Nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen called time on an unparalleled career late last year, and has returned to the event that made him "Mr. Le Mans" with a surprising sense of calm.
The beloved Dane used natural talent and a work ethic learned from his father Carl-Erik to push himself to such incredible heights, making the sight of Kristensen, at Le Mans—with spare time to speak with a group of journalists—shortly before the start of a qualifying session such an odd experience.
Kristensen, the iron-willed driver, the force of nature within Audi Sport has, despite all predictions, slightly mellowed after a little over six months out of the cockpit.
"I think the switch was easy and correct in that sense. Of course, people have helped me, but the feedback I have gotten ever since I took that difficult decision, is it was definitely the right decision. I am comfortable. And I enjoy – it's very different – but I enjoy every moment a bit more. I don't do interviews; I do conversations now," Kristensen said, flashing his trademark smile.
TK's new role within Audi Sport involves fitness and preparation for the team's World Endurance Championship drivers, and has joined his great Audi teammate Allan McNish, who hung up his helmet at the end of 2013, in "active" retirement. With McNish concentrating on the performance side of the team's LMP1-Hybrid program and Kristensen plugged into the driver side, two of sports car racing's greats continue to contribute while the next generation handles the driving duties.
"Allan, since he stopped, I noticed last year he was very much involved with us. I experienced that all last year. He enjoyed it very much. You could see that he was in it, he had focus, and then he was freed. He didn't bring it with him, like when you—as a driver, you take it with you, you keep thinking. I think it's similar for me now," Kristensen said.
"At the moment, I want this year to be as calm as I can be. Try to feel life after racing because it has been my life for so long time, and I'm privileged for that, but I also want to feel how it is without the full adrenaline."
TK's stature in the vintage racing community has been growing for years. He organizes an emerging vintage gathering in Copenhagen, and despite his departure from the modern racing scene, loves flogging whatever retro machinery he can find.
Asked if his first bout with retirement would last or, in time, if he might get the urge to sample GT racing, Kristensen didn't rule out the possibility of driving in professional events.
"I will do a few classic cars, and generally, I had a conversation with the Audi R8 teams and many others, but I made sure that this year… I made sure I stopped so I can do this year like this," he said.
"Then in winter I can look at [returning], but already now I can say it is the right decision to stop. I'm ready for the next part of my life and I will try to do it. And, of course, it will not be the same, but I think it will be nice too."
The first 24 Hours of Le Mans without Kristensen since 1996 is an admittedly odd scenario to consider. The 47-year-old contested 18 consecutive events, winning half. It's a record that will likely never be broken, and although he'll be absent from one of Audi's R18 e-tron quattros on Saturday and Sunday, the legend of La Sarthe offered a few insights on what to expect from the warp-speed P1-Hybrids.
"I have a strong feeling that we look very, very strong as Audi, definitely," he opened. "It is not about one lap time; it's about the stints here. I think what Audi had done over the winter and the three car crews, the way they mentally go into this race due to what they showed along the history, I think you cannot ask for anything better.
"Porsche is very fast, the concept is very fast, there's no doubt. We'll take them very, very serious. Great challenges, the whole history here, the buildup, they are strong. But I also think that when the race starts it's a different mental aspect for them as well. They are running three cars for the first time in many years. They know they have the speed over one lap to win. But you don't win over one lap. Audi have such a base, calm, steady, fundament of these cars, not just the drivers but the whole crew, and they are very, very strong.
"Toyota is a bit under pressure. They haven't shown it all yet. But I think they are struggling I think a little bit to understand that they didn't have–they kept the same hybrid system, whereas Porsche and Audi went up two megajoules more. It seems like without these two extra megajoules, which they probably had the chance to do, that they are at the moment a little on the back foot.
"Having said that, I know they will go faster and I know that they probably could benefit more from the rain, than the two other manufacturers in that case. Then again, how much can you risk when you only come with two cars? There are a lot of aspects which play into this, but no doubt any of these mentioned manufacturers can win."
And what does TK think of Nissan's crazy front-engine P1 roadster?
"Nissan is way too early," he said with a raised brow. "Very brave concept. I saw it called a 'wacky racer,' it's certainly very interesting but, you know, Le Mans you can come with all sort of directions from ideas, and that's great and unique. And I think it's great and I'm sure they will be a lot faster than they are now, year one, with such a different concept. You couldn't expect them to challenge for even the podium. But, for sure, I was hoping that they would be more competitive than they have shown until now."
Kristensen shared a closing tale of the one time Audi produced a car that seemed a bit far-fetched…not as radical as the Nissan, but as he explains, the marque's stump-pulling turbodiesel from 2006 almost drove him into the life he's chosen today.
"I overheard a conversation between some of the decision-makers that they were going to… that they would put that 12 cylinder TDI diesel engine into the dyno. I was a bit concerned. Actually, I was very concerned," he revealed. "I never thought about retirement before, but I would say maybe I was close then."
TK would eventually earn his eighth Le Mans win in the V12 turbodiesel R10 in 2008, but it took a press function during the car's launch prior to its first test ahead of the 2006 race to easy his fears.
"The first time I sat in the car was actually Paris when we presented the car at the Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower," he continued. "I just had to drive a few hundred meters, but, wow, and then being on the track with it. The power it had was enormous. It was a rocket. Until then, I was a little bit in doubt. But then it shows, again, how much they did in an incredibly short time.
"Of course, the history was made at 12 Hours of Sebring, winning that with it right away. It's true that probably not all 12 cylinders were working at the end of that race, but what they had done in such a short period of time with that was impressive. And that is the most powerful engine I have ever driven in a sports car."
Kristensen also unveiled which encompasses his four decades in the sport. If you're strong enough to lift the massive tome, "The Book" is full of more tales culled from Kristensen's amazing life and times in motorsport.