The last time we caught up with Tom Kristensson, it’s quite remarkable he even had time to accept our call. In the three months from the final round of the 2020 World Rally Championship season at Monza to our conversation, he had had 107 meetings with companies and potential partners for 2021.
It seems like an obvious place to start 12 months later. Has he been as busy during this off-season too?
“I think I’m there this year as well, it’s definitely over 100, definitely,” he laughs. “It’s unbelievable, it takes a lot of time but still if that’s what’s needed to do it then I have to do it.
“I think I have some combinations as we say in Swedish. Something isn’t correct in the brain but I have to live with it!”
This is just a small insight into the life of a budding professional rally driver – balancing a sheer passion for what they’re doing with the pressure of commercial realities.
It's not so strange that I had a blackout in Croatia and just drove straight out over the hairpin there, because my brain was just completely burned outTom Kristensson on his difficult 2021 season
In Kristensson’s case last year, the scales tipped too far in one direction, and not the direction that derives enjoyment. It would be remiss to suggest he simply wasn’t good enough, but on face value his 2021 WRC2 results card doesn’t scream future World Rally champion.
Competing in an M-Sport Ford Fiesta Rally2 as a prize for winning the Junior WRC title in 2020, Kristensson only registered a fifth and ninth place finish in Estonia and Portugal respectively, retiring from Croatia, Ypres and Finland.
“To be honest it is absolutely too big a step to take in my mind, especially when for me I’m doing everything by myself regarding company, preparations, etc,” Kristensson reflects on the jump from Rally4 to Rally2 machinery.
“It sounds amazing to win a car and it is amazing but I can explain to you it’s not as good as it sounds. At least for me, it’s not so strange that I had a blackout in Croatia and just drove straight out over the hairpin there, because my brain was just completely burned out.
“That was how it started.”
Kristensson’s Portugal was ruined when his driveshaft failed on the second stage and, given there was no mid-day service on Friday that weekend, hopes of a strong result were immediately extinguished. He ended up down a ditch on SS4 without the traction to escape, but his weekend was already done anyway.
Estonia “was the only rally of the season I was doing to the finish without any big issues” although Kristensson wasn’t happy with his pace. His speed was stronger in Ypres, lying a strong fourth before his Fiesta found a tree.
“That was my first really good feeling of the year, and then it was again a very small and stupid mistake,” he rues.
“There was this tree on the inside of the bush and when I was turning in, it was a right over a crest, I could see the tree and I was thinking ‘ah it should be fine’ because the tree was quite far away. But the problem was the ruts on the low part of the tree were sticking out like 5cm, and with the wheels steering right it was just touching and that was it.
“Of course there was massive damage on the car so we were not able to continue. The suspension was going through the windscreen up in the car. That was a massive one.”
Finland went no better, as Kristensson was forced to retire after the car was damaged over a jump after just the second stage.
All in all, the year was a bit of a dud. It wasn’t for the want of trying – in fact it was the opposite. Kristensson had to put so much work in away from the rallies just to start them that his performances once there didn’t reflect his talent level.
But even without that extra strain, WRC2 nowadays resembles a lions’ den. With no experience of Rally2 – or even four-wheel-drive for that matter – prior to the season and then being matched up against WRC winners in Andreas Mikkelsen and Mads Østberg, is it really such a surprise that Kristensson struggled?
“I just realized that I can’t handle it, it’s too big a step,” Kristensson reiterates. “It’s so, so much money I have to spend on maybe nothing because it’s not going my direction anyway, it didn’t go like I wanted.
“I wasn’t even able to do the rally completely, it was always struggling or retiring and in Portugal to spend this kind of money and effectively retire on the second stage, let’s say. It was the same with Finland; I was driving four stages completely.
“You pay for a whole WRC rally and you can believe me when I say it’s not cheap, you know how it is. So it just feels crazy, it just feels so stupid to do it. It’s better to start from the beginning.
“It feels like there is no reason to start a WRC rally when I am not confident enough to do a WRC rally at this level, so that is basically the reason why I would like to try something else in a new car to have a new feeling, a restart let’s say in my brain.”
And that’s precisely what Kristensson plans to do this year. He’s jumping back on the horse, but a very different one. It’s all-new for 2022: a new car, new team, new calendar and even a new co-driver.
His chariot of choice for the campaign is a Hyundai i20 N Rally2, run by the same Kowax 2B Rally team that rejuvenated Jari Huttunen’s career in 2020 – so that’s a strong omen.
“The reason why I would like to change car was basically because I would like to try something else,” Kristensson explains.
“It didn’t matter what car it was, it was just something other than a Ford to have something to compare to. I’ve always felt in my career that I always try one thing and then I’m staying there, and then staying there until I go to the next [step]. Then I’m staying there [too] and it just feels like I’m missing something because I’m not trying something else.”
The program of events for the year is subject to change, but the current plan – after a rally sprint this weekend in Kristensson’s hometown of Hörby – is to begin on the Valašská Rally in the Czech Republic next weekend. Three ERC rallies and one WRC event will follow, bookended by appearances on the South Swedish Rally and Västrallyt in the Swedish championship.
His ERC program will take Kristensson to Rally Poland, Liepāja and Barum Rally Zlín with WRC Rally Finland thrown into the mix too.
The plan is simple: to rebuild his confidence, enjoy the sensation of driving a rally car to the max and to show the world the real Tom Kristensson once again.
“My goal is to do an ERC rally or WRC rally without any mistakes, any issues, and [with a] good flow, without focusing at all on the result or anything else other than just myself and driving in the rally car,” he says.
“To not have a big weight on my shoulders taking care of all this money and sponsors and everything, because with this season I can put in some rallies or take away some rallies.
“That’s the best thing with this season. Then I can do it with better confidence, with no pressure of doing a complete season, needing to do every rally, blah, blah, blah. Just leave that and drive a rally car.
“Smiling Tom has to be there.”
There’s every reason he should be. It’s often said that drivers can sometimes forget the reason why they compete when the pressure becomes really intense: it becomes more stressful than enjoyable.
Kristensson has been wise. He’s reduced the elements of stress which should, in turn, boost the enjoyment. And when he’s enjoying his driving, he’s likely to be driving faster too.
But don’t mistake this regression from the WRC spotlight for a shifted focus. Kristensson’s eyes are still very much on a world championship future, he just needs to take a different step this year in order to secure it.
“It’s a dream and my goal to come back to WRC2 as soon as I can, as good as I can. That is absolutely the best thing you can do in a rally car: doing that level in that kind of class or championship,” he insists.
“It’s absolutely the thing that I want, but I think there is a smarter and better plan for me to do it another way than just to continue to go there.”
The fact he’s been able to identify that shows great strength of character. On strategy and work ethic alone, Kristensson deserves continued success. It’s now just up to him to achieve that on the special stages.