari suffered a puncture leading to heavier contact into the wall at the first Mulsanne straight chicane, with the car self destructing on it’s way back to the pits, notably the rear wing becoming detached, leading to retirement.
The sister Pescarolo meanwhile would suffer from overheating issues, eventually making way back to second, behind the winning Champion Racing entered R8, driven By Kristensen, JJ Letho and Marco Werner. Marking a major milestone in Kristensen’s career, as he passed Jacky Ickx’s long standing record of Six Le Mans outright career victories.
In 2006, Audi made its return to Le Mans Prototype racing, as a factory team with the brand new Audi R10 TDI, Kristensen and Capello would be joined by Allan Mcnish. In 2007, the team had dominated most of the race, before an incident led to them been eliminated from the race.
2008 – So come 2008, the “Dream team” was back to attempt another win at Le Mans. Peugeot had become Audi’s main rival bringing a three car effort to counter, the equal Audi factory effort. In the Le Mans series races leading up to the Grand Prix Of Endurance. Peugeot had clearly been more competitive than Audi, if more vulnerable.
At the start of the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans, Peugeot started 1,2,3 and set off into the distance, gaping the Audi’s easily, however Audi had a strategy, to quadruple stint the drivers, something Peugeot could not match, pushing Peugeot to the limit, on reliability, though not outright pace.
The strategy worked successfully for Audi, with Peugeot bringing the lead car in for transmission issues, whilst the second Peugeot had issues with the functionality of it’s headlights, a requirement for Le Mans is that headlights work, even in daylight. This put Allan Mcnish into the lead, however the duel for the lead would continue.
Peugeot, had a weakness, in the wet weather conditions, which Audi took full advantage of. Tom Kristensen closing down Jacques Villeneuve, reducing the gap heavily, to Peugeot, with Audi eventually taking the lead. However Peugeot would fight back, coming back to the lead lap in drying conditions.
Then the crunch point. When rain began to fall with just one hour of the race to go. A strategy call had to be made, Stay on dry tyres, or change to intermediates. Audi made the call for Intermediates for the Kristensen/Mcnish/Capello entrant whilst Peugeot elected to stay on slicks. Peugeot effectively made the wrong choice and it cost them the victory. In my opinion, the 2008 race was the greatest race for Kristensen.
2013 The 2013 Le Mans 24, would mark the final win for Tom Kristensen and Allan Mcnish at Le Mans, Dindo Capello having retired following the 2012 race, the pair would be joined by Loic Duval for the 2013 World Endurance Championship season, a season that would ultimately result in the three being crowned World Champions, aboard the Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro.
The anniversary of Le Mans however would be an incredibly tough emotional race, following the early race crash that tragically cost the life of fellow compatriot, Allan Simonsen. The race however would become the 9th victory, coming home ahead of Toyota #8. The sister Toyota ending behind the third Audi entry, after a late race trip into the gravel, at the opening to the Porsche Curves.
Tom Kristensen, The most successful driver at Le Mans ever, with nine victories announced his retirement from racing on November 19th 2014, effective following the Six Hours of Sao Paulo, the final round of the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship, bringing to an end one of the most storied careers in sportscar racing and the wider world of motorsport. His final attempt in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, resulted in a second place finish.