Manufacturer seats in endurance racing, and interest from past as well as current F1 drivers in WEC is what Neel Jani feels is racing regaining balance.
Be honest, outside of Formula 1 and maybe MotoGP, how many racing series do you think someone who looks at global motorsport really knows about? The primacy of shorter distance championships is as much down to their relatively simple format as it is down to what the very straight talking Neel Jani refers to as “commercial deals”.
Jani, a Swiss racing driver with Indian heritage, has currently achieved what many heavy-footed racers dream of but few achieve. He has landed a seat with the factory Porsche team that competes in the top prototype category of the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). With it has come the security, a fair amount of certainty and even success as Jani was part of the team of three drivers who won Porsche’s first top class endurance sportscar race in 25 years at the Six Hours of Sao Paulo in Brazil.
In fact it was Jani who was behind the wheel of the car that took the chequered flag at the finish line. A far cry from when his future was uncertain when the A1 GP ‘World Cup of Motorsport’ folded after just five seasons. Jani won the A1GP title for Switzerland in 2008/09 and was runner up a season later but found himself with few options.
The commercial wall
“As you know in F1, teams look at your driving but also very much at your commercial deals,” Jani told autoX when we caught up with him in Delhi prior to him flying out to Brazil. “I didn’t really have such deals and so I looked at Le Mans and endurance racing, although at the time no one knew whether the plans for a championship was real or not.”
The WEC took a very real form however, with commitment from manufacturers like Audi, Porsche and Toyota (Nissan coming to LMP1 this year) and offered the kind of security that racing drivers crave.
“If you look in F1 at both guys who don’t even try to get in anymore like Robin Frijns who won everything before it but has no money and guys who don’t get picked by a good team like (Nico) Hulkenberg, you know they are looking at something other than driving,” said Jani. “A manufacturer like Porsche doesn’t care about your sponsors, they care about their brand and if you’re good for it.”
Jani believes motorsport is becoming more ‘capitalistic’ in the way top young drivers can look beyond F1 and its American counterpart Indycar.
“F1 will always be F1 and have a ton of history and we still get mega racing because there are a few top teams who still pick good drivers,” said Jani. “But you know well by looking at history how money meant for other series was funnelled to F1 to help it grow back in the 80s and 90s.”
Not so pretty side of F1
Jani refers to Bernie Ecclestone, who before stealing (in financial terms) F1’s commercial rights from the FIA (its governing body) was charged with promoting all racing sanctioned by it but almost single-mindedly focused on F1 and turned it into his own fiefdom in effect.
The example of Andre Lotterer is a telling one as far as Jani is concerned. The German tested for the former Jaguar F1 team and was decidedly faster than Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa but was overlooked. Today Lotterer is a factory Audi driver who wins consistently as well as in Japan’s Super Formula, which is now the fastest single seat series outside of F1. Loterer was quick even in a lowly Caterham F1 car at Belgium this year but chose that a one-off was all that F1 was good for.
Looking beyond what is known as motorsport’s pinnacle championship would have been unthinkable just three or four years ago. But that could very well be proof of how the sport at the global level is “correcting itself.”
Born: Rorschach, Switzerland
Date of Birth: 08/12/1983
FIA WEC (LMP1): 2012-present (1 win)
24 Hours of Le Mans: 2009-2014 (best finish - 4th)
Champ Car: 2007
A1 GP: 2005-2009 (5 wins, 1 title)
GP2 Series: 2005-06 (2 wins)
Formula 1: 2006 (test driver)