Last month’s Petit Le Mans marked the end of an era with the last American Le Mans Series race. But the 1,000-mile enduro was also the final time Neel Jani would drive for Rebellion Racing.
After a successful four-year stint with the Bart Hayden-led squad, which included the 2012 FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 Privateers title and back-to-back overall victories at Road Atlanta, the 29-year-old Swiss driver has signed with Porsche for its new factory LMP1 program next year.
Jani, who served as F1 test driver for Toro Rosso, prior to a short stint in Champ Car, made his sports car racing debut with the Anglo-Swiss squad in 2009, which saw both driver and team grow into championship-winning form.
“They helped me get started in sports car racing and I think I helped them a lot to get up to the top level. In the end, that’s what you call teamwork,” Jani told Sportscar365.
“I for sure have a deep and close relationship with Rebellion after four years of racing with them. In one way it’s sad to leave, but to be honest, in the end, I’m more happy to leave to go to Porsche to [have a chance to] win all of the races I’m contesting. Porsche is Porsche.”
Jani was confirmed in June as one of Porsche’s works LMP1 drivers, alongside Timo Bernhard, Romain Dumas and F1 star Mark Webber, and has already been deeply involved in the car’s testing and development program, which has recently expanded to a number of European circuits.
With new-for-2014 regulations, Jani says the yet-to-be-named Porsche LMP1 car is hard to compare to the current-spec LMP1 cars, such as Rebellion’s Lola that he had previously enjoyed success with.
“I think to give a clear comparison between the cars, at the moment, is very hard,” Jani said. “It’s still early days with testing at Porsche. Plus, we have different aero, smaller tires, there’s so many different things. Clearly with the hybrid, and the first time trying that out, you feel that [there’s an extra push].
“But in the end, a race car is a race car, whether you see a Porsche or what you see [with a Lola]. Obviously Porsche is at the beginning with their car and there’s still things that need to be sorted out.”
Another adjustment has come with acclimating himself within the German organization. With 200 employees, including a dedicated workshop and administration building for the LMP1 project only, Porsche has pulled out all the stops in the development and operation of its new flagship motorsport program.
“You just have bigger resources and bigger possibilities,” Jani said. “That’s what I see. If I have a problem with a pedal, next time you have a new pedal. [With a private team], it’s obviously not that easily possible. There’s a different level of manpower and development behind it where you can make bigger steps forward from where you are.
“We made great steps forward [with the Lola] in the last five years. But if our car would be as it is now, from an aero point of view and everything, two or three years ago, we’d be fighting for wins against factory teams. The steps are slower in a privateer team, which is logical.”
Heading into next year, Jani is upbeat but realistic about Porsche’s chances, in what will now become a three-horse factory battle that will include Toyota and 12-time Le Mans winner Audi, which has no doubt been the manufacturer to beat over the last decade-and-a-half.
“Next year, I think Audi for sure will be the favorite,” he said. “They’ve been around for so long and know everything. They don’t have to develop something new from scratch. They have a lot of knowledge so I think they’re the favorites. We hope to be at the same pace of them and challenge.
“The aim is clear: We want to win but we also know it won’t be very easy.”