For the second year in a row, Porsche secured both the Driver’s and Manufacturer’s Championships in last year’s FIA World Endurance Championship season. But before this season got underway, a big mix up in the driver line-ups for the LMP1 teams occurred, with the retirement of Mark Webber and other Driver’s Champions Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas moving into other areas of the Porsche racing program. This sees Neel Jani as the only remaining reigning World Champion for the 2017 season. He will be joined in the cockpit by Porsche driver Nick Tandy and ex-Audi Sport driver André Lotterer.
Jani joined the Porsche LMP1 program at its return in 2014. He had been partnered with Dumas and Lieb since Porsche’s return to WEC and LMP1 endurance racing. The 2016 season was, most definitely, the best season of Jani’s career. Not only winning the Driver’s World Endurance Championship, he also helped Porsche take the Manufacturer’s Championship for the second year in a row and took the overall victory at the 2016 24 Hours of Le Mans. It is unsurprising that, when asked about his winter, Jani described it as “one of the best winter’s [he] ever had.”
Jani’s first experience in the new car and working with his new team-mates came about in Porsche’s December test around Ciudad del Motor de Aragón in Spain. It has been an “extensive program” through the winter, with tests and team bonding. Jani hopes that the work they have done is “enough to be quick enough again.”
“I think the first feeling of the car was very good,” Jani said, discussing his impressions of the new Porsche 919 Hybrid LMP1 after the first test. “We saw that we still have some work to do. I think we are ready for Silverstone, for Le Mans we might have to still work a little but overall we are in plan.” After the recent comments from Porsche, denying confirmation on which aero-kit they will run on their LMP1 cars for the opening round at Silverstone, this statement from Jani could be more telling than he intended it. It could back up the rumour that Porsche will use the first two rounds of Silverstone and Spa to focus on perfecting their aero-kit for Le Mans.
Jani has known both of his new team-mates – Tandy and Lotterer – for a while, both as on track rivals and off track. It appears that the new team-mates of the Championship-winning car are bonding quickly and well, with Jani stating that the team bonding is “very good.” He continued, “Aragon was our very first test together and we got along well. I think we have the same humour which is always a very good thing to bond easier.”
With only one rival in the LMP1-H category with them this season, it is obvious that Porsche’s main threat this year will be Toyota. “Toyota is the only one that can really challenge us and I think, I’ve very sure actually, that they will be very strong as we saw their pace, or heard about their pace. Will be a tough fight.”
One of the biggest talking points of the winter has been how much more popular WEC has become in the last few years. When asked, Jani put this down to the close racing and the vast array of wonderful locations. “We have some great races last year, very close between Audi, Toyota and us. We hope that this year it is as close between Toyota and us. Track wise, yeah, what can beat Le Mans? Le Mans is very special. but also the other tracks – Nurburgring, Silverstone, Fuji – are great locations.”
“Sounds a little boring to say ‘yeah just try to win again’ but in the end, there is not a lot more to do.” Jani laughed, looking ahead to the 2017 season. “I would say it’s a bonus now, a bonus to get more. It was important to me to win it once, each once, and from now on it’s a bonus and we just enjoy and take it as it comes.”
Jani appears to be a man of few words, but one thing is certainly clear from his interview: he is very much looking forwards to a new season of racing. He may have ticked all of the boxes last year and had the most successful and best season of his career, but that has just seemed to take the pressure off him and will allow him to enjoy every year that follows thoroughly and take everything he can out of the rest of his racing.