Tom Kristensen on a New World Championship

There are many names that conjure up an instant picture of the Le Mans 24 Hours; Porsche, Jaguar, Ferrari, Bell, Ickx… all are synonymous with the day long endurance classic. But there’s one that leaves the rest in its shadow, and there’s every chance it’s taking an Audi to the top of the podium again this year.

TK HRH Kensington

“If anyone believes that, of the three LMP1 manufacturers, somebody is just coming to make up the numbers then I think they’ll be disappointed.” says nine-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen, “You have 4 cylinder, 6 cylinder, 8 cylinder cars, some with turbos and some not, some diesels and some petrol… it’s all very close, and we have no idea who’ll have the upper hand.”

That upper hand is something that three of the world’s biggest car manufacturers all want, desperately. Kristensen’s dominant German ringmasters may have recent history and a proven turbo-diesel hybrid concept on their side, but neither the returning Porsche or upstart Toyota will let that stand in their way.

Reflecting on the World Endurance Championship’s pre-season test, or ‘Prologue’, that took place at Paul Ricard in March, he says: “The outright fastest on Saturday was due to tail wind, the next day we were fastest but on a slower lap time in general, and I think the other one was second on both days...“

‘Car manufacturer from Japan’ have some grunt, and top speed clearly went to our ‘family friends from Stuttgart’’ but it looked like we were fastest in the sectors with corners.” His reticence in mentioning the names of either of his team’s competitors could be borne out of PR correctness, superstition or something else entirely, but Mr. Le Mans isn’t letting on.

And understandably so, because staying positive will be even more important in 2014. This year’s World Endurance Championship will be bigger and more competitive than ever before, something not lost on us as we mingle in the presence of royalty at the London Launch event at Kensington Palace.

In the two years since its inception as a replacement for the long-gone World Sportscar Championship, the WEC’s rise in stature has taken many by surprise; clearly a void has been filled in the appetites of the world’s racing fans, and with the introduction of new more road-relative rules, giants of the automotive industry are eager to be a part of it.

Intriguingly each of the major players has found a different solution; Porsche and Toyota will both be using 6MJ of harvested energy, the former coupled to a 2-litre turbo V4 and the latter a normally-aspirated 3.7l V8. Audi, meanwhile, split the two ideas with a turbo V6 but have opted to use just a third of the recovered energy in order to run a higher fuel-flow. According to Head of Audi Motorsport Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich this will provide ‘the optimum balance’.

Orangery

Clearly the technical side of all of this is impenetrable to all but the most bearded of men, but Kristensen doesn’t believe this will alienate the fans: “I love the championship and I’m really curious about the new technology; the levels of engineering are the highest I’ve ever seen in motorsport. The different concepts mean that in theory we’ll get overtaking at different places around the circuit, and it’s going to be very intense for us drivers to hit our targets every lap.”

The targets relate to a maximum amount of fuel that can be used over a certain amount of time, so each manufacturer is keen to squeeze as much oomph out of their allowance as they can. This has lead to a bit of a horsepower bidding war; Toyota emerged first with their figure of 1000bhp while rumours have been floating around that Porsche are sporting 1250. Did Kristensen want to enter the fray?

“Numbers can mean a lot, you need the car to get over the ground and get the g-forces through the corners… but I don’t ask those questions. I just try and work on the car, try and optimise what we have. Drivers don’t think about numbers, we think about lap times and energy levels. For us it’s what’s actually happening, physically and visibly.”

“People believed when the regulations came out that we were going to be slower with narrower tyres and things like that, but it’s not true. It’s clear that the FIA is on a mission, saying ‘you want to keep the same lap times, but if we take away the engine power what will you do?’ And the answer is with the energy recovery.”

He moves on to tackle to the Formula 1-cultivated public perception of energy saving racing: “It’s going to be like F1 used to be with 6, 8,12 cylinder engines making different sounds. At the WEC you’ll be able to go out into the grandstands and close your eyes, and within the day you’ll be able to guess every car passing by. I think between manufacturers you will be able to hear the difference, even with the LMP2 cars, and that’s great for the fans.”

But it’s not just the fan-pleasing technology that has changed in Kristensen’s R18 e-tron Quattro; over the last two years he’s seen Loic Duval and Lucas di Grassi replace regular teammates Dindo Capello and Allan McNish (some “very small feet in some very big shoes”, as Tom puts it), so how does the new team dynamic work, and where goes the future of Mr. Le Mans if he wins a tenth crown?

“I can’t know for sure because it’s ahead of us, but for me it’s more about the young generation. I think Loic deserves a victory which he can celebrate because last year was under special circumstances, and Lucas has the potential of being the first Brazilian to win at Le Mans… such a great nation in terms of motorsport but they’ve never had an overall victory at Le Mans!”

“That’s my personal motivation, and if that succeeds then I can go back to my family and whisper that it’s, potentially, my tenth victory. But the main focus is on the others; I’m trying to make sure we repeat last year’s championship success, and I know there are a lot of people in the pit lane, in the cars, out of the cars who want to take it away from us.”

Not least ‘a car manufacturer from Japan’ and some ‘family friends in Stuttgart’. There’s a lot to come before the WEC season ends in Brazil in November, with seven races around the world and a certain twice-around-the-clock event in France. But when even the man who holds all the records doesn’t know what to expect, you know we’re in for a thrilling ride. It seems there’s no stopping the rise and rise of the World Endurance Championship.