„Mr. Le Mans“ Tom Kristensen - a trip to the city of the legendary 24h-race

Leaving Le Mans, unexplored. Almost!

Tom Kristensen sat behind the wheel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans 18 times and won this most grueling of races nine times. But he has never found the time to visit the town on the River Sarthe. Until now.

  

The bridge over the road tunnel joins Rue des Chanoines with Grande Rue. What once deserved to be called “grand” is now almost too small for the new Audi R8, which at its widest point measures no fewer than 194 centimeters across its sills. Downhill lies the Sarthe River, up the town: From the road beneath the bridge, stairs lead up to the picturesque historic old town.
Le Mans - home to 144,000 inhabitants.

The little town of Le Mans in north-western France has a history reaching back to the Celts. It boasts ancient Gallo-Roman city walls and the magnificent, roughly 950-year-old cathedral of Saint-Julien du Mans. There’s also a local chicken breed much prized by gourmets for the quality of its meat. But really, say “Le Mans” and all anyone thinks of is a race held every June, which sees several dozen teams send cars tearing around the 13.6-kilometer Circuit des 24 Heures track. Aside from a handful of changes and years skipped, this has been going on since 1923.

The curb stones along the second chicane on the Mulsanne straight hint at the secret life of this otherwise ordinary country road—as part of the 24 Hours of Le Mans racetrack.
Tom Kristensen from Denmark made his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1997.

He returned every year after that to compete a total of 18 times. And each time he clocked up between 1,500 and 1,800 kilometers—always on the same track, always in a circuit and always pushing his and the car’s limits. Kristensen has mostly seen the town center from behind the wheel of a vintage race car when he, his teammates and rivals participated in the Drivers’ Parade staged to the delight of 200,000 motorsport fans on the Friday before the big event. “The Drivers’ Parade is a wonderful tradition but, as a competitor, you can’t afford to be distracted. You wave and see the throngs of people but your mind is already on the next day’s racing,” says Tom Kristensen and adds, “After the race, you’re totally finished. You spend an- other night and then head straight home.”

Now, Tom can finally enjoy Le Mans at his leisure.

It’s a sunny day after Easter and we’ve met the racing driver for his first ever tour of the town. We cross Place de la République and stroll down a side street. “Non.” Tom keeps walking. “Non!” exclaims the same stridently insistent voice from behind him. Kristensen turns around brusquely to see a vivacious woman with dark curly hair who is almost indignant from sheer disbelief. “Non, Tom Kristensen, vous êtes pas Tom Kristensen,” she says again. But it really is him, as he admits to her in English. “Yes, it’s me.” The woman laughs incredulously and, to the racing driver’s surprise, dashes off a string of sentences in Danish. What exactly she said we can’t say precisely, as only the agitated admirer and Kristensen spoke Danish. Besides, it’s probably better for the reader if we keep the tangle of languages to a minimum.

A native of Le Mans, the French woman Laura declares that she is Tom Kristensen’s number one fan. Luckily she’s married to a very understanding German husband. The couple and their two children live in Trier. She ends by admitting to having learned Danish just in case she should ever bump into Mr. Kristensen. Now she can hardly believe that it’s actually happening. Tom, in turn, can’t quite credit that someone would learn a new language in his honor. It’s an extraordinarily joyous moment on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday in a small pedestrian zone in Le Mans.  

The picturesque old town of Le Mans is a remarkable time capsule. Buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries crowd crooked, cobbled lanes and pruned plane trees cast whimsical shadows on the walls.“The tourists only start arriving at the end of May,” explains Alain
Baudouin, whose gallery ABmotorART is in Rue Dorée (golden street). In the window, Tom discovers a painting of his most recent Le Mans victory in 2013. Titled “One Lap to Go,” it shows Tom in the winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro with a final circuit of the track left before the finish. It’s a poignant meeting between the artist, who has spent years capturing motorsport in Le Mans on canvas, and the racing driver, who spots himself in some of the works. Tom buys the picture. Alain admits it’s hard for him to part with the painting that he toiled over for five weeks. To reassure him, Tom tells him about his new residence currently under construction in his hometown. The property includes a workshop for the winning Audi R18 e-tron quattro, which Audi gave to Kristensen in recognition of his spectacular career. And that’s where “One Lap to Go” will be hung. “You’re welcome to come and see it any time you like,” says Tom.

 

We continue to Café du Square, which stands on Place des Jacobins opposite the grand cathedral. Diehard motorsport enthusiasts will recognize it as featuring in the opening shots of Steve McQueen’s cult movie Le Mans. Here we are meeting Bruno Vanderstick, better known as the voice of Le Mans. The French commentator’s professional association with the 24-hour endurance challenge stretches back a bit further than even Kristensen’s. He is the drivers’ “echo”—sharing their nervousness before the start and the exertions of the race it- self. And it’s his trademark singsong voice firing off encouragement and catchphrases that keeps them awake in the early hours of the morning before the race enters into its last quarter. For spectators and the drivers watching from the pits, Bruno’s “oh, là, là” is a sign that something has happened. All in all, Bruno’s voice is as much a part of the 24 Hours as the roar of the engines. “We’ve known each other since 1997 and we’ve become friends over time,” says Tom, “but the truth is, I know very little about you. What was the first race you covered, Bruno?” “I started out as a motorsport journalist in 1988. Even as a child, I wanted to be a commentator at Le Mans. Jean-Charles Laurens was my hero. I can still hear his voice perfectly in my inner ear. I always knew that, one day, I’m going to be the announcer at Le Mans. And that’s what happened. My chance came in 1993 and I introduced a new style — a more dynamic, lively approach that brings the audience closer to the action.”

