Tom Kristensen knows the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit like the back of his hand. In 18 appearances, the Danish driver has won nine times, in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2013. A result that makes him the record holder in this area. Today, at 54, this endurance expert who has become a "Rolex Testimony" plays the role of ambassador for the 100th anniversary edition of the race. In this dual capacity, Tom Kristensen answered 24 questions relating to driving at Le Mans, his passion for watches and his relationship to time.
What is your best memory of the 24 Hours of Le Mans?
I particularly remember my very first participation, in 1997. I had been contacted four days before the scrutineering of the race. I jumped on a plane to meet the team on Friday. We concluded the agreement, then on Sunday or Monday, I joined Le Mans with the team. I had never raced there before, but we won and I set the lap record. This happened very early on Sunday morning. The engineer called me on the radio and said in German: "Schnellste Runde" - which means "fastest lap". When he said those words, I knew I had taken a step that meant I could succeed. It gave me the confidence to raise my riding level even further.
Do you remember a particularly intense moment?
The most intense moment of my career at Le Mans came in 2001, when we drove on wet tires for 19 of the 24 hours. Visibility was extremely reduced, there was water, fog, thick clouds and the car was aquaplaning. I was constantly challenged and had to focus on every millisecond because I felt like I was in constant danger of losing control. It was an intense "moment" that lasted 19 hours!
In 1997, for his first participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Tom Kristensen (right), won at the age of 29 in a Joest Racing TWR Porsche WSC 95, accompanied by Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson. © Nils FinderUp
Which of your nine Le Mans victories do you consider the best?
Winning in 1997 was truly a special moment. I felt incredibly happy and proud. It also reassured me in some ways and strengthened my belief that I was ready for future challenges. After racing in Japan and coming back to Europe, I needed a breakthrough, and that came when I won the 24 Hours on my debut. It was proof that I could do it. A very pleasant feeling!
What was the hardest moment during your 18 appearances?
I would say my run for BMW in 1999, which was considered the millennium edition. I had just won the 12 Hours of Sebring in the United States, but a lot of big-name car manufacturers had come to Le Mans that year and we weren't favourites. So many things happened during this ordeal. We had more than three and a half laps ahead of the following when we were forced to stop. It took 17 minutes for the second car to pass us. This abandonment was incredibly difficult to manage. Personally, when I look back on that moment, I think it was that hard blow that won me the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the next six years.
On June 23, 2013, Tom Kristensen, winner for the 9th time at Le Mans, received a Rolex Daytona watch with the word "Winner" engraved on the bottom. © ©Rolex/Jad Sherif
Since 2007, Rolex has awarded a watch to the drivers of the winning team of the 24 Hours of Le Mans every year. Did you yourself receive two Cosmograph Daytonas in 2008 and 2013?
Yes. When I was young, my ambition was to be a racing driver and to be able to wear a Rolex! I am lucky to have seen these two dreams come true.
Did you wear a wristwatch while driving at Le Mans?
I couldn't wear a watch while driving, for safety and weight reasons. As a pilot, you must be as light as possible, even the badges are glued to the suit instead of being sewn, because this method represents a gain in lightness. So, never a watch behind the wheel, but of course I put it back on after the race.
In Le Mans, is there a particular time? Nightfall? Crossing the halfway mark? The sunrise ? Entering the last hour?
My favorite time at Le Mans was when the race was picking up speed - during nightfall - but at the same time it was just getting started. I was waiting for darkness to set in and to find my perfect balance point. When everything is going well and you are feeling positive, that is the best time. You are both focused and calm, but also aware of the challenge ahead.
During the 24 Hours of Le Mans, what was the most enjoyable episode for you: starting or crossing the finish line?
The start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is always the exciting part. This is where you see it all fall into place. You can feel the elation and tension release. For the winning drivers, of course, crossing the finish line is the highlight. This year, after winning the 100th anniversary race, they will receive a Rolex Daytona and the Centennial Trophy. It will definitely be special.
Meeting on Saturday morning with Tom Kristensen, before the start