The one-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner endured a bruising 2019/20 season in the all-electric series as one of Porsche’s two drivers alongside former WEC teammate Andre Lotterer, managing only one points finish.
That result – a sixth place – came in the penultimate race of a disjointed, coronavirus-impacted campaign in Berlin, and after the decision had been taken by Porsche to drop Jani in favour of Pascal Wehrlein for the 2020/21 season.
Jani, who was part of the Porsche LMP1 project from its inception until its termination at the end of 2017 and won the WEC title as well as Le Mans in 2016, will remain with the Weissach marque in 2021 after being handed the chance to join its factory GTE effort.
Looking back on his stint in FE, Jani admitted he couldn’t understand why he suffered so badly with oversteer throughout the season, up until he was given a new chassis for the final weekend of the season in Berlin.
But the Swiss driver had previously made his ambitions of a top-class sportscar racing return clear with the advent of LMDh, and says that the chance to return to the WEC – even in a GT car – was something he was “not opposed” to.
“Obviously that season was everything except what I hoped for,” Jani told Motorsport.com. “I’ve never had a season like that in my career. I didn’t understand why the laptime wasn’t coming.
“My biggest problem was always oversteer on corner entry. Whatever I did, I couldn’t get rid of it, even with the same set-up [as Lotterer] – I had oversteer, he had understeer. But in the end you can’t prove if that feeling comes from your driving style, the chassis or whatever.
Neel Jani, Porsche, Porsche 99x Electric
Photo by: Andrew Ferraro / Motorsport Images
“Then I had this shunt in Berlin [in the third race of six] when [Sergio] Sette Camara spun. I got a new chassis [for the fifth race] and suddenly it started working. I was less than a tenth off pole when previously I had been a second off.
“But it didn’t change anything because the decision [to take Wehrlein] was already made. Ultimately we are in a performance-orientated world, and the results weren’t there, so the reason does not matter.
“To conclude, I didn’t mind. I was happy to go back to WEC, because the aim was clearly to take advantage of any opportunity to go back into the top class. That’s where I wanted to go, because I like this kind of racing, and this kind of cars.”
Sebring cameo like “jumping into cold water”
Jani will partner Kevin Estre in Porsche’s #92 car for what will be his first full WEC season since he drove for LMP1 privateer Rebellion Racing in the 2018/19 superseason, taking the place of Michael Christensen.
The 37-year-old was drafted into Porsche’s line-up for the final round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at Sebring last year for his first taste of the 911 RSR-19, joining Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor in the #912 car and helping complete a one-two for the brand in its final appearance as a works team in the GT Le Mans division.
“It was like jumping into cold water!” recalled Jani of his Sebring experience, his first outing in the 12-hour IMSA race since his 2017 outing in a Rebellion LMP2.
#912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR – 19, GTLM: Laurens Vanthoor, Earl Bamber, Neel Jani
Photo by: Art Fleischmann
“The only other time I did a little bit of GTs was in 2010 with the Matech Ford [in the FIA GT1 championship], so my knowledge was limited. I realised that the references that I had and the corner speeds I had in my head were quite a bit different! I had to learn not to overshoot the corners, and in a very limited time.
“IMSA races are decided in the final hours, so my task for the weekend was just to help with the strategy and drive the start, stay on the lead lap and allow Laurens and Earl to attack at the end. I didn’t have a lot of pressure, to be honest. I just had to keep the car on track and learn, and that was actually a great experience.”
Referring to the WEC’s decision to scrap its Sebring season opener in favour of an eight-hour event at Portimao owing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he added: “I’m sad Sebring is not happening in WEC now, because it would have been a great opportunity to start this new adventure at a place you already know.”
Lack of testing set to make 2021 a challenge
While the withdrawal of Aston Martin has left the WEC’s GTE Pro class with only four cars in 2021, with Ferrari now Porsche’s only remaining opponent, Jani says he expects to be in for a “challenging year”, compounded by a lack of pre-season testing chances.
“It’s just Ferrari left to race against this year, which is a shame, but it will still be an interesting battle, full focus on beating them,” said Jani. “I don’t know exactly how the cars weigh up against each other, but I do know that every year it’s close. There’s a good Balance of Performance, so all the little details will count.
“For me it’s great to have Kevin as a partner. I immediately have a benchmark to learn from, and he’s very open to sharing things.
Neel Jani, Porsche
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
“I’m looking forward to the experience, but this year for me generally will not be an easy year. There will be a lot of things I have to absorb very quickly, also because it looks like I won’t get a lot of testing because of the pandemic.
“Even last year, I didn’t drive a lot. At Sebring I did 15 laps in FP2 and then I was straight into qualifying. It will be a challenging year in every aspect.
“But it’s a cool opportunity, because now I can say I drove every factory Porsche car since I joined: the 919 Hybrid [LMP1], the FE car and now the 911 RSR.”