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.