On the eve of a race referred to as the toughest in the world to win and that he has conquered a record eight times, Tom Kristensen has reflected that just to be at Le Mans is 'special' and to triumph in the round-the-clock French classic 'absolutely superb', confessing that 'to go away with a victory is the best and the highest experience I have had in my professional life'.
After breaking his duck in the celebrated Le Mans 24 Hours on his debut alongside Joest Racing TWR Porsche team-mates Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson back in 1997, Kristensen has since tasted victory champagne at La Sarthe on no fewer than seven subsequent occasions – all-bar one of them with Audi and the most recent in 2008. It is a race in which the Dane invariably benefits from plenty of fervent and enthusiastic home-grown support – and one of which you suspect he will never tire.
“I always enjoy being here – I think everyone does,” he told Crash.net
. “This is the race of the year, particularly if you're a sportscar fan. Every time I'm here, it's special. To overcome the race is a big challenge in itself, and to win is absolutely superb.
“Going home with these victories has been so giving, because you are never alone in it; you have your team-mates, you have your team – which has worked incredibly hard here – and you have the fans. It's an endurance for everyone, so being able to go away with a victory is the best and the highest experience I have had in my professional life.
“Fans come here from all around the world, and they love the fascination of these cars going as fast or long as possible over 24 hours. I guess it will be a record year with a lot of Danes coming here and finding the interest, especially with the closed coupé R18 – which is very aggressive – the fight with Peugeot and the race in general. They are supporting of course also Jan Magnussen and all the other Danish drivers who are here. That is a part of the game, putting a bit of nationalism into it – even from a small country like Denmark!”
Kristensen made an uncharacteristic error in the closing stages of a traffic-afflicted final qualifying session for the 79th edition of Le Mans this weekend, spinning his Audi R18 TDi into a gravel trap whilst on a personal best lap. The #3 machine that he shares with trusted driving partners Allan McNish and Rinaldo 'Dindo' Capello will consequently begin from just fifth on the grid, albeit barely four tenths of a second shy of pole position – and the 43-year-old is confident that the Ingolstadt manufacturer's new baby is a potent package indeed.
“You have to understand that it's the same for everyone,” he seeks to explain. “The lap time in qualifying depends upon when you can get a clear lap in, or when you have a clearer lap than others – sometimes it's better on lower fuel with old tyres on, or with higher fuel on fresher tyres. It's all about getting the cleanest lap possible, which is very tough – as I found myself.
“My lap was certainly not clear at all and it would have been easier to have gone faster than that, but I'm sure you could ask the drivers in the other cars, and they would probably have a similar feeling as well. Nobody would say they were happy with their lap time, because there's constant traffic here – more is always possible.
“You treat [the traffic] a little bit differently in the race to in qualifying, but I guess with the nature of the regulations, down the straights the speed difference is a little bit less than in previous years with the engine power that we have, so there will be more happening closer to the same piece of tarmac that we all want [and faster cars will have to overtake] under braking or around the outside through corners.
“The R18 looks like it's a good step forward for Audi in performance – there's no doubt about that. The closed cars have given more efficiency – maybe more even than you could imagine – in terms of getting to the speeds down the straights. There are still some challenges with the windscreen and visibility in a closed car, but qualifying and also the pre-test proved its speed and that we can match [Peugeot]. When you are fighting on a track that is 13.62km long and there are five tenths separating the first six, though, it is obviously very close and the race is still very open.”