“Mr. Le Mans” Tom Kristensen turns 49 years old today, and with that, we look back at Kristensen’s oft-forgotten exploits in Japan that included a brief tenure in what was then known as the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship (JGTC).
Before Kristensen won the 24 Hours of Le Mans a record nine times from 1997 to 2013, before being crowned World Endurance Drivers’ Champion in 2013, his six victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring, and victories in both the British Touring Car Championship and Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, Kristensen raced in virtually every series there was to race in Japan from 1992 to 1997.
TK made his JGTC debut in the 1994 season finale at Mine Circuit, driving the Blitz Racing Toyota Supra.
After the one-off for Blitz, Kristensen’s first full-on Super GT challenge would come two years later, when he signed to drive the FET Sports Toyota Supra. Supplementing his first season in the International Formula 3000 series, Kristensen finished twelfth in the 1996 GT500 Drivers’ Championship, with 21 points and a best finish of fourth at Fuji Speedway in August.
His best JGTC race might very well have been at Sendai Hi-Land Speedway in 1996. Kristensen qualified on the front row for the first time, alongside the mighty McLaren F1 GTR at the hands of young rookie Ralf Schumacher.
Despite the overwhelming pace of the McLarens, Kristensen more than held his own, going wheel to wheel with the future F1 star for the better part of some forty laps in his opening stint. But on their mid-race pit stop, as Kristensen handed the car over to Tatsuya Tanigawa, an issue with a wheel nut during the stop cost them several seconds – enough to relegate them to a sixth place finish.
He made a brief return to the JGTC, back in what was now the Power Craft Supra, for two rounds in 1997. At Mine, he started on the front row for the second time, and tied his career-best finish in what would be his final start in the series.
By then, of course, Kristensen had already won the first of his record-breaking nine 24 Hours of Le Mans crowns. And although there’s no way that he or anyone at Audi could have known it at the time, TK’s run in Japan and subsequent success in global endurance racing created the foundation of an accidental pipeline of talent from Super GT to the Audi Sport Team Joest LMP1 programme – with the likes of Andre Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer, and Loïc Duval all winning championships in Super GT, then going on to their own outright glory at Le Mans.
That all originated with Kristensen, who in retrospect, was terribly unfortunate to have never even stood on a JGTC podium in his brief stay.
Kristensen was part of the fabled “Gaijin Racers’ Club” of the early 1990s, shared with the likes of Eddie Irvine, Mauro Martini, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and the late Roland Ratzenberger and Jeff Krosnoff.
And in his time there, he enjoyed the most success in single-seaters and touring cars. Kristensen won the 1993 All-Japan Formula Three Championship, just two years after winning the German F3 title. He raced for two full seasons in Japanese Formula 3000, winning once and placing third in the ’95 championship.
Kristensen won ten races in the Japanese Touring Car Championship from 1992 to 1995, including his biggest win at the 1993 Fuji Inter-TEC 500km, the biggest race of the JTCC calendar. He was third in the championship in 1992 in the Object T BP Nissan Skyline GT-R, and second in 1994 for Toyota Team Cerumo – spanning both the Group A and Super Touring eras.
One of the all-time greats, and one of the lesser-known former Super GT drivers in the formative years of the series. There’s only one Mr. Le Mans.