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Kristensen bows out
End of the (professional) racing road for popular Dane | By Gary Watkins

Tom Kristensen has called time on the record-breaking career that made him the most successful driver in the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours.

The long-time Audi driver announced his intention to end his career ahead of the final round of the 2014 World Endurance Championship at Interlagos last November. He vowed that the Brazilian event, in which he finished third aboard his Audi R18 e-tron quattro together with Loïc Duval and Lucas di Grassi, would be his last as a professional driver.

The decision brings to an end a career that included nine victories at Le Mans, with a 50 per cent strike rate from his 18 appearances, six wins in the Sebring 12 Hours and a WEC title. His successes transcended the sports car arena, however. He was a double champion in Formula 3, won races in Formula 3000 in Europe and Japan and was a front-runner in both front-wheel-drive Super Touring tin-tops and rear-drive DTM tourers. He was inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame in 2013.

Kristensen, who had a season to go on his latest Audi contract, explained that thoughts of retirement began during the second leg of this year’s WEC, which began in September. He revealed that he had been motivated by a desire to quit while he was still at the top of his game.

“I have taken a lot of things into consideration, my age and my family – I am building a house,” he said. “After 35 years, now is the perfect time. I wanted to stop when I was at the top of my game. It is nice that people are asking me why I chose to stop, rather than saying, ‘Why don’t you stop?’”

Allan McNish, who was Kristensen’s team-mate at Audi from 2006 until his own retirement at the end of last season, said that the Dane is hanging up his helmet as one of the sport’s finest drivers, even though he never raced in Formula 1.

“Without a doubt Tom is one of the all-time greats, and I am not talking sports car racing – I am talking motor racing in general,” said the Scot, who claimed the 2013 WEC title with Kristensen and Duval. “A lot of F1 drivers would love to have had Tom’s career; it doesn’t matter that he didn’t get to F1.”

Joest Racing boss Ralf Juttner, who played a major role in all but one of Kristensen’s Le Mans victories, said that summing up his talents was tricky.

“It is difficult to put a finger on one thing that is special,” he said, “but Tom completely understood that endurance racing is about the team. He also had an unbelievable focus and a spare capacity when driving to react to anything that the race threw at him.

“In endurance racing that’s a pretty good ability to have.”

Jarvis steps up

Kristensen will be replaced by Briton Oliver Jarvis, who is promoted from the third Audi to race full-time in the WEC for the first time together with Duval and di Grassi. His slot in the third car for the Spa around and Le Mans will be taken by German René Rast, who is promoted from Audi’s GT roster to join Italian Marco Bonanomi and Portuguese Filipe Albuquerque. Jarvis said that it has been his “ambition and dream” to drive for Audi full-time in sports cars.

Hülkenberg’s Porsche seat

Force India driver Nico Hülkenberg will become the first current Grand Prix driver to race at Le Mans since Sébastien Bourdais raced for Peugeot in the middle of his second, truncated season of F1 with Toro Rosso in 2009. The German, who got his first taste of the Porsche 919 Hybrid at the MotorLand Aragon circuit in Spain in early December, was selected after his management made an approach about driving its prospective third entry.

LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl revealed that Hülkenberg’s enthusiasm for Le Mans was an important reason for the 27-year-old’s recruitment.

“Nico showed an interest in doing Le Mans, which was for us a good sign,” he said. “He’s not doing it for the money, but because he really wants to do it and because he is interested in the WEC, so we like his spirit.”

Hülkenberg is also scheduled to contest the Spa round of the WEC at the beginning of May, by way of preparation for Le Mans.

The Belgian event now takes place on the same weekend as the revived Korean Grand Prix, which became the 21st race on the 2015 F1 calendar announced at the December World Motor Sport Council. Porsche appears unconcerned about the clash with the South Korean fixture, however, because it is considered unlikely to go ahead.

Who else will race a 919?

Hülkenberg’s team-mates had not been announced before the run-up to Christmas. Porsche is looking to promote from within and give a prototype chance to drivers from its GT roster. Frédéric Makowiecki, Nick Tandy and Michael Christensen were given a second try-out in the 919 Hybrid at MotorLand at the beginning of December, after getting a first run in the P1 car over two tests in the autumn.

Porsche had hoped to announce the other drivers for its third car at its annual Night of Champions awards ceremony in mid-December, but the proximity of the MotorLand test to the event meant that no decision was possible. Porsche LMP1 team principal Andreas Seidl said that there was no hurry to finalise a deal.

“It only needs to be sorted by the time we begin our endurance programme with the 2015 car in February,” he said, “because the initial testing will be done by our regular drivers. We need to analyse all the data and a lot of guys are busy with the new car.”

Seidl added that it was not 100 per cent decided that both vacant seats would go to GT drivers, but that promoting from within was a priority.

* Toyota has yet to announce its driver line-up for 2015, but the only change will be the omission of Nicolas Lapierre, who was dropped by the team ahead of the Fuji WEC round in October. The Frenchman has been offered a test and reserve role and is certain to be replaced by the driver who filled that slot last year, Mike Conway. Nissan is not expected to announce its drivers until the official launch of its new LMP1 programme at the start of February. Marc Gené, who finished second at Le Mans with Audi, is believed to be part of the squad, while Olivier Pla and Jan Mardenborough also look like certainties.