Winning just one victory at the annual French endurance sports car race 24 Hours of Le Mans is a huge accomplishment. Audi Sport Team Joest driver and Rolex testimonee Tom Kristensen is gunning for his tenth. If that doesn’t tell you something about the driver, let’s delve deeper into the competition.
The race is equal parts marathon, sprint and pandemonium, with drivers flying around the track at 200-plus mph. A team of drivers each takes two to three-hour shifts behind the wheel for a total of 24 hours. There are four distinct classes of cars on the track at the same time, each with different specifications. Kristensen races in the top class, LMP1 (Le Mans Prototype 1).
DuJour spoke with Kristensen to find out what it’s like to prep for endurance racing, how it feels to cross the finish line first and what he does to celebrate a win.
What do you do to prepare for a race as grueling as the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
It’s no secret that I’m not the youngest racing driver anymore, so physically I have to train harder than ever. It’s difficult to develop a clear recipe for preparing for Le Mans—every race is different, and each time you have to expect the unexpected. I think the cars have changed. Momentum is now the key word, so the forces on the driver have become even stronger. Last year, we averaged a 110-degree cockpit temperature with our G-force (acceleration felt as weight) peaking at 4Gs. It’s a constant load on your neck and back.
I do a lot of core training and CrossFit. I also run and have recently completed two marathons. Golf is an activity that helps me to build focus. And cycling, whether it is road or mountain biking, is a key part of my fitness routine. It’s great for cardio training, and I enjoy it a lot, but it often gets competitive. I think I can comfortably say that no other Formula 1 driver will outrace me on a bicycle.
Out of your record 9 Le Mans victories, is there one that you savor most?
The first one was very important. Without it, the others would not be. I got the chance three days before the race in 1997 to turn up for a private team and ended up being a rookie with the fastest lap record of the race, winning it my first time out after a grueling battle with the Porsche team and the Nissan team.
All the others mean a lot to me—they are the most important races of my career. 2008 was the year that everyone said we couldn’t win, but we never gave up. We fought through it, and it was said to be the best 24 hours of Le Mans ever. Last year’s was the most difficult one for many reasons. [Kristensen’s friend, Aston Martin driver Allan Simonsen, passed away from injuries sustained in a crash very early in the race.]
Do you have any pre-race rituals or superstitions?
I don’t have any superstitions. I’ve tried to beat them during my career. I used to look out for black cats, but not anymore. The one thing that I still do is get into the car fully dressed with my helmet, gloves and boots on. Of course, for my kind of sport, that’s how we go racing anyway!
How do you spend your time during the race between driving stints?
You come out of the car full of adrenaline. I give my feedback to the engineers and have a chat with the chief mechanics. Then I get all the wet clothes off me, take a shower, get a massage, maybe have a little bit to eat and just take care to slowly become ready again. You always have the radio with you, and you are always in the race.
In my first Le Mans, I was like a kid in a candy store, wanting to see, wanting to learn, wanting to do everything I could to improve. With experience, I now know what I need to do to produce my best performance. My focus is a little bit more there as is the trust in the whole team. Out of the car, you are just trying to energize yourself because you never know exactly when you’re back on duty.
What do you normally do after the race (besides stand on the winners podium, of course)?
Try to enjoy it. If you finish well, you can really enjoy. But even the parties can be short, and the one last year was filled with very mixed emotions. The next day, you think a little bit and maybe write some feedback down. Then it’s time to relax for a couple of days with the ones closest to me. Physical recovery is mental. If you are happy, this helps the recovery process.