The Greatest Driver?

Comparisons of race drivers in different series, different cars and different times can be very difficult. Who is the greatest driver of all time? Argentinean Juan Manuel Fangio, with five World Championships and his outstanding 46% winning record? Perhaps the first-rate German driver, Michael Schumacher, with seven World Championships and 91 Formula One race victories? Many also mention the extraordinary Brazilian, Ayrton Senna? How about the great Scot, Jackie Stewart? Some mention, Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jack Brabham and Mario Andretti The list goes on and on. Each had their strengths; each had that special something that set them apart from their peers.

It is no mistake that on any list of the top drivers ever to participate in motor racing, the majority of the ones you will recognize are the drivers mainly known for endeavors in Formula One, after all it is the most covered, most publicized of all racing.

However, walking among us now, and still racing on circuits around the world is without doubt, the single greatest endurance sports car race driver of all time – and that is Tom Kristensen. The Danish driver currently has eight 24 Hours of Le Mans victories and is still at the top of his game. This coming June he’ll be going for his ninth win. He has also won the 12 Hours of Sebring six times. Tom has won more endurance sports car races overall than anyone in the history of the sport and has surly set records that will stand for decades, perhaps for all time.

Consider the talent needed to drive at the top level of the sport in endurance sports car racing. These modern prototype race cars require the quickest of reflexes, the physical fitness of a super athlete, superb concentration, and the support of a team of engineers, mechanics and a factory dedicated to winning. These things are all needed to compete at the top level of sports car endurance racing, just as they are to compete at the top level of Formula One.

Unlike Formula One, however, the driver doesn’t merely get into the car and drive it flat out for 2 hours and finish the race. He drives a stint of two hours (or more), takes a break while his co-drivers take their turns and then does another stint, and another, and another. All the while he drives flat out – pushing himself and his car to the limit. Gone are the days of endurance racing where the teams set a pace and stuck with it – the competition is too close, too top notch for that strategy to work in modern times. The cars are bullet proof; they are made to run 100% all the time, whether it is for 6 hours, 12 hours or 24 hours. Consider this: a single 24 Hours of Le Mans race covers as much racing mileage as an entire season of Formula One.

There is another distinct difference between endurance sports car racing and Formula One, which speaks volumes about the accomplishments of Kristensen. In endurance sports car racing, be it in the WEC World Championship, Le Mans, or the American Le Mans Series, as a driver in the top prototype class you are not only competing against the other cars in your class, you are navigating through incredible traffic for the entire duration of the race. You are constantly lapping slower cars, choosing where to pass, when to pass, when not to pass. The mental concentration is unsurpassed in any other type of motor sports event in the world and requires a very special set of skill sets to successfully master this form of racing. Not only are you on the track at the same time with cars with vastly different performance characteristics, you are on the track at the same time with drivers who have vastly different skill sets as well. Concentration and quick thinking are required at all times. Thousands of decisions, which have a direct impact on the outcome of the race, are required constantly, lap after lap, hour after hour, driving stint after driving stint. Fresh or exhausted, you have to constantly be on top of your game or it can all be thrown away in an instant with just a single miscalculation.

People may say that luck has played a part in Tom Kristensen’s unbelievable accomplishments at both Le Mans and Sebring. Luck has had little to do with it. If you are lucky, and you are with a top team, you might win one of these races once, perhaps twice. To win Le Mans 8 times and Sebring 6 times, there is something much larger than luck at work. If he were lucky, Tom would be going for his 11th Le Mans victory this year, not his 9th. Tom Kristensen has demonstrated the consummate skill of the endurance race driver – he has chosen the right team, the right car and the right teammates throughout his sports car racing career. This is no accident – this is why he is the greatest sports car endurance racer of this generation, and most likely of all time.

I feel fortunate to have watched Tom Kristensen compete at the top level of the sport for many years. I have observed and known many drivers, both in sports car racing and Formula One throughout the years as well. I can think of no one who possesses the complete package like Tom Kristensen. Is he the best of all time? Racing history will tell the tale, but for my money, he should be right there at the top of anyone’s list.

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