Kristensen's ambitions fuelled by versatility

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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher and Lance Armstrong may have commanded greater attention, but Tom Kristensen could claim his record of seven successes is neither tainted nor challenged. Not that he would publicly seek the moral high ground.

"I have no problem if some people don't understand what I have done," the 38-year-old Dane said. "I think I am appreciated in the sport and in my own country."

What Kristensen has done is comparable with the achievements with Schumacher in Formula One and Armstrong on the Tour de France. His seven wins at the Le Mans 24 Hour classic, including the last six races in succession, are testament to a prodigious talent, stamina and motivation. It might be said also that he has enjoyed good fortune, but then the trick in any sport is to find the right team. Ask Schumacher and Armstrong.

Kristensen has become a contented and talismanic figure in the Audi camp and this year he heads the marque's assault on the German Touring Car Masters championship, as well as another tilt at Le Mans, this weekend. "I have no difficulty focusing on one or the other and I don't have to choose because I want to win both," said Kristensen. "That would prove I can drive different cars at a high level and that is a great motivation. My favourite word is versatility."

He has the incentive of claiming a first at the French circuit come 5pm tomorrow: victory for a diesel-powered car. The new Audi R10TDI, competing for only the second time, does not have the pure pace of the Pescarolos, but its efficiency is potentially decisive. Fewer pit stops over the course of the 24 hours means a saving of crucial time.

Audi's commitment to the diesel project is, of course, commercially led, but first place in the market place is the most persuasive argument and the company have set themselves a daunting standard, with five wins in the past six years. "Every second car that goes out of the factory is a diesel, so it is very important for Audi," Kristensen said. "On the sporting side, it is a new challenge and that is something that I, as a driver, always like.

"Our car won the Sebring 12 Hours this year so that was a monkey off our back. It was a relief for everybody. But our other car had problems and a 24-hour race is going to be much tougher. It would be very satisfying to win Le Mans with this car."

Hoping to share the satisfaction with Kristensen are Britain's Allan McNish and Italy's Rinaldo Capello. The other R10TDI will be driven by the Germans, Frank Biela and Marco Werner, along with Italy's Emanuele Pirro.

McNish has had scant luck since his only win at Le Mans, eight years ago, and may feel he can't fail with Kristensen as a partner. But he cautions: "Tom has come through a lot of incidents unscathed over the years and you might also think his winning streak won't last for ever. I believe, though, that you make your own luck and he's a pretty shrewd guy. He knows when to take risks and when not to."

It is a measure of McNish's standing that Kristensen is equally grateful they are in the same car. "Allan has been my hardest competitor for some time, so I'm pleased to have him as a team-mate this year," Kristensen said. "We have a fantastic team and that is important. Everybody works together. There is no backstabbing. When you share a car and the whole experience together and then win, there is nothing better. Even Mika Hakkinen is telling funny jokes there."

In common with most fledgling drivers, Kristensen aspired to a career in Grand Prix racing. He was Formula Three champion of Germany and Japan in the early Nineties. The passage of time has merely hardened his conviction that he could have been a contender for motor racing's heavyweight crown.

"Yes, that was a route I was dreaming about when I was young," he said. "The older I get the more I know I would have been a good driver in Formula One. But I'm not sitting here thinking about that. I don't like to sit thinking about anything in the past. I will have my memories when I stop. Now I still have a lot to race for."

Kristensen admits he is driven by the spectre of failure as much as the prospect of more success. "Fear is a good motivation," he reasons. "You can never be sure of anything in racing. And at Le Mans there are so many good drivers and teams. The mental stress can be very hard. You have to stay concentrated and disciplined for 24 hours. That makes winning even better."

He should know. Britain's 70,000 regulars may represent the biggest army at this battleground, but the battalions of Danes have made their presence felt with increasing colour and intensity over the years.

"The fans always make it a special feeling," Kristensen said. "Sometimes in Denmark it becomes too much and I am always being asked the same questions by the media, who go on about the seven wins and all the usual bull. But that's OK, we don't have many top drivers in Denmark and it is a long time since our national football team won the European Championship in 1992. So I suppose the people like to enjoy my wins."

Kristensen and his colleagues will be the favourites to occupy top place on the podium again. "I am humble and have great respect for Le Mans," he said. "First you have to finish and even that is not easy. Then you see where it takes you.

"We are in with a good shout, but I can say no more than that. The Pescarolo is very fast and one or two other cars could be also. In the end I see it being between four cars - the two Audis and the two Pescarolos. It will be good, that's for sure."

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