Porsche's Neel Jani on the Returning Chances of a Legend

Good times are afoot for fans of endurance racing. The World Endurance Championship is enjoying a meteoric rise, works teams are flocking to take a bite of the apple and young driving talents are pursuing sports cars as an alternative to a Formula 1 that’s falling from grace. But despite all of this there’s only one thing that everybody’s talking about: the most successful endurance team of all time are coming back to grace our tarmac once again.

Porsche Paul Ricard

It’s been a long time since Porsche last fielded their own team at the top level of endurance. No matter the decades of dusty achievements that sit on the shelves at their Stuttgart fortress, this is a new look outfit with the future in mind and an eagerness to win on their own terms.

Neel Jani is one of the men charged with taking the fight to the modern prototype establishment. After impressing during a four year stint with the Anglo-Swiss Rebellion Racing team he’s been snapped up for a shot at the big prize, and it’s clear he’s not taking the chance lightly:

“Porsche is a big name, but they’ve come back after sixteen years away. Everything is new; new people, new drivers, everything is from scratch because it's a whole new team. But in the end we all want to win, everybody wants to win.”

The scale of the programme goes some way to proving how seriously Porsche are taking their return. This isn’t just a marketing exercise; the car has spent three years in development and a pile of money has been spent on hiring the best engineering, management and driver talent that the marketplace can offer.

Neel seems almost daunted by being such an integral part of a project of this size: “At Rebellion the people were always the same and it was an exercise in seeing what we could achieve with relatively little; the engine guy sat next to the race engineer and there was no point in asking aero questions because there were no aero options, you had to use what you had.”

“Now I’m in a team with over 200 people and it’s not so easy to find an overview and to know all the boys by name, like who do I have to talk to if I have a question about the hybrid system or the bite point of the clutch pedal. The race engineer is the first person to talk to but then there are so many departments that you have to follow up with if you want to know exactly how things work.”

Making a team of this size an effective, cohesive unit is one of the main challenges. Whereas Audi and Toyota have had, respectively, many and two years to iron out the issues inherent in getting hundreds of people to work well together, Porsche are just starting out on the journey:

Porsche Neel Discussion

“Everyone has issues and it’s about how quickly you can solve them. Having a team that works is a big task for us for this year; our competition will have solved most of the issues that we maybe still need to, and so we have to be realistic about our chances.”

That realism will be another of Porsche’s big tasks for 2014, especially when they could quite easily be tempted into riding the wave of fan expectation that’s sure to come their way. Three years of development is a strong starting position but engineers need the kind of tasty data that can only be gleaned from race situations; endless running around the Weissach test track just won’t cut it.

Or will it? Coming off the back of an unexpectedly successful test at the WEC’s Prologue event at Paul Ricard the whispers have been going around that Porsche are more competitive than they have a right to be. So should we be realistic or excited when we turn up to the first round in a few days time?

“We really weren’t expecting to be that quick at Le Castellet but we don’t know how much the others were playing. We know Audi ran a lot of aero because they were massively quick in the last sector, so we know they didn’t show their full potential, and we don’t know what Toyota did or didn’t show.”

“The track definitely favoured our car concept because we had a good top speed down the big Mistral straight compared to the others. But nevertheless we were there, we were playing around, we were being competitive and, along with finishing races, that’s the aim of this year.”

The top speed of the 919 Hybrid was a hot topic at the Prologue, and with the power figures coming out of the factories it’s not hard to see why. Audi have just announced that their four litre V6 produces 767hp and Toyota have made big waves with their claim of 1000, but Porsche are keeping quiet. Mind you, when the rumour mill churns out suspected figures of 1250hp it’s difficult to stop petrolheads breaking into a grin.

But if you went down to Brands Hatch on a weekend you’d see drivers struggling to cope with a fifth of that kind of grunt, so how does Neel handle it? “I’ve had a lot of petrol power in the past with Formula 1 and Champ Car but this is something new and interesting for me, especially as all the hybrid power is going through the front axle.”

“In terms of acceleration it’s the most impressive I’ve felt, it’s amazing when it really kicks in. It’s quite special to blast past the Rebellion, I can say ‘yes, I’m finally in that car that I was dreaming of for so long’.”

Dreaming aside, this kind of attitude bodes well for Porsche. It’s clear that finding the right balance between realism and enthusiasm could make or break their 2014, and if Neel is anything to go by then they’ve pitched it just right:

“We hope to be challenging as soon as possible; as a driver I hope it’ll be at Silverstone. But we have to be realistic, we can’t just think we can turn up and kick everyone’s arse! There are a lot of things that we don’t fully understand or control yet so for us it’s all about reliability. Once we’ve sorted that out, the pace will come to us.”

“We’d like to take the challenge to Audi and Toyota but they’re the favourites, we’re the ones who need to prove that we deserve to be there. We don’t know who’s quickest, but at the test we learned that we’re actually in the mix, and we’re competitive. We won’t be on their tails at every race, but Porsche has ramped up a massive programme, and the intentions are clear.”

As he says, everybody wants to win. Porsche, Audi and Toyota have got less than a week before the cards will be laid bare on the tarmac of a windy Northamptonshire airfield, and the excitement is growing. The German endurance legends are back, and whether you consider them underdogs or returning champions you’re in for a treat. Roll on the Silverstone Six Hours, we can’t wait to find out what they’ve got in store for us.

Jamie Snelling is a WEC accredited journalist and 7-time Speed Chills veteran. Tweet him at @speedchillsview