Defending 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Neel Jani doubts that Porsche can qualify on the front row for this year’s race after a tough test day that saw Toyota Gazoo Racing pull clear at the front of the pack.
Toyota swept to a 1-2-3 finish at the in the single-day test earlier this month as Porsche’s pair of 919 Hybrids lapped over three seconds shy of the fastest test time, set by Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid.
Porsche enters Le Mans chasing its third straight pole and victory, but two-time pole winner Jani believes the team is currently the underdog in the fight against Toyota, particularly in qualifying trim.
“I think it’s the first time we go with this new feeling to a race weekend, where we are not the favorites from speed. Last years we were always the favorites, so we just have to play it smart,” Jani told Sportscar365.
“I think that might be the first year in three years, in my time at Porsche that I don’t start on the front row.
“I’ve been starting second, first and first the last three years. So I’m thinking it will maybe be my first experience where I don’t start from the first row.”
Despite Porsche’s test day struggles and deficit over a single lap, the Swiss driver is hopeful that it will ultimately have the race pace to take the fight to Toyota at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
“I think we’ll try our best. Things can always change around, but right now we are definitely not the favorites,” Jani said.
“But who knows? With the heat and so on, things can always turn around. And in a 24-hour race, it’s not only speed that decides, because you can’t be the quickest car 24 hours long.
“So we’ll see how it goes.”
Fellow Porsche LMP1 driver Andre Lotterer was also concerned about the pace that Toyota displayed through the test day, both over one lap and across long runs.
“Obviously we saw that Toyota made a huge step forward. They were quite strong already last year at Le Mans, but for sure they made a huge step forward,” Lotterer told Sportscar365.
“I don’t know how deep they went into qualifying simulations or if they put low fuel or not. But even so it seems like they have a clear advantage in terms of pace over the long runs. So it’s a first sign unfortunately of how the tendency will be for the race.
“I think in qualifying we’ll be a little closer, but pole, I don’t know. Let’s see if we can play for that.
“At the moment I don’t think it’s on anybody’s mind to target pole position. We want to try and have the best race cars possible, and if we see an opportunity, for sure we’ll try to go for it.
“Le Mans is Le Mans. You have to stay optimistic and things can happen, but it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
One of Jani’s teammates in the No. 1 Porsche, Nick Tandy, did not read too much into the headline times that came from Toyota through the test.
However, the 2015 winner did concede that Porsche faces a tough challenge if it wants to claim a 19th overall Le Mans victory next Sunday.
“The ultimate times that came out of the test day are single lap stuff, and we know that to win the races it’s always about the average times that you can produce for 24 hours,” Tandy told Sportscar365.
“So we’re kind of more interested in that than our qualifying outright times at the moment.
“But they were certainly impressively quick, the Toyotas. We’ve got our work cut out for us, that’s for sure.”