Kristensen’s retirement leaves a void bigger than just a race seat

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The magnitude of Tom Kristensen’s retirement from international sports car racing and thus, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will take some time to set in.

And the driver who eventually replaces him at Audi Sport will have rather massive shoes to fill.

Kristensen was not just the driver who won a record nine times at Le Mans, but the rock in the driver lineup for more or less a 15-year period as Audi’s dominance transcended the sport.

He’s also the last link to Audi’s now previous era of veteran drivers who achieved so much success for the brand.

The first wave of departures occurred around 2008 to 2009, when Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Marco Werner – themselves champions (2006 and 2007 as trios; Biela and Pirro with Kristensen in 2000, 2001, and 2002) all hung up the helmets and the next wave of new talent came in.

Audi’s young guns at the time were Lucas Luhr and Mike Rockenfeller, and the latter driver joined with Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas – on loan from Porsche – to capture a surprise victory in the 2010 Le Mans, and return Audi to the top after Peugeot’s lone win in 2009.

By 2011 and 2012, it looked as though Kristensen, along with his co-drivers and teammates Allan McNish and Dindo Capello were nearer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

The new trio of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler arrived in 2010 with a runner-up finish and an emotional win as the lone Audi left standing in 2011, when McNish and Rockenfeller survived a pair of savage accidents.

More youngsters have arrived. Lucas di Grassi, out of F1, along with Loic Duval, Marco Bonanomi, Oliver Jarvis and Filipe Albuquerque, have come to the four rings in the last two to three years, all tasked with growing the legacy.

Duval, the Frenchman, has perhaps been the most interesting case study. After starring in a Peugeot for a couple years, he joined Audi, and would eventually be Audi’s choice to replace Capello – the first of the iconic “TK”/”Nishy”/”Dindo” trio to retire from LMP1, at the end of 2012.

So in 2013, Duval was a key part of Kristensen achieving both his record ninth Le Mans win and first World Championship in the FIA World Endurance Championship, with McNish along for the ride.

Then McNish hung it up. Di Grassi was the choice to replace him. He has been fine, but not stellar this season.

So now with Duval and di Grassi, Kristensen was the last man standing. And like McNish and Capello in the two years previous, “TK” called time on his career on his own terms.

The good news for whoever replaces Kristensen is that compared to Duval and di Grassi, assuming those two stay paired up, is that neither Duval or di Grassi casts a long shadow of success. That trio can forge their own path of Le Mans success, as Lotterer, Treluyer and Fassler have done themselves with three wins in the last four years (and have more or less ascended to become Audi’s new leading trio).

The bad news? Replacing Kristensen means coming immediately after the driver who has been the measure of performance against which all others are judged at endurance racing’s most iconic event.

No easy task, for sure.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.