March 9, 2015 – We interview 2014 Group N Lebanese Rally Champion and 37th Rally of Lebanon winner Nicolas Amiouni ahead of the 2015 season. Nicolas talks about his 2014 season, the upcoming season and the new regulations.
Nicolas, first, let’s discuss the 2014 season, which was a successful one for you. You finished on the podium several times and won Rally of Lebanon, and you also took part in the Drive DMACK Fiesta Trophy in the WRC. How do you look back at 2014?
2014 was an amazing season. I had the chance to contest the WRC in the Drive DMACK Fiesta Trophy; it was an amazing experience and the target was to learn and to familiarize myself with the car and stages in order to come back stronger this year.
I also enjoyed an amazing season in Lebanon. My target was to win the Group N title in the Lebanese Rally Championship and our mindset was focused on winning the championship. I finished third in the Spring Rally and first in Group N in Jezzine Rally; We faced some issues in the Cedar’s Rally but I was still able to earn points; I won the Deir El Qamar Hill Climb and, of course, Rally of Lebanon was amazing, we took an overall victory and a Group N victory. So, of course I’m very satisfied with the 2014 season.
Nicolas, we know that Red Bull decided to pull its support for you at the end of the 2014 season. Were you aware of their plan or were you surprised, and what was the reason for their withdrawal?
I was not aware of the situation; we usually renew our contract every year. I won the championship and I won Rally of Lebanon, which is a first for Red Bull, but that was their decision.
Didn’t they give you a reason?
The main reason they said is a budget reason.
Don’t you think it’s odd that they pulled their support right after you won Rally of Lebanon?
They said budget reasons, if there’s any other reason, I wouldn’t be able to know. A company like Red Bull takes decisions according to what it sees fit. I can’t but thank them; their support began in 2012, and then I was fully-branded in 2013 and 2014. Their support helped me achieve what I achieved. Of course, it would’ve been better if they remained onboard, but that was the decision, and perhaps this is the right decision, I don’t know.
Nicolas, moving on to the 2015 season. How are you preparations?
I will not kick off the season in Lebanon because I do not have the budget for it. My racing programme will become clearer in the upcoming couple of weeks.
There’s a 99 percent chance that I won’t be able to race in the Spring Rally and in the Jezzine Rally because I don’t have the budget at all. I might return for the Cedars Rally and Rally of Lebanon thanks to DHL, my sponsors. DHL decided to stay onboard even when I told them that I wouldn’t be taking part in the Spring Rally and Jezzine Rally.
Of course, if I can somehow magically find a budget in the coming two weeks, I would be the first driver at the start of the season. However, I have to be realistic; the budget I have at the moment is not enough for a full season.
We saw you and Joseph Hindy test the Ford Fiesta R5. How was the experience, and who are your teammates in Motortune this year?
I was there to test my car (Evo X), and the Fiesta R5 was there, so I took it for a run. It’s an amazing car and it would be a dream to contest a full season in one, but there is no way I’ll be able to do that at the moment, so the test was just for fun.
Tamer Ghandour and of course Roger Feghali are 100% confirmed for 2015. I don’t know about Joseph Hindy or Robert Aaraj. I know for now that Tamer and Roger are confirmed, and Patrick Njeim in the Suzuki.
Let’s discuss the new regulations. Last year, the regulations were changed mid-season, which affected you negatively. Have you seen this year’s regulations, and how will they affect you?
They will, of course, affect me negatively. I’ve always demanded the separation of the Lebanese Rally Championship and the Lebanese Hill Climb Championship, although it benefited me in 2013 and 2014, but that doesn’t mean I want to keep this regulation. If I’m contesting the Lebanese Rally Championship and I take part in the Hill Climb championship, I will win and I will earn points but that is not good for the sport.
If I have a budget just enough for the Lebanese Rally Championship, they are forcing me to contest the Hill Climb championship in order to gain points. So, even if I get the budget for a full Rally season, I won’t be able to win the championship because I don’t have the budget for the Hill Climb championship.
They need to separate the two championships, and it would be my decision whether to contest the Hill Climb championship or not, they can’t force us to do it. This is not good for the sport, you don’t see Lebanese Basketball players contesting the Lebanese Premier League to earn points.
This year, I think they finally resolved the Prototype cars issue. We kept saying last year that it’s not acceptable for a Prototype car, which is not a rally car, to race in the Hill Climb championship and earn points for the Rally championship. It’s unfair, you cannot compete with a much faster Prototype car.
Prior to the 2nd Falougha Hill Climb in 2014, they held a meeting and decided to give points to the top 3 drivers only, which meant that I didn’t get any points for winning the Group N class and finishing 5th overall in the Deir El Qamar Hill Climb, and I also didn’t earn any points in the Falougha Hill Climb.
I don’t know who came up with these rules. I think the person who did should’ve handed in his resignation.
Have you seen the new points system?
Yes I have, the top 20 drivers earn points. I don’t get it, why don’t they just give us points while we just sit at home? They should implement a system similar to the World Rally Championship.
Also, they need to give the Group N championship more importance, instead of just making it a cup class. The main fights are in the Group N class; there are more than 10 to 15 drivers racing in Group N cars, so this is where the real fights are. The drivers will always follow the more important championship, so if let’s say, the spotlight is on the R3 championship, I wouldn’t want to contest Group N because it wouldn’t be interesting.
If we look at the World Rally Championship, there is WRC, WRC2 and WRC3 classes, so it just doesn’t make any sense to drive a Group N car there. However, in Lebanon, most of the cars are Group N, so the ATCL needs to put a spotlight on the Group N championship. Why would I pay money and end up finishing second or third?
There’s another important matter as well. Finally, the Fouad Chehab Stadium will no longer be able to host the service area for Rally of Lebanon. I’ve contested several WRC rounds and I think the service park for Rally of Lebanon should be held in places like Faraya, where the weather’s beautiful during the summer and where there’s plenty of space to fit a lot of cars. There are hotels, restaurants and a lot of people who spend their summers there, including some very important people like entrepreneurs and business owners.
Have you attempted to discuss this matter with the ATCL or someone in charge?
I don’t want to discuss this with anyone, it’s not my job. If I can think about it, so can they, and it’s their job.
It’s a shame, if you watch Rally of Lebanon 1999 videos on YouTube, back when Mohammed Bin Sulayem used to visit, you would think that it was a WRC round, the exposure was amazing.
We’re going backwards now; we’re perhaps the only Middle East country with so much passion, but if we continue like this, we’ll only see 3 or 4 cars racing in the future.