Interview with a Champion - Neel Jani

Neel Jani, Porsche factory driver and FIA World Endurance Champion doubles up with Rebellion in LMP2 to contest the North American Endurance Championship in 2017 alongside his regular duties at Porsche. Jani will be making his racing debut at Daytona and the Rolex 24 in the brand new Rebellion Oreca 07. Jani already has a Le Mans win to his name and has now set his sights on another 24 hour classic, the Rolex 24 At Daytona.

In a Speed Chills Exclusive, we sat down with Neel and discussed his return to Rebellion Racing, the Roar Before the 24 and the upcoming Rolex 24 At Daytona.

How did you get on at the Roar Before the 24?

It is kind of hard to say, we obviously got on really well the first two days, we topped the time sheets but teams are holding back, not wanting to show their true performance just yet, but we were not playing games. We wanted to get out and see what the car could do. The Mazda is quick but Cadillac looked slow, but I’m not paying too much attention to lap times yet. We focused on our preparation, the new Oreca 07 is great, its clearly very different to the 919 so a lot to learn. It is a new car to everyone on a new circuit, and to me, I have never driven LMP2 so it was quite an experience doing my first LMP2 laps around Daytona. The team did a great job to build the car in such a short space of time after Stephane (Sarrazin) destroyed the first one at the December test at Sebring. The team had to completely rebuild the car from a new chassis and get everything set up in just a few weeks. It was important to us to get kilometres on the car to test the reliability and performance over long distance runs and the car performed perfectly all test.

How is it being back at Rebellion after running with Porsche for 3 years?

It is great to be back at Rebellion, there have been a number of changes to the team since I was first here but a lot of the top guys are still around (Team Manager Bart Hayden). We have a very strong line-up for the Rolex 24 and the North American Endurance Cup with Seb (Buemi) Steph (Sarrazin) and Nick (Heidfeld) in the car. It's nice to be partnered with Nick again after this time and although we have an on track rivalry, everyone gets on well and works together well, we have all come through the development together and so know each other well. It is our first time running an LMP2 car together so it is new to us all. But it is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to race in GT, I have never done it, it is very different to my background. I wanted to race in LMP2 and fight for overall victory and I believe with this team we have a very good chance, we have arguably the strongest line up. We work well with each other, we all have a lot of experience and we trust each other, that is important.

This year, you will also be joining Rebellion for their North American Endurance Cup Races?

We worked hard with Porsche to agree this deal with Rebellion and I am very happy it paid off. Porsche are usually very strict with other commitments so it is nice to do. It is great to get Rebellion Racing back in to North America and see what happens. (Rebellion have taken on the Robertson Racing facility in Georgia for their American campaign this season). Two of the four races will be done by the start of the WEC season so it is easier to manage than the guys doing Formula E. I am looking forward to it, we last raced here in 2013 along with Nick (Heidfeld) so it's good to be back. We are keeping one car in the US and hoping to use the same team on WEC and the North American Endurance Cup.

This is your first time at Daytona, how did you find it and what were your impressions?

Wow! Daytona is an incredible place and track. My first experience of Daytona was playing an old Nascar video game when I was a child so to be there racing now it was great. Doing the track walk before the test was amazing. The banking is so steep! you wonder.. how can you drive on that? It really is a special place. Driving the first few laps were very special with the car up on the banks at speed, thinking, how steep are these banks?! You get used to it quite quickly. The car took to the circuit well and I got used to it and start to push it. The infield is tight and bumpy but the outside oval is very quick. Traffic is very different to WEC, traffic is a bit easier because we don’t gain that much lap time through corners but we are much faster than the GT along the straights, better breaking and more grip. The new Daytona Prototypes, the Mazda in particular look amazing. Balance of Performance will come in to it, but IMSA have all the data and will decide accordingly so it is perhaps too early to gauge cars performance just yet. That said, it is going to be an impressive race. The grid is like a who’s who of racing with some very talented drivers from GT, Nascar, Indy Car and Prototypes. It is going to be a very hard fought race. We haven't really stopped yet. The off season was 3 weeks between end of season testing and Roar Before. It's great that the race falls when it does as it keeps me sharp and on form and helps me train and prepare for the upcoming season. I have a little bit of time off between Sebring and The Prologue at Monza but we have two big races and testing with Porsche before that time off so were always busy.

What are your thoughts on Audi withdrawing from the WEC?

It will be strange with only two manufacturers in LMP1, they will be missed. We had some great battles with Audi last year and in previous years. Nurburgring last year was great, going wheel to wheel with Andre (Lotterer) to finish fourth. It was a disappointing result for us but a great race. We fought hard, we fell down and got back up again and closed the gap. I think that Toyota will come back strong this year and be competitive. Toyota are racing a brand new car (as of the start of 2016) whereas the 919 is a three year old chassis. But I am confident and I am looking forward to it. We have a lot of testing before the start of the season and it is going to be a good fight.

How did you feel winning Le Mans 2016?

Winning Le Mans was great! We fought hard for the whole race and always felt like we could win. However, winning it with Toyota breaking down was a shock. You don't wish that on anyone and I feel for them. But equally, I think we deserved the win. We had a lot of bad luck in that race. We had two punctures in the last six hours but we kept fighting back. The car was quick and definitely capable of winning on it's own. In the end, it was a two car race. But I want to repeat my point, you don’t wish Toyotas luck on anyone. It was a shock result that is for sure and one that will go down in history and that is something I am proud to be part of. I know my friends and family will never forget it and neither will I. I hope we have many more wins to come.

There have been some big changes at Porsche since Bahrain, how do you feel about going into the season as the only World Champion?

Yes it is a big change for the whole team. I feel confident though, Nick (Tandy) and Earl (Bamber) have experience racing the 919 (Le Mans winners 2015 along with Nico Hulkenberg). We have done a lot of testing at Motorland Aragon and everyone is getting on well. Andre is obviously new to the car and has to adjust to it. We have a lot of testing coming up in the next few months and I feel confident that Porsche will do well this year, we have a good team and Toyota are going to be tough competition. Its going to be a great battle this season!