Fresh from an invigorating winter training schedule which saw him plough through the snow in the Austrian mountains, Porsche’s Neel Jani is back on racing land and ready to fight to retain his World Endurance Championship crown. Writing exclusively for Mobil 1 The Grid, the Swiss driver talks tyres, tactics and brand new teammates ahead of the 2017 WEC season.
I’m getting asked pretty frequently whether my life has changed since becoming a World Champion. I still got the flu in winter and I still got a sunburn during skiing – so I would say, no, my life has not changed in that way. The only thing that actually has changed, is the fact that I’m getting more interview requests than ever before, which is obviously a nice thing because it shows the public interest in what we are doing.
But approaching the 2017 WEC season, everything that we achieved last year is history. It looks nice on my CV, but it will not help me this year. Yes, there were many unforgettable moments, but now we have nine races in front of us, so everything starts from zero again.
For me, the biggest change is that I have two new teammates to share the car with. We have found out already that we have a very similar sense of humour, which is great.
And from a racing perspective, I also believe all three of us – André [Lotterer], Nick [Tandy] and myself – are rather aggressive drivers. That’s also a very interesting approach we have in common and should make it all the more worthwhile and exciting to watch and follow our car throughout the season. But of course it will take some time to make our job really work smoothly. Setting up the car and optimising communication between each other, and also with the Porsche engineers is a process which only started in testing and, naturally, doesn’t happen over night.
André found out that the Porsche 919 Hybrid is very different to drive compared to the Audi he has been used to. And Nick is working on getting used to it again after not driving the LMP1 for a long time. Both are very strong drivers and are doing great with it but, as I said, we need to get in the groove and this doesn’t happen overnight. This is for sure an advantage the Toyota crews already have against us. A trio like Sébastian Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima – they know each other inside out after racing together for so many years.
Personally, I feel absolutely prepared to go. I was doing a lot of fitness and tough training in the beautiful Swiss mountains over the winter. Maybe you saw the clip, where Mobil 1 the Grid visited me during my training in Austria.
As well as my winter training, I also went racing in the States – with my old team Rebellion at Daytona, as well as at Sebring. Racing-wise, it didn’t go too well because we had a lot of reliability issues, which was a shame. But I really enjoyed doing it and to get pole and lead the first hour at Sebring was an exciting way to start the season.
Testing never compares to racing. The thrill of race starts, the battles on the track… This is what you need as a driver to keep your fighting spirits up. Also, I must admit I enjoyed racing in the US with a more basic car than what I have become used to. With these cars, you don’t need to manage fuel consumption, consider electrical boost strategies or save tyres. You just go flat out. It’s racing like in the old karting days. Don’t get me wrong: the high-end technology of the Porsche 919 Hybrid, probably the most advanced racing car in the world, is absolutely fascinating and adorable. But from a driver’s perspective, you will never give up loving the pure stuff as well.
I think with the 919 development, Porsche again have done a great job. It is always surprising to me to see the details in which they keep finding improvement, despite the fact that we are running the same basic concept of the car since 2015 after we had brought an entirely new one in the aftermath of the team’s 2014 debut season.
Toyota’s car was an overall new one last year, and was very strong right out of the box. Normally, the peak performance of a new racing car comes in its second season, when you have left all teething issues behind you. So we are fully aware that we face very strong competition in that duel between the two manufacturers this year.
A big difference in 2017 will, of course, be the tyre situation. The new regulations mean we now have three sets of tyres less over the weekend of a six-hours race compared to 2016. This obviously means you have to handle them with care. As I mentioned earlier, this is not quite what drivers enjoy, but I will take it as an additional challenge. So, now it’s time to get back to testing… See you all in Silverstone.