I’ve often been quizzed about the rights and wrongs of why one up-and-coming driver reaches the top rung of the steep and slippery ladder on the way to Formula 1 while another – perhaps equally talented and/or well-qualified – young pedaller doesn’t. And it’s an emotive subject, especially when the dreaded ‘bags of gold’ are mentioned. Sadly, in the modern game, commercial clout is king. Too often a driver who’s won races and championships in the majority of feeder series in which he’s competed has had to watch helplessly as one or more of his vanquished-yet-deep-pocketed contemporaries makes it all the way.
“What’s far more interesting is thinking about the drivers who didn’t make it to the top level and really should’ve done. For me, there’s one man who rises above all others: Tom Kristensen”
As far as the 650 drivers who’ve raced in at least one world championship grand prix since 1950 go, we could argue until the cows come home about who deserved to be on the grid and who didn’t. But let’s not, it would just get messy.
What’s far more interesting is thinking about the drivers who didn’t make it to the top level and really should’ve done. I’m often asked about this, too, and there are half a dozen or so who spring to mind. Nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb, multiple IndyCar champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Dario Franchitti, Rick Mears and AJ Foyt and MotoGP record breaker Valentino Rossi must be on most people’s lists.
For me, though, there’s one man who rises above all others: Tom Kristensen. And I was reminded of the great Dane’s star quality recently when he announced his retirement, aged 47, from the international stage.
TK’s racing CV includes countless wins and/or titles in single-seaters (Formula 3 and F3000), touring cars (British and German Supertouring and the DTM) and sportscars (American Le Mans, FIA Sportscar World Cup). And that’s before any mention of the success for which he’s best known: a record nine Le Mans 24 Hours and six Sebring 12 Hours victories, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship title with Audi in 2013.
He did test for several F1 teams, including Minardi, Tyrrell and Williams, impressing as he went, but fate dictated that a race seat would pass him by.
And thus F1’s loss was plenty of other series’ gain.
I’ve been fortunate to watch Tom at work and, on many occasions, talk to him about it – on- and off-air – afterwards, including after eight of his nine Le Mans wins and his sensational 2011 RAC TT Celebration win with Kenny Brack in the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupé at a rainlashed Goodwood Revival. Let’s hope he comes out to play at some or all of the three Goodwood events in 2015 now that the pressure’s off.
It’s a travesty, really, that he fell off F1’s radar, but perhaps a blessing, for he may not have remained quite as humble, enthusiastic, articulate and engaging a bloke.