“Last year we said we have to say what happens. This year we are confident to say we can win it.”
The words are interesting from Neel Jani, who captured the pole position for today’s 83rd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans courtesy of a new record lap around the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe at 3:16.887.
Porsche Team’s desire to convert its undoubted, unquestioned one-lap pace into its first win of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, and more importantly its first overall win at Le Mans since 1998, is obvious.
The actuality of it happening depends on one of its three Porsche 919 Hybrids finally avoiding the reliability pitfalls that have interrupted its quest to win at Silverstone and Spa to open the season, and that took it out of a successful Le Mans a year ago.
Timo Bernhard, in what was then the team’s No. 20 Porsche, recorded the first laps led for the Porsche 919 Hybrid at Le Mans, starting on Lap 37.
While this car factored in for an overall podium in their race debut, a powertrain issue after more than 22 hours took it out of the race.
The sister No. 14 Porsche was classified fifth in class, 31 laps down, and limped home to the finish despite a drivetrain problem.
To further prepare for this year’s Le Mans, Porsche Team technical director Alex Hitzinger confirmed the team did four 24-hour simulations, split two apiece between Aragon and Paul Ricard.
“Of course, you encounter issues. It’s a brand new car,” Hitzinger told Sportscar365. “You can’t expect not having any issues.
“But you keep going and going, and go through more and more problems. Everybody’s pushing.”
The opening two races of the season have seen the No. 17 Porsche retire at Silverstone with a drivetrain issue after two hours, and rally back to a podium in Spa after suspension issues there.
Overall, Hitzinger downplayed any reliability concerns going into the race, and the drivers noted the improvements year-on-year at Le Mans.
For Jani, who will share the black, polesitting No. 18 car with Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb, he expects the increase to the 8 MJ subclass this year to pay immediate dividends.
“Our engine is very small, in the V4. We need this electric power, especially here, to help us on the straights,” Jani told Sportscar365.
“At Le Mans, we don’t have the advantage of top speed we have on other circuits like Silverstone or Spa. Here, everyone is at 100 percent with this concept.”
Brendon Hartley, who will share the red No. 17 Porsche with Bernhard and Mark Webber, described how to set the car up on a razor’s edge.
“It’s always a concern for the reason that we’re all pushing the boundaries,” Hartley told Sportscar365. “It’s not easy to harvest and deploy so much energy through a hybrid system.
“When you’re in competition, everyone is pushing the limits. Reliability is tricky when the competition is so fierce.”
Hartley’s antipodean countryman Earl Bamber of New Zealand explained the importance of having a third car to be able to ensure the best shot at victory.
“At the end of day, all three of us are here to get the best for Porsche,” Bamber told Sportscar365. “It’s so close between all three manufacturers, plus Nissan joining, I don’t think any of the manufacturers can hold a car back to try and get points.”
Bamber enters in an interesting situation, as he’s making his Le Mans race debut as well and does so in the fastest car over one lap.
Bamber, who will share the white No. 19 car with fellow LMP1 Le Mans rookies Nick Tandy and Nico Hulkenberg, said having had Spa to prepare for Le Mans was absolutely crucial.
“It’s definitely a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Spa was perfect for us, as we got used to the whole team, the whole race weekend. The racing is fantastic in LMP1 as well, and we got used to the traffic.”
Hartley noted how much more fully integrated he is into the Porsche environment as a factory driver in year two of the LMP1 program.
“Driving the car quickly is one thing, but it’s all the pressures that come with being a factory driver that took me a while to adapt to,” Hartley said.
“It’s not that anyone here puts pressure on you, but in the end you feel it.
“You’re representing Porsche. You have thousands of fans. You have huge budgets. You’re working with such a big team.
“I have to say it took me a while to feel comfortable. Now I absolutely feel comfortable inside the team.”
It’s a sentiment Jani, formerly of Rebellion Racing, also shared in his second year in a fully factory program.
“Clearly everything has improved quite a bit,” Jani said. “Last year Le Mans was our third race as a team. The teammates were new, mechanics new, engineers new… everyone new.
“Now one year later we’ve done more races, and also the car we’ve improved quite a bit. We’ve improved it everywhere. We are a lot more confident this year.”
Jani might be the hungriest to secure the win, as he, Dumas and Lieb have come second – by a combined 18.034 seconds over 12 hours of racing at Silverstone (4.610) and Spa (13.424) – to the No. 7 Audi R18 e-tron quattro of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler this year.
That trio is also seeking its fourth Le Mans win in five years.
“We are here, and we can say we are here to try to win this race,” Jani said. “But on the other hand, we clearly know it’s Le Mans… you can’t win Le Mans. Le Mans lets you win.”