 

Bruno still clearly recalls Tom’s first race.“It was night-time and you were really fast. I mean, you were always fast, but that night — oh, là, là! It was incredible.” The two reminisce about how Tom’s teammate and fellow driver Emanuele Pirro would always eat seafood at a small restaurant across from our café on Place des Jacobins. “He believed he would only win if he had eaten seafood before the race.” Judging from Tom’s face, he doesn’t put much faith in this reckless ritual. When asked if he also had a good luck charm that helped him to victory, he replies, “Whenever I ran at least one complete circuit of the track as part of my race preparations, I won. It would take me about an hour. Those were the only laps I ever did on foot at Le Mans.” In his racer, averaging more than 240 kilometers per hour, the same circuit usually took him just over 3.20 minutes.

Tom Kristensen turned his dedication to running into a team tradition.

All the pilots would head out together to jog around the track. “It’s good karma for the driving team and for each of the members, too.”To everyone’s surprise, Tom Kristensen retired from driving at the end of last year, but he remains part of the squad as a fitness consultant. Thanks to his accumulated experience from an extraordinary career coupled with his ability to offer a driver’s perspective, he can advise his colleagues on how to build the necessary strength and stamina to come out on top of the stresses and strains at Le Mans. “It’s a 24-hour race but you’re in it for much longer than that. A whole year of preparation is required. You spend an entire week in full-on Le Mans mode. And taking into account everything that needs to be done in advance, the race actually lasts 36 hours. If the race was good, you always recover faster. Even then, it takes a minimum of five days before you’re back to normal. But there comes a point when you realize that every race makes you stronger and faster — every experience gives you an added advantage.” That said, his top fitness tip is something quite different: “Enjoy life. When you’re having fun, you automatically have the edge.”

 

We collect the car to continue our excursion in Tom’s favorite conveyance—the new Audi R8 V10 plus in bright orange. The Audi R8 owes its name and mythical appeal to the world’s most legendary endurance race. “The Audi R8 means a lot to me.” I achieved my first five wins in that car.” The words are barely out of his mouth as he turns the ignition. Le Mans shudders — with delight. After all, there’s probably no other town in the world that revels quite as much in the rumble of a sportscar’s engine. Tom Kristensen accelerates briefly but forcefully along the “canyon” that cuts through the old town and connects Place des Jacobins with the banks of the River Sarthe. Echoing off the fortifying walls that reach several meters up is the unmistakable message: “Listen up everyone, Mister Le Mans is heading to the racetrack.” The Circuit de la Sarthe comprises predominantly public roads (9.2 kilometers). The infamous Hunaudières straight where, during races, top speeds of up to 340 kilometers per hour are clocked glares in the setting sun. Highly focused, Tom Kristensen dynamically steers the Audi R8 through sections of the circuit whose legendary names alone — Mulsanne, the Porsche Curves — make the hearts of the motorsports mad beat faster.

In a different sport, Tom Kristensen might refer to the Circuit Bugatti as his home turf. He certainly knows the Dunlop Chicanes like the back of his hand. The Audi R8 is practically an honorary citizen in the French Département Sarthe. It can trace its lineage back to the Audi R8 prototype from the year 2000 that went on to win five titles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and, by 2005, had competed in 79 races and racked up 62 wins. That makes it one of the most successful racing prototypes of all time.

Thanks to his connections, Bruno Vanderstick has arranged for the gates to the 4.4-kilometer-long permanent section of the racetrack to be opened briefly for our evening visit. “Tom’s coming.” Apparently, these words have the same effect here as “open sesame.” Or at least they do when it comes to motorsport. At the start/finish line of the Circuit Bugatti, Tom explains how the race has changed over the years. “While cars used to have enormous power plants, today they are much smaller but more sophisticated and efficient. Since the engines no longer take up so much room, the bodies have been slimmed down, which results in better aerodynamics. The center of gravity has shifted so the racer corners more smoothly and wear on the tires is reduced. That means fewer tire changes. Intelligent hybrid drives add an extra boost to accelerating through curves, all of which adds up to incredibly fast lap times and significantly lower fuel consumption.” And Bruno adds, “An upshot of the four rings’ technical breakthroughs and the triumphs achieved with hybrid technology is that the 24 Hours of Le Mans has become more relevant. Every year, more spectators arrive to watch and enjoy the motorsport. But at the same time, they’re aware that the advances seen on the track trickle down to production vehicles. The endurance challenge has implications that reach far beyond Le Mans. It’s more than just a race. It’s the future.”

Tom Kristensen will, of course, attend Le Mans again this year. As the Grand Marshal, he’ll be there to set things in motion. On June 13, a quarter of a million enthusiastic spectators will watch as he leads the grid on the warm-up lap. Even retired, Kristensen will still be leading the pack—at what will certainly be a brisk pace.
More information:

The very first time Tom Kristensen got behind the wheel at Le Mans in 1997, he succeeded in winning the world´s most grueling endurance challenge - despite having only a week to prepare. He then went on to add eight more wins to his name. Although Mr. Le Mans retired from racing in 2014, he remains an ambassador and advisor to Audi. In his native Denmark, he has been knighted and was named Sportsman of the Decade in 2010.  

 
Sabine Cole (copy), Jan van Endert (photos)

Recommendations from the editorial team