Le Mans: Don't bet against Audi, insist Allan McNish and Oliver Jarvis
Where previously Audi dominated endurance prototype racing, 2014 has seen a dramatic change in fortunes, so much so that the team goes into Saturday's race not as favourites. That tag now hangs on Toyota, who have matched and surpassed their LMP1 rivals. Wins for the TS040 Hybrid of Anthony Davidson, Nicolas Lapierre and Sebastien Buemi at Silverstone and Spa have given the Toyota drivers a comfortable lead in the WEC and with double points on offer at Le Mans they are in a strong position to propel themselves well on the way to the title.
However, that isn't something that's unduly worrying Allan McNish or Oliver Jarvis, both experienced hands at Audi.
McNish is no longer racing after hanging up his helmet at the end of 2013, but is still heavily involved with the team, acting as liaison between the drivers and engineers, while Jarvis tackles Le Mans for the fourth time with the marque and with two podiums already under his belt. As well as Toyota, the 30-year-old from Cambridgeshire will also face the challenge of Porsche for the first times since its return to top-flight sportscars.
"I think it will be a difficult year," McNish told AOL Cars, "but I don't think it's the most competitive. Porsche's very fast but I think it's unlikely they will be there straightaway. To come in and run at the speed you have to run at, the performance level, the reliability level, is very, very tough and I don't think they'll be in a position to do that over 24 hours. I may be wrong but that's my feeling."
After claiming a podium at Silverstone on their WEC debut when others, notably Audi, fell by the wayside, Porsche have continued their good progress, as McNish admits.
"They had real speed in Spa, they had a technical problem that stopped them from being second, so you have to say they've done a good job but there's a difference between doing a good job over six hours and doing a good job over 24."
The three-time Le Mans winner believes the real threat lies with Toyota, the team against which he raced twice in the 24 Hours, but which has fallen short on both occasions.
"You've got a great battle between Toyota – who want to and need to make amends – and Audi, who have the history and who have the 12 [wins] out of 15. So, you can't bet against Audi, that's for sure. They know what they're doing, they're always evolving and coming up with the new tricks or solutions to cope with eventualities.
"Toyota have won the first two races, so clearly have a good package but there are also a few chinks in their armour, they're not impenetrable. Right now on pure numbers, they are the favourites and it's theirs to take if they can but we know Le Mans isn't that easy."
Jarvis is equally confident of the Ingolstadt manufacturer's ability to get itself out of a hole.
"It's the first time in many years we can say that Audi aren't the favourites," Jarvis admitted to AOL Cars.
"[Toyota] have done an incredible job, they've got a very quick car but most importantly they've got a reliable package but at Le Mans it's not just about how quick the car goes, there are lot of other factors that can really make a difference. You know, Audi have won races in the past on pure teamwork."
The 24 hours of Daytona winner also believes there is one factor that can always play a part – the weather.
"It always rains at Le Mans," he smiles. "Regardless of how good the car is, if it starts raining, say, at four in morning anything can happen. You've only got to make the wrong call on tyres and that can destroy your race. This is what's fascinating about Le Mans. It's not the quickest car that always wins; there are so many other factors that play such an important part in the race."
In spite of those words, Jarvis has no qualms over the speed of the 2014 R18 e-tron quattro that he will race alongside Marco Bonanomi and Filipe Albuquerque nor does he believe his lack of seat time will be an issue. Le Mans will pitch Jarvis into battle with little experience of the car as he has been racing Super GTs in Japan for most of the year.
"The car is fantastic to drive, amazingly quick, but this year as a driver there is so much more to take on board. It's no longer driving flat out and focusing on being 100%. Now you're got to be 100% but also be aware of the fuel you're using per lap."
New regulations in the WEC have forced manufacturers to use significantly less fuel than last year. For the first time, the amount of fuel and energy per lap is limited but that doesn't mean the drivers are taking their foot off the pedal.
"We're still driving flat out, you know we're not driving purposefully slower," Jarvis said. "We're on the limit in the corners, we're going as quickly through the Porsche Curves as we've ever gone. The difference is we just have so much more to be aware of and we've had to change our driving styles to adapt to these new regulations.
"In a purist's sense it's probably not be the ideal solution but it's the way the sport is going and not just in LMP1 but also in Formula 1. It's important for the sport to evolve and develop especially if we want to maintain the level of interest and investment from the manufacturers.
"The great thing is that it's a new car and new rules... it's probably the best chance I've certainly had in my career to go out and win it.