There are many things average Joes like me can learn from rally drivers – not least how to drive at scarcely believable speeds and not crash.
What I perhaps didn’t expect to take away from a conversation intended to center on a driver completing their rebuild process with a season at the top of the European Rally Championship, though, was a profound appreciation for their approach to life that left me questioning the way I lead my own.
Ringing Tom Kristensson up on the eve of a new season is becoming something of a tradition.
Two years ago I first made contact with the then newly-crowned Junior WRC champion with the world at his feet. A Ford Fiesta Rally2 was now Kristensson’s, and he would use it to show the world what he was about in WRC2.
But that optimism didn’t manifest itself. Last year, the message from the conversation was very different. 2021 had broken the affable Swede. With so much to sort off the stages, he struggled to perform on them.
“2021 was just so much work,” Kristensson reflects today.
“It’s just so un-human to do rallying at such a level without more preparation and only focusing on surviving, to be there.”
Kristensson needed to bounce back, and so he devised a plan to re-paint the smile upon his face.
The fact he set out to do just six rallies and ended up doing 15 with five overall victories, plus a Polish national title to his name, means the plan certainly worked.
So where on earth next?
“We were discussing at the end of last year ‘OK what to do next’ and we found out that WRC2 is still too big a step for me regarding experience and also regarding budget,” Kristensson says.
“So we think about the ERC solution and everybody says ‘yeah it sounds good’ and yeah, we found an agreement with Citroën with the new team in Tagai Racing Technology, it looks very good at the moment.”
The ERC is certainly familiar territory to the 31-year-old. Three of his 2022 appearances in a Hyundai were in the European championship – including an emphatic and heart-warming second place on Rally Poland – and he spent a season in the championship with Opel Motorsport in 2018 before graduating to Junior WRC.
But, just like in 2021 and ’22, Kristensson heads into the season with unfamiliar machinery. He’s ticked the Fiesta and i20 boxes, now it’s time to try the C3 Rally2.
Many would see this as a hindrance. In a field as competitive as this year’s ERC is set to be, not knowing your car intimately could justifiably be seen as a disadvantage.
But Kristensson has seen too much (and been through too much) to waste any of his energy on such contemplation.
I only take good experience of what I did in 2021 and turn it around to something positive to use for the futureTom Kristensson
DirtFish’s simple question asking if a new car will faze him, if Kristensson sees it as a potential problem reveals a key – and rather rare – character trait that the Swede possesses.
“Well I’m not focusing on the problems,” Kristensson replies, “and this is where I’m also a little bit not like other people – I’m focusing only on the possibilities.
“It’s a new team but I know the team is very serious, I know the team is a good team because famous other drivers have been there before and I’ve been following them for quite a long time.
“And also my team manager Rafal Cebula will continue cooperating with me, so we will change to this team together and this is basically his old team before he changed to Kowax last year together with me. So I’m quite familiar with this solution actually.”
And there’s more.
“I was doing Lausitz Rally last year with the new Rally2 Hyundai and had a plan to do one test day and then the shakedown before, but when we were there in Germany the test stage was canceled so nobody did a test.
“We were doing a completely new rally with the new car, how is it going to be? Well we got the shakedown at least but it rained like it had never rained before so there was like half a meter of water everywhere and it was a crazy shakedown, so it was giving almost nothing [in terms of representation for the rally].
“Crazy, absolutely crazy. And we ended up second overall with three stage wins over Andreas Mikkelsen in the new Škoda. So with that in my mind I’m just thinking it will be fine [this year], I’ll just go flat out and we can just enjoy the rally!
“It doesn’t matter honestly. And I’m still there as well, it’s a big victory just to come to Portugal [the ERC season opener] with the new overalls, with the new car, preparing for a good rally.
“Already there I have a victory of making that, so I’m very happy for it.”
It’s a shame Kristensson’s words weren’t recorded for a podcast, because the joy that he lived through them was far more obvious than when they’re printed out. It was genuinely refreshing to hear, because as serious as rallying can get it is, above all, supposed to be fun.
Don’t mistake that for a lack of desire to win though. Kristensson is as hungry for success on the stages as anybody – as exemplified by his response when asked about his aspirations for the year.
“You know I always, always start a rally or a season because I want to win. So with that said, I’m never focusing on it.”
No wasted focus; no wasted energy.
“The only thing I’m focusing on is myself sitting behind the steering wheel, enjoying driving this rally car, working with the car, working with the team, working with my co-driver and all the partners I have around,” Kristensson adds.
“Just enjoy the rallies, because I already know I would like to win.”
But where does this passionate, laissez-faire attitude to rallying come from?
“I believe I have another way to look at it,” Kristensson says, “because I am doing everything by myself, so the respect I have for everything I do, for everything we are experiencing – this is something else.
“Because I can see that all the other competitors I’m competing against, they have a lot of support, so if they are doing a bad stage they’re [saying] ‘this is so s***’.
“But you only did one stage bad, come on, we have a whole rally in front of us! We have to focus on the whole picture.”
Kristensson has therefore used a confidence-sapping year to his advantage. Through the darkness of 2021, he bounced back superbly in 2022 to earn a proper shot at the European championship.
And in doing so he’s managed to find a way to simplify everything and take enjoyment from the little things.
“[After 2021] I never believed I was a bad rally driver or I never believed I was not able to do a good season anymore, something like this,” he continues.
“The only thing I took from 2021 was getting experience, and at the end it was a very important experience. It was not so fun, it was not so good for me as a person every time, but at the end you can always use the experience I got, and I cannot get this experience in any other way than doing what I’m doing.
“But if you want, which many people do, you can just be thinking that 2021 was only s***, there were only bad experiences, there was nothing good about it, it was not fun, everything is just negative.
“But in my opinion it was not-so fun, it was not-so nice, but it’s a good experience to have because I get a huge respect for what I’m doing, which kind of competition I’m in, what kind of people I’m together with and the respect I have for WRC2 now is quite huge. I got to understand that this competition is quite hard!
“I believe myself 100% that I will be able to do it but I also know what I need to do to get in there again – all the preparation, all the test days, all the money you have to spend to do this, it’s absolutely crazy with this low support which I have from the federation. I’m doing everything by myself, absolutely everything. So this is the thing.
“I only take good experience of what I did in 2021 and turn it around to something positive to use for the future.”
And that future is looking as bright as it ever has. He’ll be swimming in shark-infested waters with so many WRC winners, current and former factory drivers and class champions in the field on next weekend’s Rally Serras de Fafe, the ERC opener, but you sense that nobody wants this more than Kristensson does.
“There is only one thing to focus on and what I’m thinking is to enjoy life going rallying.
“If we are doing this, the result will be good and we will be a good profile for the sport and also be a good profile for my sponsors.
“Everything will work out at the end so this is a good thing to be focusing on.”