'I would pay money to drive a Hyperpole lap' Tom Kristensen on the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours

Le Mans News

He'll be watching the 2020 Le Mans 24 Hours with a burger and beer in hand, but Tom Kristensen says that being behind the wheel during the new hyperpole qualifying session is the stuff of dreams, as he looks forward to this year's race

tom kristensen portrait 2

Rolex/Alexandre de Brabant

Just how different should we expect the Le Mans 24 Hours to be this weekend, running in September rather than June for the first time since 1968? Record nine-time winner Tom Kristensen offers us his insight, along with some reflections on the LMP1 era that is drawing to a close – at least as officially the premier class at Le Mans, ahead of the introduction of the new Hypercar category in 2021.

“Over the years the circuit has got faster, less critical and in some ways more safe,” says Tom of a circuit that has changed substantially in the past couple of decades. “You have more run-off, it’s easier to go to the limit, flatter kerbs and also new asphalt which has improved the consistency and grip level. So there’s no doubt – weather permitting – that the race is going to be faster.

“Then add in the September date: you will be able to run a whole different compound for the entire race, due to the lower temperatures. Having said that, I’m also told the rain is no less in September than it is in June, so that is a factor.”

A long night – more than 11 hours versus the usual eight in June – is not something Kristensen considers too significant. “That the race is darker is a great metaphor, but you also have to look at the floodlights which have improved visibility for spectators and has made it more comfortable for drivers,” he says.

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It’s now six years since Tom took his final bow as a Le Mans driver, but this weekend he will be marking his 10th anniversary as a ‘Testimonee’ for luxury watch brand Rolex, which has been synonymous with the great endurance race for the past 20 years. “Rolex supports everything from the Daytona 24 Hours to the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans, and not only Formula 1 but Goodwood, Pebble Beach and Quail Lodge,” he says. “For me, that’s all the highlights of any motor racing season.”

Rolex keeps him busy, among other commitments such as his occasional stints as F1’s driver steward. The last time he was on duty was Monza, when Lewis Hamilton paid the stewards that visit during the red-flag delay to check on the 10-second stop-go penalty he’d incurred. We’ve got to ask – what did he say? “He knocked on the door,” is all Tom will say with a smile, acknowledging Hamilton’s courtesy. “He understood what happened, he took responsibility.”

Back to Le Mans. As it will be for all of us, this weekend will be very different for the race’s most successful driver. “It’s the first time since 1997 that I won’t be there,” he says. “I will enjoy Le Mans from home, in my own garage. I have invited some people who have supported me over the years, who only ever used to hear a few grumpy sentences from me during the race, and we will watch it from here. I will take part in the BBQ, the burgers – and maybe the third ‘B’ will be involved!”

Tom Kristensen on the podium at Le Mans

With nine overall victories to his name, Kristensen is the most successful Le Mans driver in history

Rolex/Jad Sherif

He admits to some envy over the new Hyperpole qualifying session that will finalise the grid. Just 30 minutes long and running on Friday morning, the top six from each of the four classes will have a relatively clear track to go for times, within a condensed weekend schedule that will make this Le Mans even tougher than usual for the hard-working teams. “The build-up now is more extreme because you have less time,” says Tom. “You have the Hyperpole on Friday, which is normally a rest day for the drivers and a build-up day for the teams. The schedule now is not easy, maybe even more complex.

“But the Hyperpole is something I would have dreamt of. This is unexpected to hear from a Dane, but I would even have paid money to have a Hyperpole, to have some laps where you could only blame yourself or your set-up, not running into traffic, which can be very frustrating and risky but has always been a part of Le Mans. In Hyperpole, you still have to take risks, but at least you can say ‘there you go, this is what we can do’. Then again, a few hours into the race no one will probably remember.”

Kristensen and his fellow Danes will pay particular attention this weekend to the GTE Pro battle, as World Endurance Championship GT points leaders Marco Sørensen and Nicki Thiim, sharing with quick Brit Richard Westbrook, head the Aston Martin charge against Ferrari and Porsche, whose line-up includes fellow Dane and title rival Michael Christensen. But in LMP1, with only five cars on the entry, what sort of race can we expect? From past experience, we know the two Toyota Hybrid TS050s should be free to race, and the pair of non-hybrid privateer Rebellions, winners of two WEC rounds this season, should give the Japanese giant a headache or two. But it’s far from the most juicy of prospects, especially in comparison to the days when Toyota faced Audi and Porsche.

Tom Kristensen in 2014 sitting in his Audi R18 Etron at the 6 Hours of Silverstone

Kristensen battled Porsche and Toyota in the Audi R18

Jean Michel Le Meur / DPPI

That makes little difference to Kristensen, who points out Toyota’s crews face the same challenge of every driver who journeys to the Circuit de la Sarthe. “Le Mans is the most intense focus you have all year,” he says. “You focus on little things to minimise performance loss and mistakes. It doesn’t really matter who you race, everyone has their own inner pressure to do well. If anything this year, the pressure is on the engineers and mechanics probably even more than on the drivers, because the cars are so complex.”

Next year, who knows what the Le Mans entry will look like with so much uncertainty about the new Hypercar class? Just this week Alpine announced a plan to enter a ‘grandfathered’ Rebellion R-13 LMP1 to take on however many Hypercars turn out – so end-of-the-era talk is perhaps a little premature. Still, officially, the focus will shift from a category that has existed in some shape or form since the end of Group C in the early 1990s.

LMP1 is Kristensen’s era, but he has never been one to pick out a single car or year from his incredible roster of Le Mans successes. “I look back at the development over the years rather than one era,” he says. “My first Le Mans was in the Joest Porsche WSC95 [in ’97, his first victory], then I had the BMW for a couple of years, then on to the Audi R8. Those were the years when I probably had more input in car development. The BMW V12 LMR, the one they did with Williams, I was very much a part of that car. That’s why it hurt when we lost Le Mans in 1999. OK, we won our first race with it at the Sebring 12 Hours, but at Le Mans we had a four-lap lead when we retired on Sunday morning. But at least our sister car won.

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“The Audi years were fantastic, to see how you develop over time with a very good team. Even in the R8 years there was a lot of development from the first one, which had a very aggressive engine with a lot of turbo lag. The 2013 R18 e-tron quattro, before a big regulation change, was the most aggressive car I drove: still with the wide rims, a very low cockpit – you were below the wheel-arches. And the Bentley [in 2003] I also enjoyed.”

He also recalls his three privateer victories with satisfaction, too: the Joest Porsche of ’97, and the Audi R8 wins with Team Goh in 2004 and Champion Racing in 2005. “Running with a single-car team, with the Joest Porsche and also with Team Goh, felt special,” says Tom. “All the energy in the garage stays in one cluster. Although with four cars in a works team you open your ears to hear if somebody finds something to make you quicker. It’s more complex and complicated.”

Le Mans playing out to empty grandstands this weekend will surely make this the strangest race in the 97-year history of the 24 Hours. But once the Tricolore waves on Saturday afternoon, the teams and drivers will face the same challenge they always do. For many of us, it’s still the highlight of the motor racing year.